Jethro's Braindump

How To Take Smart Notes

Sonke Ahrens
Writing, Note-taking, Books, Productivity

Book Notes

You need something to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head.

Focus on writing: rephrasing ideas into your own words, attending lectures with a clear purpose, focus on relevant aspects

Standardize notes into the slipbox format, which can be understood without context

Focus on what is interesting, let ideas accumulate and emerge without force

academic writing is not a linear process

Having frequent feedback loops helps learning

Permanent notes must be written for an audience without context

Reviewing is insufficient for learning, one learns best from elaboration

The slip-box handles recall and information storage, while the brain is in charge of creative linking and understanding

Read texts with questions in mind

Writing with an eye towards existing notes allow us to take into account more information

Elaborate on ideas in different contexts

Forgetting is important – so we can focus on what’s currently important

References between notes are much more important!

Make keywords specific, with context e.g. capital allocation problem

Comparing new notes with old notes help us discover differences and insight

Permanent notes require thinking about what’s relevant for long-term thinking and idea development

Ask questions like “what’s interesting?” and “why should I note this down?”


  • There’s a ton of books covering the art of writing, and very little on note-taking.
  • These books don’t cover the connections between note-taking and writing well.

Notes aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. – Richard Feynman

The mind is extremely reliant of external scaffolding:

Notes on paper, or on a computer screen … do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible – Neil Levy (Neuroethics and the Extended Mind)

Hence, use the Zettelkasten method. To get around this idea of note-taking, it is important to understand that:

  1. Note sequences are meant for developing ideas, not storing them
  2. Links and indices are helpful, but not central features
  3. The workflow is streamlined to writing

In Zettelkasten, the most time-consuming portion is determining the order for the notes in which to write about.

Concrete Changes

  1. Instead of highlighting passages, manually create notes of the ideas you get as you read. These notes should be relevant to the contexts important to you, not just related to the book you read. (Eliason, n.d.)
  2. Always reference the source. Cite, or indicate the page number.
  3. When copying notes over, try to make the ideas standalone.
  4. When filing notes, think instead about: in which context will I want to stumble on it again? Use tags for this.



Eliason, Nat. n.d. “How to Take Smart Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide - Nat Eliason.”