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

How to Take Smart Notes - Book summary

Good writing isn’t just about sound sentence structures or grammar; the key lies in the collection, organization and development of good ideas. This book by Sönke Ahrens explains the slip-box or Zettelkasten method of note-taking and personal knowledge management. This method can be used to help anyone to improve their learning and thinking skills. It’s especially useful for students, researchers and nonfiction writers to improve the quality and productivity of their work. In this free version of How to Take Smart Notes summary, we’ll outline what the process involves.

An Introduction to Slip-Boxes

Everyone writes—in school, at work, or just to jot down good ideas or insights. Yet, we don’t usually stop to think about how we write, express or manage our ideas.

Most books about writing either teach you how to write (e.g. sentence structure, writing style, grammar) or how to overcome psychological barriers to complete your projects on time. In reality, the writing process doesn’t start with a blank document or sheet of paper. It starts from the time you conceive an idea or make notes about it.

What’s the Slip-Box method?

A slip-box (or Zettelkasten method) is a technique for thinking, learning and writing. It originated from German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.  Luhmann was an avid learner and researcher who made notes on small slips of paper, then tagged, organized, and linked them to create his personal knowledge database. Over his lifetime, he accumulated some 90,000 notes, allowing him to publish 70 books and >400 articles.

The slip-box can used to facilitate a writing project, accelerate your learning, and manage/grow your knowledge. Luhmann originally used an analog pen-and-paper system to make notes and link them (similar to the concept of hyperlinks in the digital world). Slip-boxes are like a personal web of knowledge, or a “second brain” where you can see and sort through existing knowledge, ideas and lines of thought.

This is the first English book to comprehensively explain how to restructure your workflow to effectively use the slip-box technique. We’ll now take a quick look at what are slip-boxes and why/how to restructure your learning and note-taking processes around them. Do get our complete How to Take Smart Notes summary for more details.

The 3 types of notes

The method involves 3 main types of notes:

  • Throughout the day, make fleeting notes as thoughts/ideas pop up. Jot them down on paper, do it digitally, do a voice recording on your phone, etc. Review these temporary notes within 1-2 days while the contents are still fresh, then discard them or convert them to permanent notes.
  • Literature notes are used to help you remember useful content and their bibliographical references. Write the ideas succinctly in your own words, and include their source/context. Quotes should be copied selectively, and only after you’ve digested what they mean. Keep these notes along with other permanent notes.
  • At the end of each day, process the 2 types of notes above. Consider how they relate to your work or interests, and how they support/contradict what you already know. Then, create your permanent notes. These could be a recap of what you’ve learned, questions to be answered, reflections, new ideas or ways to combine existing ideas.


Your literature/permanent notes are stored in a specific sequence, with cross-references to other notes. Luhmann used an alphanumeric indexing system. For example, an existing note may be labeled #10, and a related note will be filed behind it as #10a. The next unrelated idea is labeled #11. By using numbers and alphabets (instead of narrow topics), he could create unlimited branches (e.g. 13/3d8a6 followed by 13/3d8a7), and add the same note to multiple contexts.

How to Take Smart Notes summary - Slip-box or Zettelkasten Method

One key reason for slip-boxes’ failure is because people try to to add slip boxes on top of their existing note-taking processes. For this to work, you should start taking notes using the standard formats from the onset. Do refer to our full version of the How to Take Smart Notes summary for:

  • More tips and details on the key components above;
  • The common mistakes/hurdles in note-taking, learning and writing, and why/how slip-boxes or the Zettelkasten method help to overcome them; and
  • Details on the 4 Principles of Smart Note-Taking: focus on writing, you never truly start from scratch, keep it simple, and start a virtuous cycle
  • The 4 tools you’d need to start transforming your workflow.

Writing Successfully with 6 Steps

Ahrens specifically explains how to can incorporate the slip-box approach to increase the quality and productivity of your writing. Here’s the gist of what’s involved. You can get more details from our full How to Take Smart Notes summary.

How to Take Smart Notes summary - writing successfully

Be both Focused and Flexible

Start by focusing on 1 task at a time (instead of multitasking), adopting the right type of attention required for the task at hand, and flexibly adopting the appropriate action for your situation (instead of rigidly following plans/rules).

Understand and Internalize What You Read

Always read with a pen in hand, keep an open-mind, explore multiple perspectives, and explain a concept in your own words.

Take Smart Notes

Don’t blindly accept what you read. Use the approach above to deliberate what you’re reading, capture your insights and externalize your thinking, and measure your progress using the number of notes written daily.

Develop your Ideas

Use links to remember other notes that you’d otherwise forget. Do get our full 14-page summary for more insights about the keywords/tags and cross-referencing, as well as how to compare your notes for profound insights and distinctions.

Assemble and Share your Insights

  • Don’t brainstorm for a topic, since your brain tends to call up only the most recent or readily-available ideas. Let the content in your slip-box guide you: Look at the materials you have and define your topics from the bottom up. Gather the relevant notes on a topic, copy them onto a draft document and start to organize, expand or test out certain ideas. Ideally, work on multiple manuscripts in parallel, and keep adding to your slip-box, so you allow the full range of possibilities to take shape.

Build Daily Habits

Don’t bother with detailed plans. Just do what you normally do, i.e. read, think, and write, but carry your pen/paper or phone app with you, and start make your notes using the techniques above.

Getting the Most from How to Take Smart Notes

The principles and in this book have already been used by many successful writers, artists and academics. The key is to streamline your workflow around the techniques outlined above. In the book, Ahren reinforces the principles and ideas repeatedly (with some general examples) to help you internalize the concepts.

Do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 14-page text summary, and a 26-minute audio summary.

How to Take Smart Notes summary - book summary bundleYou can also get a copy of the book for the full details, or visit the author’s website for more information.

If you’d like to learn more about improving your personal knowledge management using technology, then do also check out our Building a Second Brain summary.

About the Author of How to Take Smart Notes

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers is written by Dr. Sönke Ahrens— a writer, researcher and coach focusing on the areas of education and social science. He worked at several universities, and was last an interim professor for philosophy of education at the University for the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich.

How to Take Smart Notes Quotes

“The key to successful writing lies in the preparation…the single most important indicator of academic success is not to be found in people’s heads, but in the way they do their everyday work.”

“Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes.”

“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.”

“Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head.”

“An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.”

“If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn.”

“Most often, innovation is not the result of a sudden moment of realization, anyway, but incremental steps toward improvement.”

Click here to download the How to Take Smart Notes summary & infographic

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