Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes

Cover Image - how to take smart notesAhrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

It’s always exciting to discover a book that generates a cascade of “aha” moments. I certainly didn’t pick up Sonke Ahrens’s *How to Take Smart Notes* expecting that result.

I’ve kept notebooks and journals in various forms for decades. They’ve contributed significantly to the quality of the work I’ve been able to do. Nonetheless, Ahrens convinces me that I have left a lot of value on the table. More importantly, he makes the case that I can recover and extract much of that value with a change of perspective and some manageable adjustments in my practices and workflow. I don’t need a wholesale reengineering of my systems or infrastructure and I don’t face a massive conversion of previous work. I do face adjustments and the usual discomfort of building new habits, but on a clearly manageable scale and timeframe.

Notes as first class knowledge assets

The first aha moment is the notion of thinking of some notes at least as a permanent and evolving knowledge asset. Ahrens argues that there are three categories of notes:

1.   Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

2.   Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

3.   Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

The first and third categories have been a part of my work practices for as long as I can remember. It is this middle category and the approach to building and maintaining it that I find intriguing and promising. It promises a solution to some enduring frustrations. Those frustrations may not be evidence of limits imposed by my ADD or fundamental moral failures. Instead, they result from some missing ideas and practices those ideas enable.

During my doctoral student days and consulting years I kept chronological notebooks as part of my work practices. I did that based on the advice and example of Jerry Pournelle and Jerry Weinberg, both of whom turned out prodigious amounts of quality work and were gracious in reflecting on and sharing elements of their work practices. As computing technology became personal and portable, I began to do much of my note taking and writing development at the keyboard. As part of that practice, I used WordPress to create a blog as a commonplace book on my local computer. These notebooks and their digital equivalents have been useful enough that they have remained components in my current work.

A corpus of notes is its own knowledge asset

If the notion of a permanent note is the first aha moment, the second is to view the growing body of notes as a separate knowledge asset. Until now, specific projects have provided my primary organizing structure. Blogging is a step in the  direction of a prospective knowledge asset, but only partially so. Blogging is a kind of ongoing project whose outputs I have thought of and treated as final deliverables.

I’ve struggled with what to do with ideas that are still “cooking” and don’t yet have an obvious home. I’ve used various tools with varying levels of success but tools don’t dictate good practices or how best to use raw materials.

Maybe I missed school that day, but I never encountered good examples of how the leap from random ideas to finished product might work better. Way back in the day, people talked about index cards and cutting manuscripts into little pieces to be rearranged. Never made sense to me. Later, text editors and word processors made the mechanics of writing easier. I became and remain a fan of outliners and mindmapping tools but they didn’t offer guidance about how to think about the contents they contained.

What I lacked was a good data model. One of my advisors in my doctoral days talked about journal articles as “bricks” in the wall of knowledge. I never got what went into making a brick much less where it went on the wall. Ahrens concept of a permanent note is derived from the  paper-based system of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann he labeled a Zettelkasten. Luhmann developed an interesting system for maintaining and working with his ever-expanding corpus of notes. There is, of course, a thriving Internet sub-culture devoted to divining the whys and wherefores of this strategy and adapting it to a technological world–it’s easy to see how a Zettelkasten maps naturally into a world of hypertext.

The risk to avoid is the tempting rabbit-hole of experimenting with new tools and debating the arcana of indexing and branching strategies. Seeing a note as a permanent and fundamental knowledge “particle” is the aha moment. It’s certainly a more fine-grained level that now exists in its own right. These notes are not a temporary container that is only useful until the final product is finished. A collection of permanent notes becomes a thinking tool to work out and develop new thoughts and lines of thought.

As such, notes can’t simply be pointers back to a piece of secondary research or the barest sketch of an argument to be fleshed out in the draft of a larger deliverable. Permanent notes “are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.”

If I still kept physical books, this one would already be dog-eared. Instead, I’m developing and exercising new skills for extracting the thoughts from this container and using them to expand my own thinking. Right now, I’m clumsy and unskilled but I can see how to get better.

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