Notes on How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

I am a huge note-taker. I highlight or underline in almost everything I read. I will write down random thoughts about what I’m reading—sometimes in the margins, though more often in a separate notebook. Sometimes I want to mark a key insight. Sometimes I want to remember to come back to something. Sometimes it’s just a beautiful sentence.

I even have a database where I keep all of the notes and highlights. Back years ago when I was working on a Civil War novel and had a ton of research I wanted to keep track of, I found a computer program called DevonThink and I started keeping all of my notes there, tagged and organized so I could find them easily later. It was a tedious process, though. I had to enter everything manually, so when I had a book full of tape flags marking my highlights, I would get so much anxiety about how much time it would take to enter all of it that I just wouldn’t do it. And then I’d end up with a backlog. And then I’d think about how I never go back and look up or use any of those highlights so what’s the point anyway? It’s a whole spiral.

I still love the idea of taking notes, though. I aspire to be one of those people that passes down books full of highlights and notes that some stranger can find in a random used bookstore and become enchanted with. And so I’m always trying to get better at it.

It was in one of these fits of trying to be better about taking notes that I found the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. It’s geared more towards people in academia, but it appealed to me because I am, even 17 years after leaving grad school, a bit of an academic at heart. It’s also geared towards people who want to write more, and I definitely fall into that category.

I learned a lot from this book. One of the main insights that I found valuable is that it is essential to invest in establishing a structure for yourself, rather than relying on memory or willpower. “A good structure is something you can trust,” Ahrens writes. “It relieves you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of everything.” It also happens to be one of the most difficult things to establish, but that’s what the rest of the book is for.

The method Ahrens recommends is adapted from the method used by Niklas Luhmann, a German academic. He created a method for note-taking that allowed him to be an incredibly prolific writer. He used what he called a “slip box” to keep bibliographic records of what he read and notes where he recorded his ideas and thoughts about what he was reading. Obviously this is an incredibly simplistic summary of his method and I highly recommend reading the book to really learn about his process. I was fascinated by it when reading the book.

I find it interesting, though, that now, months later, I’m looking at the passages I highlighted and find that the slip box itself is only mentioned once. It seems that for me there were other things in this book that I found more valuable. Looking through my notes, what I see is not a book about taking notes, but rather a book about how to learn and how to think about what we learn.

Some of my highlights are quotes that reinforce ideas that I already had or believed. For instance, “Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.” I have long believed this to be true and often write my way through ideas or problems. My work notebooks are filled with me talking to myself as I work through a challenging bit of logic or even just motivating myself to get started or keep going.

Other highlights elucidated some truth for me. One passage showed me exactly what I need to be doing as I read to make sure my reading is not just superficial, something I worry about probably more than I should.

If we accompany every step of our work with the question, “What is interesting about this?” And everything we read with the question, “What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?” We do not just choose information according to our interest. By elaborating on what we encounter, we also discover aspects we didn’t know anything about before and therefore develop interests along the way.

By the time I finished the book, I was sold. I wanted to use this method to take notes on everything I read and then use my notes to write all the things. So I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could best do this. I started with notecards, but the problem with notecards is that they are never where I need them. So I switched back to Devonthink and created a group of notes that I called my slip box. I put a few notes in there, but not many. And then I came upon my old friend the backlog of books waiting to be entered and I stopped entirely. Again.

I worked for a professor once in grad school who printed out and kept everything she found even mildly interesting. And I mean everything. She got in trouble for printing so much at the university that she would give me her key to the department office and have me stay late and sneak in after everyone had left to get her more printer paper. She would have me photocopy entire chapters out of books. One time she had me come to her house where she dumped multiple literal garbage bags full of papers onto her dining room table and had me help her label manila file folders for each item. Then we went down to her basement where the walls were lined with filing cabinets and filed it all. She had articles where she had printed three or four copies at different times and they were all filed next to each other. “Should I get rid of this,” I asked at one point, “you already have several copies of this article.”

“Oh no, keep it,” she said. I think my jaw may have hit the floor at that point.

This system flabbergasted me. I have no idea how she worked with it or got anything done. She was tenured, so it must have worked somehow. But there is no way that system would work for me. Just working in it for one day made me want to rip my hair out. But it was something she had developed over the years that made sense to her.

When I was going back through some of Ahrens’s book to write this post, the same thing struck me about Luhmann’s method. It was something he had developed over the years and tweaked and modified in ways such that it worked well for him. And while I can learn a lot from studying it, adopting it wholesale would probably not work for me. This goes for all books about reading and note-taking. The point of these books is not to fit yourself into the methods they detail, but rather to find the bits and pieces of those methods that fit well for you so that you can build and tweak and modify your own system.

And that’s what I’ve begun to do. Recently I found an app called Readwise that is helping a lot with that. I’m also finding myself getting better at adding marginalia when I read, adding bits of myself to the books I love. As Ahrens himself notes:

Learning, thinking and writing should not be about accumulating knowledge, but about becoming a different person with a different way of thinking. This is done by questioning one’s own thinking routines in the light of new experiences and facts.