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

By Sönke Ahrens 
Published: March 9, 2022, 2nd edition
ISBN: 978-3982438801
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have


Why Read How to Take Smart Notes?


If you’re a copious note-taker but feel you’re putting more effort into it than getting anything out, then this book shows you what to do differently.


The author Sönke Ahrens is a Ph.D. and a Lecturer in the Philosophy of Education at the University of Duisburg-Essen.  His inspiration for Smart Notes came from the life of Niklas Luhmann, who went from a Newbie to an Expert because of the productivity of his note-taking system.


As a young man, Luhmann trained as a lawyer but was unhappy being a civil servant. So, in his spare time, he read extensively about philosophy, organizational theory, and sociology, taking many notes along the way.


Unfortunately, like many of us, he found his notes hard to use. The problem is conventional note-taking is excellent for knowledge capture, but challenging to leverage for insight. So, he tried something different.


He took notes on an index card. He would write only one idea per card, put a number in the corner as an identifier, and then stuck the card in a slip-box. Whenever he came across a new idea, he would add a card with a new number. If the idea was related to one he already had, he would add a suffix to the number, make it into a sequence (e.g., a dot or dash or letter), and continue the numbering scheme (e.g., 1.1 was related to 1). By doing this, he established relationships among the things he had collected. Either it’s new and gets a new number or is connected to an existing concept by adding to the sequence.


After doing this for some time, Luhmann collected enough content from his slip-box to draft a document he sent to Helmut Schelsky, one of the most influential sociologists in Germany. Intrigued by what an academic outsider had to say, Schelsky read the paper and was so impressed by what Luhmann wrote that he suggested that Luhmann apply to become a professor of sociology at the new University of Bielefield.


The problem was Luhmann wasn’t a sociologist, nor did he have a Ph.D. or any basic qualifications to be a professor. Rather than give up, within a year, Luhmann leveraged his slip-box of notes to write all the publications needed to meet the requirements for professorship. His work quality was sufficient to get him hired by the university, where he spent the rest of his life. And to show that this productivity wasn’t just a one-time fluke, during his 30-year career, Luhmann published 58 books and hundreds of articles, all of which he attributed to being done with the help of his note-taking system.


Ahren’s “smart note-taking” system is based on Luhmann’s “slip-box” approach. Thus, by adopting Smart Notes, the hope is that it can supercharge your productivity as it did for Luhmann.


In this book review, I will go into what the Smart Notes/Zettelkasten system entails and then discuss the 4 takeaways that show how this system can accelerate your output with minimal stress.


What are Smart Notes?


In short, Smart Notes is a note-taking framework where you capture notes on an index card and store them in index card boxes.  You may have heard the German word Zettelkasten (“slip-box”) used to describe this framework. However, Ahrens uses “slip-box” more than Zettelkasten (or even Smart Notes). But for this article, I will use “Smart Notes/Zettelkasten” to be consistent with the book title and general literature.


While Smart Notes/Zettelkasten may have started as paper index cards, that is not required. Ahrens recognizes that most readers will capture information electronically. To that end, you can view his concepts as applying to virtual notes.


For Ahrens, the goal of notes is to help you write. And the point of writing is to help you better understand your subject. When you explain your ideas to someone in written form, two things happen.  First, you often find gaps in your understanding, requiring further research.  Second, you must be clear on your messaging so the reader understands your argument.


Smart Notes/Zettelkasten’s role in your writing process is to ensure you collect enough content to address the above.


To this illustrate, Ahrens says there are 3 kinds of Smart Notes to take:

  • Fleeting notes – these are temporary notes which are disposable. Their role is to capture ideas quickly to avoid losing them, such as thoughts that pop into your head. He recommends creating an inbox to centralize the capture in one location and then process these notes into permanent notes later. Ideally, review fleeting notes within a day so you don’t lose context.
  • Permanent notes – these constitute the bulk of the notes you will have in your knowledge base and consist of 3 types: literature, main, and index notes.
    1. Literature notes are the ones you take while reading sources (often books, but doesn’t have to be) where you note the page, title, and author of the source along with a brief description of what you found interesting at that location. These notes act as bookmarks to remind you where to find more context or detail when needed.
    2. Main notes are where you elaborate your thoughts about the idea that resonates with you. If the literature note is the bookmark, these notes are expansions of what caught your eye in the literature notes. Note: as will be explained later, this elaboration is a critical distinction that makes this note-taking scheme more powerful than conventional approaches. But you can only have one note for one idea. (This restriction minimizes the comingling of different concepts.) Tag each card with an alphanumeric identifier (e.g., 1 or 1.1 or 1.1.a – whatever makes sense to you). You create additional note cards if branching off a single concept. Just add a suffix to highlight that the cards belong to the same sequence and are related. New ideas get a new number.
    3. Index notes act as a directory where you keep track of ideas you’ve generated and what cards belong to each concept. As the name implies, these cards function solely as an index. Smart Notes uses an alphanumeric index scheme where you give a unique identifier to each card (more on this later).
  • Project notes – at the end of the day, you can view permanent notes as the library of raw ingredients. Project notes are the base for making “a dish” and how your recipe evolves. Typical project notes include: drafts of your manuscript, outlines, manuscript comments, to-do lists, reminders, and collections of project-related literature.


