Don't just take notes. Build an effective note-taking system to think within.

In How To Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens introduces us to a simple yet effective note-taking system.

In How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens sketches out a structure for academics and non-fiction writers to work within. Following their advice would develop both an environment for thinking and the habits and routines to make it happen. In the video I talk through three points:

Firstly, how a structure for thinking can be enabled by good note-taking practices. Simplicity, and consistency over a long period of time, are key to making this work.

Secondly, write fleeting notes as you read or think; elaborate on them within a couple of days to make permanent notes.

Finally, Link those notes together within an archive; over time you will find contradictions and uncover hidden links between diverse topics.

Below, you will find this week’s video from my Youtube channel, some quotes and visuals you might like to share, and a transcript of the video. If you find any of this useful, sign up for my newsletter – I share weekly, across a range of topics that might help you become more intuitive, knowledgeable, and take control of your own life.

This weeks video:

Illustrations and Quotes


What  Ahrens is trying to provide with how to take smart notes, it isn’t just a note taking system , it’s a structure to work within. So the idea is that if you curate your work environment in the ways that she suggests you’ll find it easier to fall into a state of flow and deep concentration. 

-intro music- 

Because you know about the overall structure of your notes and you’ll know what you’re doing at any given moment as part of the research processes of academic or nonfiction writers. They’re really the two markets that she’s going for. And in addition to having that environment, which allows you to concentrate more easily on what you’re doing.

You’ll also be encouraged to do several of the higher level skills that academics and nonfiction writers need in order to do their jobs really well. So that’s your combine ideas from different places, even those that are way out of your working memory that you read a long time ago, you’ll be more likely probably to seek disconfirming ideas, to look for stuff that doesn’t fit with what you thought before or what you currently think.

And, The great virtue of this system is that  it’s very simple. It’s something that you could do take on and do for a long period of your life and see benefits from over time or something.

And the reason I want to share this slightly more widely than just thinking for academics and non-fiction writers is that the simplicity of the note taking system is a really important thing for either an awful lot of people talking about very complex note taking systems nowadays, and try to sell you on those.  

And simplicity is often the key. 

So the techniques behind how to take smart notes come from Lumen   who had a 30 year career in the second half of the 20th century, starting in sociology with them, ranging across a huge variety of disciplines in which he published something like 60 books and around 400 academic articles. 

For any of those of you familiar with academia, that’s a phenomenal productivity rate for a 30 year career, two books a year is astounding, frankly and his interests spanned everything to do with society near enough, he wrote on a huge variety of topics and began to integrate.

Through his career, he was really open about his working processes and the fact he thought in his slip box.  That’s how he framed it German, but that’s the translation of how he framed it. He thought in his slip box. And his note taking box, his slipped box was part of the holistic process in which he worked.

And what Ahrens is saying is that we should apply something like the insight from Allen’s getting things done   that processes are more important than tasks,  that the awareness of the whole and how, what you’re doing fits within that whole. Makes you more productive makes you more likely to enter a flow state.

And what Ahrens is trying to do is take that insight, pair it with lumens methodology the latter half of the 20th century and apply it to writing, apply it to research based writing. 

So I have a couple of caveats here. As far as the recommendations are concerned. This is based on individualistic writers.

It’s based on writers who want great productivity for themselves and to work in a way that suits them, chiefly individually, rather than as part of a team. It’s also. Very out of date, which is one of the reasons it’s so simple or seems so simple to us. So this for me, won’t land you with the cutting edge of how to manage your knowledge, but it will give you a solid productivity system. 


When  it comes to notes, most people’s notes are either over organized and kind of in an increasing array of folders and tags and color-coding and all sorts of different things that people use, or they’re disorganized. They’re just kind of thrown out there recorded and you know, you’ve got it somewhere, but you spent half an hour searching through various documents for it. Most people’s notes that they collect as they’re writing, particularly across different years and different projects fall into one of those two. 

And the suggestion that Ahrens makes based on Lumen is that you should think about notes in three discreet ways. So the first is fleeting it’s notes taken in the moment when you have a thought immediately following a conversation while you’re reading, something like that, when you don’t want to interrupt the flow of your thinking, but you just want to note down a few words as to what you’re thinking.

And those type of notes should either be thrown in the bin two days later, or be elaborated upon into a more permanent style. The idea for these notes is if you don’t find them inspiring and interesting enough to follow up on within a couple of days or a few days, that they’re probably not important enough to keep, shouldn’t just stack your shelf full of things that are vaguely interesting.

You should look for the things that are absolutely fascinate.  

The second type of notes is project related. So this is for specific things that you’re working on. They should be completely segregated from your permanent note base. The format of them can vary more your bibliographic notes, the notes on what you read should be pulled out and put in project related folders and they’re more free form based on the needs of the project.

The third type of notes is really the key and it’s the permanent notes. Notes that pretend that they’ll stand the test of time and that they will appeal to you just as much and be reusable however long your career may be there. 

