Sonke Ahrens

Sönke Ahrens - @soenke_ahrens


Pronounced zstonke

  • Lives in Essen, works at Essen University.
  • My book could sound like it's about productivity. But my Main interest is in 'How to think better'.
  • Has a background in systems therapy, online coaching at the moment exclusively on zettelkasten
  • The background of the book, was partly a procrastination project, he was working on a book and struggled in finding the right tools.
  • Worked on theory of Nicholas Lumen for sometime, didn't take his method of zettelkasten seriously for a while.
  • Realised that his theories are interconnected with the idea of decentralizing the mind and using tools to improve the level of complexity of your thinking. 


Hopes  to spare people a lot of the mistakes he made, while tinkering with ways to capture information in his head. Hopes to inspire people to take more notes, believes there's a need to challenge your own ideas, which requires an external brain.

  • Taking notes will help you having a sparing partner.
  • Presumably to challenge your own assumptions.
  • Reminds you to realize what you're actually thinking.
  • Notes make it explicit.
  • Struggle in early days of writing, was finding things again.  

Hopes to spark discussion on how we organize higher education. Believes that Higher ed is streamlined along old ideas of you have to have a plan in hand, come up with hypothesis first then you do the work. 


On whether he introduces zettelkasten to his students:

  • Noticed that students nearer exam either have a good note-taking habit, or wish they did. 
  • Students at the outset of a course, don't see the benefit of investing in good notes (zettelkasten), because they're not out to become professors and write books.  
  • Tied this to the legacy of the educational system they came from, where 'learning' was created in packages.
  • Strategy is to bring older students to speak with younger students, to share what the advantage is to have writing system earlier.  It's important to just write, you can adjust the process along the way.
  • Investing exercise, where people are made to act old, and it impacts their investing decisions. 


On Luhmens system; what surprised you.

Not much. It's fairly clear.

On what people seek to start their process

  • There is a lack of step by step for software, which is what people seek
  • There's a misunderstanding about trying to follow a step by step process, because you need to adjust it for your own needs.
  • In terms of software, stick to what you're comfortable with, because if you invest in a whole new system, you'll switch, and switching is what costs you.
  • Academics are more interested in literature notes and references, that may not be for you/
  • Be ok with Heirarchy, it's not a problem, it just shouldn't be hard wired into the system/software


On what people misunderstand or don't really get about the system.

  • People are hard on themselves about not having the perfect system. 
  • Also see the search for the perfect system, and punishing themselves about things not being easy
  • I'd like to see people not punishing themselves, because writing is not easy. 
  • Of course, there's always a struggle with the organization, and where do I connect this idea to others, and that's part of the system.
  • There is a feedback loop of adjusting and you might have extensive notes, and at times not enough, and it's alright.  Rephrasing difficult text in your own words is a challenge, but that's the point. 
  • The recursive process of going into whatever is challenging you is a productive process of writing, so go ahead and practice writing on the type of system you want by taking notes.

On starting for the first time

  • What you shouldn't do is move all your notes into your system and spend  time on that. It's more about doing it differently. Don't do massive all encompassing migrations.
  • If you take old notes and want to intergrate it iwith your stystem that's fine, just do it if you're already using them. Because when you took those notes, it was for a different context, you might not be able to remember the reason you took those notes. 
  • If early on you can't make connections, then be explicit what's already on your mind, in terms of connections, which will give you a start.  
  • Start with the projects you have, the ideas you already have,
  • Start with the hierarchy / Topics
  • Luhmen started with topics, the main areas of interest, the topics overtime less and less important, just to hardwire the heirarachy into your system. 

Digital Jubilee - Once a year, if you have a jumble of notes, file them away. 


On not starting from the bottom up 

  • Used to write blog post by first going through hundreds of notes and collecting material.  If criteria was what is interesting, everything would make the cut.
  • Would start with dozens of notes and trimming it to the essence.
  • Now starts with, what do I know is the main idea, which is always more intuitive. Something that comes instantly to mind.
  • Goes through notes with this in mind, and looks for what he needs in his notes. 
  • Also looking at it as problems.  What can be your own contribution, and what is the problem in the area you're looking at. This gives you a focus. It doesn't need to be a formulated question. Try to put a finger on what bothers you about what the problem may be here. This makes for a good filter if done well.