Now as to the mechanics of the Smart Note system, Ahrens outlines an 8-step process from knowledge capture to idea expression:

  1. Make fleeting notes – capture thoughts.
  2. Make literature notes – when you read something, jot notes about the content; keep it short, be selective, and use your own words; Ahrens emphasizes being selective with quotes.
  3. Make permanent notes – go through the notes you made in steps 1-2 and head towards your slip-box, and think how the new notes relate to what’s relevant to your research, thinking, or interests. Do this ideally once a day (or before you forget). The focus is not to merely collect but to develop ideas, arguments, and discussions. Does the new information contradict, correct, support, or add to what you already have? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by them?
    1. Write only one note for each idea. Use complete sentences, disclose your sources, make references, and be concise, clear, and brief.
    2. Throw away the fleeting notes and put the literature notes into the slip-box.
  4. Add your permanent notes to the slip-box by
    1. Filing it behind an existing relevant note. In theory, Ahrens advocates a numbering scheme where each new idea gets an increment, but related ideas get a suffix. So, note 1.1 is related to 1, while a new idea gets the next number, so note 2 differs from note 1.
    2. Adding links to related notes.
    3. Making sure you can find the note by either linking it directly from your index or to another note used as an entry point to the topic, which itself is connected to the index.
  5. Develop your topics, questions, and research bottom up; see what’s there, what’s missing, and what gaps arise. Ahrens says don’t brainstorm but look into your slip-box to see what’s there first. Don’t cling to an idea if another more promising one looks exciting and gains momentum.  The more interested you become, the more you will read and think about it, generate more notes, and, from that, more questions.
  6. After a while, you will generate a critical mass of notes around a theme to write about. Cluster your notes into groups and copy them into an outliner. See what’s missing and what is redundant. Don’t wait until everything is together – try ideas out and give yourself time to read and note-take to improve your thoughts, arguments, and structure.
  7. Turn your notes into a rough draft
  8. Edit and proofread your manuscript


While Smart Notes focuses on the end goal of writing, this is not necessary. The point is to collect enough information about a topic to leverage it (ideally through some form of expression).


The following sections describe the 4 benefits of Smart Notes/Zettelkasten.


Takeaway 1: Emphasize Actionability to Make Notes Easier to Leverage


One frustration with traditional note-taking is that using the content you’ve spent so much time collecting is hard. Taking notes focuses more on information capture than figuring out what to do with it.  To illustrate, when you take notes, you organize either: 1) by source or 2) by topic.


In the former, if you read a book, take a course, watch a video, etc., it’s common to label by source, “Notes on Book X.” My initial notes for this book, “How To Take Smart Notes,” fits that model.


Now for a book review, that might be fine since the focus is the book itself. But what happens to the exciting ideas I read that I want to use elsewhere? What do I do then?


For example, for this review, I came across 4 exciting takeaways.  But if I wanted to recall any of them, I would have to remember to look for them in my “book” note. And that’s the problem.  I’m emphasizing the source more than the content.


In other words, you’re ok if you recall where to look.  But for most of us, all you remember is that you had some fantastic ideas on something. You may have forgotten the source altogether.  Some might argue search will find it, but that doesn’t necessarily work either.


Now, if you organize by topic, this sounds better. But this means you have to define these categories in advance. Afterall, if you file a note, you must know where to stick it.


Unfortunately, figuring out the right level of detail is not easy. You will pick a broad, general label if you want to be safe and always have a category for your notes. For example, notes on note-taking could go under learning or even note-taking.


