How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking 

How to Take Smart Notes

How to Take Smart Notes


ISBN: 3982438802

Das ist ein spannendes Thema, da ich mich schon lange mit Wissenstransfer und dem Speichern von Daten und Wissen auseinandersetze. Dazu habe ich einmal eine lange Übersicht geschrieben:


„How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking“ ist ein Buch von Dr. Sönke Ahrens, das eine effektive Methode zur Verbesserung von Schreib-, Lern- und Denkfähigkeiten vorstellt. Die zentrale Technik des Buches ist das Zettelkasten-System, das ursprünglich vom deutschen Soziologen Niklas Luhmann entwickelt wurde.

Das Zettelkasten-System besteht aus der Erstellung und Organisation von Notizen in einer strukturierten und vernetzten Art und Weise. Anstatt lineare Notizen zu machen, werden Gedanken, Ideen und Informationen auf separaten Zetteln festgehalten und mithilfe von Tags, Referenzen und Verknüpfungen organisiert. Auf diese Weise entsteht ein dynamisches, vernetztes Wissenssystem, das den Lernprozess optimiert und das kreative Denken fördert.

Ahrens betont die Bedeutung des kontinuierlichen Lernens und der Reflexion, um neues Wissen effektiv zu integrieren und zu behalten. Er empfiehlt, täglich Zeit für das Lesen, Schreiben und Überarbeiten von Notizen im Zettelkasten aufzuwenden. Durch die regelmäßige Anwendung dieser Technik können Benutzer ihr Wissen kontinuierlich erweitern und leichter auf dieses zugreifen, wenn sie es benötigen.

Insgesamt bietet „How to Take Smart Notes“ einen praktischen Ansatz, um Lernen, Schreiben und Denken zu verbessern, indem es die Leser dazu ermutigt, das Zettelkasten-System in ihren Alltag zu integrieren.

Zitate und Take-Aways

“To sum it up: 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.”

Writing a paper step by step

  1. Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind.
    Don’t worry too much about how you write it down or what you write it on. These are fleeting notes, mere reminders of what is in your head. They should not cause any distraction. Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later. I usually have a simple notebook with me, but I am happy with napkins or receipts if nothing else is at hand. Sometimes I leave a voice record on my phone. If your thoughts are already sorted and you have the time, you can skip this step and write your idea directly down as a proper, permanent note for your slip-box.
  2. Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words. Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they are.”
  3. Make permanent notes. Now turn to your slip-box. Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests. Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else: Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible
  4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box


“The slip-box provides an external scaffold to think in and helps with those tasks our brains are not very good at, most of all objective storage of information.”

The Tool Box

We need four tools:

  • Something to write with and something to write on (pen and paper will do)
  • A reference management system
  • The slip-box
  • An editor

Simplicity Is Paramount

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 slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world. Instead of having different storage for different ideas, everything goes into the same slip-box and is standardised into the same format.”

“everything is streamlined towards one thing only: insight that can be published.”

“If you sort by topic, you are faced with the dilemma of either adding more and more notes to one
topic, which makes them increasingly hard to find, or adding more and more topics and subtopics to it, which only shifts the mess to another level.”

“The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.”

A Critical Mass

  1. Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.
  2. Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.
  3. Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

“ the benefit of note-taking decreases with the number of notes you keep.”

“Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper
notes you can use later”

“Permanent notes, on the other hand, are written in a way that can still be understood even when you have forgotten the context they are taken from. Most ideas will not stand the test of time, while others might become the seed for a major project.”

“The only permanently stored notes are the literature notes in the reference system and the main notes in the slip-box. The former can be very brief as the context is clearly the text they refer to. The latter need be written with more care and details as they need to be self-explanatory.”

“The notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form. This is a crucial difference.”

“Project-related notes can be:

  • comments in the manuscript
  • collections of project-related literature
  • outlines
  • snippets of drafts
  • reminders
  • to-do lists
  • and of course the draft itself

The Zettelkasten has the built-in function of project-specific desktops. Here, you can not only structure your thoughts and conceptualise the chapters of your draft, but also collect and sort the notes for this specific project without fear that they will water down or interfere with the slip-box itself. You can even change the notes according to your project without affecting the notes in the slip-box.”

“every question that emerges out of our slip-box will naturally and handily come with material to work with”

“If something comes too early and too late at the same time, it is not possible to fix it by rearranging the order as the fictional linearity is the problem in itself. Taking smart notes is the precondition to break with the linear order. There is one reliable sign if you managed to structure your workflow according to the fact that writing is not a linear process, but a circular one: the problem of finding a topic is replaced by the problem of having too many topics to write about.”