On when to file by context, not by subject

  • Questions asked
    • What is a context?
    • How do I know what my contexts are, if I don't know what I'll be working on in the future?
    • How do I know I'll want to see it again?
  • Contexts and topics aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, that said, a note put in a specific context can contribute to a specific topic. 
  • Stressed the difference to collection; If you think "what kind of topic do I file this under", this is thinking like a collector. Adding something to a collection is just additional information
  • When you ask, to which kind of discussion, to which note sequence, can this idea contribute to, you dive into the content, you think about what difference this new information makes for your previous held beliefs. Information can only make a difference in regard  to something.
  • Context is more on the content level, topic is almost always thinking about it at a higher level, as opposed to thinking within something, you're trying to think more about  the difference the new information makes to the existing content. 
  • You're not looking at keywords, or the index. You're thinking; Is it just an addition, or is it a contradiction, do I have to change what I thought before, or my previously held belief. You're trying to make this explicit. Getting as quickly as possible into the content, and not trying to think at a level above where you just sort stuff.  This is the main pitfall when collecting notes. 
  • You might want to write the note already in dialogue with pre-existing notes, treat the system as a partner, and answering the note you're connecting the new one to.  Which is very different to just collecting. 

On the difficulty of conceptualizing the note system' purpose (visualizing context as further down from topic, 2nd order effect, usage, etc)

  • It's natural to treat any kind of software where you collect ideas as a kind of collection in the begininning 
  • Not sure it's hard necessarily, more about thinking differently, we like to collect stuff, and to feel there is more and more and more. 
  • It seems less productive to pause and think, how am I might have been wrong before. This is what I'm more interested in, "how do I discover where I am wrong, how do I reforumulate previously held beliefs, which might be less natural"
  • People tend to read what they already know, productivity people read productivity, design, design, engineering engineering etc.
  • Shocks, surprises, violates my expectation, are the books I keep.  I want to find the best attack vectors in to my existing mental model.
  • It's the challenge of the time, we're told to be open-minded, which means you'll be open to a lot of b.s. you have to 'close yourself down' be more discerning 
  • It's not about being open or close minded, how do you deal with being selective in a way that still challenges you, which is tricky, even to write about.
  • Question I ask myself is, do I want to be right, or do I want to be effective in this situation. 

On spaced repetition (memorisation techniques), why does it seem to be the opposite of the second brain

  • I don't memorize things, I know some professions have the need, almost always the need for memorization in complete artificial settings within education.
  • You can ask yourself, if you have trouble with memorization, try to understand it a little better, have more examples, have more connections to other ideas to elaborate further on it. 
  • Believes when you have a system in place where you revisit old notes, that's a type of built in spaced repetition. 

On theoretical questions he's pondering

  • Top of mind is how to be open minded without getting too distracted. How to work against your biases, dealing with partisanship, filter bubbles and whether education can help in solving that problem. 
  • Earlier days, top of mind was, how to get insight, what kind of environment do we need to gain insight and change our mind in a fundamental way, not a superficial way. Studied history of science, the externalization of ideas within a laboratory, and the difference between thinking with something and thinking within something. would like to elaborate more on this.

Questions from chat

Software, apps, and technologies

  • Playing with Roam, not fully committed 
  • The next step is to collaborate, interconnecting notes, not having stand alone nodes.

Luhmann says to take sufficient notes on a source so you don't have to read it again, worried it slows him down too much

  • Luhmann didn't revisit because he extracted everything, he was selective and then moved on. 
  • Don't let the system impose a structure on you, the system should serve your work, should help you, it shouldn't put pressure on you to make extensive notes.  Being a professional reader doesn't mean to have a certain level of note taking. It means being able to adjust the amount of time and attention you'll pay to a text. That could mean reading the title and throwing it away, or taking a week to spend the time pouring through it and rephrasing it. Personally skips taking notes at times, sometimes does pe and paper notes, sometimes many notes for one text because its more informative.
  • It's about adjusting, if you feel like it's wasting time, maybe you should understand where to move on.
  • Don't outsource your agency to the system, it's about adaptation and evolving your existing system.



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