Why and when I was watching this

Students and academics are often talking a lot about writing, but little attention has been given to note-taking. Sönke Ahrens thinks notes are the fundamental parts of intellectual endavours.

He attributes the fantastic productivity of Niklas Luhmann to his note-taking system, Zettelkasten. It’s a very bottom-up system and organized by my own associations rather than categories.

The Zettelkasten workflow is very much streamlined towards writing, because you organize the notes into a Map of Content and then fill in the gaps.

A quote from Richard Feynman:

Notes are not records of our thinking, we think through our notes

Using a Zettelkasten is a good place to put your previous knowledge, and you will be free to make associations and comparisons.

Good tools should allow us to focus on the main work: thinking and writing.

To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.

Four tools

  • Something to write with and something to write on (Markdow notes in Obsidian)
  • A reference management system (Zotero)
  • The slip-box (A folder in Zettelkasten)
  • An editor (Obsidian, iA writer, RStudio for markdown files)

The four underlying principles

Writing is the only thing that matters

Writing is often framed as one of many skills to be learned, and writing things like scientific manuscripts receive a “formula” or an ideal order to do things.

The book instead argues that studying is research, because that is where you gain new insights and connect ideas to each other. And writing is the medium of research (in peer-reviewed manuscripts, lectures, seminars etc).

Any written piece is a public claim on truth.

Having the mindset that writing is the only thing that matters does not mean that you should stop doing other things, but it forces you to focus on what is worth writing about: important, open questions.

Simplicity is paramount

“The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world.” Rather than having different storage for different ideas (or folders for courses), everything goes into the same slip-box and has a standardised format.

Everything is streamlined towards one thing: Insight that can be published.

This really struck a note, very much how I work at the moment:

The second typical mistake is to collect notes only related to specific projects. … you have to start all over after each project and cut off all other promising lines of thought.

Nobody ever starts from scratch

We always come with previous ideas, thoughts, opinions when deciding what to read or write about.

Look into your slip-box to see where clusters build up. It’s a very bottom-up approach in that you don’t really know beforehand where you will end up. So you don’t need to worry about a linear order of arguments or gaps in the notes. That’s something to think about when you put together a draft for writing.

Let the work carry you forward

“Working with the slip-box is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insight by letting ideas mingle.”

The value of the slip-box builds up over time because with a rich collection of notes you can make connections when you create new notes, rather than learning something in isolation.

The six steps to successful writing

Separate and interlocking tasks

Give each task your undivided attention

Multitasking is not a good idea

Multitasking forces you to constantly shift your focus between several things. Keep this in mind when writing papers! Reading, understanding, reflecting, getting ideas, making connections, distinguishing terms, finding the right words, structuring, organizing, editing, correcting and rewriting. They requite different strategies.

Give each task the right kind of attention

The slipbox comes in mainly when playing with ideas and making connections and comparisons. Building clusters of notes, combining them with other clusters and preparin the order of notes for a project.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPOI4f7yCag
  2. Ahrens, S. (2017). How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking: for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. CreateSpace.
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG1tfC7tSYw


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

Every intellectual endeavour starts with a note. LOCATION: 117

This book aims to fill this gap by showing you how to efficiently turn your thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build up a treasure of smart and interconnected notes along the way. LOCATION: 130

good, productive writing is based on good note-taking. Getting something that is already written into another written piece is incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there. LOCATION: 155

A good structure is something you can trust. It relieves you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of everything. If you can trust the system, you can let go of the attempt to hold everything together in your head and you can start focusing on what is important: The content, the argument and the ideas. LOCATION: 191

The challenge is to structure one’s workflow in a way that insight and new ideas can become the driving forces that push us forward. We do not want to make ourselves dependent on a plan that is threatened by the unexpected, like a new idea, discovery – or insight. LOCATION: 208

What we can take from Allen as an important insight is that the secret to a successful organization lies in the holistic perspective. Everything needs to be taken care of, otherwise the neglected bits will nag us until the unimportant tasks become urgent. LOCATION: 295

