Book: How to Take Smart Notes

Book by Sönke Ahrens (around 2017) about how to use Niklas Luhmann's slipbox method ("zettelkasten" in German).

Reading this book, I generated these pages:

When learning anything, do everything as if nothing counts other than writing

Imagine a strange alternate universe in which the only way humans could hold on to any abstract information was by writing it out first. How would you approach learning abstract topics? Now what if I told you: that universe is this one!

Slipbox doesn't mean archiving info outside your head

First, the writing process itself alters your brain. Writing is learning. In a way, writing onto paper has the effect of writing it into your grey matter. So the act really creates two copies of the info – you imagine you'll be highly dependent on your notes, but sans having written the notes, the info wouldn't even be in your own head, only the vaguest recollections.

Second, the slipbox helps you discover how an idea fits in with other ideas – hard without access to old notes. You can't remember every idea you've had all the time.

Third, the work involved in "slotting" info into your slipbox is not a wasted overhead. Sans slipbox, you'd have done the same cognitive work in some form or other, once you really needed to do something with an idea (but it'd also have required more upfront work due to the lack of old notes to converse with).

Reading is amusement, writing is learning

  1. Even if we could remember everything we read, it's not clear it's best to just read as much as possible. We want to think about what we take in, and we want to ensure we remember the right things at the right times.
  2. We can't in fact remember everything we read.

Both issues can be taken care of through notes: not excerpts, but condensed reformulated accounts of a text.

Why ever just read? The whole use out of reading is to gather writing ideas! Taking notes is never a detour.

Getting the gist

By "reading with pen in hand" to write slipbox notes, you engage in deliberate practice at getting the gist of an idea.

Doubly so if not using a laptop, but literal pen and paper.

Niklas Luhmann's notes are very condensed. With practice comes the ability to express something in the best possible way. This benefits readers of your texts, and spills over into conversation and even thinking.

Slipbox develops real expertise

Gut feeling is not a mysterious force, but an incorporated history of experience. It is the sedimentation of deeply learned practice through numerous feedback loops on success or failure.

Experts have enough experience that they can intuit answers. This is how intuition is built in the first place. Rheinberger 1997 apparently studied (or refers to studies on) natural scientists in their labs and concludes that science does not function without expertise, intuition and experience.

Chess masters seem to think less than beginners: they make it seem effortless because it is. Veteran paramedics even look like they "do it wrong".

When the time comes to push the shovel, it's best to have done all your thinking already, during past studies. College students don't do this much, I believe it's common to mainly start thinking about the facts you learned, when the time came to rely on them at the workplace. It's even expected at most workplaces that you'll need a novice period. This study method doesn't work well for everyone, leading to low grades for people who could still be very intelligent, who may be better served by an alternative way to study, such as the slipbox.

The slipbox builds gut feeling, and therefore real expertise.

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Created (2 years ago)