How to Take Smart Notes

#book author
Sönke Ahrens


Brain Slipbox
Free to focus on the meaning, rather than the facts Keeps a permanent record
Effective for facts and details that must be recorded precisely
Facilitates active learning

“Sometimes, it is more important to rediscover the problems for which we already have a solution than to think solely about the problems that are present to us.”

— Sönke Ahrens

The note-taking process:

This workflow is described by Sönke Ahrens in his book, How to Take Smart Notes, which is based on the Zettelkasten system.


  1. Always have something available with which to record notes. Whenever you have an idea, take a ‘fleeting’ note. These can be recorded on a notebook, a napkin, your phone, or anything else you have available. What’s important is that your write everything down.

  2. Take literature notes: Whenver you read something, record key ideas. Don’t copy quotes without taking the time to understand what they mean.

  3. Within a few days, revise your fleeing notes.

    • Do not take fleeting notes if you will not come back to them.
    • Do not take mediocre notes.
    • These notes are then placed in the slipbox, where your are most likely to stumble upon them again.
    • These notes should be self-explanatory. Write them as if you are teaching them to yourself for the first time.
  4. Literature notes are placed in a reference management system.


Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.

“Some people are just like that,” “writing has to be difficult,” “the struggle is part of the deal” are just a few of the mantras that keep too many from inquiring what exactly distinguishes successful writing strategies from less successful ones.

Nobody needs willpower not to eat a chocolate bar when there isn’t one around. And nobody needs willpower to do something they wanted to do anyway. Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term interests.

Most people try to reduce complexity by separating what they have into smaller stacks, piles or separate folders. They sort their notes by topics and sub-topics, which makes it look less complex, but quickly becomes very complicated.

And while the notes on the literature were brief, he wrote them with great care, not much different from his style in the final manuscript: in full sentences and with explicit references to the literature from which he drew his material

Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean.

The slip-box follows the Russian model: Focus on the essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily.

no editor can improve an argument.

Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?

The notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.

Tags: favorite

Any attempts to trick ourselves into work with external rewards (like doing something nice after finishing a chapter) are only short-term solutions with no prospect of establishing a positive feedback loop. These are very fragile motivational constructions. Only if the work itself becomes rewarding can the dynamic of motivation and reward become self-sustainable and propel the whole process forward (DePasque and Tricomi, 2015).

“Specifically, the problem-solving behavior of eminent scientists can alternate between extraordinary levels of focus on specific concepts and playful exploration of ideas. This suggests that successful problem solving may be a function of flexible strategy application in relation to task demands.” (Vartanian 2009, 57)

This is why it is so much easier to remember things we understand than things we don’t. It is not that we have to choose to focus either on learning or understanding. It is always about understanding – and if it is only for the sake of learning. Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations.

While we have a walk or a shower or clean the house, the brain cannot help but play around with the last unsolved problem it came across. And that is why we so often find the answer to a question in rather casual situations.

While content-related decisions have to be made (on what is more and what is less important in an article, on the connections between notes, the structure of a text, etc.), most organisational decisions can be made up front, once and for all, by deciding on one system. By always using the same notebook for making quick notes, always extracting the main ideas from a text in the same way and always turning them into the same kind of permanent notes, which are always dealt with in the same manner, the number of decisions during a work session can be greatly reduced.

As well, the mere copying of quotes almost always changes their meaning by stripping them out of context, even though the words aren’t changed

“If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration” (Nickerson 1998, 175).

“Nonage [immaturity] is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.

We have to choose between feeling smarter or becoming smarter

Coherent arguments require the language to be fixed,

The brain, as Kahneman writes, is “a machine for jumping to conclusions” (Kahneman, 2013, 79).

Without a very thorough filter, our brains would constantly be flooded by memories, making it impossible to focus on anything in our surroundings.

He advocates looking out for the most powerful concepts in every discipline and to try to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of our thinking.

You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life.

Sometimes, it is more important to rediscover the problems for which we already have a solution than to think solely about the problems that are present to us.

It is also difficult to change behaviour in times of stress. The more pressure we feel, the more we tend to stick to our old routines – even when these routines caused the problems and the stress in the first place.

Referenced By

Feature Positive Effect
Mental Models
Note Taking
Org Roam
Prioritize Content Over Tools