Strictly speaking, Luhmann had two slip-boxes: a bibliographical one, which contained the references and brief notes on the content of the literature, and the main one in which he collected and generated his ideas, mainly in response to what he read. The notes were written on index cards and stored in wooden boxes. NOTE: Ah, so you Don’t have just one large one. LOCATION: 416

In a second step, shortly after, he would look at his brief notes and think about their relevance for his own thinking and writing. He then would turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments and thoughts on new pieces of paper, using only one for each idea and restricting himself to one side of the paper, to make it easier to read them later without having to take them out of the box. He kept them usually brief enough to make one idea fit on a single sheet, but would sometimes add another note to extend a thought. LOCATION: 421

The trick is that he did not organise his notes by topic, but in the rather abstract way of giving them fixed numbers. LOCATION: 435

Whenever he added a note, he checked his slip-box for other relevant notes to make possible connections between them. LOCATION: 441

We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains. LOCATION: 457

Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, it helps with it. Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. LOCATION: 494

Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else: Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible. Throw away the fleeting notes from step one and put the literature notes from step two into your reference system. You can forget about them now. All that matters is going into the slip-box. LOCATION: 525

To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter. LOCATION: 615

The moment the author can be removed from the scene, the written piece is a public claim on truth. LOCATION: 716

The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world. Instead of having different storage for different ideas, everything goes into the same slip-box and is standardised into the same format. LOCATION: 791

The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering. LOCATION: 797

The second typical mistake is to collect notes only related to specific projects. On first sight, it makes much more sense. You decide on what you are going to write about and then collect everything that helps you to do that. The disadvantage is that you have to start all over after each project and cut off all other promising lines of thought. That means that everything you found, thought or encountered during the time of a project will be lost. If you try to mitigate the effect by opening a new folder for every potential new project whenever you stumble upon something that might be interesting for that, you will soon end up with an overwhelming amount of unfinished projects. If that in itself does not become a drag on your motivation, the task of keeping track of them will. But most importantly, without a permanent reservoir of ideas, you will not be able to develop any major ideas over a longer period of time because you are restricting yourself either to the length of a single project or the capacity of your memory. Exceptional ideas need much more than that. LOCATION: 822

Working with the slip-box means playing with ideas and looking out for interesting connections and comparisons. It means building clusters, combining them with other clusters and preparing the order of notes for a project. Here, we need to puzzle with notes and find the best fit. It is much more associative, playful and creative than the other tasks and requires a very different kind of attention as well. LOCATION: 1166

In short, academic writing requires the whole spectrum of attention. To master the art of writing, we need to be able to apply whatever kind of attention and focus is needed. LOCATION: 1175

The workflow around the slip-box is not a prescription that tells you what to do at what stage of writing. On the contrary: It gives you a structure of clearly separable tasks, which can be completed within reasonable time and provides you with instant feedback through interconnected writing tasks. LOCATION: 1251

Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about. LOCATION: 1282

And what is most helpful is to reflect on the frame, the theoretical background, methodological approach or perspective of the text we read. That often means to reflect as much on what is not mentioned as what is mentioned. LOCATION: 1417

Without a clear purpose for the notes, taking them will feel more like a chore than an important step within a bigger project. LOCATION: 1423

which insanely starts with the decision on the hypothesis or the topic to write about, is a sure-fire way to let confirmation bias run rampant. NOTE: Yes but when I write papers the scope is already set by the data and results. This view might be helpful in grant proposals though. LOCATION: 1484

Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight. We should be able to focus on the most insightful ideas we encounter and welcome the most surprising turns of events without jeopardizing our progress or, even better, because it brings our project forward. LOCATION: 1490

Writing, taking notes and thinking about how ideas connect is exactly the kind of elaboration that is needed to learn. LOCATION: 1661

A common way to embed an idea into the context of the slip-box is by writing out the reasons of its importance for your own lines of thought. LOCATION: 1772

The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as we will already have learned what we understand. The problem is that the meaning of something is not always obvious and needs to be explored. That is why we need to elaborate on it. But elaboration is nothing more than connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. LOCATION: 1911