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How to Take Smart Notes


This is a book summary from How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

We take notes every single day but we tend to overlook note-taking. Note-taking falls under the radar because we don't have an immediate feedback on our notes. We don't know if we done it badly. It is a relatively simple task to do, you take a pen and paper or your favorite note taking app and write things on it. But the truth is note-taking is a skill that we can develop. After reading this book I realized that note-taking is an important task to do and without a proper method these notes will not provide any values in the future.

I have consumed a lot of books, articles, podcasts, and audiobooks. Those informations sometimes just go to waste. I used to only highlight and think that I will just come back to these highlights later. The truth is I never go back to those highlights.

I want to write more this year and one of the many things I am struggling with right now is to find ideas on what to write. I have no proper notes and that is why I could not generate ideas easily. This problem is really common among us and this book covers the method on how note-taking can be a huge game changer in our writing process.

The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic.


Things about Note-Taking that We should Know

We usually got stucked on some tasks and then we lost our willpower. This happens because we don't have a system or structure that can fix this kind of problem. A good system will help you to move from task to task without losing the bigger picture of every tasks.

With having a good structure / system we will have something that we can rely on. We will not need to remember and keep track of everything in our head. We can just put everything inside the system and it will take care of things for us. Our mind is limited so don't try to put everything inside it. By letting things go into our system we can focus more on what's important.

Procrastination and lack of motivation comes from our routines that don't allow us to take control of the process. This doesn't come from ideas that are not interesting to us. To conquer this we should take back the control of our workflow.

Having a structure is not the same with having a plan. Having a plan restricts you and this can result in less creativity. Note-taking should be flexible so we can have more creative work.

Planning won't make you an expert at writing, learning, and note-taking.

It doesn't mean that we should have a complex structure or system. The way to deal with complex problems is by keeping things as simple as possible. The mistakes that I have made in the past is putting too much time configuring the tools. You can use Notion, Evernote, Apple notes, Roam, or anything else.

Tools will not improve your productivity if we don't change our daily routines.


The Slip Box (Zettelkasten)

I discovered this method 2 months ago. It was a life changing discovery since I never organise my notes before. I could not retrieve any old informations or ideas that I have encountered. At first I wasn't really good at it and this book helps me to understand this method better.

What is Zettelkasten?

Zettelkasten is a method created by Niklas Luhmann. He made a note everytime he encountered something that interest him. He then realized that those notes wasn't really useful for himself. After this realization he then put his notes according to context not categories. He thought about how an idea can contribute into different context.

One note was only valuable as its context, which was not necessarily the context it was taken from.

This system helped him to publish 58 books and hundreds of articles in 30 years.

How Zettelkasten Works

  • Whenever he read something, he put the bibliographic information on one side of a card and the notes from it on the other side of the card. This note will go to the bibliographic slip-box.
  • After this step he will take a look at the content and think about how this information is relevant into his own thinking and writing.
  • Then he would go to the main slip-box and write his ideas on a new piece of paper. Only one paper per idea and he restricted himself to only write on one side of the paper. (This is one aspect of Zettelkasten which is atomic).
  • He wrote his notes with a focus on his existing notes to find a connection between them. He rarely put his notes in isolation.
  • He use his own words without taking away the original meaning.
  • He did not organize his note by topics, he gave them fixed number.
  • The last one is putting an index for notes that are connected.

Luhmann used paper for his slip-box, right now there are a lot of great softwares that we can use for this. I personally use Obsidian. I am in love with it and I think this is the best for my current workflow.

To read more on Zettelkasten: https://zettelkasten.de


Note-taking into Writing (Step by step)

Make fleeting notes

Fleeting note is a reminder of information. We will discard these notes later. You can put this note in some kind of inbox and then process them later. We need to make capturing ideas a habit.

Make literature notes

Literature notes is a note for everything that we read. Keep it short and don't forget to be selective. Don't just copy words from the things you read, put it in your own words. By only copying we won't understand the meaning of it.

Make permanent notes

In this step, you will process notes from step 1 and 2. After going through them you can turn into the slip-box and find connections between your existing notes and your new notes. Write one note for each ideas and write it as you write for someone else. You can safely throw away notes from step 1 and 2 right now.

Add permanent notes to Zettelkasten

  • Find connection between notes to see if they're related
  • Add links to related notes.
  • Make sure you can find these notes later.

Develop topics, questions, research from bottom up.

After putting those notes to the slip-box you can do another research to see what's missing and develop arguments for those notes. Build upon what you have.

The more you are interested in a certain topics the more you will read about it. By reading more then new arguments and questions will appear.

Now you will have a topic to write about

This topic will be based from what you already have which is great. The problem with coming up with a topic that is new to us is that we're not familiar with it.

On this step you can pull out those notes and see also the related notes and collect them together.

Turn notes into draft

After pulling out your notes you can turn them into a draft. When doing this, don't just copy things from your notes. You need to translate them.

