How to take smart notes? Takeaways

How to Take Smart Notes. Takeaways

“How to Take Smart Notes” describes the Zettelkasten method in depth. It shows how scientists and writers can produce new content from their notes. But, you don’t have to be a scientist to take advantage of this method. Anyone can use it to organize his knowledge.

The Zettelkasten method is the secret behind Niklas Luhman’s success. He was a prominent German sociologist of the 20th century. He earned the title of Professor at Bielefeld University. To earn this title, he wrote a dissertation based on the notes he had about all the books he had read. He had a collection of over 90.000 notes. Impressive, right?


  • Don’t use notebooks to take notes
  • Don’t organize your notes per subjects and semester
  • Read with pen and paper in hand
  • Write your ideas into cards. Put them in your own words
  • Put an index number on every card
  • Create connections from one card to another

What you need to start with Zettelkasten

To start using the Zettlekasten method, you only need pen, paper and and slip-box. That’s why this method is also called the “slip-box” method.

All you have to do is have a pen and paper when you read. And, translate what you read to your own words. Don’t copy and paste.

Alternatively, you can any text editor to use it with your computer. But, don’t complicate things unnecessarily. Good tools should avoid distractions from your main task: thinking.

With Zettelkasten, all you need pen and paper when your read
All you need pen and paper when your read. Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

How to start taking smart notes

Zettelkasten type of notes

The Zettlekasten method uses three types of notes: fleeting, literature and permanent notes.

Write down everything that comes to your mind on fleeting notes. Once you process these notes, you can toss them.

While reading, make literature notes. Write down on a card what you don’t want to forget. You should write what the book says on what page. Be selective with your literature notes. Keep your literature notes in a reference system.

To make permanent notes, review your literature notes and turn them into connections. The goal isn’t to collect, but to generate new ideas and discussions. Ask yourself how it contradicts, expands or challenges your subject of interest.

Keep a single idea per card. Use a fixed number to identify each card. You can use another card to expand on one. Each note should be self-explanatory.

Create a new note

To add a note to your slip-box, follow these four steps:

  1. Does this note relate to another note? Put if after.
  2. If that’s not the case, put it at the end.
  3. Add links from previous notes to this one or viceversa.
  4. Add links to it in index card.

Index cards are notes with references to other notes. They act as entry point to a subject.

To take smart notes, don't take notes on notebooks
Don't take notes on notebooks. Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

How not to take smart notes

Don’t take notes on notebooks and on margins of books. These notes end up in different places. You have to remember where you put them.

Don’t underline or make margin notes. Make a separate note of what got your attention. Put it in the reference system. Then, review it and make it a permanent note.

Don’t store your notes on topics/subject and semester. And, don’t store your notes in chronological order either. It doesn’t allow you to reorder notes.

Don’t note everything on a notebook. Your good ideas will end up entangled with other irrelevant notes. Make sure to use fleeting, literature and permanent notes.

Read, think and write. Take smart notes along the way

Why Zettlekasten method works

Reading with pen and paper force you to understand. You think you understand something until you have write it in your own words. Make sure you always write the output of your thinking.

Rereading doesn’t work. The next time you read something, you feel familiar. But, it doesn’t mean you understand it. Recalling is what indicates if you have learned something or not. The slip-box will show you your unlearned bits.

Reviewing doesn’t help for understanding and learning. Elaboration is better. It means rewriting what you read in your own words and making connections. The slip-box forces to understand and connect.

Memory is a limited resource. Use an external system to remember things. You don’t want to put in your head what you can put on a piece of paper. To get something out of your head, write it down. Use fleeting notes.

“Read, think and write. Take smart notes along the way”

Voilà! That’s How to Take Smart Notes. Remember, don’t use notebooks or write on book margins. Instead, use indexed cards to take notes and connect them with other cards.

For more content, read how I use plain text to write notes and my takeaways from Ultralearning and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning.

Happy note taking!