How to Take Smart Notes

A simple and actionable method to take notes that are helpful not only for the current project but also for lifelong learners.

My rating: 5/5 · Reading time: 10 min(s) · Date read: July 8, 2020 · Amazon

Nothing Starts from Scratch

No intellectual work ever starts from scratch. It always starts with information stored somewhere used as a starting point, which is then transformed multiple times until its final form.

At the very least, you start with the information already in your head or the information obtained after doing research.

Innovation and paradigm shifts are usually the consequence of many small steps in the right direction rather than one big idea.

Don’t Brainstorm, Take Notes Instead

Brainstorming relies on the information that you can easily recall at that particular moment.

Note-taking, on the other hand, helps build an external system to store information and mental models that you can leverage and rely on even if you don’t remember them.

All you need is a system to effectively take notes and a process to review the notes when you need to work on a particular problem.

Effective Note-Taking is Hard

Taking notes without thinking about them in the long term usually has the following problems:

  1. The notes are hard to understand when reading them after forgetting the original context, making them useless.
  2. They contain information about too many different things, making it hard to find the particular information you were looking for.
  3. They do not encourage proper isolation of ideas, which generates notes with redundant information.
  4. They explain ideas or information that are anecdotal or not important.
  5. They get stored and then forgotten and never used again.

We experience these problems days, weeks, months, or even years after writing them. Therefore, the main challenge with writing good notes is the long feedback loop.

This long feedback loop means that when we identify the problems that a given note has, we have already forgotten the context and no longer understand the note. Therefore, the notes are irreparable at that point.

The Zettelkasten method shortens this feedback loop by forcing us to, among other things, translate the information into notes written in our own words. This process encourages spending time to understand the information first instead of only collecting ideas that are useless in the long term.

Zettelkasten Method

The Zettelkasten method, introduced by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, is a note-taking method that encourages building knowledge and enables discovering new knowledge. The method relies on the fact that to build knowledge, we have to: (1) think about information long enough so that we can write about it and (2) think about what this information means in the context of other knowledge.

The Zettelkasten method proposes writing knowledge in well-thought, personal, atomic, self-contained, and concise permanent notes. The power of the Zettelkasten method comes from these permanent notes that, by connecting them between each other in their corresponding contexts, build a lattice of mental models.

Tools

The Zettelkasten method requires four tools:

  1. Something to take quick notes while reading or studying.
  2. A reference management system for citations and references to the literature.
  3. A slip-box to store your permanent notes.
  4. An editor to edit notes.

Principles

Each note must be written following these principles:

Use Your Own Words

When writing permanent notes, translate the referenced information using your own words. Avoid quotes. If you do use quotes, make sure you use them infrequently and only to support an idea already written with your own words.

The original information is usually written in a way to support the arguments from the context it’s embedded into and in a language that we may not use. Therefore, translating it using our own words helps prepare the information so that it can be used in our work.

This is a form of deliberate practice for knowledge workers.

Self-Contained

Write self-contained permanent notes so that you can understand them even after forgetting the context that they were taken from. This allows you to reference them in future work without necessarily having to go to the source.

It is expected for some notes to be longer, especially in new subjects or difficult texts.

Be Concise

Write each permanent note treating the digital space as a limited resource:

  1. Only one idea per note, and
  2. As precise as possible.

No note should ever require scrolling.

Restricting yourself sparks creativity.

Inherently Incomplete

Your Zettelkasten is meant to complement what you already know, not to be complete.

This means that some notes will be more extensive if they are about something you’re not very familiar with, while other notes will mention a sentence.

It’s also expected for some notes to link to concepts defined in the Zettelkasten while other notes mention concepts without additional links.

Keep an Open Mind

When reading, try to identify ideas that are interesting regardless of what argument they support. Be open to ideas that have worked as well as ideas that haven’t worked and why.

Don’t add your thoughts and opinions with the information in the permanent note.

After adding the permanent notes to your Zettelkasten, take a step back and decide what you think about it. Write your thoughts as independent permanent notes with the appropriate links to existing permanent notes.

Only after you’re able to decouple your thoughts with what you read; you’ll be able to look for arguments that support other points of view.

Prefer having richer links between notes over a clear and well-thought directory structure. Allow chains and clusters to emerge from your Zettelkasten organically via links. Allow yourself to roam about by following these links.

Instead of spending too much time figuring out where notes should be organized into, spend that time adding keywords to notes so that these notes can be found even if you weren’t looking for that particular note.

Be deliberate and careful about which keywords you add to avoid causing noise. Ask yourself: what should I be looking for if I want that search to return the current note? The answer to that question should be the few keywords for that note.

Ignorant but Smart Audience

Remember that you will be writing for yourself. But you will probably read these notes at a point in time when you will have forgotten the context.