This sounds good until you realize that a lot of stuff accumulates under broad labels, some relevant and some not. Imagine a grocery store that didn’t have meat, fruit, and vegetable sections but simply food and non-food areas. It’s all there, but finding stuff would be a pain.


You could introduce sub-topics to impose order, but again that requires thinking beforehand.


And when you sort by subject, you assume that the content will drive how you use it in the future. However, Ahrens argues this isn’t always the case.


Where Smart Notes/Zettelkasten is different is the focus is not on where the note came from or what it is about (ironically) but asks the question, “Where/How do you want to use that note?”


Ahrens emphasizes that it is the note’s actionability that you want to organize by:

“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.”


In other words, you can only leverage information if the future (or implementation) you knows where to find it and understands the context for its use. Surprisingly, how you use a note’s content may not have anything to do with the source or the topic.


To illustrate, consider the following example with my notes on quotations. In the beginning, I captured quotes because they sounded cool or inspirational. I now have an entire notebook section containing 100’s of passages.


Unfortunately, despite the wealth of content, it’s a pain to use because the past me captured the information without giving the future me any context for how I might find it or use it aside from “It’s an awesome quote.” 


For example, if I wanted to find a quote that captures gratitude and working within your limits, I could search and type in “gratitude” and “working within limits.” Any good search engine will then see if any of the key phrases are in my quotations notes.


And the reality is I won’t find what I’m looking for.


Because the quote I want is, “Work with what you have, not what you hoped for.” It’s from the movie (not a book), “Hotel Artemis.” As you can see, none of the search terms are in the quote, and if I kept thinking it came from a book, my search would also be fruitless.


That is why Ahrens says you have to add keywords to your note to provide greater context so that future you knows how to use it. So, “gratitude” and “working within limits” should be added as keywords (or tags) in my note in addition to the quote itself.


As Ahrens states:

“Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation. “


Interestingly, there are no right or wrong ways to add keywords/tags. In other words, someone looking at the same quote may come up with entirely different labels. And that’s ok.


This bottom-up view is what separates Smart Notes/Zettelkasten from other systems. It’s about asking what the content means to you.  It isn’t crucial whether those labels agree with convention. As long as it makes sense to you and makes it easy for future you to understand, that’s all that matters. And the point isn’t to be perfect but to increase the odds of finding relevant content.


In short, add keywords to your note with an eye towards actionability. Remember, it is for future context. Examples can be:

  • Projects where you think the content would be relevant
  • Tags used in other notes that have related ideas (or opposing ones)
  • Title your notes with a purpose to remind yourself how you might use the content
  • Data type labels: for example, I have tags for notes that are quote-centric, stats-centric, great phrasing (think swipe files), use cases/examples, definitions, etc. All of these are so if I need certain content to support an article I’m writing, I can quickly find it. (Imagine you need to grab critical statistics, but you can’t recall the source, the stats themselves, or any other details, but you tagged the content with “stats” – this is how you leverage search. To further highlight why this makes a difference, I have had many cases where my “precise recall” of the detail was utterly wrong – the content search terms were off, but my tags were correct).


In short, annotate your notes with breadcrumbs via tags, titles, keywords, etc., to help future you find what present/past you labored so hard to gather.


Takeaway 2: Facilitate Insight by Relating New Ideas to Existing Notes


Another bias with traditional notes is they focus on idea summarization, whether by quoting text or rewriting it in your own words.


While this is necessary, let’s be clear the emphasis is on recalling others’ ideas. What about your opinions, insights, and observations about their content? Or how does what you’re reading relate to other things you know about?


This is another area where Smart Notes/Zettelkasten differs and uses the human superpower to “connect the dots” – linking ideas and facts from different places or finding a common thread among various concepts. To find these links, you need to think hard about the value of what you collected, not just summarize it.


So, how do you do this in the Smart Notes/Zettelkasten process? When you come across something interesting, either make a fleeting or a literature note to document where the idea came from in case you need to revisit it. Next, ask if what you captured is unique from what you collected. Ask questions like the following:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it different from what you had before?
  • Is the note the same concept but a better example?
  • Is it similar but nuanced differently?
  • Or does it dispute other notes you have collected?
  • What made you want to capture the information?
  • How did it resonate with you?


In answering these questions, you expand your note to a permanent note. The permanent note gets a new number if it’s a new idea. Or, if a derivative, it would be a branch of an existing note.