Edit and proofread the draft.

The steps are simple enough to apply directly into our current workflow but it definitely needs some practice.


Principles of Writing

Writing is the only thing that matters

It is clear that our main task is writing but it doesn't mean that we ditch other tasks beside writing. What it means by this principle is when we focus on writing we see other tasks differently. You will put more effort while reading because you have an end goal to write about it. You don't want to waste time figuring out "what to learn". You will also learn to separate good and bad arguments. By doing this we will have better quality notes and by having good quality notes we can write better.

Simplicity is Paramount

People usually think that big result comes from big ideas. The truth is sometimes big result comes from a very simple idea. We tend to overlook small ideas in the beginning.

With the current system everything will be put inside the slip-box and using this method we can simplify our workflow. Our ideas will compound and become more valuable as our notes grow.

But one thing that we have to keep in mind for this to work is that we have to be able to distinguish the type of notes that we collect. There are 3 types of note: fleeting, permanent, and project notes. By separating these notes we can build a critical mass inside our slip-box.

Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

What keeps us from writing is that we think that we will always start from scratch.

Our process usually looks like this:

  • Make a decision on what to write.
  • Plan the research.
  • Do research.
  • Write.

This is a linear process and in the real world, writing is never a linear process.

To be able to come up with a question to write about, we must already have put some effort or research on a topic. To be able to decide on a topic, we must have done some research on it. Every writing process will start by an already existing knowledge.

Writing and developing ideas ​​continuously grows. So instead of thinking that we always start from scratch, we should focus on what interests us and keep track of our learning process. By doing this we can develop ideas easier because we get better at it.

One common way that people suggest is to do brainstorming. Ideas that come from brainstorming usually comes from the outside through reading, listening, conversations, etc.

Having trouble finding the right topic usually comes from the attempt of relying heavily on the limitation of our brain.

Instead of trying to come up with something new, go to the slip-box and develop your ideas there. Improve from what you already have.

Let the Work Carry You Forward

There are 2 types of energy:

  • Endorgenic: once triggered, it keeps on running.
  • Exorgenic: we need to add energy for it to keep running.

Sometimes I feel like not doing anything at all, but sometimes once I am in the flow I can work on something non stop. This kind of dynamic of being in the flow/momentum is the type that we want. A workflow with positive experience can carry us through this kind of flow/momentum. Once we're inside it, we keep on coming back to it because it makes us feel amazing.

If the work is rewarding, dynamics of motivation and rewards become sustainable and propel the whole process forward.

One way to be inside an endorgenic process is by having a constant feedback loop. Feedback loop can gives motivation and also improves our own learning process. Beside feedback loop, one thing that can keep us motivated is by getting better. As we get better, the thing that we do becomes more fun to do. Keep on finding feedback whether it's positive or negative, by doing this we can have a growth mindset.

If we're being praised for what we are, we will do something to impress.

If we're being praised for what we do, we will be exposed to failure and new challenges.


6 Steps to Successful Writing

Give each task your undivided attention

It is getting harder to not get distracted right now. There are Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, and many more. Get rid of these distractions so that we can do the work.

Don't multitask

We think that multitasking is equal to being productive. The fact is multitasking gives us the "feeling of being productive" instead of "being productive". Multitasking won't make you an expert. Focus on one task at a time.

Give each task the right kind of attention

Each task that we do requires different kind of attention. Know which attention to give for each task that we have.

Become an expert instead of a planner

The moment we stop making plans is the moment we start to learn.

Making plans means not being flexible. In order to grow we need to be flexible.

To become an expert we need to make our own decision and accepts mistakes along the way for us to learn. This means that we need to do it for us to learn. We can't just read about it and learn about all of the theories of writing. We need to gain insight and making it public.

We need to know how to handle the real life situation, not just following the rules / theories.

By becoming an expert we will have the necessary knowledge so we don't have to keep looking for rules. Also we can rely on our own intuition to make decisions. To have this intuition we need to have exposure to feedback loops and experience.

Get closure

Our attention is limited, so is our brain.

We can hold a maximum of 7 things in our head at the same time, plus or minus two. (Miller 1956)

This is why we should trust our system (slip-box) to hold our information for us so we can lift the burden of having to remember every information that we have.

Reduce the Number of Decisions

Decision making is a tiring task. We should limit our decision as small as possible. One way to do this is by having the same workflow. Use the same notebook for quick notes, extract the main ideas the same way, turn them into the same kind of permanent notes using the same way. By doing this we will have the energy to do more essential tasks.


This book teaches me a lot about note taking in general and what I did wrong in the past. I realize that note-taking is a very important process in learning an writing. It is not an easy process to do and it needs deliberate practice. Make it as a habit and I believe that it will change your life.

Thanks to @josephinethlia for reading the draft.

This is the first book summary that I write. The next summary will be a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. If you have any feedback feel free to reach me on twitter.

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