How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking — for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

How To Take Smart Notes

One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking — for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

Author: Sonke Ahrens

Personal Score: 8.6/10
Goodreads Score: 4.3/5

Get it here on Amazon.


An introduction to a wonderful method of organizing ideas and knowledge into a framework that optimizes both quality of thought and creative output that I hope to carry with me for the rest of my life. How To Take Smart Notes introduces a system of note taking by Niklas Luhmann in Germany in the 1960s and is presented by Soren Ahrens. Luhmann is not the original creator of the system however he implemented it in a way nobody had up to that point, developing a index of 90,000 notes and using it to write publish over 70 books and over 400 scholarly articles. The note taking system has been used by hundreds of prolific artists since and inspired me to not only start my own, but begin writing summaries like this. It provides a framework to structure thoughts into ideas and recall them quickly.

The practicality of this system isn’t bounded to scholarly professors or academics, it will help anyone looking to accumulate a framework of knowledge in any subject. The coolest thing about it is it’s customizability, I can visualize a Physio having an index rooted in the body, muscles and treatments/exercises while a Teacher having an index around learning, communication, and child psychology. The extent of it’s customization is only limited by what your interest want to be. The potential to develop your second brain and see the knowledge framework grow before your eyes is so exciting!

🚀This Book in 3 Bullets

  1. If you’re only reading and not engaging with the material whatsoever you’re going to forget everything you’ve learned. Think about a book you read 2 years ago and try to remember it’s lessons. Lessons and concepts learned depreciate too quickly to be useful over the long term.
  2. The Zettelkasten (Slip Box) Method of Knowledge Management made popular by Niklas Luhmann is a solution for this problem because it forces you 1) re write the primary idea(s) of the book, 2) elaborate on the learned concepts and 3) engage with the material you’re learning while creating notes that you store for long term use.
  3. It’s completed in 5 simple steps:
  • Read the book and take fleeting notes (highlight, write on the side of the page, and tag the important pages as you go)
  • Take literature notes — elaborate on your original notes using either Q-Cards or an online software (like Zotero or Roam)
  • Take Permanent Notes — Look back at the notes and decide how they fit into the framework of knowledge you’ve already accumulated. Index (how to index below) the cards and add them into your permanent notes.
  • Review your notes regularly.
  • Decide on topics you want to develop your brain around and dig deeper into those materials to decide where to build your framework of knowledge.

🕵️‍♀️Who Should Read It?

  • Writers, doctors, fitness gurus, physios, artists, teachers, hobbyists, scientists and more. Anyone looking to develop a framework of knowledge they can continuously refer back to.

📜Book Summary & Lessons

Slip Box Method — Best Practices

  • Notes don’t have to come from books alone, every form of learning works. If you’re watching a video and learn something useful, add a note. If you’re in conversation and the same occurs, add a note. Think of a new idea yourself? Add a note. It’s a way of capturing ideas and knowledge from anywhere.
  • The system gives you an opportunity to build a huge web of knowledge where you are able to develop connections between ideas and books you would never have before.
  • Index notes easily by numbering your topics (ie. 1 = personal development, 2 = productivity, 3 = health, etc.) then add to each topic by adding decimals (ie. 1.1 personal development idea#1, 1.2 personal development idea#2, 1.3 1.4… and 2.1, 2.2, 2.3…). Don’t worry about indexing notes until after you’ve read and accumulating a good chunk, just index before adding to your permanent box.
  • The best way to learn is elaboration. Making meaningful connections between individual facts in order to gain a deeper understanding of the thing. The first step is to think enough about a thing so that we can write about it.
  • The more you elaborate, the more useful the notes. When taking notes try to add more than just the direct quotes — think about the connections this note has to any others and how the questions relate to what you’re learning or why you saved the note. What does it mean to you?
  • The greatest way to understand something is to translate it into your own words and re explain it yourself.
  • Studies have shown notes taken via laptop are less effective than those taken by hand. Across most areas they were competitive but in terms of understanding, handwriting came out much better. The reason is thought to be the fact that we’re all slower hand writers than typists, when typing, we’re doing a lot more of copying exactly what is said whereas when writing, we’re to slow to copy word for word so we are forced to conceptualize the big ideas being delivered.
  • It’s counter intuitive to think but the truth is we become more open to new ideas the more familiar we are with pre-existing ideas we hold. Once we understand our pre-existing ideas deeply, we realize their limitations and what’s missing from them. When we know an idea intimately, we become creative with it and we have the working space (brain power) to play with new concepts. This is why it’s experts in a field who stand on shoulders of others create breakthroughs in that field, rarely newcomers. Pg 136
Example from one of my current index cards.

