How to Take Smart Notes

Sönke Ahrens
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A guide to note-taking that will help you clarify your thoughts and generate better insights about what you read. Ahrens offers a convincing argument that writing (in the form of note-taking) is synonymous with thinking and knowledge generation.

Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.

Having a clear structure (of notes) to work in is completely different from making plans about writing something.

If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write. Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense.

Imagine if we went through life learning only what we planned to learn or being explicitly taught. I doubt we would have even learned to speak. Each added bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking and writing. And the best ideas are usually the ones we haven’t anticipated anyway.

Four Underlying Principles

Rephrase notes in your own words

You will read in a more engaged way, because you cannot rephrase anything in your own words if you don’t understand what it is about.

It is the simplest test: We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words. By doing this, we not only get a better sense of our ability to understand, but also increase our ability to clearly and concisely express our understanding – which in return helps to grasp ideas more quickly.

It is so much easier to remember things we understand than things we don’t.

Rewriting what was already written almost automatically trains one to shift the attention towards frames, patterns and categories in the observations, or the conditions/assumptions, which enable certain, but not other descriptions.

Simplicity is paramount

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?

Nobody ever starts from scratch

Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours (Gadamer 2004).

The advice to think about what to write about before you write comes both too early and too late. Too late, as you already have passed up the chance to build up written resources when you face the white sheet of paper or the blank screen, but also too early, if you try to postpone every serious content-related work until you have made a decision on the topic.

Let the work carry you forward

The more connected information we already have, the easier it is to learn, because new information can dock to that information.

The Process

This is a slightly condensed process created by Nat Eliason. It's a bit simpler and easier to follow than the methods put forward by Ahrens.

  1. Take physical notes as you read. When you're reading a book, have something you can physically take notes on with you at all times. You can do this for articles, too, but I'm going to focus on books.
  2. Have a way of recording bibliographical references. For example; sticky tabs, if you're reading a physical book; or kindle highlights, if you're on an e-reader.
  3. Upload your notes. There are two kinds of notes to upload: references (the highlights that that prompted ideas) and ideas (the thoughts you have while reading the book).
  4. File your notes. Organise your ideas into head pages that you can add different ideas from different books to in the future.
  5. Use and organise your notes. As you develop more notes within a certain idea, you'll be able to start organising those notes into bigger ideas, or even full deliverables like articles.

Miscellaneous Notes

Academic Writing

The problem-solving behavior of eminent scientists can alternate between extraordinary levels of focus on specific concepts and playful exploration of ideas.

Academic writing is about gaining insight and making it public.

Creating Smart Notes

“The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” Feynman stressed in a speech to young scientists (Feynman 1985, 342). Reading, especially rereading, can easily fool us into believing we understand a text. Rereading is especially dangerous because of the mere-exposure effect: The moment we become familiar with something, we start believing we also understand it. On top of that, we also tend to like it more (Bornstein 1989).

Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given. What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.

These questions not only increase our understanding, but facilitate learning as well. Once we make a meaningful connection to an idea or fact, it is difficult not to remember it when we think about what it is connected with.

  • How does this fact fit into my idea of …?
  • How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory?
  • Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other?
  • Isn’t this argument similar to that one?
  • Haven’t I heard this before?
  • What does x mean for y?
  • What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?
  • Why did the aspects I wrote down catch my interest?
  • In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it?


“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” — Steve Jobs

To be able to play with ideas, we first have to liberate them from their original context by means of abstraction and re-specification.

Only by abstraction and re-specification can we apply ideas in the singular and always different situations in reality

Once we make a meaningful connection to an idea or fact, it is difficult not to remember it when we think about what it is connected with.


A key point: Structure the text and keep it flexible.

Try working on different manuscripts at the same time.

Instead of forcing ourselves to do something we don’t feel like doing, we need to find a way to make us feel like doing what moves our project further along.

Luhmann’s answer to the question of how one person could be so productive was that he never forced himself to do anything and only did what came easily to him. “When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.”

It is like martial arts: If you encounter resistance or an opposing force, you should not push against it, but redirect it towards another productive goa