Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

Rate this book
The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward.
The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing.
Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away.

178 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 24, 2017

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Sönke Ahrens

5 books192 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
3,898 (42%)
4 stars
3,247 (35%)
3 stars
1,497 (16%)
2 stars
353 (3%)
1 star
77 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,113 reviews
Profile Image for Lord_Humungus.
160 reviews29 followers
July 13, 2022
This book should have been titled "My long and repetitive ramblings about learning theory, with some asides about how to create a Zettelkasten (slip-box of notes), without examples".

Ahrens describes the Zettelkasten method: you take notes while you read; then make "literature notes", with your own words, attaching the bibliographic information to them; and then you reflect about them, and you make "permanent notes", with one idea per note; then you drop them into a network of linked notes, that you traverse regularly, in search of a place for each idea.

He does not dwell much in exactly how to do it. He doesn't use examples. So in the end you have to look up in the Internet how the system really works.

He then spends the remaining 95% of the book in a long rambling argument about WHY you should use the method, but the HOW in "How to Take Smart Notes" is not well described anywhere. So it doesn't really deliver on its promise, and I hate that in a book.

The thing is: why should we do this? Does the Zettelkasten method work in practice? Apart from all the theory, the evidence he shows is this:

-a famous sociologist called Niklas Luhmann (had you heard of him?) used this method and was very prolific and admired. One man.
-"Many successful writers, artists and academics use some form of a slip-box." Yeah? How many? Because this is the first time I hear of the method.
-"There are increasing numbers of academics and nonfiction writers taking notice" and here he adds a reference to a website, maintained by two german guys.

I'm going to give it a try, nevertheless, because it's true that maintaining notes for a long document is a pain, and maybe it works! After a period of indecision, I'll go for TiddlyRoam as the software to implement it. [Update: I changed to Stroll, and then to Obsidian]. But I'm skeptical that I will use it in the long run. A system of linked notes that grows organically can have a lot of advantages. But a tidy pre-planned system has them too, and only time will say which system will win in the end.

For example, I am a medical doctor. One typical raw reference from my field would be like this:

Orbital and central nervous system involvement are common findings. As in this patient, intraconal masses may develop secondary to histiocyte infiltration that result in exophthalmos. The intraconal lesions are hypointense on T1- and T2-weighted images and enhance after administration of a gadolinium chelate (7). The hypothalamic pituitary axis is the most common site affected within the central nervous system (8). Absence of the normal T1 hyperintense signal of the neurohypophysis occurs with enhancing nodular soft tissue of the pituitary stalk and posterior
pituitary gland that results in central diabetes insipidus. Intra- and extra-axial cerebral and spinal lesions have been reported (7–11). Cardiovascular involvement typically manifests as circumferential infiltration of the thoracic and abdominal aorta that appears as enhancing soft-tissue attenuation at CT and as T2 hyperintense enhancing signal at MR imaging.
As the disease burden progresses, infiltration can occur in the aortic branches and intracranial vasculature (7,8). The clinical implications of this inflammatory tissue are not typically apparent,other than for possible renovascular hypertension (12). In contrast, disease infiltration of the pericardium, right heart, and coronary arteries has resulted in cardiac tamponade, myocardial
infarction, and valvular dysfunction (12–14). Cardiac involvement is characterized by T2 hyperintense signal that can enhance after delayed imaging.

This is a random passage, about 5% of the paper. I mean, it's DENSE. There is an idea in every sentence. How should I proceed, exactly? Remember: that is only a tiny part of a paper about a single disease. I have to know about thousands of them. I could get lost in my Zettelkasten and never come out no matter how I begged for my life.

It seems to me that everyone I see talking about "Zettelkasten for your whole academic life", Ahrens included, must read very "hypodense" books, almost devoid of real information, like "How to Take Smart Notes"
Profile Image for Simon Eskildsen.
215 reviews945 followers
February 6, 2020
Note-taking game-changer. Ahrens' is a professor in systematic education at Hamburg University—and he really knows his shit. This book tells the story of the remarkable Luhmann note-taking system. Luhmann was a revered sociology professor who collected over 90,000 index cards over the course of his life to support his 30-year-project: "A Theory of Society." The book goes over how Luhmann organized his note-taking in a scalable way that allowed him an unprecedented level of productivity with 30+ published books and 400+ published articles. In particular, how the author has implemented a similar system (with technology, in lieu of paper flashcards). To best summarize the ethos of this fantastic book:

> To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft; to get a good draft written, you only have to turn a series of notes into a continuous text. And as a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have in your slip-box, all you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read.

