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How to take better notes
I have taken notes incorrectly all my life: I used to highlight or underline text on physical books and highlight kindle books. And what happened to those highlights? Largely forgotten. The impressions on the books may be permanent, but like writing on the beach, it’s all gone from my head.
As you can imagine, this is pretty much an excellent formula for being wrong about how to take notes. Perhaps even not taking notes is better: it doesn’t give you false confidence about what you have learned.
The ultimate form of note-taking is the Zettelkasten method. But a word of caution: this may be too heavy-weight for most people. That being said, understanding how it works should give you a good sense of how to improve your note-taking system.
In this post, I would like to give some context around note-taking — why it is useful and how better note-taking can force us to understand the content better — and then talk about the Zettelkasten method.
For more information about this topic, I will encourage you to read the book How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. All excerpts below are from this book.
The Zettelkasten Method
Let’s dive into the Zettelkasten method and see what it is.
Step 1 is to take fleeting notes often.
Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind.
Step 2 is to make literature notes.
Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words.
Step 3 is so make permanent ones.
Make permanent notes. Now turn to your slip-box. Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests.
The Zettelkasten method also specifies a way of adding numbers and tags to link the notes together, but we won’t go there today.
Step 4 is cleanup
Throw away the fleeting notes from step one and put the literature notes from step two into your reference system. You can forget about them now. All that matters is going into the slip-box.
That’s it. Let’s dive in a bit more.
Part 1: System, system, system
A lot of successful people have good systems in place. Seinfeld had a system where he would eliminate all sorts of distractions for several hours and forced himself to write. Day after day. Here’s an excerpt about Anthony Trollope from the above book.
Anthony Trollope, one of the most popular and productive authors of the 19th century: He would start every morning at 5:30 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a clock in front of him. Then he would write at least 250 words every 15 minutes.
If you read Atomic Habits, the author James Clear stresses this point quite vociferously: establish systems that work for you and stick with them. The meta-point conveyed by Getting Things Done by David Allen is to develop a system and stick with it.
Why this is important is that you want to figure out a system to capture notes. Zettelkasten is one such system, but it is useless if you don’t stick with it.
Part 2: Your brain is good at forgetting
Your brain is good at forgetting stuff over time. If you are in a shower and get a great idea, unless you capture it (or it is extremely good and you keep thinking about it), you will forget it. So that’s why you need a system to capture ideas you get throughout of the day.
Similarly, when you stumble upon good ideas when reading a book, you will want to capture them. For most of us, this means highlighting it. But yeah that’s not enough.
The other implication here is that you may want to consider using techniques like spaced repetition to remember ideas for longer.
Part 3: Creativity could use some help
New ideas come when you associate one idea with another. A good note taking system will help you make these connections, and you will gradually see many ideas crystallizing and taking shape.
In fact, this is the main selling point of Zettelkasten: it is a system that allows you to generate new ideas. It doesn’t in fact bother with spaced repetition or other techniques to remember ideas in your head longer: it is trying to act as a second brain.
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Part 4: Writing is Thinking
Writing is a misunderstood and under-used activity. You don’t have to think hard and then write the idea down — writing itself can be thinking.
Richard Feynman once had a visitor in his office, a historian who wanted to interview him. When he spotted Feynman’s notebooks, he said how delighted he was to see such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.” “No, no!” Feynman protested. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”
Also, if you can’t write about it in your own words, you haven’t understood it. This is something that the Zettelkasten method emphasises a lot. Fleeting notes can be highlights or copy pasted, but when you write down the literature notes, you have to write it in your own words.
All you need is a pen and paper to capture the notes, and a box to store these notes. But software could help you do the job better, especially to link these notes together. There is now a cottage industry around this idea of connecting the notes together. I think the most popular and the pioneering one here is Roam Research. Of the many others, I have heard good things about Remnote, Obsidian and Logseq. I personally actually use Roam Research to capture notes for work, and Remnote for personal notes.
A note about writing
It seems like you can always just type out what you want, but there is something great about writing with your hand. It forces you to slow down. Tony Fadell, who built the iPod, iPhone and the Nest thermostats, says he used to go into meetings with a notebook and pen, and capture notes there, instead of a laptop. Since writing is slower, it forces you to only write what is important, for which you need to understand what is being said. Also, it has the advantage that people know you are paying attention.