The all-in-one academic guide for students

The book that introduced the world to zettelkasten, this should be compulsory reading for everyone heading to university

Book: How to take smart notes

Author: Sönke Arhens

Independent (2017) –




Despite its title, this book does not offer a set of instructions for taking notes. It is about why you should be taking notes at all and why, specifically, you should be taking notes using the zettelkasten method. It is also about how you can get through university better—by writing better, understanding better and learning better. This book is also not about how to take the titular ‘smart notes’. It is about developing a method and principle of learning—one that I wish I had come across sooner—which can make you a considerably better academic for life. Unassmuing as it is, this book is layered and what you take away from it depends on how many layers you peel away.

Disclaimer After reading this book I dove right into zettelkasten, built my entire workflow and even wrote an article detailing it. Following this I came up with a method of integrating the academic reference manager Zotero into a zettelkasten-backed system for academic work—and wrote about it. Since then, my views on zettelkasten have changed and I no longer use it exactly as outlined in this book (more on this below) but I do still consider the lessons in this book valuable and the principles of zettelkasten extremely useful. For my updated method see Zettelkasten redux”.

I said earlier that this book is not merely a guide to the zettelkasten system and that is the first issue we should tackle. The guide aspect of this book is no more than a chapter long. Specifically, read chapter two—even just the first half will do. To see this book as simply guide, however, is to miss its point entirely. This would make it seem like Dr Arhens is writing the rest of this book to convince us of zettelkasten.

At the start of the book, a 1992 quote by its somewhat protagonist, Niklas Luhmann, lays out the actual argument of this book succinctly: “One cannot think without writing.” From this perspective it would help to think of zettelkasten as one of several points this book tries to make—albeit the most important of the lot—targetted at convincing the reader that to succeed academically and professionally and in any way else, you should write everything down.

One cannot think without writing. Niklas Luhmann

This book should be read in the broader context of note-taking systems gaining populatrity of late. Tiago Forté’s PARA method is an alternative that comes to mind, as is the Linkinig Your Thinking (LYT) technique, or even—although a tad far removed—David Allen’s mythically popular Getting Things Done (GTD). In this stage, zettelkasten is pitched as the ideal solution for academics as against PARA being more suited for general purposes and GTD for corporate professionals. But it is worth asking if this classification is true.

As I read through Dr Arhens’s book, detailing the zettelkasten method itself, discussing why writing helps build on past ideas, and why, in turn, building on past ideas can differentiate successes from failures, and how to read and take notes, and how to develop ideas through routinely re-visiting past notes, and how to build a habit out of this by simply setting aside time to do this daily, I realised that the methods really fit into whatever technique you may end up choosing. All that matters is that you take notes and that you can come back to browse them anytime.

Why zettelkasten in particular then? Dr Arhens argues that this method clearly worked for Niklas Luhmann and that the core idea of breaking down notes into nuggets of independent ideas (permanent notes) can spark new ideas. But, I found myself wondering, would not reading past ideas in context also do that?

The problem with zettelkasten for me is that it is not frictionless, and if you want me to pick up a habit I would need it to be frictionless. Just as misleading is the idea that you need to pick one among many methods rather than amalgamate principles from several of them to build what works for you. Dr Arhens’s book would have been considerably more powerful had it not argued solely for zettelkasten as a method but for its principles as the potential basis for any method the reader may choose at the end of the day.

Having cast aside the ‘proper’ zettlkasten method I now employ a finely tuned mixture of GTD, PARA and zettelkasten in a common ‘slip box’ (read, note-taking and reminders apps) to accomplish everything from my daily tasks to my academic reading. Being able to use folders to separate areas of my life while still implementing the linked nature of zettelkasten, using both independent and contextually-related notes, alongside associated task management and calendar entires has led me to a completely frictionless implementation of the best of all worlds. Perhaps that is how to take smart notes: to find your method rather than figuring out how to implement zettelkasten. Still, for all its thought-provoking ideas and complementary discussions, even more so than its introduction of zettelkasten, this books deserves a top rating in my opinion.

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