I can't sum up the technique here in short (but luckily, the author did here), but needless to say, it thoroughly enriched my mental-model for note-taking and have caused me to implement dramatic changes to mine. I am stoked to see how it pans out in the long-term.

If you're starting to feel weighed down by your note-taking, rather than pulled up—and if collecting 10,000s of ideas over your lifetime appeals to you, you absolutely need to read this. The book will earn its fifth star if I, a year or so from now, continue to use the system (which I have spent this weekend initiating the migration to).
March 31, 2020
Really love this. Instead of making us turn our willpowers into crutches for doing stuff we dislike, it instead takes a pleasant take on our experiences.

Food for thought:
- Slip-box method
- Virtuitous circle workflow
- Undivided attention to each task (as opposed to vaunted, flaunted, dreaded, attention-span destructive multitasking)
- Ego depletion

Transferring these ideas into the network of our own thoughts, our latticework of theories, concepts and mental models in the slip-box brings our thinking to the next level (c)
Unfortunately, even universities try to turn students into planners. Sure, planning will get you through your exams if you stick to them and push through. But it will not make you an expert in the art of learning/writing/note-taking ... Planners are also unlikely to continue with their studies after they finish their examinations. They are rather glad it is over. Experts, on the other hand, would not even consider voluntarily giving up what has already proved to be rewarding and fun: learning in a way that generates real insight, is accumulative and sparks new ideas. (c)
In Germany, a professor traditionally starts with a public lecture presenting his or her projects, and Luhmann, too, was asked what his main research project will be. His answer would become famous. He laconically stated: “My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11). In sociology, a “theory of society” is the mother of all projects. (c)
While some career-oriented academics try to squeeze as many publications out of one idea as possible, Luhmann seemed to do the opposite. He constantly generated more ideas than he was able to write down. His texts read as if he is trying to squeeze as much insight and as many ideas as possible into one publication ...
... what is even more impressive than the sheer number of publications or the outstanding quality of his writing is the fact that he seemed to achieve all this with almost no real effort. He not only stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like, he even said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 154 f.) ...
We are still so used to the idea that a great outcome requires great effort that we tend not to believe that a simple change in our work routines could not only make us more productive, but the work also more fun. But doesn’t it make much more sense that the impressive body of work was produced not in spite of the fact he never made himself do anything he didn’t feel like, but because of it? Even hard work can be fun as long as it is aligned with our intrinsic goals and we feel in control. The problems arise when we set up our work in such an inflexible way that we can’t adjust it when things change and become arrested in a process that seems to develop a life of its own.

