What’s it about?

How to Take Smart Notes (2017) illustrates how and why to take smart notes. It demonstrates how this simple, little-known, and often misunderstood technique can support your thinking, writing, and learning. With the help of smart notes, you may never face the horror of a blank page again.

About the author:

Sönke Ahrens is a writer and researcher in education and social science. He’s also the writer of the award-winning book Experiment and Exploration: Forms of World-Disclosure.


Smart notes might be the key to your longed ancheivements:

Have you ever heard of the unlikely story of Niklas Luhmann? Back in 1960, Luhmann, a german man, worked at an administration office and spent his leisure time reading. While reading, he always kept small pieces of paper where he wrote any idea that interests him in the philosophical and social fields. Every once and a while, he would systemically number those papers and put them in a Zettelkasten or slip-box.

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Eventually, after he’s collected millions of notes and became greatly intellectual as a result, he shared some of his views and knowledge with a sociologist. Amazed with his level of education, he invited him as a sociology professor at the University of Bielefeld.

Regardless that Luhmann had neither a doctorate nor a sociology degree, he didn’t let this opportunity slip through his fingers. He got to work, took sociology classes, and was able to complete his thesis in less than a year. In 1968, Niklas Luhmann became a sociology professor and remained in this position until he died.

Luhmann didn’t stop there. While taking his position, he was asked to present what his research project would be; he replied:” My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Cost: zero.” 29 years and a half later, he completed the final two-volume chapter of his seminal work, The Society of Society; it changed the whole world of sociology. By the time he’d finished his magnum opus, he’d already published about 60 books and hundreds of articles that kept being published even after his death.

Most people think of Luhmann as a genius. However, after studying his methods, it appeared that his success had nothing to do with vast intelligence but with smart work. Luhmann knew exactly how to utilize his notes in a way that kept him focused and in control.

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So, you might wonder why isn’t everyone doing the same. Well, on the one hand, people still get confused by his process. Some have tried to employ it without fully understanding its workflow. On the other hand, most of his work is in german, and when translated, they get shocked at how simple it is, and people tend to undermine the results of simple ideas.

What is Luhmann’s method? His exact words are: “I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happened mainly within the slip-box.” What’s a slip-box? You’ll know in a minute.


Develop a sysem for three types of notes to expand your ideas and arguements:

Now that you are aware of Luhmann and his intimidating writing success. It’s time to unravel the truth of his Zettelkasten or slip-box and what method he used to take his notes. Luhmann had two slip-boxes. The first one was for collecting references and notes about the content of the books he read. And the second one was his main Zettelkasten for storing notes and ideas. The slip-boxes were wooden, and his notes were written on index cards.

You can either emulate Luhmann’s analog system or resort to programs that provide the same functionality with the benefit of probability.

That’s the process. How about the workflow and the kind of notes that are worth taking? And how would you store them? For starters, the first kind of notes you should be taking are fleeing notes, as in the notes that don’t into the slip-box and are used merely for ideas and thoughts. You can simply write them down in a notebook or scrap paper. Also, keep those notes in one place so you can go over them later thoroughly.

Other than that, there are literature notes that are basically about what you read. While you are reading, keep writing down the things you want to keep in mind and the reference details so you can go back and refresh from the source itself. These notes should be brief, written in your own words, and go into the reference slip-box.

Then comes the permanent notes that arise from your fleeting and literature notes, which you should read daily or regularly, depending on your schedule. As you go through those notes, start asking yourself which of them is relevant to your personal ideas, research, and interests. Keep in mind that you aren’t just collecting information but planning to develop your ideas and argument. Ask yourself how will the information you are writing can add to your existing notes? Does it correct, support, or contradict them? Does it bring new ideas to your mind? or does it give rise to new questions and concerns?

Write down one permanent note for each topic or idea in full sentences of your own words. Your goal shouldn’t be to copy but to create something new and personal. Be as thorough and concise as you can be, and never forget to mention the source references. And once you made permanent notes out of your fleeting ones, you can throw them away since you no longer need them.

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However, the harder part is filing your new permanent notes in your slip-box but behind the existing notes. Systematically, add then manual references or links that connect notes together. You can benefit from a digital system to get even greater flexibility.

And the final element in this system is to have keywords linked to an entry point that leads to a specific subject in your slip-box and serves as an index. Luhmann tended to like only one or two permanent notes.


Once you have a slip-box, you’ll never have to get stuck on a blank page ever again:

You might think that the process is so simple by now, right? Well, not so fast.

Luhmann didn’t file his notes according to the subject but by an abstract numbering system. Each one had a specific and unique identifier made up of letters and numbers. When he adds a new note behind note 223, the new note would be numbered 224, and if 224 already exists, he would call it 223a and so on. He keeps alternating between numbers and letters whenever needed and branching out as his thought demand. He would also go through his slip-box and check for other related notes to make further connections. A digital program would do most of this time-consuming numbering process automatically.

How would this help you? Well, let say you need to submit a paper, for example. Thanks to the notes you’ve been collecting, you don’t have to start with a blank page ever again. You’re slip-box would always be equipped to provide you with ready-made arguments, quotes, references, and ideas. All what’s left is for you to put it together.

However, getting to this level takes time and patience. You need to trust the process and constantly take notes while reading and thinking to keep generating ideas and arguments. Once you’ve populated your slip-box, you can use it to develop your next research and fill in any gaps if you feel something is missing.

Sticky Note Lot

You can’t eat an elephant but in bite-sized chunks:

According to Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, a nineteenth-century author, he wrote 250 words every 15 minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. This allowed him to write 49 novels in 35 years. The thought of finishing a long academic text can be overwhelming. However, setting a schedule for writing a single page every day 6 days a week, is a relatively manageable task with a less ambitious pace than Trollope’s. At this rate, a doctorate thesis can be done within a year. In reality, that rarely happens, and over half of doctoral theses are left unfinished.

Non-fiction and academic papers can’t indeed be written in Trollope’s method of writing novels. All reading, research, and thinking are needed as well as the writing itself. So maybe measuring your progress in several pages isn’t the way here. Perhaps a better metric would be a certain amount of notes per day.

Person Writing on Notebook

Luhmann added around 90,000 notes to his slip-box from when he started until the day he died – that’s an average of six notes a day. If this still seems too much, try doing only 3 a day. Even at the number reduced to half, you’d still have a remarkable number of notes and ideas in a short time. Think of it as more of an investment than homework. The more notes you have, the greater your connections and ideas are.

Wring permanent notes can also be used as a self-test. Whenever you write down your thoughts, if they still make sense and can be expressed on paper, you’ll realize that your mind is getting more intellectual. And when you write down your thoughts, you’d also rid your mind of them and allow it to generate and focus on new ideas or developing existing ones.

Daniel Kahneman, a remarkable psychologist, said that” A brain is a machine for jumping to conclusions.” It is has a habit of filling gaps and connecting patterns that aren’t always present. Upon writing, you externalize this whole process, allowing yourself to rationalize your thoughts more clearly.