Book Review - How to take Smart Notes

By Sönke Ahrens

I have a friend that stopped smoking once. He actually tried multiple times, but that time stuck the longest, at least until our current programming project, which made him fall back in. One of the main factors of him quitting, he claimed, was Allen Carr’s writing in the book ‘Easy Way to Stop Smoking’. The main principle, he said, can be understood within a few pages. Carr himself preaches that the only way to stop is to internalize some kind of inner truth, that the power to stop is within you all along. It might take you years to figure it out - but he is positive that you will do so sometime. And while some readers figure it out in the middle and stop reading there, other people still read the whole damn thing.

I have a feeling that most readers of How to take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens, will have the exact same experience. Most reviews say it’s boring, repetitive, even a bit self-contradictory (since the materials for the book were researched using the methods detailed within, which should lead to inspiring, novel ideas, and somehow it’s still really bland). However - despite that negative outlook of the content, the review will end with something along the lines of ‘this book changed my life profoundly’. Just like reviews of that ‘Easy Way to Stop Smoking’ book.

I have life-long issues with taking notes and learning in general. Even though I work in an information-heavy profession and did (by some sort of miracle) achieve my B.Sc., I feel like a phony. I feel like everything I consume by reading books, by browsing my finely curated RSS feeds, or even just through the mindless HackerNews meandering - is just fleeting away from my mind as soon as I read it, never fully taken advantage of. This is really crystallizing in the later years of my life, where goals are no longer dictated by exams to pass and essays to write. I have to be ‘creative’ and find the connections between my exotic (but often unrelated) fields of curious readings.

I used to take notes of books and articles by highlighting them, and optimistically assume I will come back and combine them together into a blog post, a podcast, or just the random cooler-talk at the office. It actually NEVER HAPPENED. EVER. In recent years, driven by the frustration of envying my very intellectual friends, it even escalated to using a combination of gathering my highlights into Readwise, and exporting them into my (admittedly very messy) Notion to summarize and meet things I’ve read again after the fact. The system I built myself fell short. Something was missing.

But look at me now, with a fully-geared Obsidian vault with a gazillion plugins, backed up on Google Drive. With an inbox method, Daily Logs (and tasks), and inner-linking. I lacked the guidance, systematic incremental method, and the ever-increasing FUN from combining my passions into one mega-wiki with benefits. I actually found out about this book in the Obsidian forums, in which a live discussion is being actively going on regarding the success of this method. And I will be active in this discussion by trying it out. But for the 1st time in my adult life, I’m actually optimistic.

This is me, trying to quit being a phony. Thank you, Sönke Ahrens, (but actually thank you, Niklas Luhmann, for the inventor of the Slip-Box method). This book is repetitive, mostly boring, and can be summed up in a TED Talk. But I feel like it’s about to change my life. At least, I hope not to start ‘smoking’ my content again.

Coming soon in this blog - my impressions from employing the main method contained in this book - Zettelkasten, some Obsidian tips and tricks, and maybe, just maybe, more Readwise and Notion shunanigans. Oh! And I recently converted my newsletters into an RSS feed and it’s awesome and my inbox is at 0 at all times which already makes 2022 an awesome year.

Share: Twitter Facebook LinkedIn