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Book review: How to take smart notes

book review

This book explains how to do Zettelkasten well. Zettelkasten (slip-box) is a system for taking smart notes.

Why take notes?

It's hard to write a piece if you didn't write beforehand. You can't just assemble a piece in your mind and then put it on paper. Writing helps you assemble ideas.

Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding, and generating ideas we have.

It's difficult to put complex ideas from your head onto paper.

Complex ideas are difficult to turn into linear text in your head.

It makes you learn better since you start making connections with previous knowledge.

In order to have a meaningful dialogue with the material you read, read with a pen in your hand and write down what resonated with you.

Notes help you prevent forgetting material that you have read.

Without trying to match previous patterns and reading with pen in your hand, every reading becomes like reading a novel.

Writing makes you test your knowledge. If you can’t explain it in your own words, you don’t understand it.

If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself.

— John Searle

Taking notes makes it easier to spot mistakes in your thinking.

Writing itself makes you realize holes in your thinking.

Taking notes is a form of deliberate practice.

Taking notes while reading is a form of deliberate practice since it tests our understanding of the material.

It enables dialogue with your previous notes.

Storing permanent notes is a form of dialogue with already existing notes from the Zettelkasten.

It strengthens your arguments.

Coherent arguments need to be written down.

It improves your thinking.

It is not possible to think systematically without writing.

Niklas Luhmann

Taking notes not only makes intellectual endeavor easier but possible.

Notes do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible.

Neil Levy

Why does it make sense to have a system like Zettelkasten for your notes?

It encourages flow since the lack of structure makes it harder to focus.

A standardized work environment is less taxing to our motivation.

It makes us reduce decisions we have to make and focus on what's important.

Having a system we can rely on makes us reduce decisions we have to make during a work session.

It encourages new ideas.

Slip box is an idea generator that develops with your own intellectual development.

It enables compound interest on your notes.

Writing dumb notes compared to Zettelkasten is like piggy bank compared to compound interest.

It makes you see a bigger picture.

The most important change with working with slip-box is moving the attention from the individual project to the open connections in the slip-box.

It makes you see the differences.

Zettelkasten is a tool for enforcing distinctions, decisions and making differences visible.

The slip box helps with the [[Feature-positive effect]]. The slip box reminds us about information we would forget.

On writing

Try fighting the confirmation bias when writing an article.

Confirmation bias makes us go on search for supporting evidence and dismissing disconfirming evidence as soon as we make a hypothesis.

Fight it by looking for disconfirming evidence.

Go one step further and start seeking out disconfirming data as soon as you form a hypothesis.

Otherwise, your articles will be boring.

Nothing is more boring than writing an article that contains only ideas that support our original hypothesis.

The magic happens when working on multiple manuscripts at the same time.

The author suggests writing multiple manuscripts or articles at the same time, to prevent being stuck

Niklas Luhmann's answer to what do you do when you get stuck: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.”

If you treat writing as a separate task, you will have problems with finding the right topics to write about.

People who treat writing as a separate task from others are the ones who have problems with finding the right topic to write. This doesn't happen with Zettelkasten.

Zettelkasten enables writing in smaller chunks. You don't start with a blank paper.

Instead of having to decide what to write about after reading a lot, we do it in smaller chunks every time we read a sentence. We decide if every sentence we read is worth writing about. We approach the task bottom up, instead of top down. This makes it easier to change course during our research since the big task is broken down into smaller chunks. This gives us control over work to be done, so we don't need a lot of motivation to continue. It's also more fun.

On re-reading

Re-reading enhances exposure effect, which tricks us into thinking that we understand the subject because it's familiar. Just because something is familiar does not mean you understand it.

Re-Reading is dangerous - it can fool us into thinking that we understand because of the mere exposure effect.

Writing down what you learn in your own words with Feynman's Technique helps us fight this effect.

Applying Feynman's Technique makes us become smarter, instead of just feeling smarter.

Most of the students encourage exposure effect by re-reading and underlining.

Most of the students learn by reading, underlining and then re-reading again instead of actually learning.

Asking yourself questions that you don't know the answer to is how you'll learn better.

When we try to answer a question before knowing how to, we will learn the answer better, even if our attempt failed.

The elaboration method is the process of thinking about the meaning of what you read and how it could be combined with other knowledge.

Elaboration method is the method that should be used for writing to learn.

Zettelkasten encourages elaboration and improves learning.

Thinking about how ideas connect is a kind of elaboration that is needed to learn. This is the opposite of cramming.

It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you understand. It's good to be aware of this.

The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

On learning

Memory is divided into storage strength and retrieval strength.

Memory should be distinguished between storage strength and retrieval strength. Storage strength grows as we old. We need to shift the attention from storage strength to retrieval strength.

Storage strength is useful in cramming, and not in real learning.

Storage strength is essential in cramming, which is the opposite of learning.

Learning is more about retrieval strength and making meaningful connections.

Learning is connecting information to as much meaningful contexts as possible. Learning is about making meaningful connections.

Elaboration, which is encouraged in Zettelaksten, is nothing other than making connections.

Meaning of something needs to be explored by elaborating. Elaboration is nothing other than making connections to other information in a meaningful way.

Focus your time and energy on understanding, and you'll learn.

If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn. If you focus your time and energy on learning without trying to understand, you will not only not understand, but also not learn.

This is the best description of learning that I've read:

We learn when we connect the new information to prior knowledge and try to understand its implication (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with deliberate effort (retrieval).

Transferring ideas into Zettelkasten allows us to forget them. Active inhibition or the ability to forget irrelevant information, is what makes us able to learn.

Being able to forget makes us able to learn. If we were to remember everything, we would get swamped with irrelevant details and couldn't distinguish relevant facts from minor details.

Building a latticework of mental models

Charlie Munger advocates the importance of having a toolbox of mental models in order to have a grip on reality. He advocates looking at the most powerful concepts from every discipline and really understanding them in order for them to become part of our thinking process. As you start applying them, you gain "worldly wisdom". Otherwise, you just have a hammer and look at every problem as a nail.

If you have Zettelkasten, you are building your own latticework of mental models.

Want to talk more about this or any other topic? Email me. I welcome every email.