Learn with the Intention to Write: “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens

Alice Heiman
5 min readMay 3, 2023

If I would summarise the entire book in one sentence, it would be the following: Learn with the purpose to write.

How many times have we not read a book, listened to a podcast, taken a class in school, or watched a video only to forget? Everything we consume will eventually fade if we do not do anything with it. As Ali Abdaal states in The Second Brain — A Life-Changing Productivity System, we only know what we create. Knowledge in itself cannot do work. It is only when knowledge is turned into action that it truly becomes valuable. This is what Jim Kwik states in his book Limitless (2020). Knowledge is not power. Knowledge times action is power.

This book is about building a system (called Zettlekasten) for retaining and developing knowledge, thoughts, and ideas. Instead of drowning in notes, the system aims at exponential learning where every new note multiplies the value of the system.

But the book How to Take Smart Notes is more about learning and writing than purely taking notes. It completely changed the way I think about developing my own thinking and how to cultivate a body of knowledge that grows exponentially over time.

Actionable takeaways

  1. Learn with the purpose to write. By thinking that we must write about everything we consume, we will automatically look for insight and for new knowledge that was not obvious at the start. But it will also prompt us to take what we learn and go beyond it while connecting the new knowledge with other ideas and thoughts.
  2. By reading with a pen in our hand, we can take notes on what we do not want to forget. We do not want to simply copy the content to circumvent thinking about it, instead we must formulate the information in our own words. This practice does double duty: it helps with understanding the text, but it also rephrases knowledge we might want to use later in our own language so it is ready to be used in our own texts.
  3. Motivation should come from the work itself and not from the reward after. Otherwise we might skip the work and go straight to the reward.
  4. If we have a place where we store ideas and where they come from, we never have to start from scratch. We already have a bunch of ideas that we can build upon. Think of it like content blocks, small chunks of ideas that we can reorganize, reuse, and build upon. Instead of working top down we go bottom up. Let our insights, thoughts, and ideas guide us through the writing process.
  5. To think, we must write. To write, we must think. Writing and thinking are not linear processes, they are circular ones. It is a constant back and forth between writing to develop our thinking, reading to develop our thinking, and thinking to develop our writing.
  6. We cannot handle multiple tasks at the same time and the same applies for different types of focus. Different tasks require a special type of focus and writing is a process that involves a whole range of focus. Creative people must be able to switch between a wide-open free and playful focus and an analytical and narrow focus.
  7. Elaborative learning is one of the most effective ways to learn. Its power comes from thinking critically about what you learn, connecting it to previous knowledge, and adding own thoughts.
  8. Although rewriting the content we consume might feel like a detour that limits the amount of information we can consume, the act of not writing it down is the real waste. A thought or a piece of knowledge in memory will soon go away. And then it is like we did not read it at all.
  9. What distinguishes good readers is their ability to think critically about a text and go beyond it. To spot what is not said. And to connect the new with the old.
  10. Forgetting might be key in learning as it helps us distinguish the important information. Remembering is the act of retrieving relevant information based on cues. The more meaningful connections we can make to a piece of knowledge, the more cues we add to it and thereby facilitate remembering it.

Top quotes

  • “Most distractions do not come so much from our environment, but our own minds.” (p. 11)
  • “By doing everything with the clear purpose of writing about it, you will do what you do deliberatively.” (p. 38)
  • “The moment we stop making plans is the moment we start to learn.” (p. 64)
  • “Remembering everything is as if remembering nothing” (p. 98)
  • “Learned right, which means understanding, which means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge, information almost cannot be forgotten anymore and will be reliably retrieved if triggered by the right cues.” (p. 105)

Bonus

How to capture while consuming content:

  1. Read with a pen in your hand and take notes on everything you do not want to forget. Do not simply copy but reformulate the ideas in your own words.
  2. When reading a text we should focus on the following:
  • Only concentrate on reading and understanding the text
  • Make sure to make a true account of the information in it
  • Think about its relevance and make connections

3. Think not only about what is said, but also about what is not said.

4. The usefullness of a note should be evaluated on its capacity to open up for and make connections to other notes.

5. Develop your thinking by elaborating on the ideas, thoughts, or arguments that arise from your literature notes. Ask: “what is interesting about this?” and “why is this relevant?”

6. Elaborate on differences and similarities between notes, thoughts and ideas. Ask questions like “What does it mean? How does it connect to…? What is the difference between…? What is it similar to? Why?”, to make learning and spotting patterns easier!

Archive

  • Determining the topic or a hypothesis beforehand makes us vulnureable to confirmation bias. Instead of being open to new insights and challenging beliefs, we lock ourselves in our current state of thinking and attempt to find supporting arguments for our ideas. Therefore, we want to build our texts from the bottom up.
  • A streamlined workflow and the restrictions it creates facilitates thinking and being creative. Less choices on how to store content makes more room to think of what to store. Meanwhile, a structure makes it possible to contrast different solutions and find new ones.
  • Focus on understanding, as this this will make you learn and connect learnings. Learning isolated facts is difficult, but embedding them in a matrix of other learnings make them meaningful and make sense of them.

References

  • Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking — for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. CreateSpace.

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