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Book: How to Take Smart Notes

Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers ( Purchased Amazon 20200613

Zettelkasten was originally invented by prolific social scientist Niklas Luhmann.

Reading, in and of itself, is not a super useful endeavor. It does not automatically mean you understand or retain the information. Having it all in your head is not enough, you need to get it down on paper and then get it organized.

Just taking notes on everything you ever see or do is a great way to waste time and have very little recall still.

This book is on the zettelkasten method which is a set of simple steps, basically:

  1. Take lots of frequent notes anytime they pop into your head. This is similar to getting things done
  2. Make literature notes whenever you read something. Make notes about the content, only the things you think you want to retain. Keep it short, be selective, use your own words.
  3. Review the quick notes and literature notes frequently and make permanent notes. Synthesize them into print ready statements. Think about how these notes relate to what is already in the box. This is not about collecting a lot of information, but rather about developing ideas arguments and discussions.
  4. Add the permanent notes to your slip box, linked ideas generously, make sure you can find this note later by linking to it from an index file, or some other entry point to this topic. Think: “In which context will I want to stumble upon this again?”

This book gives lots of details on how to implement

Success is not the result of a strong willpower. But rather the result of having Smart systems and environments to consistently set yourself up for success.

Page 38 “Nothing counts other than writing.” Reading is for fun. Writing is for value. Organizing is for everything. Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what you are doing.

The hardest part of the system will be turning the fleeting notes into the slip box notes. fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes that can be used later.

Page 94 Taking literature notes is a form of deliberate practice of understanding. You should never directly copy the content, but rather, put it into your own words, which will help with understanding and retention.

Page 78 Literature notes are short and meant to help with writing slip-box notes. Take lots of short notes while reading, include the context but don’t overdo it. These are only meant to be transferred to the Slip-box in more fully formed thoughts later on.

Page 44 “Permanent notes, on the other hand, are written in a way that can still be understood even when you have forgotten the context they are taken from.”

Page 38 Permanent notes should be elaborated enough to eventually become part of a final written document, but don’t worry about that up front, you can’t decide what the end will be at the beginning. just remember that final notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, they contain the actual thought or idea as I understand it.

Page 91 Think about the final notes, how they relate to existing thoughts, and connect them with those thoughts via links.

Page 93 My existing note taking and writing is like a piggy bank. This new method will be like saving and reinvesting dividends. It compounds in value over time.

Some of the re-writing arguments in this book remind me of the quote “the map is not the territory”, but you need a map anyway. The map is in this case the mental representation of what you want to take away from what is being learned.

Page 98 The initial elaboration of what you have read is just the first step. But transferring it into the final permanent notes is the most important step because they are put into context with other thoughts that have been had in the past, and the new context for thoughts that could be had in the future.

“Transferring ideas into the external memory also allows us to forget them.” This is very GTD-esque

Ideally, new notes should always be linked from existing notes. Do this whenever possible. if there is no existing note from which the link, be sure the snow goes into an index page of some sort.

Page 108 “Notes are only as valuable as the notes and reference networks they are embedded in.” This is going to be the hardest and most important part of the new system. Not only do the ephemeral notes need to be distilled into permanent print-ready notes, they need to be connected to the other notes in a logical way and densely as possible.

There are two ways it can be done. Naming conventions or linking. Luhmann used a naming convention because he only had paper. But I have linking and graphs so that may be better.

(p. 110) re. keywords on the index page: “The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. 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 will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.” In the Z always keep the focus on context, how this note might be found in the future. Don’t worry about completeness or where to store, or how to link, just think about how it might get found in the future - similar to the gmail search.

When you add a new note to the Z look for existing lines of thought, things that have already been on your mind, to which a new note might contribute.

Page 112 Luhmann had 4 kinds of cross-reference links in his system. Only the first and last are important for my case, the other two are b/c of paper-based limitations 1. Notes referred to from an index card, they usually are giving an overview of a topic and are used as an entry point to more notes on the same topic. The entry note itself is usually a list of links to other notes with a short description of what would be found on each. 2. An index card that gives a location of a physical cluster of notes. Only necessary with paper that needs to be stored in boxes. 3. Links on cards to indicate which card is previous/next in the sequence. Not necessary with digital because of hyperlinks. 4. Note-to-note links, no matter where they may reside within the Z. Patterns begin to merge after multiple note-to-note links, especially between separate topics.

Page 112 Let’s say you have a note that is linked from a topic index page. And then you decide that the original note is incorrect and you decide to write a new note to replace it. Don’t delete the old note, just add a link on the old note, and maybe a description of why a new note was needed. Also update the link on the index to the new note (away from the old note). If it makes sense, point out via a link on the new note that it was derived from an older note.

Page 116 Using the Z will eventually make inconsistencies and paradoxes clear. These are key for good thinking and thorough understanding. Adding new notes to old notes and being forced to compare them leads to a constant improving of your work, and also exposes the weaknesses in any individual text we read. Always check the original source of a claim.


Good questions are in the sweet spot of being relevant and interesting, not too easy to answer but possible to tackle with material that is available or at least within our reach. Notes book p136

A good, informative article will answer a relevant and interesting question - something not too easy to answer but possible to explain with material that is available/findable.

I will hopefully be writing articles on data analysis and segmentation and optimization and decision making soon. This is good advice for how to find the kinds of articles that aren’t just rehashed stuff from elsewhere on the internet.

If we accompany every step of our work with the question, “What is interesting about this?” and everything we read with the question, “What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?” we do not just choose information according to our interest. By elaborating on what we encounter, we also discover aspects we didn’t know anything about before and therefore develop our interests along the way. P137

In the past I have been guilty of not taking notes at all, relying on memory to retain important information, which fails all the time and is hugely subject to recency bias. I have also been guilty of taking too many notes - highlighting all the seemingly relevant parts of a book and then not doing anything about those highlights - useless!

Now, I must take only notes on those things which seem very important and are worth the work of integrating into the ZK. There is a significant amount of work involved with each note, so I must choose wisely.

According to the famous law of Parkinson, every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it, like air fills every corner of a room (Parkinson 1957). P143

Scheduling my day is a tremendously productive way to get things done. This works especially well when I am in a quiet isolated place like an office or library. It is hard to do when working from home, around wife and kids, because my time is not my own.

If there is one piece of advice that is worth giving, it is to keep in mind that the first draft is only the first draft. Slavoj Žižek said in an interview that he wouldn’t be able to write a single sentence if he didn’t start by convincing himself he was only writing down some ideas for himself, and that maybe he could turn it into something publishable later. By the time he stopped writing, he was always surprised to find that the only thing left to do was revise the draft he already had. P145

Just get started writing. Worry about quality later, and likely never.

I can produce my best text when I just give it the title “ROAM” (ramblings of a madman) and start writing.

The trick is not to try to break with old habits and also not to use willpower to force oneself to do something else, but to strategically build up new habits that have a chance to replace the old ones. The goal here is to get into the habit of fetching pen and paper whenever we read something, to write down the most important and interesting aspects. If we manage to establish a routine in this first step, it becomes much easier to develop the urge to turn these findings into permanent notes and connect them with other notes in the slip-box. It is not so difficult to get used to thinking within an external memory of notes, as the advantages become obvious quite quickly. P146


    Sonke Ahrens