How to take smart notes

How to Take Smart Notes – #7 My Experience

Greetings and welcome to the seventh blog post of: My Experience. In this blog series I give insight into how I apply knowledge gained. For more information about this series click here. In this blog post I describe the core concepts of the book: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Introduction to Zettelkasten

There is “Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide” here you can find all our zettelkasten content. I made this guide for those who are new to zettelkasten and look for a proper introduction. It also contains links to posts about my experience with applications for zettelkasten, including: Obsidian, Evernote, OneNote, Notion and more.

Zettelkasten the ultimate guide
Click on the picture to open the guide.

Introduction to How to Take Smart Notes

In the posts about Zettelkasten I recommend the book: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases) For people that want to learn more about Zettelkasten.

I think this is the optimal step-by-step guide to not only understand the Zettelkasten principles but also put them into practice. Therefore I wrote this blog post, to explore the core concepts. So you can better determine if this book suits your needs.

The main goal of the book is to help non fiction writers to write intelligent texts for the long run. It helps you to write smart notes that bring you and your projects forward. I think the book description perfectly captures the books content:

“The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing. Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away.” – Book description by Sönke Ahrens.

In this blog post about How to Take Smart Notes

We explore the core concepts of “How to take Smart Notes”. This will include the following subjects:

  • The note taking: workflow and structure. The overarching workflow and structure that function as scaffolding for your thoughts.
  • The toolbox you need to take smart notes. The components necessary to facilitate your workflow and structure.
  • Four leading principles in taking notes that Ahrens distilled from Luhmann’s Zettelkasten method. Described in enough detail to get a grasp on them. These principles will help you get most out of the Zettelkasten method.
  • My conclusion on “How to Take smart notes”. My personal view on the book.

Note taking

For the note taking system to work to it’s full potential it is important to follow a workflow and corresponding structure. In this paragraph we will examine the workflow that Sönke Ahrens prescribes for writing a paper. After that we will go over the structural implications this has on the Zettelkasten.


Can you imagine that you do not have to start with a clean sheet, but with a rough draft for your paper. The only thing that you need to do is revise the draft and edit it somewhat, to publish a final paper. It would help if you had the ideas right in front of you already, that is what the workflow will help you achieve. Below you can see the workflow for writing a paper step by step visually, I will give a description for every step.

How to take Smart Notes – workflow

The note taking workflow is the primary driver of input for the Zettelkasten (slip box). It is the process that converts data that you read into information on your notes. Eventually this will lead to input for publishable work.

1. Make fleeting notes

Always have something at hand to write, just write it down. These are reminders of what is in your head. These are to be processed within a day or two. You can skip this step if you have the time and go straight to step 3 to write a permanent note.

2. Make literature notes

Make notes about the reference, this is information about the content you have read. Keep these notes together with your bibliographic details in your reference system. More about the reference system in the paragraph further down; Toolbox.

3. Make permanent notes

This step is processing your notes from step one and two. Write the idea down make sure it contains; the idea in full sentences, context, references and sources. You can throw away the fleeting note and put the literature note in your reference system.

4. Add new permanent note to slip box

This step is giving the permanent note it’s place in your slip box. You can do this by following sub steps:
A. Look to which notes the new one directly relates to. If it does not relate directly relate to another note, file it behind the last one.
B. Add links to the note with related notes.
C. Make sure you can find the note later on, by linking to and from an index.

5. Develop your topics questions and research project

This step is iterative, basically repeating step 1-4 over and over. To develop your topics, by adding notes and enriching existing ones. Just follow your interest and always that the path that delivers most insight. Do not brainstorm for a topic but look in your slip box. The more interested you are in a topic the more you will read about it and develop it through these steps.

6. Decide a topic to write about

After a while you will have developed ideas enough to choose a topic. The topic is based on what you have. You can collect all the notes on this topic by looking at the connections. After that, copy them to a word processor and put them in order, remove redundant information. You can always go back to earlier steps if information is missing.

7. Turn notes into a rough draft

The next step is to turn the notes placed into the word processor into a rough draft. This step involves translating the notes into a coherent text. You can build your argument, detect holes and adjust the argument where needed.

8. Edit and proofread your manuscript

The final step of the process. You finish the manuscript by editing and proofreading it. This means you make sure the manuscript is coherent and the argument is clear. You also focus on accuracy by checking sentences for typing errors, spelling, grammar, inaccurate references and style consistency. After this step you are ready to publish your work.

