How to Take Smart Notes (Literature Notes)

A book by Sönke Ahrens about taking notes to improve productivity and writing which is incredibly convincing but extremely impractical in describing what to actually do.

Writing smart notes explains a system for note taking using the following process:

  1. Read and then rewrite the interesting parts of what you read as short literature notes (not quotes, highlights, or margin scribbling)
  2. Write down ideas and short notes as fleeting notes and review them within a day (keep project notes separate)
  3. Review and turn the literature notes and fleeting notes into permanent notes
    • Permanent notes should not be a reminder of the thoughts or ideas but the actual thing written down
    • The goal of a permanent not is to maximize the utility within your slip-box (the collection of other permanent notes)—doing this forces you to think about it in relation to other notes which further increases understanding and leads to new ideas or questions
  4. Use the act of writing permanent notes to find interesting new questions to answer and to source material for writing new works

While it may sound like a lot, making a habit of writing permanent notes adds up. Luhmann’s slip-box contained 90,000 notes but that’s only six notes a day from when he started until the day he died.

See also:

  • Zeigarnik Effect

    Open tasks occupy short-term memory until they are done. It’s distracting to have so many open tasks because it’s natural to keep thinking about them.

  • People Don’t Expect Much from Simple Ideas

    People tend to think impressive results must come from impressively complicated means and effort. We underestimate the power of simple ideas and overestimate complications.

  • Elaboration Leads to Understanding

    An overlooked part of understanding information and not merely memorizing it, is to elaborate on the meaning of something you just learned. When taking notes, it’s easy to end up with a detailed list of things without actually understanding the content. Without connecting the ideas with what you already know, you can’t attach the ideas to any scaffolding that would be needed for generating new ideas later (or even recall them).

  • How to Write a Note

    Here’s how to write permanent notes based on How to Take Smart Notes.

  • Writing Makes You Live Curiously

    Questions naturally arise when writing. Since writing is thinking, when we turn over an idea in our head, we can’t help spotting things we don’t understand or finding a topic we want to learn more about.

  • Org-Roam Mobile

    My hunt for a mobile setup for org-roam continues. LogSeq doesn’t handle org IDs. Plain Org is buggy (syncing with Dropbox, recent file list disappears, copy and paste doesn’t work, etc.). Beorg is too slow after upgrading to iOS 17.