How to Take Smart Notes
We’re blessed. We have so much information at our fingertips that it’s staggering.
A few years ago, I decided to purchase The Spurgeon Collection on Logos. It’s 86 volumes containing over 3,500 sermons, his biography, and other writings. Within minutes I had the bulk of his lifetime’s work sitting on my computer. That’s not to mention the other 5,700 resources I own on Logos, the 4,800 books I own on Kindle, or the thousands of paper books I own.
Our challenge isn’t accessing good information. Our challenge is to make good use of what we already have available to us in abundance.
How to Take Smart Notes proposes a solution. It’s to take notes.
Sounds too simple? The author isn’t talking about simply making highlights. He’s talking about reading so well that you can summarize the shape of the author’s arguments in your own words. Recently, I tried to summarize a blog post that describes four approaches to race, politics, and gender. When asked for more information, I was caught flatfooted. I hadn’t really absorbed the article as well as I thought. Only when we can restate what we’ve read accurately can we say we’ve learned what we’ve read.
Not only that, but we need to think about what we’ve read. “What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.” Our job isn’t just to read information or absorb it. To benefit from it, we must evaluate it too.
Finally, it helps to develop the idea and link it to other ideas. Over time, we can build a system that contains our learnings from the resources we’ve worked through. Rather than just reading a book, highlighting it, and shelving it, we can develop the practice of really benefiting from the resources we own.
Instead of being overwhelmed by lots of information, read what’s helpful, and do the work necessary to benefit from it.
Do this over time, and you will begin to build a Personal Knowledge Management System. I wish I’d started this earlier, but it’s never too late to start.
Start Simple, Go Deep
The place to start is with reading the book How to Take Smart Notes, a surprisingly enjoyable book. You can also get started by reading an article or watching a video.
You can begin simply by starting to take good notes on paper. You can also play around with software solutions like Roam Research or Obsidian, although you’ll face a bit of a learning curve as you begin to build out your system.
In his book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald talks about the importance of a lifetime of studying and making use of what we’ve learned:
Studying means developing good filing systems to store my information so that it is never wasted. It means making sacrifices to acquire a good library of reference books. But most of all, it means determination and discipline. And the result is always growth.
Our challenge isn’t to find more good books. Our challenge is to absorb, evaluate, and assimilate from the resources we already own. The place to start is by taking notes. It’s simple, hard work, and if you keep at it, the results will snowball in your life, benefiting you and others.