The best way to maintain the feeling of being in control is to stay in control. And to stay in control, it's better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea. 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. Only if the work is set up in a way that is flexible enough to allow these small and constant adjustments can we keep our interest, motivation and work aligned – which is the precondition to effortless or almost effortless work.Luhmann was able to focus on the important things right in front of him, pick up quickly where he left off and stay in control of the process because the structure of his work allowed him to do this. If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that 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... (c)
A good workflow can easily turn into a virtuous circle, where the positive experience motivates us to take on the next task with ease, which helps us to get better at what we are doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, and so on. But if we feel constantly stuck in our work, we will become demotivated and much more likely to procrastinate, leaving us with fewer positive or even bad experiences like missed deadlines. We might end up in a vicious circle of failure...
The extraordinary successful fitness motivation coach Michelle Segar uses this dynamic to turn even the most stubborn coach potatoes into exercise aficionados... She brings those who really don’t like exercise but know they have to do it into a sustainable workout routine by focusing on one thing: Creating satisfying, repeatable experiences with sports. It doesn’t matter what her clients are doing – running, walking, team sports, gym workouts or bicycling to work. The only thing that matters is that they discover something that gives them a good experience that they would like to have again. Once her clients find something, they are encouraged enough to try something else as well. They enter the virtuous circle where willpower isn’t needed anymore because they feel like doing it anyway. If they tried to trick themselves into exercise by rewarding themselves afterwards with a relaxed evening on the sofa watching TV, it wouldn’t have taken them long until they went straight for the sofa, skipping the workout altogether, because this is how we tick. (с)
Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. (c)
Psychologists who interviewed the multitaskers did test them instead of just asking. They gave them different tasks to accomplish and compared their results with another group that was instructed to do only one thing at a time. The outcome is unambiguous: While those who multitasked felt more productive, their productivity actually decreased – a lot (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009). Not only the quantity but also the quality of their accomplishments lagged significantly behind that of the control group. ...
The fact that people nevertheless believe that they can get better at it and increase their productivity can easily be explained by two factors. The first is the lack of a control group or an objective external measurement that would provide us with the feedback we need to learn. The second is what psychologists call the mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989). We unfortunately tend to confuse familiarity with skill. (c)
Conversely, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind. We can ruminate about them, even when we do something that has nothing to do with work and ideally does not require our full attention. Letting thoughts linger without focusing on them gives our brains the opportunity to deal with problems in a different, often surprisingly productive way. While we have a walk or a shower or clean the house, the brain cannot help but play around with the last unsolved problem it came across. And that is why we so often find the answer to a question in rather casual situations. (с)
In the way we organise our research and writing, we too can significantly reduce the amount of decisions we have to make. While content-related decisions have to be made (on what is more and what is less important in an article, on the connections between notes, the structure of a text, etc.), most organisational decisions can be made up front, once and for all, by deciding on one system. By always using the same notebook for making quick notes, always extracting the main ideas from a text in the same way and always turning them into the same kind of permanent notes, which are always dealt with in the same manner, the number of decisions during a work session can be greatly reduced. That leaves us with much more mental energy that we can direct towards more useful tasks, like trying to solve the problems in question.
Being able to finish a task in a timely manner and to pick up the work exactly where we left it has another enjoyable advantage that helps to restore our attention: We can have breaks without fear of losing the thread. Breaks are much more than just opportunities to recover. They are crucial for learning. They allow the brain to process information, move it into long-term memory and prepare it for new information... (c)
I recently read the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” (2013) by Mullainathan and Shafir. They investigate how the experience of scarcity has cognitive effects and causes changes in decision-making processes. They help the reader understand why people with almost no time or money sometimes do things that don’t seem to make any sense to outside observers. People facing deadlines sometimes switch frantically between all kinds of tasks. People with little money sometimes spend it on seeming luxuries like take-away food. From the outside, it would make more sense to do one thing at a time, or buy food in bulk and cook for yourself. The book is interesting, because the authors don’t question this behavior rhetorically or even in a judgemental way, but investigate it as a universal human phenomenon (c)
Profile Image for Jamie Coleiro.
13 reviews39 followers
March 14, 2019
This book is GOLD.

'How to Write Smart Notes' tragically undersells itself by implying it's wholly focused on note-taking. It's not.

There's a bunch of relevant psychological concepts here too—including:

- Mere-exposure Effect
- Miller's Law
- Survivorship Bias
- Parkinson's Law
- The Tunnel Effect
- And more...

As the title suggests, if you're into taking 'smarter' notes (and therefore getting more out of your creative endeavours), you'll love this. 😎

I vouch candidly that Sönke (and Luhmann—a topic subject) have changed the way I approach knowledge storage. Forever.

Thank you. 🙌🏼
Profile Image for Hamad.
990 reviews1,306 followers
April 17, 2021
This Review ✍️ Blog 📖 Twitter 🐦 Instagram 📷 Support me

February's Non-fiction book of the month! 🤓🤓🤓

“An idea kept private is as good as one you never had. And a fact no one can reproduce is no fact at all.”

I usually criticize non-fiction authors for stating the obvious and then being proud of preaching us with “fresh, innovative” ideas. To be honest, this is one of the books that did not do that and it introduced me to a new idea but the writing felt a bit dry to me!

You see, the full title of this book is: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. I did feel that the book was directed towards academic writers more than the general population and even the writing style felt stiff to me.

The book talks about the Zettelkasten method or the slip box method in a more user friendly terminology. The author of this book did not come out with this method, it was founded hundred of years ago but the sociologist Niklas Luhmann used this method to publish tens of books and hundred of books which made it a more popular method. The method consists of note taking and then linking the different notes and archiving them in a way that makes them accessible with their references.

Do you remember Uni’s lectures when doctors would spend hours explaining a concept in an outdated way and then you go to YouTube or to one of your friends and they explain it in a very simple way and you’re like why the hell did they not just say that. This book reminded me of that and although I may be exaggerating a bit but the book suffers from lack of examples and focusing on the theoretical parts mainly. I went to YouTube and googled the method and the first video that came explained it in 5 mins in a very easy way, here is that video:


I am not a student any more but I will be going into residency soon and I bet I can implement some of the things I learned from this book when I do study again. I used to love flash cards when I was a student and the book does praise them but this method takes it a step further by linking the notes together and I think I kind of do that in my brain as a doctor as we study systems separately but we have to link them together in practice!

