Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of writing when it comes to figuring out what we think and believe, and forming our own ideas. I was talking about in the context of large language models like chatGPT, because there is now a discourse that seems to suggest that humans don’t need to write anymore now that large language models can write for us. And I mentioned an excellent New Yorker article that elaborates on why this is nonsensical and has disturbing implications when it comes to teaching students how to think.
Coincidentally, yesterday I picked up How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens, a book that I started reading last year but didn’t finish. I’ve been meaning to get back into it, so last night I dug back in.
Reading a book like this is slow going for me because I end up taking so many notes. And, yes, there’s something very meta about taking notes about a book about taking notes, but there is a lot of incredible information in this book.
The reason why I bring this up is that I had forgotten that How to Take Smart Notes begins with a section about how we form our thoughts through writing, which ties in nicely with yesterday’s post:
Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway. If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head.
How to Take Smart Notes is about the zettlekasten notetaking method, which was invented by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist. Luhmann came up with a novel type of notetaking that helped him form his own ideas in the act of taking notes.
To oversimplify it a bit, he would take notes on slips of paper, being careful to put things into his own words and ensuring that each slip had just one little kernel of information. He put his slips into a box and basically used an analog version of hyperlinking them together, assigning them numbers and setting them up so that they referenced one another.
That way, when he sat down to write something, he never faced a blank page. Instead, he had interconnected notes on various subjects. So he could look at one note that then referred him to another.
Because each note was in his own words and tied to specific references, sources, and other notes, the bulk of his thinking was done for him before he even sat down to write. All he had to do was turn them into an essay or book. That’s how Luhmann was able to write more than 70 books and almost 400 scholarly articles on a huge number of topics.
I’ve been using the zettlekasten notetaking method since last fall, and it has made my paranormal research so much easier. There’ve been times when I was taking notes on different things I happened to be reading, and I suddenly realized that I had inadvertently come up with all of the info I needed for an episode of my podcast—including my own thoughts on the topic and connections to other paranormal topics.
I hadn’t been trying to come up with an episode script. Instead, I had just been reading something I was interested in, taking notes about the points that I found interesting, and including some of my own commentary in those notes.
Now, it’s easy to get lazy, and I am definitely guilty of that. It can be frustrating to read a book in bed and have to keep stopping to take notes. In a perfect world, I would return to my notes and flesh them out later that day or the next day, but that’s easier said than done and I don’t always do it.
Fighting that laziness is important, however. So much of this notetaking method is about taking the time to add your own commentary on things that you’re reading, because that is what allows you to form your own ideas. Then those notes become the raw material for creating a larger work, whether it’s an essay, a podcast episode, a book, or something else.
Ahrens includes this quote from neuroscientist Neil Levy’s introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics in How to Take Smart Notes:
“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen [...] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible. . . . No matter how internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.”
Like I mentioned in my initial blog post when I started out on this week daily blogging quest a couple weeks ago, I do want to let this blog function as a digital commonplace book and a helping hand for my own zettlekasten-inspired notetaking system. As I read things that are interesting to me, it’s helpful to be able to have a daily checkpoint where I have the chance to flesh out some of the most interesting things that I read that day or that week.
I’m gonna try to force myself to also do shorter posts (like this one) that are more focused on expanding on one interesting atom of information, because the zettlekasten notetaking method is what allows me to quickly write up a somewhat extensive essay like the one I wrote yesterday.
But I’m curious—are any zettlekasten fans reading this? Or do you have another notetaking or PKM method that you like? As a researcher, I had no idea how important notetaking strategies were until relatively recently, so I’m always fascinated to learn about other folks’ strategies.