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How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

To get the most out of reading non-fiction material, synthesize what you’ve learned into notes in your own words in a knowledge graph for later reference.

How to Take Smart Notes is based on the note-taking system developed by Niklas Luhmann, one of the most prolific social science academics in history. His system turns reading into an active process to produce new insights for writing. In other words, it defines a purpose for reading academic material: to learn and apply the material as effectively as possible.

Here are my notes:

Avoid depending on willpower

It’s best not to depend on willpower, a finite, fleeting resource. Instead, create systems of habits that remove the need for willpower to accomplish your goals. Not having to use it is a sign of success.

Build systems you can trust

Only knowledge systems you can give your trust to will be effective.

Focus on thinking

The best tools reduce distractions from our primary goal, which should be thinking. An undistracted brain is the most important thing we need.

Writing is all that matters

Focusing on writing as the outcome of reading gives us purpose that sharpens our focus. It helps you get to the open questions and, thus, the most exciting and novel ideas. Even if you don’t write something, you will improve your reading and thinking skills by doing everything as if nothing counts besides writing.

Take permanent notes

Permanent notes are notes that are understandable out of context. In most cases, this means that we should avoid copying quotes, as it’s challenging to provide enough context to convey the original meaning of the quote accurately.

Multitasking is not a good idea

Trying to multitask fatigues us and decreases our ability to deal with more than one task.

Unlike most things in life, the more you try to multitask, the worse you are! For example, it isn’t easy to read a text for both understanding and proofreading. It’s hard to review computer code for both style and substance. Do one at a time.

Interlock ideas

When taking permanent notes, always make them in context with other permanent notes. Memory is rooted in understanding how something we read connects to existing knowledge.

The threat of insight

If new, potentially conflicting knowledge is a threat to how you reason, something is broken. This threat is why picking a topic before researching can be problematic; doing so can lead to confirmation bias that disregards conflicting insights.

Read for understanding

It may feel like wasting time to take notes that capture our understanding of a text, but it’s an even greater waste of time to read and not bother to capture what has been learned.

Learn through elaboration

The most effective way to learn is by thinking about the meaning of what we read, how it adds to our understanding of existing topics, and how we can combine it with other knowledge.

Saving vs. investing

Saving the money spent on a coffee (a couple of dollars a day) might pay a down payment on a small home for a career (say 30 years). The same money invested at a 7% yearly return would pay for the entire house in 30 years. The same is true for learning: find ways to compound and combine what you learn to multiply its impact!

Take smart notes

Like a to-do list that remembers our tasks, so we don’t have to keep track of them, an effective note-taking system tracks our ideas in their most precise form, making room for us to combine them into new and creative insights.