“Learning, thinking, and writing should not be about accumulating knowledge, but about becoming a different person with a different way of thinking. This is done by questioning one’s own thinking routines in light of new experiences and facts.”

Summary: I do think it is a useful book and it does introduce something new and shows how our traditional ways of note taking are not the best. However, it lacks examples and focuses on theory which makes it kind of stiff. Personally, I think I would recommend discovering the Zettelkasten method but maybe through videos which makes it more simple!
Profile Image for León XIV.
6 reviews4 followers
January 14, 2019
A useless book

This book does not explain how to use Luhmann’s method precisely. It is just a compilation of over-explained ideas (nothing new under the sun, by the way) that are not even useful for applying that method. There are other resources in the web, so please, avoid buying this book.
Profile Image for Hady Osman.
13 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2019
I was looking me up a good fiction read to get into, when somehow, the algorithms of Amazon decided to put forward this book on Note taking right in front of me.

The title immediately peeked my interest and then some more after I read the synopsis. I have been taking notes all my life using all sort of methods and tools. The fact that I keep switching every year to a different method and medium has me very conscious that I am still very hopeless at taking notes for myself.

I must admit... the book blew me away with its simple and grounded principles based on the Luhmann method for taking notes. It all just made so much sense and I found myself nodding and busy highlighting large passage of texts. Coming from an engineering background and an avid Kindle user, I felt the examples in the book spoke to me directly. I highlight numerous passages in books that I read on the Kindle all the time. I write down fleeting comments or quotes that I encounter in day to day conversations down and I manually capture the context to remind myself why they spoke to me. But as I pointed out in the book, I like many struggle to leverage of my earned experiences because I cannot remember or discover them. What could be more wasteful then not learning from (mistakes) earned experiences!

Luhmann's principle of doing the heavy lifting or "thinking" upon writing to make it much easier to read and discover is an obvious one. The concept of the slip-box is synonymous to source code repositories that I work with so often. They are both archives that are versioned, persisted, linked and easily discoverable. An absolute genius method that I wish I would have been exposed to during my university years or early career to accumulate my own trove of notes by now. But... it's never too late!

In terms of the actual writing and readability of the book, I found it to be quite the drag in lots of passages. I felt that Sönke often over expanded on a lot of the points that he made upfront by backing himself with extensive research. In many cases, I did find the deep dive of research interesting (like the origin of shipping containers). But more often than not I also found it excessively repetitive and preaching to the converted.

Lastly, even with the verbosity of the text, I still wasn't able to confidently visualise how the Luhmann method worked at every single step and I wished there was more practical examples of how to persist and retrieve a piece of information every step of the way. There was one great example showing a quote from a book and walking me as a reader on the thought process of determining how to tag it. I loved that and wished for more of this in other steps of the process.

Last two points aside, I really enjoyed my time reading "How to Take Smare Notes". Despite the rating that I gave it (because of the two critical points mentioned above), I must say it had a profound impact on me. I understand very well now where the shortcomings of my current note taking habits are, and believe have some really solid advice on what to try going forward.
Profile Image for Liu Jianqing.
12 reviews3 followers
July 8, 2018
Really eye-opening for me. I would recommend this book to anyone I know. It is obvious that I do have some of the conventional wisdom mentioned in the book, thinking writing is just a transfer of knowledge/ideas/insight from my head onto blank papers. Now I realize I should use writing to collect, to connect, and get all notes ready all along the way.

But, it is just a little disappointing that the book has not shown us an example of how someone actually making those bibliography notes, and then permanent notes. If only there was a chapter to lead me through the whole process!

So, I do know I need this, badly. But how to implement?

The book did mention a little bit and suggested some open-source software. Yet it is just not enough for me. I hope for more details. Please make it more practical.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews405 followers
January 22, 2020
6th book for 2020.

Niklas Luhmann, the 20th Century sociologist, was productive by any standard; publishing more than seventy books and hundreds of articles in his lifetime. He accredited his success to an idiosyncratic note-taking technique he developed, which he called the Zettlekästen—literally "notes box"—in which he place A6-sized cards with short atomised ideas generated while reading, each note being linked to other related notes, essentially creating a hyperlinked database of ideas long before the idea of computerised wikis too hold.

