How to Take Smart Notes #

My Kindle notes and highlights for How to Take Smart Notes1 (or as Zettelkasten would term it, a literature note)

Page: 2 Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.

Page: 2 any improvement in the way we organise the everyday writing, how we take notes of what we encounter and what we do with them, will make all the difference for the moment we do face the blank page/screen

Page: 3 They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page.

Page: 3 good, productive writing is based on good note-taking. Getting something that is already written into another written piece is incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there.

Page: 7 Having read more does not automatically mean having more ideas. Especially in the beginning, it means having fewer ideas to work with, because you know that others have already thought of most of them.

Page: 8 Poor students lack insight into their own limitations – as they would have to know about the vast amount of knowledge out there to be able to see how little they know in comparison.

Page: 16 success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place (cf. Neal et al. 2012; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998).

Note | Page: 23 This section contains a step-by-step of the process

Page: 29 To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.

Note | Page: 35 Writing is key. In academic terms only explicit public ideas “count”. Writing is the medium of research, so act as if only written ideas matter. Acting in this way makes reading more focused, as one’s attention is directed to understand in order to explain, and to think beyond the obvious to find the ideas worth exploring further.

Page: 38 Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing (cf. Anders Ericsson, 2008).

Page: 41 three types of notes: 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.

Page: 43 Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else.

Page: 44 Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later.

Page: 44 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.

Page: 44 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.

Page: 48 Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours. Basically, that is what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 2004).

Page: 48 By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of your own intellectual development, topics, questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force.

Note | Page: 51 Continual process of creating and expanding permanent notes surfaces areas that excite one’s interest, which in turn motivates more exploration. Iterative approach of writing notes, outlines, drafts etc. allows more frequent and lower-stakes feedback.Explicit linking of notes provides exponentially richer set of interconnections between concepts: this both improves memory and facilitaes faster and deeper linking in future. Interaction with “Meaning Making” functions in brain.

Note | Page: 64 The importance of embodied practice to support subconscious decision-making whilst writing. Writing is an art, to become an expert requires the author to escape the constraints of the rational and logical parts of the brain.

Page: 67 gut feeling is not a mysterious force, but an incorporated history of experience. It is the sedimentation of deeply learned practice through numerous feedback loops on success or failure.[20]

Note | Page: 68 Limitations of working memory.Tendency of “open” items to occupy working memory (Bluma Zeigarnik). Importance of meaning-making in the transfer of knowledge to long-term memory. Significance of querying new concepts for relatedness to existing knowledge as part of forming linkages in long-term memory.On the other hand, make use of Ziegarnik effect by letting open questions stay in the mind - engaging the subconscious to process them.(side note which writer qas quoted about that process in the book with The Green Man on the cover?)

Note | Page: 71 Importance of having a consistent and simple process:- less decision-making means less drain on resources of willpower- good process makes it possible to take breaks without losing thread, and breaks are essential to memory formation

Note | Page: 74 Capturing notes in your own words as you read is the first step in developing your own mental models that are informed by the sources you read.When you read back your literature notes do so with a mind about how the ideas interact with ideas you have already captured as permanent notes.The amount of notes needed will vary by text: not only based on the complexity of the ideas, but also on how extensive are the relevant pre-existing mental models we have with which to contextualise the text.When making liteature notes think about the frame of the work, consider what is NOT said also.Aim for the gist, not a verbatim transcription.

Page: 76 The only thing that matters is that these notes provide the best possible support for the next step, the writing of the actual slip-box notes. And what is most helpful is to reflect on the frame, the theoretical background, methodological approach or perspective of the text we read. That often means to reflect as much on what is not mentioned as what is mentioned.

Note | Page: 79 Guard against confirmation bias by selecting information to read/capture based on how it connects to what is already in the permemnent note system, and what new potentials for connection it may open up - REGARDLESS of whether these are confirmatory or opposing thoughts.

Note | Page: 82 Practice is required to seperate out the relevant parts of a text from the irrelevant.The repetitive writing of permanent notes give us that practice.Practice helps the mind to spot patterns of writing and argument which in turn develops facility in extractign the key points and identifying gaps.The ability to see patterns in texts is essential to develop ctiritcal thinking.

Note | Page: 85 A good test of understanding is whether you can explain an idea simply to someone to whom it is new.Writing permanent notes is a way of explaining to our future self, who will otherwise have likely forgotten the information.Repeated practice at re-phrasing concepts in our own words exposes lack of understanding.Q: how does this relate to retreival practice?

Note | Page: 87 Effective reading, in support of learning requires effort, and to learn material requires the retrieval of previous material in order to form new connections.Elaboration of material e.g. by writing smart notes, seeking connections, is a proven method of improved learning.NB - cross ref to Efrat Furst material on Making Meaning and Retrieval Practice

Note | Page: 90 Critical success factor for PhD candidates is the ability to think beyond the frames of a text.Thinking beyond context and identifying where concepts link to ideas from other contexts is essential for developing an effective research approach.The creation of permanent notes encourages this sort of thinking.Writing ideas down as permanent notes allows us to forget them, freeing up working memory to learn new things.

Note | Page: 92 Number of permanent notes written per day could serve as a proxy measure for knowledge work

Page: 94 11.2

Note:Taking notes allows us to test our understanding.Serious thought requires “external scaffolding"Writing a permanent note is a form of dialogue with the other notes in the system.When creating permanent notes consider making explicit the answers to questions such as:How is this relevant to my thinking? Why?

Page: 98 By explicitly writing down how something connects or leads to something else, we force ourselves to clarify and distinguish ideas from each other.

Note | Page: 107 Collection of permanent notes as a tool for thinking:- develop ideas- connect ideas- use comparison and differentiation as tools to generate more ideas cf wiki gardening Using the note collection to explore new ideas makes us retrieve old information in a new context, and query it for links to those new ideas cf retrieval practice The constraints of a note system - common format, restricted size, aid creativity by stopping us from wasting energy on irrelevant factors

Page: 118 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.

Note:Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway

Page: 120 We learn something not only when we connect it to prior knowledge and try to understand its broader implications (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with a deliberate effort (retrieval).


  1. Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017. Zotero ↩︎

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Julian Elve
Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change

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