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How to take smart notes: a minimalist approach to effective note taking

What does “taking smart notes” mean? Who created the idea of “smart notes?”

The creator of How to Take Smart Notes: about Dr. Sönke Ahrens

The How to Take Smart Notes book was written by academic and writer Dr. Sönke Ahrens, a Philosophy of Education professor from Germany, whose interdisciplinary academic research draws on philosophy, sociology and cognitive psychology. Dr. Ahrens is the author of Experiment und Exploration: Bildung als experimentelle Form der Welterschließung, translated by Andrew Rossiter into English as Experiment and Exploration: Forms of World-Disclosure: From Epistemology to Bildung.

Dr. Ahrens reports that he tried out many different note taking systems before settling on a Zettelkasten, using the Zkn3 Zettelkasten software designed by fellow academic Dr. Daniel Lüdecke.

If you’d like to know more about Dr. Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes book, you can read this book review of How to Take Smart Notes published by Dr. Melanie Schiller in the Journal of Writing Research.

Smart Notes & Zettelkasten: about Dr. Niklas Luhmann

Dr. Ahrens notes that his system is based on Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system. Professor Niklas Luhmann was a 20th century German sociologist, philosopher of social science, and proponent of systems theory. He had a prolific academic output over the course of his career, and he attributed his voluminous output to his system of slip boxes and interconnected notes.

What is the purpose of taking smart notes?

In the author’s words, Taking Smart Notes is “dedicated to helping students, academics and nonfiction writers get more done – ideally with more fun and less effort.”

The process of taking smart notes is designed to help anyone who writes on a regular basis— high school students, university students, college students, graduate students, academics, professors, journalists, content creators, non-fiction book authors, lawyers— establish a methodical system for collecting, organizing, and drafting their writing output.

The goal of taking smart notes is to help you see connections between seemingly-unrelated ideas, to supplement your own memory, and to help you see patterns emerge. Building a Zettelkasten system for your smart notes is intended to help make connections between ideas and to speed up the creative process.

What are the downsides to taking smart notes?

Dr. Ahrens’ book and Dr. Luhmann’s original Zettelkasten system were both created by full-time academics, with the intent of serving a very specific purpose (i.e. researching and publishing peer-reviewed academic articles and books). Their systems, while certainly powerful for their own specific use case, may feel inflexible or overly complex for other people with different goals.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed (and maybe consumed with a bit of analysis paralysis) the more you delve into the topic of taking smart notes— rest assured, it’s not just you.

Taking smart notes can feel overwhelming

If you’ve read other online summaries of How to Take Smart Notes, you may have been struck by some highly detailed, rigid, prescriptive advice that at time can come across as quite inflexible, such as:

  • Process your fleeting notes and literature notes from your slip box on a constant basis, at least once a day if not more.
  • Continually create and update your permanent notes.
  • Use a sequential numbering system to organize and branch out new connections, with each index card being given a permanent ID number or reference number.
  • Create new branches from existing cards and create more links between cards to expand your system infinitely in all directions.
  • Spend hours engaging in elaboration of existing material, including rewriting, comparing, and contrasting in great depth.
  • Standardize your notes to ensure a fully predictable format.
  • Use the magic of these permanent notes to produce a completely effortless flow of prolific content on a regular basis (aka the promise of the “flywheel effect”).

This type of advice may initially feel inspiring— finally, here is the answer to all your productivity problems! If only you had this perfect, tightly-edited, complex Zettelkasten system for taking smart notes, then you could finally get organized and be more productive.

Does this promise sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. The downside of taking smart notes is that (for many people) adopting a strict, perfectionistic, time-consuming note-taking process may itself become a source of procrastination and overwhelm without actually moving you any closer to your true goals.

To design a truly effective personal knowledge management system, you need to start with the end in mind. You need to get clear on the goals you’re trying to achieve with your note taking system, and then reverse-engineer an effective system (which may or may not include elements of a smart notes or Zettelkasten system). Getting clear on the purpose of your note taking system is the first, most critical step.

Taking smart notes shouldn’t turn into a full-time job

Remember— your job isn’t to take notes. The goal of a personal knowledge management system is to help simplify your life— not make it feel more complex and overwhelming. Your notes should be a means to an end, not the end goal in and of themselves. Of course, if you would like to spend time tweaking the finer points of a complex Zettelkasten system, and find this an enjoyable hobby, that’s wonderful— keep enjoying, by all means. But if that’s not the case, take heart— you can still get the benefits of a note taking habit without turning it into a full-time job.

