Key Ideas from the book "How To Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens

Writing is the ultimate form of thinking, and there's a great method to write regularly and effectively. I've read the book "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens, which explains Zettelkasten method of note-taking and found the method to be very practical and inspiring.

In this short article I tried to summarize the key ideas of smart note-taking approach.

Why should you take smart notes?

  • System of notes is your "external system to think in"
  • If you plan to write down notes, it changes the way you read, listen and consume information
  • Connecting notes with each other helps you find and generate new ideas
  • Writing things down removes unfinished ideas from your short memory and unburdens your brain
  • Writing makes you think about the meaning of what you've read instead of simply consuming it
  • Writing improves learning success by assigning meaning to what you write down
  • Positive feedback loops will carry your writing forward. Better notes lead to better thinking and you stay with the flow and get motivation to continue
  • Writing is a test of your real understanding
  • Comparison is our natural form of perception. Comparing notes will improve learning efficiency

How to take smart notes?

  • Notes should be the result of your reading and thinking
  • Generally, types of notes are:
    • Fleeting notes: If idea comes to your mind, write it down straight away, in some kind of inbox. Later you can review this idea and make it a permanent note or throw away
    • Reference notes: write notes when you read something. Make it a brief outline: page x- this idea, page y - this idea. Reference notes will be stored in your reference database (e.g. Zotero)
    • Permanent notes: a note written if full sentences, which captures the gist. Permanent notes are stored in your slip-box
    • Project notes: only relevant to specific project, you can discard or archive them after project is finished
  • Write one note for one idea, in full sentences. Read and write with eye towards connected ideas in your slip-box
  • When writing note, ask yourself several questions:
    • Does this new idea add something to the topic of your research?
    • Why does this idea catch your interest?
    • What is the difference of this new information to existing, what is similar to existing notes?
    • How does this new note connects to existing notes?
  • Condense the knowledge, write down the gist of what you've learned. Avoid quotes, write in your own language
  • Connect notes with each other, so it would be possible to find notes later
  • Try to assign meaningful context when creating the new note
  • You can use some keywords to connect ideas together
  • You can connect note to existing overview topics
  • During writing, focus on one task at a time, avoid distractions
  • During writing, observe your roles (writer, critic, proofreader, outliner) and try not to mix them. You can switch from one role to another after finishing note
  • After you have some notes on the same topic, you can write an overview "Topic" note, which provides structure to your chain of notes
  • Scan through existing connected notes, compare them to detect contradictions or missing parts
  • Write small number of notes regularly - every day. Persistance is the key for establishing the routing of note-taking


  • You will never write something from "blank page" - your notes will provide you with structured and condensed lines of thought. This reduces the time and effort for writing
  • Different notes connected to each other will help your develop your research "bottom up"
  • Good notes will help you achieve the "flow" - it gives positive feeling and helps you continue writing