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  • Writer's picturePrem Sundaram

How to Take Smart Notes

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

If you want to take notes more efficiently, you should learn how to take smart notes. In this article, we'll explain what smart notes are, how they differ from ordinary notebooks, and how you can use smart notes during meetings. We'll also cover the advantages of smart notes.

What are Smart Notes

Smart notes are a great way to take notes while you're studying. This method can help you remember more of the information you're studying, and it will help you get better grades. There is a great book by Sönke Ahrens called How to Take Smart Notes. But what are smart notes?

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

Smart notes, as explained in his 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, ...and efficiently turn our thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build up a treasure of smart and interconnected notes along the way."

But it can be said that the 'original' smart notes were created by Professor Niklas Luhmann, a 20th century German sociologist and philosopher of social science.

Zettel is German for Cards and Kasten means Box - so Zettelkasten means box of cards. Zettelkasten Method is a system for organizing note cards in such a way that each idea can fit on an index card.

Niklas Luhmann
Niklas Luhmann

The concept of smart notes is somewhat vague. Oftentimes, your notes are triggered by an event, such as a website URL you want to capture, and a note created based on that information. People also talk about permanent notes, literature notes, fleeting notes and many other relevant notes. We will discuss these in a future article. Another related idea is the atomic note concept - to have one idea per note.

There are three main types of smart notes, including:

  • Fleeting Notes: Thoughts, and Ideas - unstructured.

  • Literature Notes: Notes you make as you read materials like papers and PDFs

  • Permanent Notes: Information you are keeping, stand alone ideas or notes.

Smart notes can help you capture ideas from a variety of sources and organize them in the most important contexts. This helps you develop new ideas and advance your thinking.

Learn How to Take Smart Notes Efficiently

How to Take Smart Notes is a book about note-taking that is perfect for writers, students, academics, and anyone who wants to improve their thinking and writing skills. Taking notes correctly is vital to achieving good writing, as it allows us to better analyze and organize the material we read. In addition to enabling us to write better, smart notes allow us to concentrate on developing new ideas and thinking.

The Zettelkasten method is one such method, and it explains how to take notes efficiently by creating a system that enables you to create multiple notes at the same time. It is also known as a "slip-box," method and was developed by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann devised a system of interconnected notecards called Zettelkasten, which helped him record and organize his notes. Although the original system was a pedagogical tool, smart notes can also be used as a time management tool.

A picture of the very first notecard Luhmann added to his slip-box, labeled with a number 1 in the top-left corner. It begins “1 Introduction; It must be attempted to explain the criteria and concepts as clearly as is possible so that their inadequacy and imperfection becomes clear.” [Source: Taking Note blog] & Tiago Forte blog

In contrast, conventional note-taking systems are more linear and therefore make it difficult to develop new ideas. By creating multiple hierarchies, the notes become easier to recall, and you'll be more likely to come up with novel insights. For example, a note titled "cat" can become part of a new hierarchy called "felines." This method allows you to develop the content of your notes and organize it further.

Learning how to take smart notes efficiently involves a lot of work on your part. It takes patience, willpower, and time. You can either write down your notes on paper or type them into a computer. The main work, however, lies in the thinking and reading. While writing notes, you'll need to think, read, understand, and develop your own ideas.

Benefits of Taking Smart Notes

The benefits of taking smart notes can be significant for a variety of reasons. First of all, smart notes allow you to transform fleeting notes into more permanent ones. The process is also known as "compounding," and more notes lead to more links and idea clusters, which serve as starting points for new ideas. Fleeting notes are, as you imagine, quick notes you have taken that don't yet have a 'permanent' place in your note collection. Permanent notes are the ones you have decided to keep and may be in a more structured place or connected to others via Zettelkasten type links.

Secondly, smart notes encourage the creation of new ideas. This process is said to prevent the "confirmation bias" that can result from orthodox thinking methods. In addition, a flat hierarchy means that notes are linked and can be changed or mixed up. This flexibility allows the ideas to become templates for future work. This is also great for people who need to come up with new ideas like fiction or nonfiction writers. The ability to have a reliable and simple external structure to think and make notes will yield benefits.