Unfortunately, until recently most of the literature regarding Luhmann's technique has been limited to German. Ahrens excellent book offers English readers a through summary of not only the technique, but a philosophy behind it. This book should appeal to anyone interested in taking more intelligent notes; especially those at the start on a longer writing project such a book or doctoral thesis.

The biggest problem with technique is probably the lack of a good open-source cross-platform implementation of the technique. The software recommended in the book doesn't seem to have been worked on since 2016, which strongly limits my desire to trust it the long-term storage of my ideas, and I have no desire to lock my notes to the whims of venture capitalism (e.g., Roam), while the physical creation of 1000s of notes has obvious limitations.

Profile Image for Eren Buğlalılar.
338 reviews114 followers
January 26, 2021
If you already read books like Make it Stick, Peak, Thinking Fast and Slow and Habit, there is nothing much to learn from Ahrens' book. Except the new note taking system he describes.

At its heart, the book promotes a note taking system first developed by Luhmann, a German scholar. The system is mainly about (a) taking a lot of concise, well-written notes and (b) linking them with each other so as to create a physical network of information produced and distilled by your brain. This would work like a tangible copy of your passive knowledge and set free your brain for active thinking, analysis, reasoning and creativity.

But recognising that the explanations about that system alone would not give him enough pages to publish a book, the author apparently decided to pad the rest of the book with some "popular science of learning" chapters.

Also, I propose somebody should take it serious and develop a "Warren Buffett Index (WBI)" as a tool to evaluate the quality of the self-help books. It is the number of Warren Buffett references divided by the number of pages in a book. The readability of the text diminishes as the WBI approximates to 1. WBI of this book was 0.016 which may look small but still far from my ideal WBI, which is ZERO.
Profile Image for Scott Wozniak.
Author 13 books73 followers
December 13, 2018
Title Is Inadequate

This is a book about MUCH more than a way to take smart notes. Oh, sure, you’ll learn all about a super cool (and super simple) system for taking notes. But that is covered in the first 20% of the book. The rest of the book is about deep and critical topics related to smart note taking, like thinking well, reading well, the writing process and even how to set up habits of success. I almost didn’t read it because it looked too basic. I’m so glad I did.
Profile Image for Andrei Stepanov.
2 reviews1 follower
July 9, 2017
I express a very big gratitude to the author. This book is a "must-read" manual for all researchers. This book is quite different from other "help-self" manuals. It was written by a scientist, and is based on a huge number other science books, and resources. Reference bibliography is amazing. Your productivity will gain tremendously in your daily-workflow. Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Sandy Maguire.
Author 2 books156 followers
April 3, 2020
I am giving this book 5 stars not because I liked it, but because it has significantly improved my scholarship --- at least, in the last few days since I started reading it. We'll see if it continues!

The crux of the book is "write down insights you have, as you're having them, and then regularly reconcile these into a single place, and track insights you have while writing THOSE down. Rinse and repeat." It's been a very helpful framework for thinking about big thoughts; rather than trying to keep it all jumbled up in your head, or rather than trying to serialize it into a coherent piece of prose, just write down the idea. You can shape it later. It's an excellent tool for decomposing hard problems that require lots of moving machinery to get your mind around. When you're actively searching for, and reveling in insights, learning becomes fun, and spending time doing scholarship becomes the norm. Life pro tip.

The only other good thing I'll say about this book is that it's short. I got through it in two sittings. Really and truly, the only content here is that thing I said above. Have ideas and write them down. The rest of this book is a bunch of bad pop-sci that is sorta tangentially related. I get the impression that Ahrens was Taking Smart Notes on all of the bad pop-sci books he read, and couldn't help but write about them here as filler. The useful part of this book could be a blog post, but you can't sell a blog post!

Unrelatedly, I feel like I've read all the same bad pop-sci books as Ahrens. I'm not sure if this a failure on his part, or on mine :(

I'll begrudgingly recommend this as an excellent book I've read this year, if just for its information content, and not for the book itself. Feel free to skip any paragraph whose first sentence doesn't mention a slip-box; you won't miss much.
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,176 reviews1,047 followers
June 13, 2021
how I WISH I had had this when I was a student. I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone doing non-fiction writing, including academics and grad students. Actually, a lot of it applies to fiction writing too (nothing counts until it's on the page)
Profile Image for Amirography.
198 reviews124 followers
July 26, 2020
Not a bad book for someone not familiar with personal knowledge management. But it was really scattered, not structured in a good way.
Profile Image for Emre Sevinç.
143 reviews277 followers
February 26, 2022
"It is impossible to think without writing; at least it is impossible in any sophisticated or networked (anschlußfähig) fashion." — Niklas Luhmann

I think this book will be more useful for its intended audience, namely students writing their master's or Ph.D. thesis, mainly in social sciences or philosophy, etc. The method of note taking and then writing based on the elaboration of these notes apparently served at least one professor very well, and I don't see any strong reason why it can't be useful for people doing similar type of intellectual work.

