April 4, 2022

Sönke Ahrens | How to Take Smart Notes

Sönke Ahrens | How to Take Smart Notes

Sönke Ahrens has developed a method for you to organize your ideas and notes in the most efficient way possible. Using psychological insight and battle-tested techniques, Sönke's insight will help you accomplish more and learn faster.

Sönke Ahrens has developed a method for you to organize your ideas and notes in the most efficient way possible. Using psychological insight and battle-tested techniques, Sönke's insight will help you accomplish more and learn faster. If you're a writer, a student or anyone who reads and writes, you'll definitely want to grab a pen and pad for this one.

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Sonkhe Ahrens: I think there's a trap and these tools, and a lot of the digital tools, make it very easy to link between notes and to connect them. And it's fun to do, but if you don't think through the connection and make it explicit, like your suggestion to put a link to another node, embedding the link in a full sentence makes all the difference. Because instead of saying there's something else that's somehow related to this, you justify it by explaining to yourself, but on the other note there's contradicting information.

And that triggers the question, where is the empirical data wrong, or is that a different perspective? And now, you have to really engage in the questions and it also produces a lot of questions. And I think that's the beauty of this forced elaboration that comes with it; that you constantly come up with new questions.

Srini: Welcome to the unmistakable Creative podcast. I'm Srini Rao and this is the podcast where you get a window into the stories and insights of the most innovative and creative minds who have started movements, built thriving businesses, written best-selling books, and created insanely interesting art. For more, check out our 500-episode archive at unmistakablecreative.com.

Sonkhe Ahrens: Thank you so much for having us.

Srini: It is my absolute pleasure to have you here. I found out about your work, and to be honest, I have no idea how I stumbled upon this lecture. You did about the subtle Casady method and Nicholas Lumen. And then I found your book, How to Take Smart Notes, and went, "Wow, being a college professor." When I saw the idea that somebody finished a Ph.D. in a year, I thought, "Wait a minute, what the hell is this? 58 books, 500 papers." I'm a writer and I have a dad as a college professor, so I had to find out more about this and it's amazing how transformative these ideas have been.

So on that note, I was wondering, what did your parents do for work and how did that end up shaping and influencing the choices that you've made throughout your life?

Sonkhe Ahrens: And your career? Oh, that's an interesting question. So there is no obvious answer because both of my parents don't have an academic background at all. My mom was a social worker and my dad was in administration in my hometown of Hamburg. And in a way, I think it puts you in a weird place because you have to figure a lot out on your own. I think my interest in how to take notes is one of the things I really needed to figure out on my own because there was no role model.

And sometimes that can be incredibly helpful because you don't just take on something that's done for generations. But you question some of the fundamentals, and I think note-taking is certainly one of the fundamental skills you can have in learning and teaching and academia and beyond.

But what my parents always passed on to me is that it's never a waste of time to read a book and it's never a waste of money to buy books. So one thing that was absolutely clear is I can read as much as I like, and I think that's an enormous gift you can give your children. Did your

Srini: Do your parents encourage you to pursue any particular career paths or any particular fields?

Because, I alluded to this on a show before - you grow up in an Indian family, that narrative is doctor, lawyer, engineer. Those are your paths to a good life.

Sonkhe Ahrens: I think they would have preferred me to become a medical doctor. But they weren't particularly happy about my choice of pedagogy and I think the philosophy of education, something, they don't really know what is all about. Most people, me included, most of the time. But no, there was no particular path they had in mind, but they were very encouraging to go to university and to study. That's for sure.

Srini: Yeah, let's talk specifically about education, 'cause you do it in the talk that you gave, which we'll link up for people listening to talk to you about the sort of current state of higher education. It just made me rethink it. This is something that I ask all people who are academics when I have them on the show: if you were tasked with redesigning the education system, particularly here in the United States, where we're riddling students with student loan debt and they're coming out with irrelevant skills, often just memorizing and regurgitating, what would you change about it and how would you redesign it?

Sonke Ahrens: Let's quit a bit of questioning.

Srini: I think I realized we could do four episodes on that.

Sonke Ahrens: Alone. I think the application of knowledge and being playful with the information you get, doing something wizard, is certainly one of the key skills.

That's often missing. And I think technology can help to a certain degree and in many ways. I don't know where to start, so starting from the choice of topics that are taught, then the way it's taught. And I think encouraging thinking thoroughly and being playful with the information you have is probably one of the keys to it.

