How to take smart notes : Talk by Sonke Ahrens


Context: This is the author who wrote the main book(How to Take Smart Notes) on Zettelkasten.

Thinking in Zettelkasten - Permanent Note on this

People consider writing(new things) as way more important than note taking.

Notes do not make intellectual endeavor easier - notes make them possible.

Notes is mind's external scaffolding.

Core Features

  1. Note sequences are for developing ideas - instead of storing. Adding a new note develops an idea further.
  2. Links and indexes are helpful - but not central features.
  3. Work flow is streamlined towards writing.
  4. Three main type of notes...

    • Fleeting Notes
    • Project-related
    • Permanent
    • Also Literature notes(speaker talks about it - but not there in slides)
    • One idea per note / all notes have the same format.

We think in our notes.

Difference between Zettelkasten and Status Quo note making systems...

Zettelkasten Status Quo
Only written ideas count Writing is one task among others
Bottom Up Top Down
Question arise from material Questions are brainstormed
Categories emerge Compartmentalization
Externalized system to think in Archive
Highly Standardize Different source, different format
Process Oriented Goal Oriented


  1. Thinking, connecting and understanding become concrete actions(these are the most productive actions you can do - but in normal methods, they don't seem productive.)
  2. Focus on the process - and not on the outcome(if you focus on the outcome, you fail every day till you reach your goal)
  3. Writing is broken down into reasonable steps(one note at a time)
  4. The value of each idea compounds - the more notes the better. Idea sex.
  5. Clear distinction between permanent and temporary notes.


What Works What doesn't work
Spacing Cramming
Interleaving One thing at a time
Connecting Compartmentalization
Self testing(Paraphrasing) Underlining and copying
Elaboration Re-Reading

You learn/remember something when you make connection between something you encounter then with something already stored in your brain.

Paraphrasing what you just learned will show you the gaps in your knowledge - and works way better than re-reading(but re-reading feels better/more productive).


  • What is it about?
  • What does it mean for _?
  • How does it connect with _?
  • Swapping perspectives: From context of the source to the context of one's own thoughts.
  • Does it contradict, complement, confirm or specify what I believed before?


  1. Different tasks require different forms of attention
  2. Externalization allows the brain to do what it can do best: making comparisons and associations. Brain is bad at storing factual knowledge - your memory is a changed version of what you learned. Zettelkasten lets you compare that changed version with your actual learning...
  3. ... while the slip box keeps track of factual knowledge.
  4. Ideas can mingle and spark new ideas - chance is given a chance.

Published on: 5th January, 2021