"If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking." — Leslie Lamport

On the other hand, my motivation was to see if the book contained something that I could use for my professional work: I need to keep myself up-to-date with a lot of new technologies and their intricate details. Following this, I also need to communicate complex technological discussions to people with different backgrounds. I don't work at a university, and I don't write papers or articles in social sciences and related fields. But I do write different types of technical articles, therefore I need to keep some notes and references for different topics somewhere.

"Writing is nature’s way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is." — Guindon

I consider this book successful, because it managed to persuade me to look further into the zettelkasten method. Even though some reviewers complain that the book was very repetitive (I agree that you don't need so many pages to describe this method), I think the author had the good intention of drilling into the mind of the reader the important fact that no matter how seemingly simple the mechanics of the method is, it nevertheless requires some sort of shift in your mentality if you are to really integrate this method into your reading and thinking (writing) activities.

"Thinking doesn’t guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Not thinking usually guarantees that you will." — Leslie Lamport

There are an abundance of digital and free to use computer programs to help, as exemplified by the author and I can foresee that my main challenge will be to focus on my reading and writing habits, because as people like me know very well, it is so easy to get lost in technical trivialities of all these nice tools such as Obsidian, Roam, Org-roam, Zettlr, Zkn, etc. Because that's our "comfort zone", whereas really working on our mental habits and transforming them is probably not easy, yet more rewarding in the long term. Similar to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, I will try to integrate the principles and rules described in the book to some of my workflows.

Augmenting our feeble minds so that we can have a better grasp of a vast literature on any complex topic is a never-ending journey. I found this book a useful part of that journey, and now I need to go read more, such as:

- Augmenting Long-term Memory
- On Organizing
- How can we develop transformative tools for thought?
- Zettelkasten knowledge and info management
- How to Make Yourself Into a Learning Machine
- The Future of Text Redux
- Athens: an open-source knowledge graph that helps individuals, organizations, and communities solve complex problems through making sense of a vast amount of knowledge across a breadth and depth of contexts and disciplines.
Profile Image for Randy.
137 reviews32 followers
December 17, 2018
When I was writing my thesis (approximately one million years ago), I accidentally built about 50% of the workflow described here. Had I known how to use the slip-box part, I think the whole thing would have been a lot better. Maybe I had an incredible memory back then - probably not, but it's not better now. I've now implemented the free tool chain of Zettelkasten: Zkn3 and the reference tool Zotero (I know there are lots of reference tools around but I like this one and its Chrome plug-in). So far I already feel like I have a GTD-like (David Allen) "Inbox" for scientific material and various other related business/market information that I come across everyday. After reading the book, I am all about taking small notes on the flurry of links, papers, and sundry material that I see every day. I would also recommend taking a look at this presentation to see the difference between various organization methods and Luhmann's specific approach. I think these differences are why the other tools never really caught on for me.
Profile Image for Bianca A..
217 reviews150 followers
August 4, 2022
Cool book on note taking with the purpose of strategizing and stimulating writers in all stages. Not for courses, but for brainstorming ideas and organizing your creativity without succumbing to confirmation bias. Would definitely keep this addition into my library.
Profile Image for Boykie.
43 reviews16 followers
February 28, 2020
Wow, wow, wow ...

... and a double wow, wow.

This is definitely my greatest read for 2019 so far and I can't see anything surpassing it.

It has had the same impact as David Allen's "Getting Things Done" and Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People" before then in that it has already caused a fundamental change in the way I see, understand and take action on things.

Wyatt Woodsmall hammers in the point that learning IS behaviour change. I can honestly say I have learnt from Sonke Ahrens.

The title of the book is rather deceptive as it implies it's all about taking notes, but the book is a whole lot more. It's about how to think better and the methodology presented has a kind of 'lollapozza' effect in that the more you use it the faster and better your thinking improves.

The only reason I have not rated it 5 stars (other than being really stingy) is I would like to see if I can stick with the methodology for a year - if I can internalise it and make it my own. If a year from now I'm still using the system and have made it a part of me then I will release my grasp and hand over that fifth star.