So it's not very original to see Richard Feynman as one of the role models in bringing life to information. So I think there is a reason he was also not just a great scientist, but also a great teacher. I think that goes hand in hand, and yeah.

Sonkhe Ahrens: States?

I think the differences between universities within the United States are much, much greater than between the United States and Germany. I think Germany is probably a little bit more on the same level, vastly different from universities in Germany, but all in all more on the middle ground. I experienced two different systems because there was a Bologna reform in Europe.

It became much more modular and much more siloed. So I studied under the old system, which came with a lot more freedom and there is obviously an upside to that. I felt very little restriction on what I can do and all the grades and examinations were more or less a second thought. That changed after the Bologna reform.

So now the students I encounter when I teach are much more focused on the next step, like getting the credit points, and feeling much less free in choosing what they want. And you can see it in the statistics as well. So one of the big reasons for the reform was to encourage traveling within Europe, and changing universities.

And that actually went down a lot. So that kind of backfired. So I think the difference I experienced before and after the reform is probably much

Srini: With LinkedIn becoming number one in B2B display advertising in the US, you've got a great

Sonkhe Ahrens: Advantages. You can stand out against your competitors while nurturing customer relationships and growing your brand. LinkedIn's targeting tools allow you to reach your precise audience down to their job.

Srini: Title, company, name, location, and more, which means your ads are being seen by those who matter. Scale your marketing and grow your business with LinkedIn advertising. As a thank-you to their customers.

Sonkhe Ahrens: For helping them grow three times faster than the competition, LinkedIn is offering a $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to LinkedIn.com/marketing to claim your credit. That's LinkedIn.com/marketing.

Srini: Yeah. I think that the unfortunate thing here in the United States in a lot of ways, from what I've heard from talking to primary teachers, is that they're forced, unfortunately, to teach the test, and we groom future bankers, lawyers, doctors by having these standardized tests as a huge source of stress. And that often is what drives people to learn, because there are a lot of people I've found who think that they don't enjoy reading primarily because they never got to choose the books they read. And that's pretty common in high school. I can't tell you a damn thing about most of the books that I read in high school, probably because I wasn't taught to look at them the way that you teach people to look at them. So what's the key to breaking this conditioning on a much larger scale, I think that, to me, it seems this new sort of anomaly weirdos, like me and people like Tiago Forte, stumble on your work and we're thinking, wow, this is the way everybody should do this. And of course, trying to convert them, we sound like ridiculous religious evangelists, trying to basically convert people to a new religion, which I feel like we are

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yeah, again, that's a good question. And I feel there is no simple answer because at the moment I teach at a university where a lot of students do not have an academic background. And they look for guidance on how does it work here? How does university work? How does studying work? And I think we should give them guidance so that those students who have parents with an academic background don't have all the advantages. And we can't pretend there is this big freedom, but it's more about figuring out the implicit rules of it. That's one side of it. And the other side is, how can we encourage them? To study more freely, follow their own interest, build up some structure themselves, and maybe also collaborate more. Then there is a lack of collaboration I see at the moment, which is also of course COVID-related. So there are these two sides. How can we give them the security of some kind of structure? And on the other hand, encourage them to use the freedom they have to follow their interest and search for the knowledge they need to answer certain questions regardless of where the information comes from. And unfortunately, this structure we pre-provide is quite

Srini: It's funny you say that because one thing I learned after writing a couple of books is that I went back and thought about the way that I was taught to write in high school versus the way that I was taught to write a book. And I've said, there's a reason why there's no such thing as the great American five-paragraph essay because in school you were taught to write in order to get a grade, not to be effective.

And of course, to your point, you've followed this sort of linear structure in which you have this hypothesis, that thesis statement, and the conclusion, and then you're like, "This is mind-numbing. Why would anybody want to read this?" I think that makes a perfect segue into actually talking about the entire process of note-taking and smart notes and how different it is from anything else that we've seen.

But what I'm curious about is how in the world you stumbled upon this. And then, how has something that's sixty-plus years old got buried and never come to the surface until you wrote this book?

Sonkhe Ahrens: I always felt the need for a better system. And I always blamed myself for not being rigorous enough of going through the books and the highlights they made again and again. And I spent a lot of time searching for quotes I vaguely had in mind, and I knew they would be fitting, but I couldn't remember if I wrote them down. And that was certainly because I'm very unstructured in my studies. So I was very curious about the neighboring disciplines. And when two lectures were far off the beaten track of my discipline.

