How note-taking should be

The classic approach doesn't work; note-taking supposedly helps to accumulate insight.

Writing your thoughts down helps you think more clearly; similar to how you can come up with answers to hard math problems. In other words, writing is a means to think better.

If you’ve ever tried journaling, then you’ve experienced the same thing: you clarify your thoughts, you answer your own questions, and externalize any loose ends you carry.

However, when you treat writing as the end itself, you won’t accumulate insight; similar to how common notebooks are used: The moment the idea is written down is the moment it dies.

In How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens says:

Writing papers is seen as a task in itself with a beginning and an end. Almost all books written on academic writing start from this assumption.

Even schools teach writing in a suboptimal way: “Pick a topic for your paper and start writing.”

But when you look at productive academics, they rarely do it that way. They use their notes to make “topics” emerge.

Blaise Pascal, for example, was rumored to use a nonlinear form of note-taking. He collected notes, gathered them into a common theme, (i.e. the “topics”) and then punched a hole at the top-left so he can tie them up into a bundle. From this note-taking system, the famous Pensées was born.

Sociologist Niklas Luhmann developed a universal theoretical framework — the sociological systems theory — that can describe every imaginable social phenomena right from his note taking system.

He didn’t take notes on “sociology”, but rather on multiple disciplines — law, philosophy, theology, biology, and cybernetics. His note-taking system, by the way, was the Zettelkasten Method. (German word for slip-box)

The Zettelkasten method allowed Luhmann to publish 70 books and 500 articles books in 30 years — that’s like writing almost 4 books per year if you turned the articles into books! Even an accomplished academic can hardly write a single academic book per year, and here’s Luhmann destroying their whole careers. (Nice move, Luhmann)

It’s basically a method of interconnecting your notes so you won’t have to actively remember the connections; much like freezing your thought trails so you can continue them in time. Basically, what the Zettelkasten does is re-ify your thought patterns.

As you can imagine, Luhmann is on an entirely different definition of “prolific”.

Instead of squeezing as many words as he can in one page, Ahrens describes Luhmann’s work like he is “trying to squeeze as much insight and as many ideas as possible into one publication.”

And it’s not just Luhmann, by the way. One familiar guy also did it — to create what’s known as the “Internet” but is actually the World Wide Web: Tim Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee thought that associations between documents and notes in general are so important yet overlooked. Perhaps he must’ve realized that ideas die in notebooks. He says:

When we make decisions in meetings, how often are the reasons for those decisions (which we so carefully elaborated in the meeting) then just typed up, filed as minutes and essentially lost? How often do we pay for this, in time spent passing on half-understandings verbally, duplicating effort through ignorance and reversing good decisions from misunderstanding? How much lack of co-operation can be traced to an inability to understand where another party is ‘coming from’? The Web was designed as an instrument to prevent misunderstandings.

So he created his own version of the Zettelkasten before the Web — the Enquire, a hypertext notebook. (I don’t even know if he’s familiar with the Zettelkasten, but he references a lot of fractal patterns in society.) The purpose of Enquire was to keep track of associations of people, projects, and data he deemed important. When he used it for projects, somehow “different projects become involved with each other”.

That little program would then become the main influence of the WWW.

On the more recent side, I found a couple of accomplished authors who use nonlinear note-taking, too.

Bestselling author Ryan Holiday stores everything he learns in a commonplace book. Every time he has an observation or gains new understanding, he takes out a 4" x 6" index card, captures that thought, and then store it.

“This is a project for a lifetime,” He says. “I’ve been keeping my commonplace books in variety of forms for 6 or 7 years. But I’m just getting started.”

And I think we should think the same way, too. Even for learning. We should find a way to build upon what we're learning every day, or else we’re gonna get stuck in our old ways.

Another bestselling author Tim Ferriss uses a bunch of notepads and a working index to organize his thoughts. He then reviews these notes whenever he starts to write something. (Here’s a video)

He might be taking them down linearly, but he organizes them in a nonlinear way.

In any case, it seems like their notes are the secret to achieving full clarity with their ideas. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning authors use their notes to develop theirs.

They use running outlines, although their organization approach varies.

In any case, all of them use notes as a means to better output.

Of course, notes don’t just help the quality of work, but also the rate of it. Copywriters (those who write ads for a fortune) use swipe files to generate ad ideas quickly.

To put it in perspective, copywriting is more like writing a short story that writing a blog post. You need to research how your words affect the readers, how to manipulate your structure to achieve a desired effect, and even how to put enticing titles that would make readers buy.

In his Boron Letters, Gary Halbert tells his son Bond Halbert:

“I’m very serious when I exhort you to assemble your own personal “copywriting tool kit” which should consist of a collection of headline cards, good ads, good sales letters, good TV commercials, good ideas, good offers, etc.”

What’s the purpose? To leverage effort — to be able to use the ideas you collected over and over again for higher-level thinking.

Even cooks do the same to somehow offload a bit of decision making in the kitchen:

“As a cook I have one. It is always in my bag,” a cook told Ryan Holiday in his AMA. “It not only has recipes, but ideas for flavour combinations, composed dishes, websites, restaurant addresses, quotes from chefs I admire and some prep lists for future events.”

So notes aren’t just for recording information; it’s for better thinking and accumulating insight. The classic approach doesn’t work, obviously, because learning rarely works in a linear way — and only the people who realize this will do great work.

Here are some capable digital tools I discovered:

In any case, the point is that no matter what method you use, taking notes offloads work from the brain; by taking notes, we can focus on thinking rather than holding ideas. Only when we do that can we develop good ideas into greater insights.

Further Reading


Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes : One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

Seidl, D., & Mormann, H. (2015). Niklas Luhmann as organization theorist.

Links included.