Taking notes in this way transforms the process of reading and writing. It requires you to think deeply and apply critical thinking. Taking notes in this manner can also help you overcome writer's block. However, it requires a significant time investment and requires an exemplary level of attention to detail.

Smart notes can be useful for all kinds of people. It can help students, office workers, and writers think faster and more clearly. Smart notes also encourage better learning habits.

How to Take Smart Notes in Meetings

Taking smart notes in meetings is important to make sure you capture the most important points. These notes should be brief and focused. They should not include unnecessary details that may be missed out. There are a few simple steps that you can take to help you take effective notes in meetings. Follow these steps and you'll notice a big difference in the quality of your notes.

Before taking notes, have a clear agenda. Divide the page into key points, basic notes, and takeaways. Then, write a short summary of the notes. This way, you'll be able to write quickly, even when there's no agenda. Another simple method is to use the quadrants method, which is used by Bill Gates and others.

Taking notes by hand forces you to concentrate on what's important, instead of letting the words or concepts fly away. The process forces you to be purposeful and economical. If you're typing, you're more likely to write verbatim, losing track of the meeting or getting distracted.

Taking notes during meetings will help you retain information and remember important details in the future. However, it's important not to jot down everything that's said. You want to record the key points and action items, not every word that was said.

Which tool you use is up to you, but tools like Obsidian can help if you really want an interconnected set of notes true to Zettelkasten. However, many people find this actually too complex and most prefer to use a simpler tool like NoteDex where you just use Tags to interconnect your notes and thoughts.

How to Take Smart Notes in Lectures

How to take smart notes by Sönke Ahrens is an excellent book and should be read by students. There are many book summary options, but it will help to improve your learning and thinking. The book contains many great insights and motivates us to take more action to improve our notes. It describes an effective system for taking notes that will help you retain information in a lecture better than ever before. The principle behind smart notes is simple: capture the ideas from a lecture rather than just jotting down the facts. This allows you to revisit important information later, and come up with new interpretations.

To write smart notes, first make an outline of what you want to write. This will keep you from writing down every word, which can be counterproductive. It also helps you remember what you've learned better. Also, write neatly and avoid using sloppy handwriting. This will make it more convenient to read your notes, too. NoteDex app allows you to take notes with handwriting.

Tips for Taking Smart Notes

Smart notes are important if you're looking to increase your productivity. They help you capture important information and summarize it in a concise way for future use. They should not be too long or complex, and they can be written on a variety of surfaces. They don't have to be permanent, but they should serve as a reminder of your thoughts. Properly capturing a thought requires time to phrase it and double-check facts. Fortunately, pen and paper are still an excellent choice for note-taking.

You can use a variety of methods for capturing ideas, but the main goal should be to write down as much information as possible. You can create fleeting notes while you're talking to someone or listening to a lecture. You can also take notes in the margin of a book if you're reading something. Also write for your self, don't think that this piece of information is for that you are writing for someone else.

While writing down notes can be an effective way to capture ideas and information, it can also help you develop a deeper understanding of what you're hearing. Writing down what you're hearing will also help you generate ideas, which will help you think more clearly. That's a win-win situation.

Reviewing your notes frequently will help your memory retention. It will also help you clear up any mistakes that you've made and summarize the information for quick reference by making flashcards or index cards.


The smart notes method allows you to create a treasure of smart and connected notes. Notes are 'smart' if they are connected to others, if they contain one main idea per note, can stand on their own, but also when connected are more helpful, and if they reflect more ideas and concepts than just facts or data. This way when you link your thoughts you begin to develop a story.

If you want to learn more about Smart Notes:

1) Read his book: How to take Smart Notes

2) Read this much longer and detailed explanation by Tiago Forte

3) Read this Book Summary by


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