And so I gathered a lot of information from different places. So it was a setup that made the need for a better system obvious because the usual system I used as a young student, just collecting everything I heard once, in a lecture and then putting it away together with other seminars from the same year didn't really work.

And then I became very much interested in Nicholas Lumen's theory of social systems, so that started as an interest in his work, not in his writing technique; that was more or less an anecdote. People in the field mentioned once in a while that there was this strange letter custom somewhere in his house.


Srini: No, it's funny. 'Cause I, it's funny you say that because I was thinking about this. I was like, how the hell do we justify and explain this to people considering that it doesn't make a lot of sense until you see it and you put it into action yourself? One of the things you talk about is the importance of workflow. And you said that this really struck me so the workflow is one of the greatest predictors of academic success.

And I thought that was so true for professional success as well. And then you wanted to say the challenge is to structure one's workflow in a way that insight into new ideas becomes the driving force that pushes us forward. We don't want to make ourselves dependent on a plan that is threatened by the unexpected, like a new idea, discovery, or insight.

And I, I remember very distinctly that you say in the lecture that you gave that insight isn't something that you plan for. So this linear, bottom-up, or top-down approach, doesn't make any sense because insight is something that happens spontaneously. It took a while for me to really comprehend that. Janine, can you expand on what you mean by that

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yeah, sure. I'm not sure if I mentioned that in the book, but I'm one of the authors that really helped me understand the limitations of planning. There's a French scholar and sinologist called François Jullien who wrote on the differences between Western thinking and traditional Chinese thinking. He describes what he is trying to do as describing how Chinese thinking works, but using the detour of another old written philosophy tradition to gain some outside perspective on what we take for granted and to distance ourselves a little bit from our way of thinking.

And one of the key elements of Western thinking is the difference between planning and execution. That made a lot of sense to me because there's a lot you can achieve with planning and execution, but when it comes to insight or something where other people and chance play a big role, planning can get you only so far. So he talks a lot about examples, for example in war strategy, where a lot of planning goes on up until you encounter the enemy and then everything falls apart. Pedagogy is certainly similar in that you can do as much planning as you like, but when the first pupil says something very strange, you have to react to that.

Srini: With LinkedIn becoming number one in B2B display advertising in the US, you've got a great advantage. You can stand out against your competitors.

Sonkhe Ahrens: Competitors while nurturing customer relationships and growing your brand, LinkedIn's targeting tools allow you to reach your precise audience down to their job.

Srini: Title, company, name, location, and more, which means your ads are being seen by those who matter.

Sonkhe Ahrens: Scale your

Srini: Marketing and growing your business with LinkedIn advertising. As a thank you to their customers for

Sonkhe Ahrens: Helping them grow three times faster than the competition. LinkedIn is offering a $100 credit on your next campaign.

Srini: Go to LinkedIn.com/marketing

Sonkhe Ahrens: To claim your credit. That's

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Sonkhe Ahrens: If that makes sense? No

Srini: It absolutely does. It's funny because I think, to your point earlier, people listening to us, might be thinking, "What am I supposed to do with this?" But tell them about Lumen's productivity. And then we'll actually get into the system itself. Because, as I said, the minute I read that, I was immediately intrigued and I said, "Okay, I have to know how to do this." Sure.

Sonkhe Ahrens: I think one of the key elements is that you have a strong filter process and distinguish between different types of notes. So these kinds of notes, are more of a reminder of what you have in your head. And I think we all know these kinds of notes, we drop them down quickly and after a few days or a few hours, for me, I don't really understand anymore what I meant with that, or it loses its significance. So writing notes in a way that they can be understood by someone else or by yourself in a year's time or a month's time requires obviously a little bit more effort because you have to give some context and ideally write it down in whole sentences.

But as it requires more effort, you need to be very selective. Whereas what you write down permanently, and I think this distinction between whether is it really worth writing it down deliberately is something we don't necessarily do if we don't have a place to put it afterward because if it gets lost it's a whole lot of effort that's wasted. So it's very selective with what we write down deliberately. And then putting it all in one place to build up a critical mass of ideas. We spend some time thinking

Srini: Stop me for a second on that. Yeah, so that, that's one of those things that I think is vitally important because I remember the first time I saw a formatted version of a Roam note. It had the thing with related notes underneath. But to your point, I said, you really should be using bi-directional links to complete sentences. Like you should be writing sentences and linking to the titles of other notes. Is that what you mean by that?