An amazing book that has been very well written using the very methodology it explains. Just the bibliography itself will be another in depth education on it's own.

If you want to upgrade your thinking and be more effective in your everyday life life, I'd urge you to get this book now. If you wait to long it will be as Ahrens suggests ...

... 'like starting to save for retirement AFTER you've retired'. Start saving for your retirement now. You can thank me later ;-).

UPDATE: I had promised myself to return to this review after a year and bump the rating up to 5 stars if I stuck with the system.

Well, I have. I've just written a new zettel before popping over here. It's based on a quote by Alfred a. Montapert - "Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress".

Soon after hand writing the zettel, I logged into my email and there was an email from my Evernote to remind me that a year ago I had promised to return to this review. Funny how life works isn't it?

Anyway, in the year that I've used the system I've found it to be really powerful. I have a tingling that I've overcomplicated it as I still use something akin to the numbering system Luhman used. Guys like Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday went with categories/themes instead and I'm beginning to feel perhaps that would have been easier.

I shall persevere though as I believe that after a lifetime, the numbering system will far surpass themes or categories. I feel that the use of themes and/or categories will force us to think only in terms of the themes or categories listed while the numbering system leaves us free to explore our notes as they come.

Another observation while I'm at it, although there is some level of review everytime I have to figure out were a card/zettel fits, I need to put in a regular practice for this.

All in all, I can now conclude that this was certainly my best book of 2019!
Profile Image for Nana.
64 reviews11 followers
July 29, 2021
One of the best book I have read this year. It doesn't only change my way of note taking but also the way I read, collect information and write them down.

I have taken notes for years, mostly with Evernote. My old way is to structure note hierarchically with main categories breaking down to smaller sub-categories. It's very useful in storing notes but I found it difficult to retrieve knowledge. That's why I have recently moved to Obsidian and applied the same idea of this book. However, my way is not perfect and this book has provided me many useful knowledge to improve the way I note.

There are so many useful information from this book that I can't write them all here. Really recommend everyone to read this book and try this new technique.
11 reviews
April 27, 2021
Could have been significantly shortened. Very much felt like a book that was artificially extended for a publisher's benefit.

That being said - the ideas behind this content are excellent. We're seeing wonderful things come from new tools that leverage this like Roam and Obsidian in ways that make it easier than ever more to implement. Exciting times for the world of knowledge management.
57 reviews13 followers
June 16, 2020
This was a habit-changing book for me. It was about much more than note taking. It was about a set of processes that allowed me to question and be more a more active participant when absorbing information.

As the book says, writing is thinking. More precisely, writing is distilled thinking. The process of penning information down in your own words improves understanding and forces you to address your blind spots.

The book suggests taking temporary notes when consuming information such as books, videos, podcasts etc. In my experience, just the act of holding a pen when consuming information changes my relationship to these mediums. I scribble down questions I have, explain complex topics in my own way, and note down possible links to other ideas.

Later, those temporary notes are to be converted to permanent notes. The objective of permanent notes is to write about topics using the temporary notes and link related ideas together. It’s important that the topics be self contained and linked to other topics. This allows one to navigate by topic and see all ideas that are linked to it.

I found that as this knowledge base built up, I was able to form connections between very different topics. Furthermore, I noticed connections between ideas I was currently reading and previous ideas. This highlights one aspect of this process. As I started using it more often, I found that I improved in all the different aspects of the process such as questioning, linking ideas, combining notes, and finding relationships between ideas.

Finally, this process makes writing articles much easier. Picking and pulling a strand from a graph of interlinked ideas explained in your own words is much less imposing than staring at a blank page. You can focus on what you find most exciting, pull in needed content from the graph, and remove that which is not needed.

The title doesn’t do the book justice. Definitely a 5 star book for me.

PS:I've been publishing my notes at notes.ppsreejith.net for the last few months.
Profile Image for Samuel.
35 reviews4 followers
January 19, 2020
I definitely enjoyed it, but if you are looking for something that offers you concrete examples about how to implement the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, also known as the slip-box method, then keep looking because this is not the book for you. The author assumes you are using a specific online application and does little to explain how you could apply the system in different contexts if this is not the case for you. Even the analog method is given sparse coverage and little to no examples are provided, very academically written, which leads me to believe that the assumption the reader is already familiar with this system on some level also exists.