In reality the process of writing a paper is never this linear, most of the time you will work on more than one topic. It is important to keep in mind this is an iterative process and the sequential steps are not set in stone. It’s an overarching rough guideline that you can personally refine. So it can turn your collection of notes into a idea generator. My workflow by example is different based on my needs, to read about my personal workflow see: Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide – paragraph Workflow.


“We need a reliable and simple external structure to think, in that compensates for the limitations of our brains. ” – Ahrens

The structure of your slip box will provide the external scaffolding to think. A good structure allows you to move from one task to another seamlessly. It will provide an undistracted brain backed up by a collection of notes.

Map of content

Personally I use maps of content as an index to create structure, in line with step 4C of the workflow. Read more about the flexible structure I use in Obisidian in: Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide

How to Take Smart Notes – Map of Content Example

The toolbox

The four components needed to facilitate the workflow and structure:

  1. A central place for notes. Capture ideas where ever, Phone, notebook.
  2. The reference system, by example zotero. Or any other system to collect sources from your internet browser. During my studies I used Mendeley, a browser plug-in to store your references centrally per project. After that you can uniformally place them in your notes or document processor.
  3. The slipbox itself. This can be physical, but nowadays there is free software to do this. Which offers functionality that keeps larger sets of notes manageable, think about advantages such as mobility, instant search, templates etc. The software that I use is Obsidian. If you want to learn more about my way of working or Zettelkasten software that facilitates the principles see the Zettelkasten Ultimate guide.
  4. A document processor/editor; Microsoft Word, Google Docs, LibreOffice or NeoOffice.

My take on this

Personally I combine step 2-4, since I don’t see value in over-complicating the process. I do not use my notes for academic purposes, this means my references can be unformatted. If you do want to use formatted references you can still use Obsidian, but for final drafts it could be handy to use a document processor. Since these have the available integration to import references in standardized format like APA from Zotero or Mendeley.

Four principles of How to Take Smart Notes

The four leading principles in taking notes that Ahrens distilled from Luhmann’s Zettelkasten method.

1. Writing is the only thing that matters

“By writing, students demonstrate what they have learned, show their ability to think critically and ability to develop ideas” –

Sönke Ahrens

Books about academic writing start with the assumption that writing a paper has a start and an end. This is an idealized process. Writing shouldn’t be seen as a straightforward process with sequential steps. Sönke Ahrens argues that the writing is not what follows, but a core component of studying.

His line of reasoning goes as follows: Writing is the medium of research > studying is nothing else than research > so there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.

He explicitly says this principle doesn’t mean everything should be put aside for writing, reading material and experimenting is important to get input to write. Also presenting your thoughts or other ways to express your ideas are important for feedback. The core of his message is that writing should not be compartmentalized in individual tasks, it should be an integral part of your process. Because you will be forced to think ideas through when you write them down and connect them to preexisting knowledge, this will make you a more purposeful reader. By having this clear purpose of writing, it will make you deliberate, since you have to create a note out of the information you read.

2. Simplicity is paramount

A simple idea cant be easy to put in practice. Writing is comparable with containers:

Only after aligning every single part of the delivery chain will make this simple idea possible. This creates a self reinforcing feedback loop. Similar to taking notes. Most students/people handle ideas in a way that makes immediate sense; spreading notes / underlining techniques that heavily rely on memory. Since the conceptualization of text happens separately. The slip box is the shipping container of note taking . Streamlined to achieve one ultimate goal: Insight that can be published. After achieving this workflow there are second order advantages, by example: Your slip box presents forgotten ideas to give inspiration. The question becomes in which context will I stumble upon this again?, instead of; under which category does this idea fall?

The slip box structure by nature is bottom up. Too much notes can become a problem. It can only be good when it is a critical mass. This does not just apply to the quantity of notes but also the quality. By classifying every note as a permanent one, oversight will be lost. The collection of good ideas will get diluted by all other notes.

Types of notes

To control the critical mass you can use different types of notes. Ahrens defines three types of notes:

  1. Fleeting notes: Temporary as reminder of information, to be kept only for two days maximal. Captured when you are busy doing something else, like reading, listening or doing household tasks. This can even mean underlining text when reading. Fleeting notes become useless very fast, since the context is stored in your memory.
  2. Permanent notes: The product of processed fleeting note. Contains necessary information. Permanently stored with contextual information in the slip box, they can always be read on their own and understood. Use a standardized format, in the Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide I explain how you can use templates to accomplish this.
  3. Project notes: Relevant only for a specific project. Can be discarded or archived after a project is finished. Can be: comments on a manuscript, outlines, reminders, to-do lists, drafts etc.

