How to Take Smart Notes

Context: This is notes made from the book 'How to Take Smart Notes' by S Ahrens - Website of the Book

Of all the writing, most people focus only on the writing the lengthy pieces, a book or article. The process of writing starts early - the actual writing of the paper is only a small part of the entire process.

Its easy to make bad notes - there is no immediate negative consequence to it.

Dunning-Krueger Effect: People who don't know much think of themselves as experts Impostor Syndrome: People who are experts think they don't know much.

Step by Step Process

  1. Make Fleeting notes: Just a easy way to capture every idea that pops into your head. This can be discarded when permanent notes are made.
  2. Make Literature Notes: Every time you consume content, make notes on it. Whatever you want to remember or use later. Keep it short, very selective and use your own words.
  3. Make Permanent Notes: Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to your existing content? Can you combine it with existing content to create something new? What questions are triggered?

    • Write one idea per note.
    • Write as if you are writing for someone else - use full sentences, show sources.
    • Be precise, clear and brief
    • Should be understood even if you don't know the context it was taken from.

Zettelkasten is an external scaffold for thinking.

If you can rephrase something in your own words, you have understood it.

Many times, its the simplicity of an idea that makes it powerful.

Zettelkasten can lose its value when notes are added indiscriminately - each note should be worthy of publishing.

Project Notes: Project specific notes that can be deleted/archived at end of project. Includes...

  • Comments in the manuscript
  • Collection of project related literature
  • Outlines
  • Drafts, Snippets
  • Reminders
  • Todo lists

Fixed Mindset: Fear and avoid feedback - at it might damage their positive self image. Growth Mindset: Actively seek and welcome feedback(positive and negative). Exposes yourself to new challenges and possible learnings from failures.

6 Steps to Successful Writing

  1. Give each task your undivided attention. Our attention span has come down - because of many sources of distraction.
  2. Multitasking is not a good idea.
  3. Give each task the right kind of attention

Focused Attention: Focus on one thing only - sustained only for a very small time(few seconds) Sustained Attention: Stay focused on one task for a longer period - necessary to learn, understand or get things done.

"On one hand, those with wandering defocused, childlike minds seem to be the most creative;on the other, it seems to be analysis and application that's important. ... creative people need both - the key to creativity is being able to switch between a wide-open, playful mind and a narrow analytical frame"

  1. Become an expert instead of a planner. Without the rigid structure of a plan, you have to draw from decisions on what to do from experience - getting better over time. Mere-exposure Effect: Doing something many times makes us believe that we are good at it - independent of our actual skill.
  2. Get Closure. Get things out of your mind by writing it down. Zeigarnik Effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory - until they are done. We get distracted by unfinished tasks. But if we write them down, brain considers it done.
  3. Reduce the number of decisions.

    "Ego Depletion: Temporary reduction in the capacity or willingness to engage in volitional action(controlling the environment, controlling self, making choices, initiating action) caused by prior exercise of volition"

Reliable and standardized working environment is less taxing on our attention, concentration and willpower.

Breaks are crucial for learning - it allows the brain to process information and move it to long term memory

Read for Understanding

  1. Read with pen in hand/Have note taking capability
  2. Keep an Open mind When going thru content, we should look for dis-confirming arguments an facts that challenge our way of thinking. But we are naturally drawn to everything that confirms what we already believe. When we decide on a hypothesis, our brains automatically look for supporting data. Confirmation Bias

Zettelkasten solves this by changing the initiative from finding confirming facts to an indiscriminate gathering of any relevant information regardless of the argument it will support.

  1. Get the Gist The practice of extracting notes and permanent notes makes us better in reading and understanding text. This gives you the ability to spot patterns, see the frames used - and lets you think critically and look at the assertions made by the text. To put this knowledge to use, you must be able to reframe questions, assertions and information.
  2. Learn to Read You have understood something only if you can explain it to someone else. Permanent notes are a micro version of this 'explaining'. This will reveal the gaps in our understanding. Re-reading the text will not do this - it will give you a fake "I already know that" feeling due to Mere-Exposure Effect
  3. Learn By Reading

Take Smart Notes

A good metric for productivity would be: number of permanent notes / day. Aim for 3.

Think outside the brain: When we think, the brain will overlook the issues in the thought - it will auto fill the gaps in our understanding. But when we write it down, these issues becomes very apparent.

We rewrite our memory every time we try to retrieve it. Brain always try to find meanings, patterns and connections between things - even if there is none.

Two measurements for memory...

  • Storage Strength
  • Retrieval Strength

Elaboration: Connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. This is a very successful learning method.

Useful learning connects a piece of information to as many meaningful contexts as possible - so any of those contexts can be used to retrieve the information.

Develop Ideas

Tags should be created and assigned based on what you are interested in or working on - not just based on the content of the note.

When working with the Slip-box, we retrieve old ideas and connect them with new ideas - this is the recommended way to learn.

We learn things when...

  1. connecting new things to prior knowledge
  2. understanding broader implications(elaboration)
  3. Retrieve it at different times(spacing)
  4. use in different contexts(variation)
  5. retrieval with help of chance(contextual interference)
  6. Retrieval with deliberate effort

Published on: 5th January, 2021