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yes. Yes. I think there is a trap and these tools, a lot of the digital tools, make it very easy to link between nodes and to connect them. And it's fun to do, but if you don't think through the connection and make it explicit, and like your suggestion to not just put a link to another node, but to embed the link in a full sentence, makes all the difference because instead of saying there is something else that is somehow related to this, you justify it by explaining to yourself. Wow. But on the other note, there's contradicting information, and that triggers the question: Well, is the empirical data wrong or is that a different perspective? And now you have to really engage in the questions and it also produces a lot of questions, and I think the beauty of this forced elaboration that comes with it is that you constantly come up with new questions.

Srini: Yeah. I noticed the amount, what I said was this was literally the key to never experiencing writer's block again, because I noticed this, the first thing that didn't click for me was permanent notes. But when I started taking literal notes, I noticed I would come up with these just ideas and I would create a link to the note. And suddenly I would look through the database and be like, but I have no shortage of things I could write about today. Yeah.

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yeah, I think when students are faced with their first papers or have to write a thesis, they often struggle, especially in the beginning, with finding good questions and that's topic and they ask you to provide them with the topic they can write about.

And I think that's because they have written their notes in a particular way where one piece of information was just jotted down without connecting it to something else and that doesn't lead to any questions. But then you have an abundance of things to write about and you have to make a decision on what's the most pressing question here.

And what do I want to follow up on, and that's sometimes hard to deal with the abundance of possibilities because you constantly have to make decisions on what not to follow up on. It makes the limitations of time and attention quite obvious.

Srini: Let's talk about tags in particular because this is something that I think really has been the bane of existence - people don't know how to find anything. And this is something you said that really struck me. And it took me a while for this to click - you say the way that people choose their keywords, shows clearly if they have like an archivist or a writer mindset. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks which keyword is the most fitting; a writer asks in which circumstances I want to stumble upon this note. Even if I forget about it, it's a crucial difference. Keywords should always be assigned with an eye toward the topics you're working on or interested in, never by looking at a note in isolation. And what I realized when I thought about this, I said, "People, it's oh, do I tag my notes by topic?"

And Tiago Forte wrote a fantastic article about this, where he talks about contextual tagging. And I realized why that was so important because topics are infinite - there's just no end to it. But how, when we think about tags as an organizational mechanism - in reference

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yeah. I think there is, there is an abundance of tools that help you with storing information. The offline readers, Instapaper, Pocket, Readwise, etc. They all help you to get information into your system and you can add tags to somehow make it easier to find them again.

But that doesn't really require cognitive effort. And the moment you have to connect it with existing knowledge or put it in the place you think you will need it, you suddenly feel that need to put effort into it. And I think the effort is a good indicator if you're doing it right or wrong. If it feels like you need effort, you probably do.

Srini: I, that was one of the first comments I got from a YouTube video I made about this. Somebody said, "This seems like a lot of effort." And I said yesterday, "The payoff is worth it." But the funny thing is, it's compound interest. When it finally pays off, it pays off big.

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yeah. And you can look at it from the other side. And the other side is the perspective of the writer. Does my action now bring a publication closer to the finish line? And does it when I add my mental script in a new paragraph, does it when I link from the notes I collect for a script, to another note, which is meaningful and adds to the rough draft I'm outlining?

But if I tack on an article, collect, read it, find it interesting, and do nothing else with it, it doesn't add anything to the project I'm propelling to work on. So I think it's very much an illusion of putting less effort into it because you do put less effort into it, but you also put no effort into getting closer to the finish line.

If you spend a lot of time collecting articles from the internet, and tagging them, and none of that brings you closer to a finished manuscript or insight or whatever your goal is, then it's not more efficient. It's less efficient. And yeah, it's really about okay, thinking, how does what I read contribute to my understanding of something I decided deliberately to work on?

Srini: Me, the, there, the reason this, that intrigued me so much was that I always jokingly said, if I could take all the ideas from the books I read, the people I've interviewed on this show, I'd be a billionaire with six-pack abs and a harem of supermodels.

And I'm none of those things. But the thing that intrigued me, as I said, I have this encyclopedia of just information in my head from a thousand interviews. How do I access it in a way that's useful? And what I started to see was that if I followed this process for the books I read, not only did I get more from each book that I read.

But it gave me tons of original ideas and the workflow, I think, is one of those things that, as you say, people almost have to see in action. It took me creating a course about this before it all connected. And when I got to the final module, I thought, "Wait a minute, I just wrote a 10,000-word article and laid the foundation for it in 10 minutes."