By keeping: fleeting, permanent and project notes separated it will be possible to build a critical mass. The permanent notes are your reservoir of ideas, this will help you develop your ideas over time. Because your collection of permanent thoughts is functioning as an integrated whole, opposed to segmented in folders. The connection of these notes gives the opportunity to create new ideas; the more notes, the more ideas can mingle to create new ones. More about the type of notes I use in: Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide – paragraph Workfow.

3. Nobody ever starts from scratch

The process of writing is often explained as a linear one. First you decide what topic to write about, plan your research and then write. This is an idealized version of reality and often works very differently in practice. Students are overwhelmed by writing assignments because they are not taught how to turn years of reading, discussing and research in material they can use.

Because the act of writing requires prior knowledge about the subject; every research starts based of existing preconception. That can be developed by further inquiries and projects. This is called the hermeneutic circle, in short: “One’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole” Wikipedia

This makes the linear process of writing misleading, because it suggests you can make a plan on how to write, before having immersed in the topic and therefore written about it first. The slip box can help in this process, it holds externalized ideas that are developed by actual reading, thinking, discussing and writing.

“By keeping track of intellectual development, topics, questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force.”

Sönke Ahrens

The process of writing will not be dependent on memory anymore, questions from the slip box come with externalized ideas and context to help you get started. Another advantage is that we can see connectivity of thoughts between existing topics, which can lead to possible topics to write about. More information about the connectivity of thoughts in Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide. The problem of finding an topic is replaced by having too much topics to choose from.

Taking smart notes is a way to break the linear order of writing and adopt a circular process. Instead of starting from scratch you develop your reservoire of written ideas and let topics with questions emerge. Your interest will guide the development, making it a more organic process that is guided by your interests.

4. Let the work carry you forward

Sometimes work feels like a big drain of energy, you can only move forward if you put more energy in. But sometimes it is the opposite, you get into a flow and the work itself gains momentum; the work gives energy and propels you forward. A good workflow can create this flow state, the positive experience helps take on the next task more easily. If the work itself becomes intrinsically rewarding this dynamic of motivation is sustainable.

Feedback loops are crucial for the dynamic of motivation. Feedback is necessary to improve ourselves, therefore a key element to any learning process. Nothing motivates people more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. Feedback from others is the only way to discover our unknown areas of improvements.

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is important for receiving feedback, this means that you actively seek out feedback to learn. Opposed to a fixed mindset, those who avoid feedback to preserve their self image. Feedback can be divided in the same way:

  • Fixed: Feedback on what the person is perceived to be.
  • Growth: Feedback on what the person does.
    Embracing a growth mindset means that you get pleasure out of changing for the better.

Learning system

The feedback loops go hand in hand with a good learning system. The slip box can help facilitate feedback. Since we can incorporate small feedback loops into the note taking workflow. By turning fleeting notes into permanent notes we get instant feedback, because it requires understanding to rewrite information in our own words. This increases our ability to clearly and concisely express understanding. Having this system in place, creates learning experiences in multiple ways:

  • Making notes: Improves the ability to distinguish the important information from the less important information. Which will improve reading skill.
  • Connecting notes: Trying to fit in new notes into body of ideas. The system will show us contradictions, inconsistencies and repetitions. Which help us improve the quality of our externalized knowledge.
  • Usability of the slip box grows: It grows and improves, the slip box becomes more useful over time since it contains more information. Making connections becomes easier, which will increase the connectedness of the slip box. The notes become lines of developed thoughts, instead of isolated facts. Which is more in line with the interconnectedness of the human brain, the network of ideas will make it easier to learn and remember new information. The slip box or our brain alone won’t make this work, but the dynamic between the two.

My conclusion on How to Take Smart Notes

I think the book, How to Take Smart Notes is a great guide for people that want to become more productive and build on their knowledge. The guide is elaborate and gives a framework to publish your writing. The book can still provide a lot of insight, even if this is not your primary goal to publish. Since it formulates the full set of principles, ideas and tools to get started with Zettelkasten, you can then cherry pick the parts that you want to adopt. Hopefully this post gave you enough information to decide if you want to read it, because the book contains way more than covered.

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases)

The book: How to Take Smart Notes

What are your experiences with Zettelkasten?, Which software do you use? Let me know in the comments, I am eager to hear from you.

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