Therefore, write the permanent notes thinking that your audience is ignorant but smart. This means that you have to explain some things but consider that the person reading them will understand these ideas fast.

Links are very important in a Zettelkasten, so I’ll explain them before explaining the process.

They are important because they allow knowledge to arise and new connections to be made, even if you didn’t remember that particular connection. The idea of links is that when you’re looking for something, you should follow them to the point where, eventually, you’ll follow a link you didn’t know was there and it was either exactly what you were looking for or a connection you didn’t know was there but relevant to your current search.

There are different types of links:

  1. Keywords. These are implemented as tags in a note. Keywords are used to group similar things over time.
  2. Explicit link. One note can explicitly link another note. It can link a note that came from a different source and that was written at a different time.

Process

The following list outlines the steps to incorporate what you read into your Zettelkasten:

  1. Make fleeting notes. Take notes about what you are thinking when reading. These are meant to be temporary notes to remind you about a particular idea. Always consider that the key aspect of this step is to understand and prepare the information to be transferred into the Zettelkasten.
  2. Make permanent notes. Every day, go through the notes you made in the first step. For each note, think how it relates and connects to other existing notes in the Zettelkasten. For example, they can support or contradict an existing idea. These will never be thrown away; therefore, write them as if for print.
  3. Project notes. Some notes may only be relevant for a project. These are called project notes and can be stored in a different Zettelkasten.
  4. Add the permanent notes. Add each permanent note behind an existing note that directly relates to it.
  5. Add keywords. When adding keywords to your permanent notes, think about the keyword that you’d like to be looking at when stumbling upon this new note.
  6. Link this note. Add links to existing notes and add links from other notes to this new note so that you can stumble upon it under other contexts.
  7. Index this note. Add this note to one or more indexes or entry points for a particular topic in your Zettelkasten to make sure that you can find this particular note if you wanted to.
  8. Dedupe. At some point, it will happen that a new idea you just had was already in your Zettelkasten. If this happens, realize that these things are normal. Look at your old note, evaluate the differences, and improve it with the new information you now have.
  9. Challenge. When looking at your Zettelkasten, you will only find what you have; you won’t find what you don’t have. Make it a habit of always asking yourself what is missing, what point of view are you not seeing.

Prefer Structure over Planning

Prefer having a good structure over planning.

A structure provides a north, a path forward without being extremely prescriptive. It allows quick adaptation while relieving you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of things.

A plan, on the other hand, is rigid and expensive. You either spend too much energy following the plan to the letter or spend too much energy planning over and over again every time you need to adapt.

The Zettelkasten method provides structure to reading, understanding, and storing information in a way that can be reused over time.

Focus on the Process

Most knowledge work requires a considerable amount of energy and time. Focus on the process rather than on the results.

Set yourself periodic goals, like writing three Zettelkasten notes a day, so that you can make consistent progress.

Writing Process Based on a Zettelkasten

Transforming existing pieces of writing into a finished document is considerably easier than trying to assemble the whole document in your head.

The following process explains how to write a document based on your Zettelkasten:

  1. Maintain a Zettelkasten. When reading and researching, build, and maintain your own Zettelkasten.
  2. Develop your research bottom-up. Look at your Zettelkasten and see what’s there, what’s missing, what points are contradicting, what questions it generates, etc. Do not brainstorm. Look for clusters in your Zettelkasten instead.
  3. Read more. Seek more information that both strengthens and challenges your arguments. Follow the Zettelkasten Process to incorporate the information from this new research.
  4. Decide on a topic. After some time, you’ll have enough research and ideas in your Zettelkasten to be able to decide a topic to write about. This topic must come from your Zettelkasten, not from some random question you’d like to answer.
  5. Collect all relevant notes. Go through your Zettelkasten and follow the links to collect all the notes relevant to the topic you want to discuss. Copy them somewhere where you can work on them without modifying your Zettelkasten. Don’t wait until you have everything.
  6. Write the first draft. Look at all the collected notes, order them, structure the text, and translate them into something coherent from start to finish, in a linear way. Look for gaps in your arguments and fill them with notes from your Zettelkasten, do more research, or change your argument. Always remember that the first draft is only the first draft.
  7. Maintain an appendix. Because your Zettelkasten will have a lot of information, it’s easy for a document to continually increase in scope. Maintain an appendix, when cutting down the document, where you can move sections to so that when proofreading you can evaluate if they add value or not.
  8. Proofread. Do one final edit, proofread it, and then deliver it.

Effective Proofreading

Proofreading is the process of reviewing and editing your work so that it can be understood by somebody reading it for the first time.

For effective proofreading, follow these guidelines:

  1. Put yourself in the position of a dispassionate reader.
  2. Try to ignore what you know and evaluate only what it’s written.
  3. Scan the text for typos.
  4. Identify and smooth out sections that are hard to understand.
  5. Make sure that the structure and arguments flow naturally from start to end.