I read How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens on January 2023. I took a few notes during the reading but nothing too systematic, worrying that I would break the flow.

It is the first book I read with zettelkasten as the main topic.

Information is condensed and well sourced but the pacing is on the slow side. It reminds me to the better physics or maths books from university.

Structure and Content

It is divided in three parts:

  • Description of the method
  • An explanation of why the method works from many angles
  • The output of the system. It feels slightly repetitive and underdeveloped.

The method is relatively simple. 3 piles of notes: fleeting, reference and permanent. Fleeting is a 24h temporary storage, reference is for notes specific to books and other publications.

Permanent notes are indexed, well linked, well written, and atomic. They require effort to get right but once they are there they are forever, forming a giant graph of consolidated immutable (although amendable) thoughts.

A persistent theme through the chapters is the quest for insight. It compares zettelkasten with Getting Things Done (GTD), giving credit GTD for being great at what can be planned but being unsuitable for the unknown. By definition, insight is unpredictable so a more open approach is needed.

Attention are intention are also in the spotlight. Undivided attention is a requirement in the quest for insight, and intention is necessary to achieve success. Multiple studies back each of these assertions.

It recommends being mindful when reading and keeping a pen available so insight isn’t forgotten. Making the notes yours by avoiding copying mindlessly -One career note at a time-

The last part of the book is where I felt some gaps. Similar to Building a Second Brain, the advantages are too far and require a lot of work. Becoming an expert won’t happen overnight. Sharing your insight requires some writing skill and setup. Slipstorm requires a big and dense note repository. The references are there but lacks the detail on how to get there.

In my opinion “Weinberg on writing” provides a better method, or account of, of how to write effectively for others. But this book is better on the actual system and research. Either of them is better in most aspects than Building a Second Brain.

Final thoughts

How to take smart notes gave me crucial insight on why my note system was flawed. The idea that the permanent notes are there forever and that the linking and indexing are critical for them to work as a whole. That it is a constant task that can’t be separated from the notes themselves.

The rest is a goldmine of methods, insights and reasons on why it works that feels like a reference book similar to the physics or maths books I compared it with originally.