Improve your thinking and productivity by taking smart notes

Continuing on from my last blog post, let’s dive into the world of productivity with my thoughts on the book “Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens and how I used it to improve my own productivity and thinking. As someone who is always on the lookout for ways to maximise my efficiency and taking notes, as well as improving how I learn and retain information, I was intrigued when I first came across this book years ago and it recently came to my mind again as I was reading ‘Building a second brain’.

While reading the book again, I of course, took notes! And now, in this review, I want to share my thoughts on the “Smart Notes” method. Whether you’re someone who is always looking for ways to streamline your day-to-day tasks or simply curious about new approaches to organisation, I hope this post will provide valuable insights.

About the Inventor

The “Zettelkasten” note‐taking system was invented by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann used the system to write 58 books and over 500 academic papers in his lifetime by averaging just six notes a day.

The Zettelkasten Method

The “Smart Notes” aka “Zettelkasten” method is based on the author’s own experience as a writer and researcher. He found that traditional note-taking methods often resulted in a cluttered mess of information. Information that was difficult to use and retrieve. I bet that sounds familiar? For me that definitely was the case before I had create ‘my system’.

In response to this challenge, Luhmann developed a system that would allow him to take and organise notes in a more efficient and effective manner. The result was the “Smart Notes” method, which has since been adopted by many people looking to improve their productivity.

So let’s now have a look at how it differs from traditional note-taking approaches.

At its core, the “Smart Notes” method is based on the idea of using notes to capture and organise information in a way that is easy to retrieve and use. This is achieved by using a system of symbols and abbreviations, along with a clear and consistent structure for organising notes. The result is a set of notes that are easy to review and use, and that can be quickly and easily updated as new information becomes available.

The main point is that you need to do more than just mark or annotate while reading. You need to craft your own thoughts around what you read.

Each chapter of the book covers a different aspect of the “Smart Notes” method. The first chapter provides an overview of the key concepts and explains the benefits of using this approach to note-taking. The following chapters delve into the details of the method, including how to create and structure notes, how to use symbols and abbreviations, and how to review and update your notes.

One of the strengths of the “Smart Notes” method is how simple it is. The use of symbols and abbreviations, along with a clear and consistent structure for organising notes, makes it easy to review and use the information you’ve captured. This is a significant improvement over traditional note-taking methods, which can often result in a cluttered mess of information. Not much help if you want to think clearly.

Another strength of the “Smart Notes” method is its flexibility. The method can be adapted to suit a wide range of needs and can be used in a variety of settings, from academic research to daily task management. This is a significant advantage over other productivity methods, which may be more rigid and less adaptable to different situations.

However, there are also some potential limitations to the “Smart Notes” method. For example, some people may find the symbols and abbreviations used in the method to be confusing or difficult. The method also requires a certain level of discipline and consistency in order to be effective. If you don’t follow the guidelines and structure outlined in the book or create your own system, your notes may become cluttered and difficult to use.

Personal experience

I have adapted the method to suit me and using a combination of notebooks and software tools, found my own ‘perfect system’. I can only encourage you to do this as well! However, don’t be discouraged if you are not efficient from the start or a specific method or system doesn’t work for you. It took me over 15 years to get to my current system and I’m sure I will optimise it over the coming years.

For me, using my system, significant improves my ability to capture, organise, retrieve information and specifically generate new insights from it! That is what it is all about for me. Having a reliable system to write down ideas. Not needing to store them in my brain and then having a trusted system to be creative.

Conclusion and take aways

In conclusion, “Smart Notes” is a valuable resource for anyone looking to improve their note-taking and productivity. The “Smart Notes” method offers a unique and effective approach that is simple to use, flexible, and well-suited to a wide range of needs and settings.

It is a great starting point if you want to improve your writing and thinking skills as well as deal with a lot of information you want to use.

So, what actions can you take to start using the “Smart Notes” method? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read the book to get a better understanding of the key concepts and techniques used
  2. Experiment with the method: Try using the “Smart Notes” method for a week or two and see how it works for you. Take notes on your thoughts and experiences and make adjustments as needed.
  3. Create a system: Once you’re comfortable with the method, create a system for organising your notes that works best for you. This could mean using a paper based method or a tool like Obsidian/Roam etc.
  4. Use the method consistently: To get the most out of the “Smart Notes” method, it’s important to use it consistently. Make note-taking a part of your daily routine and stick to the system you’ve created!
  5. KEEP IT SIMPLE! I can’t emphasise this point enough. Start simple and take it from there. Once you are consistent with the simple system, you can add to it. I spend a few minutes per week to improve my system. Sometimes that includes letting go things that do not serve me anymore, sometimes it means trying out something I read online or learned from someone else.

By taking these steps, you’ll be well on your way to boosting your productivity and streamlining your day-to-day tasks.

Let me know how it goes!

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Last Update: October 29, 2023