I’m a huge fan of this article by Josh Duffney, senior cloud advocate at Microsoft and writer of The Knowledge Worker newsletter on Substack (now sadly offline)— you’ve probably seen me share this article a few times in my newsletter.

In his article, Note-taking became a full-time job, so I stopped: why I take dumb notes instead of smart ones (original article now unfortunately offline), Duffney details his own initial excitement over setting up a smart notes workflow to help him write a book— and why it ended up being counterproductive for him in the end.

Here are a few particularly pithy quotes from the article:

I felt like Smart Notes had given me a way to reverse engineer the process of writing itself. I was hooked. I was certain that if I invested enough time and effort in understanding the simple technique, I could crack the code.

Diving straight back into writing my book, I applied Smart Notes to my research. Endlessly optimizing my time, I dedicated my mornings to writing and note-taking and left the evenings for reading. In a month’s time, I had read four books, written two hundred or more notes, and connected them elaborately to an index.

Churning through a tremendous amount of research, I thought I was ready to finish the book. But there were two significant problems; it left me with zero time for anything else, and it wasn’t helping me write.

Smart notes were meant to be a means to an end. It was supposed to remove writer’s block with endless idea generation and material. But when the faithful day came— there I sat staring at a blank screen.

I’m downgrading my notes. Taking smart notes is too much pressure.

My biggest mistake wasn’t taking so many notes, but not leaving enough room for my own creative process to mold the workflow.

No matter the system you use, it has to serve you and not the other way around.

Read an archived version of the full article >

How to take minimalist smart notes in a Zettelkasten system

If you’ve decided you’d like to try building a digital Zettelkasten for taking smart notes, here’s a minimalist approach for getting started.

There are five basic elements to any Zettelkasten system for taking smart notes:

  1. A slip box
  2. Fleeting notes
  3. Literature notes
  4. Permanent notes
  5. Creative output generated by this system

Slip box (aka inbox)

The term Zettelkasten is German for “slip box,” and was named for the multiple pieces of small paper and index cards that Dr. Luhmann used in his original analog Zettelkasten system. In modern digital systems, Zettelkasten users set up their note taking systems to hold a series of small, discrete notes with smaller chunks or pieces of information, rather than trying to fit all the pieces together at once. The modern equivalent of a slip box can be thought of as an inbox for notes instead.

Fleeting notes

Think of each note as a digital index card. When you have an idea— especially if it’s half-formed— capture the idea imperfectly and collect it in your slip box (aka inbox).

Literature notes

As you read a book, blog post, or article, capture any reflections or ideas this reading inspires. You may opt to include quotes from the source itself, or simply a summary of your ideas and takeaways. In any case, include thorough citations (links, bibliographic information, etc), so that you can properly attribute these ideas down the road.

Permanent notes

The idea of the smart notes approach is to periodically process your slip box and transform fleeting notes and literature notes into more fully-formed, edited, organized permanent notes. Some people strongly advocate processing your slip box (or inbox) on a daily basis— find a routine and a processing frequency that works for your life.

Creative output

Production of some sort of creative output is generally meant to be the ultimate goal of any smart notes system. Creative output can be quite broadly defined (books, articles, song lyrics, poetry, visual art, projects completed): whatever creative output means for you.

Alternatives to Zettelkasten and taking smart notes

Further reading on smart notes and Zettelkasten

If the smart notes approach resonates with you— that’s wonderful! Be sure to read Dr. Ahrens’ book and explore other personal knowledge management books on the Zettelkasten system, as well.

Exploring other note taking systems

Want to learn more about alternatives to taking smart notes and Zettelkasten? Check out my ultimate guide to personal knowledge management to learn more about a wide range of approaches to building a note taking workflow.

Explore the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management to custom-design your perfect note taking workflow

Perhaps none of the note taking systems you’ve tried adopting have quite been the right fit. If you find yourself wishing you could design a more tailored, customized system to fit your unique use case, the Calmer Notes method may be just what you’ve been looking for.

The Calmer Notes method is a step-by-step approach to help you design a tailored, completely customized personal knowledge management system based on your own unique goals, constraints, and preferences. This flexible framework is based on my own decades of experience in academia (as a graduate student, researcher, and professor), communications (as a project manager and productivity consultant), and medicine (as a medical student and physician).

The course is designed to be no-fluff, high-yield, efficient training for busy people who want to get important things done. Each module is outcome-focused, with an accompanying workbook to help you put the lessons of each section into action as you design your own tailor-made personal knowledge management system.

Wishing you all the best in your personal knowledge management journey!


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