How To Take Smart Notes: The Ultimate Zettelkasten Guide

The book “How to take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens, is a guide to developing better note-taking skills. It is accessible and practical while also thought provoking and inspiring. In this article, I review and summarise the most important insights from Sönke Ahrens' book, “How to Take Smart Notes” and show the 'how to' steps in action in Scrintal's visual note taking app.

Screenshot of the steps of Zettelkasten Note-making method in Scrintal.

Smart Notes | What is a smart note?

Smart Notes refer to a note taking system that includes simple notes with one main idea. These notes, as explained in the book: “should not only make it easy to find notes quickly but they should also point out relevant notes when you need them - even if you did not search for them”. 

The idea of Smart Notes is rooted in the Zettelkasten Method, created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998). The Zettelkasten Method is a personal strategic process for thinking and writing. It is one of the most practical knowledge management methods. Zettel means Cards in German and  Zettelkasten means Box of cards. Zettelkasten Method is a system for organising note cards in such a way that each idea is small enough to fit on an 4*6 index card. The cards have to be useful in isolation and linked to other cards in the system. 

There are three main types of smart notes, including:

  • Fleeting Notes: Jot down random ideas, thoughts, and information that untimely crosses your mind. And it’s usually unstructured and unorganised.
  • Literature Notes: Notes you make as comments to the text you have selected or marked down
  • Permanent Notes: Stand-alone ideas can be made without any direct context to other source information. It can be made as a recap or summary of the information.

How to take smart notes in 4 easy steps

Here are 5 easy steps showing how you can easily start taking smart notes.

1. Fleeting Notes: capture anything that comes to your mind

Fleeting notes are quick notes to capture what comes to your mind. They are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in trash in a day or two.  

The aim is to capture any idea that pops into mind. 

Characteristics of fleeting notes are that: 

  • They shouldn’t cause any distraction
  • The important part is to put them in one place and process them later. 

If your thoughts are already sorted out and you have time, you can skip this process and write your notes directly to literature notes. 

See it in action in Scrintal

Let’s say that questions or ideas come to your mind, such as “Can there be a correlation between Gini coefficient and violence?” or “Can I organise my interview notes around product benefits rather than customer problems”. The idea here is to capture anything that comes to your mind and get back to them in 1-2 days to develop them.

You can send your ideas to Scrintal using Scrintal shortcut or on mobile when you are on the go.

Screenshot of Quick notes taken in Scrintal.

2. Literature Notes: making notes about content we read

Literature notes are notes that we take whenever we read something and make notes about the content. The important part is to write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your thinking or writing.

  • Keep it very short, be extremely selective and use your own words.
  • Be extra selective with quotes- do not copy and paste to make it easy for yourself.

The important part is to keep these notes together with bibliographical details in one place.

PDF file attached to a Scrintal card and open side to side with the personal note.

3. Permanent Notes:

Permanent notes are the final step in Zettelkasten. They are written in an understandable way. They will never be thrown away and they contain the necessary information in themselves.

To create permanent notes, we go through the steps we took in 1 and 2 and think about how they relate to your own research.

⌛ We check ideally once a day or before we forget what we meant.

Things to consider:

You shouldn’t focus on collecting material here, but focus on developing arguments and ideas.We should ask: does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have?

See it in action in Scrintal

  • Write exactly one idea per card.
  • Write as if you are writing for someone else.
  • Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and be precise and brief.
  • Throw away the fleeting notes from step 1.
Screenshot of Zettelkasten notes taken in Scrintal.

4. How to store Permanent Notes

Now add your permanent notes by;

  • Adding links to related notes.
  • Making sure you’ll be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.

Once we start keeping permanent notes, we kickstart the first stages of a personal knowledge base.

  • We can use the personal knowledge base for developing our projects and questions in a bottom up way.
  • See what’s there, what’s missing and what questions arise.
  • We wouldn’t need to brainstorm for a topic next time we are about to write something.
  • We can look into the card box instead to see what we have, what are the chains of thoughts and where the clusters are.

Important tips for taking Smart Notes

Select the Contextual Keywords to Store the Permanent Notes

Selecting keywords should not be about where to store information but about how to retrieve it.

Do not think about “Which keyword is fitting?” or “What category does it fall into?” Rather we should ask ourselves “In which contexts would I come across this note?” When and how will I use this idea?

Assign Keywords for the idea you’re working on, never for the note in isolation.

Find Meaningful Connections between your Notes

The more connected information means the more cues we can use to trigger our memory. 

Ask the following questions to create connections in your notes.

  • 1. How does this idea fit into what I already know?
  • 2. Can this be explained by something else?
  • 3. What does X mean for Y?
  • 4. How can I use this idea to explain Z?

Taking Smart Notes is a Habit and will take time! 

This is a habit and it will require time to get used to it. What follows smart notes is the writing process which will be so much easier as you’ll have your smart notes as your draft. 

After a while, you’ll develop ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about.

Here you can look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic (most of the relevant notes will already be in partial order). You can then translate the cards into a rough draft. In the meanwhile if you’d like to try Scrintal and also give us feedback and be a part of our small community, get in touch!

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