If you are looking for a solid theoretical argument as to the benefits of the Zettelkasten method, by all means, this is the book for you! It's well written despite being sparse on offering many if any concrete examples as to how to implement the system in your own context, though perhaps that's in the hopes that readers will make use of the offer for individual coaching the author provides at the very end of the book. I feel like I have just as many questions as to the implementation of this method as I had going into reading this, if not more.
Profile Image for Suhrob.
388 reviews51 followers
August 9, 2018
A surprising little gem.

The book describes Luhmann's note taking system.
The interesting thing is that this paper-only system was translated into software - but it still deeply *under*leverages what could be done with a digital system.
But by being under-leveraged it highlights the actually important *manual* steps of the method.

The book is very worth the reading. There is an excellent passage which clearly demonstrates the connections springing from the application of the method - highly unlikely without it.

As such there are many excellent treasures concerning note taking, learning and writing. Unfortunately, we are still left with a slightly suboptimal tools (even in year 2018!).
Profile Image for Brent.
346 reviews141 followers
July 21, 2020
A bit repetitive but still an enlightening introduction to the philosophy and practice of Zettleksten, a German technique for greatly improved learning and productivity through careful note-taking.

There were not an many real world examples as I would have liked but a quick Google search helped with that.
41 reviews26 followers
May 18, 2021
Didn't go through the entire thing since the author talks about the core idea up front. I like it, I'm going to try it. Hopefully this will give me a better way to organise my ideas and notes.
Profile Image for Helene Uppin.
124 reviews13 followers
June 27, 2019
I was looking for a system for the literature notes. To be honest, I feel liberated now :D the things I was intuitively drawn to proved to be right and I will definitely employ a system of permanent note-taking (probably on paper though). I feel as if I should have read it years ago but then again - I probably wouldnt have appreciated the system and the tips as much as I do now after some experience with writing academic articles.
P.S. The book contains a lot about learning and thinking in general, it is written in clear style and is probably enjoyable to those who are not planning to collect notes to enhance their writing but whonare interested in human behaviour in general. Strongly recomend to all academics, especially phd students.
Profile Image for Ashraf Bashir.
209 reviews103 followers
November 24, 2020
4 stars for the idea itself, and 2 stars for the book; so on average 3 stars! It should have been 50 pages maximum, but for some reason the author enlarged it with extensive repetition. Also it lacks practical examples, and it doesn't provide clear explanation of the method and how to apply it. The idea is awesome, but the book isn't!
Author 2 books111 followers
June 3, 2022
One of my favorite technical talks ever is a talk by Rich Hickey - Simple Made Easy where he separates two seemingly related concepts - simplicity and easy of something. Dirty hacks in your software projects might be "easy" to implement, whereas "a simple" and elegant solution might take many hours to discover.

The same can be said for note taking approaches as well.

The approach we usually take when we think about taking notes intuitive and easy: we copy a piece of information into a note and put that note into a nested folder structure depending on a topic. The problem with this approach that even if we might put the note in a good place in the "right" sub folder we rarely get back to it (unless its a shopping list that will be used later today).

The approach for taking smart notes is not easy. It requires a discipline at first, it has a very specific but simple structure and it works.

The smart note is not just a random piece of information stored in a random place. The smart note is a processed piece of knowledge, analyzed and put into a written form by you. Once its written it can be linked to another atomic, context-less notes created earlier to form a knowledge graph in a similar way the synapses are connected in your brain.

Smart note taking is all about building your second brain in a persisted (digital) form that allows you to gather, store and analyze information. For instance, once you added a note on a topic you're reading about, you should think about how that idea is connected to others. Once you find a connection you create a link between them. Then you might skim through the other note and notice that it's connected to the third one. And now you might realize that your first idea is actually way more interconnected with the other stuff in an intricate and hard to discover way.

Normally, the more notes you have, the messier the system is. It's getting harder and harder to find anything useful, and it's getting harder and harder to find the right place for the new note. So we tend to stop taking notes about the stuff we read.

The smart notes requires little to no structure. You should think about a newly acquired information, write it down in your own words, put it into the same folder with all the other notes and think how it fits with the other concepts by quickly searching through the other well-formed notes. With the smart notes, the more notes you have the better it gets because you can connect a new note to a large number of existing ideas persisted in the system. This approach allows you to form natural clusters of your interests, find not obvious connections and just remember stuff better, just because in order to write something down in your own words you would have to think about a topic way deeper than you normally do.

So if you're a knowledge worker (like software engineer), or just want for the learning process to be as efficient as possible, I would highly recommend to look into the smart note taking approach and this book is an excellent source of knowledge on this topic.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,113 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.