We'll wrap this up with a very

Sonkhe Ahrens: Actually, I wouldn't start with reading. I know you started with reading in the book, but I am now noticing from feedback and also coaching a lot of people that I might have overemphasized the process of taking information into this system and the bottom-up approach of building structure out of a critical mass, which is certainly the big difference to the usual way of taking notes. But equally important is to acknowledge that we never start from scratch. We always already have some kind of structure in our heads. So what I really would recommend doing when you set up your system, in the beginning, is to write down what are the topics you think about and want to continue to work with. And how would you structure that? I have a page where I have an overview of everything I'm working on thinking about, and that is kind of a skeleton to which I can then add new pieces of information, but it's not hardwired into the system. So it will evolve over time. I will drop topics. I will change questions, build subcategories or get rid of them. But I think it's a really good idea to kind of do a brain dump and start with, okay, what do I already know?

Srini: This is just a question of morbid curiosity because I was talking to my dad last night, and we were, I was having to let him know that I was going to be interviewing you. And so I asked him about completing a Ph.D. thesis. And when I mentioned them, completing a Ph.D. in a year, he said, that's ludicrous. Nobody can do that, but that's because he's a scientist. So I'm curious, is this viable in any field, but in terms of the speed at which you can produce?

Sonkhe Ahrens: I'm always a bit hesitant to talk about disciplines. I don't know much about a sociologist maybe I'd be fit for this system because his topic was society. So basically everything. So it's good to have a system that is open to absorbing all kinds of information and then searching for similar structures.

But the feedback I receive or hear is often in the way of, "you mentioned only non-fiction writers, but I'm a fiction writer and it works great for me. Why didn't you include that in the title?" Or people from medicine, especially struggle a lot with information overload. And I think after all the big promises of AI and IBM didn't pan out the way they expected, at least not yet.

So the reasons they really look for a better system, I hope to get people together from similar fields of research and not only research to come up with individualized or adapted versions of it, because I think you need to adapt it a little bit to your own personal needs, and it's good to talk to people from your own field.

But the basic principles are probably the same, but with differences. So I think

Srini: Totally understand. As I said, that was one of those sorts of morbid curiosity questions. I deemed it, 'cause I thought about that too. I thought, like the key here, I think, is to adapt it to your own workflow. Like, that is one thing. And it took me a while to figure that out as well, 'cause I realized, okay, I built this workflow based on the fact that I host a podcast and I read books and I write.

Sonkhe Ahrens: Yeah, probably that. The perfect application for it. I think for people who are broadly curious about those, it resonates the most. If you are very, in a very detailed, narrow field you might need different tools, but the broader it is, I think the better word.

Srini: Wow. This has been really eye-opening and provocative. Where can people find out more about your work and also learn more about using this little cast? I have a course called Maximize Your Output, which people can learn about at maximizeyouroutput.com. That is largely based on these ideas, but where can they learn about you and everything else, and then see this in action?

Sonkhe Ahrens: I'm preparing a course myself with basic principles and focusing on the basic principles using Rhetoric research as a tool. And so Tara as a literary tool and also obsidian was an alternative to rhombus. Hopefully, I'll get it out this year. There's a new edition coming out of the book soonish and I'm setting up my work page at takesmartnotes.com. Also soonish, but the best way to stay in contact is to either follow me on Twitter or to get on the mailing list which I use very sporadically to announce something new.

Srini: Excellent. And for everybody listening, let's wrap the show with this: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. Were there any moments you found fascinating, inspiring, instructive, or even heartwarming? Can you think of anyone, a friend or a family member, who would appreciate this moment? If so, take a second and share today's episode with that one person, because good ideas and messages are meant to be shared.

Srini: I, as I was, we were talking about for our record here, my roommate back asked me, "Oh, you're a straight-A student in high school?"

I was like, "Of course, if I wasn't a straight-A student in high school in India, my parents would have disowned me. But the funny thing is that you realize when you get to college, the way you're taught to learn in high school does not serve you very well at all. In fact, it doesn't work, even if you're a straight-A student in high school. What usually got you to a place like Berkeley is usually completely useless.

And I wonder why we have perpetuated this sort of linear thinking, a factory model of education long after the industrial revolution is over. And also I'm curious about the contrast. I know that being in Germany, you may not have a perspective on this, but I'm guessing you've interacted with students from America and academics from America. What have you noticed as differences in the way that we're educated and socialized in education systems in Germany versus the United States?