By examining how the new falls into the context of the old, you assign a value to your note.  If you can’t find anything, this gives you hope that this might be something novel. At this point, you add keywords, tags, or even title the note to emphasize its “newness.” In any case, you are making the point that this is not regurgitating some existing idea but as a potential lead on something extraordinary.


If you find a link to the “old knowledge,” you can see if this is a different viewpoint or more evidence to support the old topic. Either way, novel or existing, you are expanding your knowledge base by building connections between what you’re collecting and what you have previously. (Even if you rediscover something “old” and get no new insight, at least you know it was enough to catch your attention again, which highlights it resonates with you.)


As Ahrens puts it, some insights pop up when you examine content to add to your slip-box:

  • Spotting patterns between the old and new
  • Questioning the frames being used to describe ideas
  • Detecting distinctions made by others


Ahrens says that Luhmann often used his slip-box as a conversation partner to vet the quality of his notes to see if they were worth adding to his knowledge base. And in a time of self-publishing and the Internet, we are overwhelmed by the abundance of facts, figures, opinions, ideas, etc. With information being so easy to capture, it’s easy for you to suffer from information obesity, especially if you don’t think critically about the notes you are creating.


To emphasize the above, Ahrens writes about permanent notes:

“Expressing our own thoughts in writing makes us realise if we really thought them through. The moment we try to combine them with previously written notes, the system will unambiguously show us contradictions, inconsistencies, and repetitions.”


In short, you get 2 significant benefits when you start a conversation with the knowledge you’re amassing. One is you make it easy to find your insights. Second, you examine all you’ve collected since you looked at your content through multiple lenses (strengths, weaknesses, questions, answers, etc.).


Takeaway 3: Engage with Your Content to Make Writing Easier


As the book’s subtitle suggests, Smart Notes is “One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking.” So how does Smart Notes achieve this? In 2 significant ways: 1) Smart Notes/Zettelkasten emphasizes a writing-centric bias; 2) by writing, you gain a greater understanding of what you are learning. Ahrens states:

“Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes. If you write to improve all of these activities, you will have a strong tailwind going for you. If you take your notes in a smart way, it will propel you forward.”


In other words, Ahrens suggests Smart Notes/Zettelkasten used correctly can significantly facilitate writing:

“If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read and remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense. And if we have to write anyway, why not use our writing to build up the resources for our future publications?”


Ahrens’ beliefs stem from his observation that traditional writing linearizes an inherently nonlinear process. To illustrate, writing involves the following steps: picking a topic, researching sources, drafting the paper, editing, and then publishing.


The problem isn’t the sequence.


The issue is that it’s not always linear. For subjects that you are familiar with, the process makes sense. You have a large body of knowledge to leverage, so it’s about filling in the details and expressing your thoughts.


But if you’re writing about something new, chances are you have many gaps in your knowledge base. And you don’t realize that until later.


Ahrens writes:

“It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be very different from the one imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do.”


Translation: as you start writing, you begin to note a few things:

  • Your research isn’t as complete as you thought since some questions you can’t answer are popping up. This is not meant as a criticism. When researching a new topic, the emphasis is on gathering data, not deep analysis. Hence, you focus on breadth since you don’t want to miss anything. The result is your understanding may be shallow.
  • Related to the above, you see gaps as you elaborate on your text and realize some steps might be missing or not clearly described from the sources you have.
  • You need to look at other sources to validate or counter some of a source’s arguments that you initially accepted without question. When approaching an exciting topic, most folks tend to buy it since they are curious vs. skeptical. Only after the novelty has worn off or you start applying the knowledge will you begin to question the “facts.” And unfortunately, a lot of Internet sources don’t do thorough fact-checking.


The above scenarios are natural and should be factored into the writing process. Thus, your draft will often be incomplete unless you get a critical mass of notes.


Smart Notes/Zettelkasten helps with writing since it lets you see where you have deep lines of thought and where you are sparse. Topics with many notes are great candidates for writing since you’re operating from a position of abundance. You are leveraging the vast repository of data you’ve already collected.


By contrast, if you start taking notes when you want to write about a topic, Ahrens states is like teaching a 65-year-old about retirement. To have a comfortable retirement (or a great manuscript), you must invest and save in advance. Taking action right before the due date isn’t going to yield great benefits.


Hence, you should constantly take notes on the topics that matter to you. That way, you build your knowledge base and take advantage of serendipity. For example, Ahrens says:

“We constantly encounter interesting ideas along the way and only a fraction of them are useful for the particular paper we started reading it for. Why let them go to waste? Make a note and add it to your slip-box. It improves it. Every idea adds to what can become a critical mass that turns a mere collection of ideas into an idea generator.”