Let the Work Carry You Forward

“You may remember from school the difference between an exergonic and an endergonic reaction. In the first case, you constantly need to add energy to keep the process going. In the second case, the reaction, once triggered, continues by itself and even releases energy.”

“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”

“And the only chance to improve in something is getting timely and concrete feedback.”

“Embracing a growth mindset means to get pleasure out of changing for the better”

“And if growth and success are not reasons enough, then maybe the fact that the fear of failure has the ugliest name of all phobias: Kakorrhaphiophobia.”

“Following a circular approach, on the other hand, allows you to implement many feedback loops, which give you the chance to improve your work while you are working on it. It is not just about increasing the number of opportunities to learn, but also to be able to correct the mistakes we inevitably make.”

“The slip-box is not a collection of notes. Working with it is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insight by letting ideas mingle.”

“Multitasking is not a good idea”

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

Develop Ideas

“Every note is just an element in the network of references and back references in the
system, from which it gains its quality.”

Luhmann, 1992

“The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.”


“Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in”

“Sometimes, the confrontation with old notes helps to detect differences we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise”

“The constant comparing of notes also serves as an ongoing examination of old notes in a new light.”

“Munger writes: “Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience, both vicarious and direct, on this latticework of models”


“His recommendations for learning read almost like instructions for the slip-box:

  1. Pay attention to what you want to remember.
  2. Properly encode the information you want to keep. (This includes thinking about suitable cues.)
  3. Practice recall.


“Most often, innovation is not the result of a sudden moment of realization, anyway, but incremental steps toward improvement”

Think outside of the box

“One of the most famous figures to illustrate this skill is the mathematician Abraham Wald (Mangel and Samaniego 1984). During World War II, he was asked to help the Royal Air Force find the areas on their planes that were most often hit by bullets so they could cover them with more armour. But instead of counting the bullet holes on the returned planes, he recommended armouring the
spots where none of the planes had taken any hits. The RAF forgot to take into account what was not there to see: All the planes that didn’t make it back. The RAF fell for a common error in thinking called survivorship bias”

Share your insights

“Writing itself makes you realise where there are holes in things. I’m never sure what I think until I see what I write. And so I believe that, even though you’re an optimist, the analysis part of you kicks in when you sit down to construct a story or a paragraph or a sentence. You think, ‘Oh, that can’t be right.’ And you have to go back, and you have to rethink it all.”

Work in parallel

“Another key point: Try working on different manuscripts at the same time. While the slip-box is already helpful to get one project done, its real strength comes into play when we start working on multiple projects at the same time. The slip-box is in some way what the chemical industry calls “verbund.” This is a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another, which again produces by-products that can be used in other processes and so on, until a network of production lines becomes so efficiently intertwined that there is no chance of an isolated factory competing with it anymore”

“Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.”


“Experience doesn’t seem to teach students anything. But there is one consolation: It has nothing to do with being a student. It has
something to do with being human. Even the people who study this phenomenon, which is called the overconfidence bias, admit that they too fall for it“ The lesson to draw is to be generally sceptical about planning, especially if it is merely focused on the outcome, not on the actual work and the steps required to achieve a goal. While it doesn’t help to imagine oneself the great author of a
successful and timely finished paper, it does make a difference if we have a realistic idea about what needs to be done to get there in our minds. We know from sports that it doesn’t help when athletes imagine themselves as winners of a race, but it makes a big difference if they imagine all the training that is necessary to be able to win. Having a more realistic idea in mind not only helps them to perform better, it also boosts their motivation . We know today that this is not only true for athletes, but for any work that needs effort and endurance ”

“The other lesson is not that we can’t learn from our experiences, but that we can only learn from our experiences if feedback follows shortly afterwards – and maybe more than once in a while”

Parkinson law

“According to the famous law of Parkinson, every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it, like air fills every corner of a room.

Zeigarnik effect

While this is almost a universal law for longer time frames, the opposite is true for tasks that can be completed in one go. This is partly due to the aforementioned Zeigarnik effect in which our brains tend to stay occupied with a task until it is accomplished (or written down). If we have the finish line in sight, we tend to speed up, as everyone knows who has ever run a marathon. That means that the most important step is to get started. Rituals help, too.

Get Started

But the biggest difference lies in the task you are facing to start with. It is much easier to get started if the next step is as feasible as “writing a note,” “collect what is interesting in this paper” or “turning this series of notes into a paragraph” than if we decide to spend the next days with a vague and ill-defined task like “keep working on that overdue paper.”

“For every document I write, I have another called “xy-rest.doc,” and every single time I cut something, I copy it into the other document, convincing myself that I will later look through it and add it back where it might fit. Of course, it never happens – but it still works. Others who know a thing or two about psychology do the same”