How to Take Smart Notes

One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

by Sönke Ahrens

Read Status: Completed 📕
Last tended a year ago
Planted a year ago
Evergreen 🌳
3 min read ⚡️

Table of Contents



Intelligent organization of ideas and notes is the key to good and efficient writing. Written to make Zettelkasten accessible to academics and writers in mind, it has reached a much wider readership and benefited many in bringing forward their endeavors.

Key Ideas

What You Need

To replicate a digital Zettelkasten, Ahrens suggests using Obsidian as the primary note-taking tool and Zotero as the reference manager. For alternatives, refer to his website.

Focus on the essentials; having an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is all we need.

What You Need To Do

  1. Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with and keep them in one place for processing later. Voice recording works too.
  2. Make literature notes. Make concise notes about the content in your own words whenever you read. Keep these notes with bibliographic details in your reference system.
  3. Make permanent notes. In your slip box, go through the notes from 1 and 2, and develop ideas, arguments, and discussions in full sentences
  4. Add links to related notes and make sure it is discoverable.
  5. Develop your topics and questions within the system. Identify what is there, what is missing, and any potential questions.
  6. Try ideas out and give yourself time to read and take more notes to improve your ideas.
  7. Turn your notes into a rough draft.
  8. Edit and proofread your manuscript. Pat yourself on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript.

4 Principles

1. Writing is the Only Thing That Matters

Presentation and knowledge production cannot be separated but are two sides of the same coin. When you try to write things down and associate the ideas with your previous knowledge, you will learn to differentiate good-sounding arguments from actual good ones. You will learn as efficiently as possible to get to the point of the questions.

2. Simplicity is Paramount

3. Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

Writing is not a linear process. We choose to write tropics that we have a prior understanding of. By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of our own intellectual development, topics and arguments will inevitably emerge from the material.

4. Let the Work Carry You Forward

A good workflow is a virtuous feedback loop where positive experience motivates us to take on the next task easily. Tricking ourselves with external rewards is a fragile motivational construction that will not last.

Right Attention

Give each task your undivided attention and the right kind of attention.

Don't Be a Planner - Have a Structure and Be an Expert

How do you plan for insight, which, by definition, cannot be anticipated?

Experts rely on embodied experience. It is an acquired intuition that identifies essential tasks from distraction. Instead of having a plan, have a clear structure for yourself to work in.

Protect Your Precious Resources

Our attention, short-term memory and willpower are 3 essential resources of any knowledge work.

Our attention works best directed at one thing at a time, and our short-term memory can only hold up to 7 things at once. By limiting the number of decisions we make in a day, we can avoid ego depletion and preserve our energy for the day's important work.

Why Pretend to Learn??

We have to choose between feeling smarter or becoming smarter. ... If we don't try to verify our understanding during our studies, we will happily enjoy the feeling of getting smarter and more knowledgeable while in reality staying as dumb as we were.

Read for understanding and try to explain what you learnt in your own words.

The majority of students chooses every day not to test themselves in any way. Instead, they apply the very method research has shown again and again to be almost completely useless: rereading and underlining sentences for later rereading. And most of them choose that method, even if they are taught that they don't work.

Consciously, we probably would all choose the same, but what really matters are the many small, implicit choices we have to make every day, and they are most often made unconsciously.

Think Beyond the Text

Experienced readers read a text with questions in mind and try to relate to other possible approaches. In contrast, inexperienced readers tend to adopt the structure of the argument and take it as a given. The ability to think beyond the given frames of a text is a key differentiator that sets them apart.

An Extension of our Brain

The slipbox is the medium we think in, not something we think about. It is where we make connections and confront our cognitive biases with facts and rationality.

Worldly wisdom

A truly wise person is not someone who knows everything, but someone who is able to make sense of things by drawing from an extended resource of interpretation schemes.

Charlie Munger advocates looking for the most powerful concept in every discipline and trying to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of our thinking. When we combine our lattice of mental models with our experience, we will have a good pragmatic grip on reality.

It makes my day when I see it.
Building a Second BrainWhat Got You Here Won't Get You There
Walter Teng © 2023