Ahrens goes on:

A typical workday will contain many if not all, of these steps: You read and take notes. You build connections within the slip-box, which in itself will spark new ideas. You write them down and add them to the discussion. You write on your paper, notice a hole in the argument and have another look in the file system for the missing link. You follow up on a footnote, go back to research and might add a fitting quote to one of your papers in the making.”


In other words, you are learning every day. So why not use that to accelerate your research and writing effectively and efficiently? Of course, this may not be a feasible model for everyone. Still, if you must read and take notes, Smart Notes/Zettelkasten can dramatically accelerate the writing process since you’re always building and examining micro-content.


Takeaway 4: Reduce Stress and Accelerate Your Productivity by Having Choices


Major selling points of Zettelkasten were the tremendous productivity that Niklas Luhmann attributed to his slip-box and the ease at which it enabled him to write.


When Luhmann was asked how he was so productive, his answer was:

“I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.”


As his slip-box was his knowledge base, he would interrogate it to find something to do. Some of his topics had the critical mass to be written up immediately, while some were more in an incubation state, and others were just flickers of an idea.  Yet, filled with many options at different stages of maturity, Luhmann always had something to work on.


In fact, Ahrens suggests:

“Try working on different manuscripts at the same time.”


For context, Ahrens, being an academic, manuscripts are the main work products, but they can be anything that involves knowledge synthesis and creation. The point is to work on a few projects. Doing this lets you pick the tasks with the least friction, allowing you to progress constantly.


And it’s not as if while you’re working on one project, you aren’t thinking about the others. You want to take advantage of serendipity.


You don’t want to lose those epiphanies/insights. Capture them in your Smart Notes/Zettelkasten for future usage. This action is what made Luhmann’s slip-box so powerful. He had a central location to store, connect, revisit, and expand on all his ideas. He took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself.


Some may argue that they don’t have the luxury of choice. In those situations, you work within the constraints you have. Here are some things to try:

  • For a single project, there are often different steps involved. See if the information you come across is applicable later or of interest to other groups working on those steps. The former can help jumpstart when you must start, while the latter can build goodwill. Like writing, you may find that the work might not be linear as the impact of later steps may require revisiting earlier efforts. So, Smart Notes/Zettelkasten might facilitate a more holistic view.
  • If facing a few projects, work on the elements of the highest interest. But if you’ve already done that or can’t find any, examine what is least painful. Of course, you must face the hard, unpleasant elements at some point. But if you break down the tasks/elements, you can make them more palatable since each smaller effort is less unpleasant.


In some ways, Smart Notes/Zettalkasten is a Kaizen approach to knowledge management- incrementally building up and improving your knowledge base. Take what you do daily and see how you would use that information now and in the future. By doing so, you build a stockpile of helpful content that you can use to accelerate any project.


Cons: Gaps and Issues


Traditionally, note-taking emphasizes accurate recall and retention of a source’s content. You take notes, so you don’t have to reread the original material. Instead, Smart Notes/Zettelkasten is more about understanding what you encountered and connecting it to what you already know or flushing out gaps in your understanding.


Unfortunately, this different perspective generates some gaps and issues since the reader is likely to come in from the old note-taking perspective and may find the transition difficult.


Starting with the conceptual Gaps:

  • As promising as Smart Notes/Zettelkasten appears, did anyone besides Luhmann find this system useful? While Luhmann’s achievements are unquestionable, and Zettelkasten aided him tremendously, you can’t help but wonder, “Will it work for me?” Unfortunately, Ahrens doesn’t mention any other stories using this framework. So, it’s fair to wonder how generalizable is it? The answer is yes, but you must look at the Zettelkasten literature. There, you will find numerous folks, such as Bruce Greene, Ryan Holiday, Mario Bunge, John Locke, and Charles Darwin, among others, who have used similar systems to be tremendously productive. But besides Luhmann, Ahrens doesn’t give you any other use cases, making it hard to see how this might work for your situation.
  • When presenting a different perspective, it helps to have numerous concrete examples highlighting your different approach and its benefits. It is only in the Appendix that Ahrens shows how a Smart Note is generated. But he uses Luhmann’s work which is deep and hard to follow. No examples of a Project, Index, or Fleeting Notes are discussed. In other words, good luck if you want to build different types of Smart Notes. Ahrens spends more time on WHY you should take Smart Notes and less on the HOW. As an implementation guide, the book fails miserably.
  • For all the emphasis on how Smart Notes/Zettelkasten accelerates your writing, Ahrens doesn’t show any use cases illustrating how all the different note types interact and how having them eases your writing. Just showing Project, Index, Literature, and other types of Permanent notes being used in one writing example would have made the material far more relatable to readers. But there is no such use case. In this regard, Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain does slightly better by highlighting what to put into Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives and how to tie everything together.