What’s important about this format of note taking and why lumen was able to be so successful or how note taking contributes to Lumens success? 

There were a couple of things worth drawing out quickly. So one is that they should be standardized in one way or another. So standardization it’s counter-intuitive, but true standardization in many ways helps creativity    for most people. So the kind of size of note that I’m talking about here, is an a six sheet of paper or something you can view on a fairly small computer screen without scrolling.

And that should be enough to contain a whole idea  . So these are ideas distilled, their essence simplified, in a way that a lot of people find useful for writing particularly and distilled cup right down.

When you’re writing them, you should try and think beyond specific disciplinary frames and look for connections and contexts of those things. 

And look for the ways in which the note connects to other notes . And in some cases, you’ll just make a link between the two different types of notes. In other cases, you’ll talk at some length about how those fit together about the connection, the contrast, or the contrast there, and the effect of taking this kind of permanent note, which is a compound, because as you have more of those notes in your archive, and I think Lumen ended up with 90,000 as you have more of these notes in your archive, there will be more, cross-references more material to look at and increasingly you can use ideas that you’ve already had as the basis for new ideas, because you’ll see the connections and the gaps and the context that you haven’t explained something in before clearly than you would in any other way. So what our Ahrens is suggesting is that a good goal for a writer is a number of minutes per day to their archives. 

So for lumen over a 30 year career, he’s adding something like six per day to his archive.

There  were several benefits to this, particularly for thinking processes. So it encourages a more interrogative approach to whatever you’re looking at. You, you’re more likely to ask what’s missing. What does this mean? How do I connect it to that thing that I thought this time what’s different between this text, I’m reading now and making notes on, and this idea that I had back then, What if, just, how do these things connect together?

You’re more likely to take that kind of thoughts seriously, when you’re trying to pretend that you’ll still use this note in 10 years time, I say pretend, and I have done a couple of times because most people would adapt then notes over time. They’re not going to keep them static unless they’re purely trying to increase their productivity and not trying to dig into things any further because your opinions change over time. One of the most interesting things about keeping an archive like this is you can see how your opinions change over time. Another good thing about this is that you’re more likely to keep the way that you apply keywords and the way that you apply tags and the way that you do organize, if you choose to organize things more personal. 

The note taking system that and suggests from lumen it organizationally is really, really simple. It’s just a numeric system. So if this, if your last note was number 24, this is number 25. And if you then later on, come up with a note that happens to be related to note 25, you call it 25, a and that gets complex over time because you end up sub-trades beneath that 25, eight, three BC, whatever.

But the process of selecting a number initially is fairly simple, unless you’re elaborating on an idea that you had before. So. When you’re trying to look at the links between different things, writing Brighton keywords, or including them in there in a kind of overview in a topic overview of certain times, you’re more likely to take that seriously when you’re just throwing tags in there or chucking it into a folder because you need to get it away somewhere. 

It’s a process that encourages serious thought.

Cross-references are another particular feature of lumens notes. So when he was making notes, he would include along the side of the note, the numbers of other notes to which this note was related in some way. So the ones that I guess will count as weak links, they’re not directly on the same topic, but they came to Lumens mind when he was writing his notes and, That kind of link comes to our minds when we write notes as well.

We think this links somehow to that book, I read a little while ago and you find that you don’t want to elaborate on that at the time, but you want to note the link because he might be late. And the other thing that’s quite important from Ahrens point of view is to build an entry point index to build a quick way into your archives.

It’s very specific. So the entries in this index probably only have two or three note cards referenced in each, in each entry point. Okay. And what that does is give you a quick way to zoom in to specific ideas, basically where necessary you create a topic card that then links into other ideas as well.

But the index is a very quick way to get your reading, your old notes straight away. The idea is that you use these regularly.

So why is an archive of ideas important in the first place? The main reason that Arens focuses upon is that most learning science now, thinks having an overly detailed memory will prevent you getting the gist of something that the process of inhibiting the details and inhibiting alternative possibilities is how we come up with a clear distilled idea. 

So the idea behind the archive of ideas is that what you’ll do is distill things down to their essence, write down that important thing and then your conscious brain can forget it.

You’ve got it in your archive. You can go back to it. And all you need to remember is the, gist so that later on, you can make links between that note and other notes, and start to think at a higher level, at a more complex level than the simple facts. And that’s partly based on the idea that our brains memory works through connections and association, particularly our retrieval processes.

So if what you’re doing when you’re making notes is consciously writing a note down and then thinking about how it links to everything else that you’ve written down in the past and thought through you’re building those connections in a very. Precise manner that encourages your brain to form the associations more deeply, because it’s showing that you’re really attending to this, to your brain and your brain and reinforces that kind of attention.

And that builds a more, a higher level memory of things that just of things at least, and over time. Allows you to think more precisely about ideas because you understand the gist of a wide variety of things and can think competently through all those different lenses you would learn to approach topics through a variety of different lenses over time.