Useful Terms & Anecdotes

  • As far as we know, willpower (ego depletion) is a limited resource that depletes quickly and cannot be improved well over the long term. Therefore it’s not a great strategy to rely on willpower and so the slip box fills us with continuous ideas in which all we have to do is take advantage of. For writers, this means no more staring at a blank piece of paper to begin a new piece. By adding to the slip box, we’re constantly elaborating on our own thoughts and gaining new insights we can structure into new writings or ideas. With the slip box, you don’t have to rely on willpower.
  • A Exergonic System is one that constantly requires energy to keep it going, an Endergenic System is one that once started, gains energy. When it comes to passion, find habits that offer the latter. (Pg. 53)
  • Zeignarik Effect — Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory — until they’re completed. (Pg. 70)
  • Active Inhibition: A subconscious mechanism where the brain filters out most memories we hold in order to keep our conscious working space free. Pg. 100–101
  • Memory research is splitting into 2 categories: 1. Storage strength and 2. Retrieval strength — Our current education focuses more on isolated facts rather than meaningful connections and understanding. Pg 100–101
  • Charlie Munger advocates looking for the most powerful mental models used in every discipline in order to study them thoroughly and apply them. He feels studying a broad range will improve our worldview oppose to having 1 or 2 dominate it. He states: “You don’t want to become the hammer that sees every problem as a nail.” — A broad range will add more tools to your tool belt. Pg. 118
  • 3 primary reasons intelligent students fail (Pg. 137):
  1. They cease to see meaning in what they were suppose to learn (of. Balduf 2009)
  2. Are unable to make connections to their personal goals (Glynn et. al. 2009)
  3. Lack the ability to control their own studies autonomously and on their onw terms (Reeve, 2009)(Reeve and Jon 2006)
  • When we continuously perform a behavior, our perception and judgement of it becomes distorted. This means when we do good habits we generate a self image of doing it more often and when we do negative habits that don’t align with our self image we think we do them less.

🎴Top Quotes

  • “Nobody needs willpower not to eat a chocolate bar when there isn’t one around (Thaler, 2015, Ch.2).” Pg. 5
  • “No matter how well internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant on external scaffolding… Notes don’t make any intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible.” — Neil Levy Pg. 23
  • “Just as the fastest car won’t help if you don’t have roads to drive it on. Routine requires simple repeatable tasks that can become automatic and fit together. Even the best tool will not change your productivity if you don’t change your daily routine the tools are embedded in.”
  • “Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing.” (Pg. 38)
  • “Having a growth mindset is important of course, but it’s only a portion of the formula to success. Having a system in place that forces us to test ourselves through action & enables us to receive feedback in a meaningful and practical way is just as crucial.” (Pg. 53)
  • “The term ego depletion is used to refer to a temporary reduction in the selfs capacity or willingness to engage in volitional action caused by by prior exercises of volition.” (Baumeister et. 1998, 1253) Pg. 72
  • “Breaks are much more than just time to recover. They’re crucial for learning. They allow space for the brain to process information, move it into long term memory and prepare for new information” (Doyle and Zakrajisek 2013) Pg. 73
  • “If one were to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all else, it would be confirmation bias.” (Nickerson 1998) Pg. 80
    How much media do you consume that is the opposite or goes against your own worldview?
  • “Nonage (immaturity) is the inability to use ones own understanding without the guidance of another. It becomes self imposed if it cause is not a lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use ones own mind. Dare to Know (Sapere Aude). Having the courage to use ones own understanding is therefore, enlightenment.” (kant 1784 — Enlightenment) Pg. 83
  • The trick is you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” (Feynman in a speech to students — 1958, 342) Pg. 85
  • “The real enemy of independent thinking is not an external authority, but our own inertia.” Pg. 124
  • “We tend to like our first ideas most and are reluctant to let go of them irrespective of their relevance” (Strack & Mussweiler 1997) Pg. 134
  • “It’s been shown in studies that athletes don’t get much benefit from visualizing themselves as winners (outcome), but it makes a huge difference if they imagine all the training that is necessary to be able to WIN.” Pg. 142
  • “Every type of work tends to fille the time we set aside for it, like air fills the corners of a room.” (Parkinson, 1957) Pg. 144 (When time blocking, view it as squeezing air into the new blocks)
  • “Over the long term, researchers struggle to find any measurable connection between our intentions and actual behavior… unless the intention is the same as what we’ve been doing.” Pg. 145




I learn new things and then write about those new things. Sometimes I learn old things and also write about those old things.

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Wesley Jon

Wesley Jon

I learn new things and then write about those new things. Sometimes I learn old things and also write about those old things.

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