Moving towards issues which focus more on the material presentation:

  • The book title is misleading. Smart Notes is really a framework for capturing and processing information – it’s a personal knowledge management system, NOT a note-taking format like Cornell or Frayer notes. This is illustrated by the fact there is no detailed Smart Note format. Rather Ahrens uses multiple kinds of notes depending on their intent as described earlier: project, index, permanent, fleeting, and literature.
  • For a book that talks about the importance of index cards to find stuff, it’s a bit hypocritical that the book itself has no index. As a result, connecting and linking ideas within the text leave much to be desired. You can’t help but wonder whether practice and theory are different.
  • The writing style is a bit thick and paradoxically meandering. Ahrens goes deep into how Smart Notes is foundational in improving your writing skills and enhances your learning and understanding. But while his argument is well-thought-out, it’s more philosophical than evidence-based. In other words, don’t expect to find any studies showing how Smart Notes/Zettelkasten is better at productivity or creativity than other note-taking systems – none are cited if they even exist.
  • As stated earlier, the book is heavy on why you should take Smart Notes but lacks on how one does that. This is a concern because Smart Notes have a very organic flavor. You start with one idea and then grow your framework as you read more and connect or branch off.  But what happens if you’re a veteran note-taker with tons of notebooks on different topics already? What do you do with your existing knowledge pile? Is there a conversion process, or do you ignore it and start from the beginning? Again, this is where Forte’s Building a Second Brain offers a bit more guidance (The answer is to do the conversion as needed. Don’t rebuild all your notes into Smart Notes)


While the idea of Smart Notes/Zettelkasten is fantastic, the book does not do the topic justice. Ahrens needs to detail the mechanics of capturing and processing the information. For many readers, this is a radically different approach to note-taking, and you need concrete steps to showcase the benefits this system provides. Two aspects, in particular, are quite differentiating: linking notes from different sources and topics because you feel there is a thread and expanding a note with your thoughts and observations. Both are not emphasized in traditional note-taking.


Summary and Recommendation


In summary, How to Take Smart Notes introduces a powerful note-taking framework (more personal knowledge management system) that allows you to leverage your learning to improve your understanding, facilitate your writing, and accelerate your productivity.


Below are the 4 takeaways that highlight how Smart Notes help you achieve the above:

  1. Leverage your Smart Notes by focusing on actionability; you do this by annotating your notes in a manner that allows your future-self to know what to do with your content when they come across them.  Leave breadcrumbs, such as a purposeful title, keywords, tags, etc., that suggest what you wanted to do with the idea when you first captured it. Doing this makes it easier to find the relevant information when you most need it.
  2. Facilitate insight by connecting your new note to existing ones in your knowledge base. In doing so, you are constantly creating a dialog between what you’re learning and what you already know. This dialog will allow you to find similarities among ideas, different perspectives,  discrepancies among your thoughts, and refresh old memories long buried.
  3. Make writing easy by constantly “micro-writing.” By continually taking Smart Notes, you collect content, expand on existing thoughts, fill in knowledge gaps, and review your comprehension. Writing becomes more manageable since it becomes selecting from the batch of Smart Notes on a topic that you feel has achieved critical mass. In other words, you write from a position of abundance rather than staring at a blank page.
  4. Reduce stress and accelerate productivity since you always have topics to work on. The power of Smart Notes/Zettelkasten is that you will either add a new topic to your knowledge base or another entry to an existing one. This system allows you to leverage serendipity since there is always a place for you to place your note in context.


In terms of recommendation, content-wise, this book would normally be considered a Must Have, however, the writing style leaves much to be desired. I have been in workshops where attendees lamented that while intrigued by the book’s promise, they either didn’t understand it or couldn’t finish it. In short, not an easy book to read and is not strong on implementation. For this reason, I recommend this book as a Get It but suggest folks Google Zettelkasten if they want the implementation details.


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