How to Take Smart Notes: Note Taking Techniques for Success

Great thinkers, learners, and writers know how to take smart notes. This is a powerful and advanced note-taking technique for gathering and organising information. As a student, smart notes can help you to remember what you’ve learnt and turn that knowledge into something useful. This note-taking technique allows you to synthesise information effectively and develop better critical reading and writing skills. In this blog, you’ll learn how to take smart notes, and all about the process and benefits of this note-taking technique


Ahrens and Luhmann: The Smart Note-Takers

Sönke Ahrens, the author of How to Take Smart Notes, pioneered this powerful note-taking technique to help students, academics, and non-fiction writers. For Ahrens, note-taking is a tool for thinking, learning, and writing effectively. His approach makes it easy to turn your thoughts and knowledge into high quality written work while building up an interesting collection of smart notes. 

Notably, Ahrens’ note-taking technique was inspired by Niklas Luhmann, a highly productive and innovative sociologist, who produced over 500 papers and more than 50 books in his lifetime. He did this using the zettelkasten system (the “slip-box”) to collect, review, store, organise, and connect his thoughts and knowledge overtime. This zettelkasten acted as Luhmann’s second brain and allowed him to become a productive writer and academic. Luhmann’s slip-box was created using index card notes that were organised based on the relationships and connections these notes shared with other notes in the system. 


How to Take Smart Notes using 3 Note Types

Fleeting Notes

How often do you take the time to capture a thought or idea in writing? Fleeting notes are quick, informal, and unorganised notes that capture your random thoughts, ideas, or revelations throughout the day.  If you’re working on an assignment or project, it’s likely you might come up with ideas when your mind wanders. By jotting these down, you ensure nothing is forgotten and free up mental space. Fleeting notes can also serve as reminders to revisit something you read or listened to. 


Literature Notes

Unlike fleeting notes, literature notes require more time and attention. You can create literature notes from all kinds of information sources such as podcasts, Twitter threads, articles, and of course, books. The key here is take those interesting bookmarks, highlights, and annotations and bring them to life in your own words. It’s important to avoid copying word-for-word and instead, focus on writing out your understanding of that piece of information. 

How does it apply to your current project? Why is this interesting for your collection? It’s likely you experienced such thoughts when choosing to highlight or save this information. Now, you just need to create a personally written record of that. Alongside writing literature notes in your own words, Ahrens suggests keeping your literature notes short, selective, and well-referenced by including the information source on your note. 


Permanent Notes

Your fleeting notes and literature notes will be the source of the permanent notes that will live in your slip-box. To create permanent notes, you’ll need to review your collection of fleeting and literature notes. Ahren recommends doing this once a day, however, once every few days or weekly can work if you’re not taking a lot of notes. This note-taking stage is where you’ll begin creating a network of ideas and information. 

Each permanent should focus on one idea that can be understood easily when read in isolation. Your future self or someone else should be able to make sense of the note without the other notecards. Ideally, the note’s content would fit on one side of a regular index card. This limited space can encourage you to write clearly and ensure you’re documenting one idea only. To create effective permanent notes that are relevant to your current projects, you can ask a few questions:

  • Does this information or idea combine with another to create a new insight?
  • What questions does this leave me with? 
  • How does this information add to, support, or contradict what I know? 


For each idea, question, and insight that comes about while reflecting on your fleeting and literature notes, create a permanent note. Think about the context of the note and its relevance to what you’re trying to learn or write about. This can help you to make clear and well-connected permanent notes. The next step is to then start organising permanent notes in relation to one another. 


How to Use and Organise Permanent Smart Notes

The Slip-Box Filing System

As you build up a collection of permanent smart notes, a filing system is necessary to keep things organised. Luhmann used a clever branching style method to organise his smart notes. Your first smart note will be labelled number 1. If the following notes are unrelated to that note, these would become 2, 3 and so on. Imagine each number note-card as subtopics in your project. 


zettelkasten slip-box filing system using branches for smart notes
To add new information, ideas, and insights related to card number 1, you would slot this between cards 1 and 2 with the label 1A. To add another idea, this would become 1B and this would continue for each branch. For example, to add a new note to 1A, you would label it 1A1. These labels can then be used to create a wider network. If you have a new note card that relates to both 1A and 3C, you can label it as 1A1 and then make note of 3C on the notecard for future reference. 


Permanent Smart Notes for Writing

How do you approach research for writing assignments? You might use a top-down approach of creating an outline first to guide your research. This can be a beneficial way to avoid getting lost in the vast amount of research and information available. However, this pre-defined structure can limit the powerful insights that could occur as you research. The zettelkasten instead helps you to structure your notes, which allows you stay focused while researching yet still keep the door open for new and exciting insights to form. 

By learning how to take and use smart notes, you’ll be able to demonstrate critical thinking in assignments and present new ideas. Throughout this process, the outline, story, or flow of your written piece will emerge by itself from the connected notes. You’ll also have a better understanding of how your research and ideas piece together. This leads to enaging, logical, and creative writing that demonstrates your expertise. 


Creating New Insights: Compass of Zettelkasten Thinking

You can use the compass of zettelkasten thinking to help you develop those new insights. This method gets you thinking about the chosen note or idea in depth. Take one note and imagine four arrows like compass directions. For each arrow, you can ask the following questions:

  • North: Where does this idea originate from? Or, what causes this idea to exist? Where does it belong? 
  • West: Is there something similar to this idea? Does this idea exist in other contexts? For example, a model of thinking might exist both in business and computer science. 
  • South: What can this idea lead to? Does it contribute to another group of ideas? If not, can it?
  • East: What is the opposite of this idea? This might be something that competes with the idea, or something that is lacking from it. 


This approach can help you to develop one single idea into something new. It’s a simple and easy way to engage in critical thinking without getting overwhelmed. You might find other ideas related to the idea at hand using the four arrows. This will then lead to new permanent smart notes based on your insights. 


How to Take Smart Notes with Jamworks 

For students, lecture material is essential for getting through university. Unlike reading, lectures rarely allow you to take breaks and make notes in your own words at a reasonable pace. Staying focused to take detailed enough notes is hard enough. Before making smart notes from lecture materials, you’ll need to revisit the content, pick out the important parts, and fill in any gaps. This can be a time-consuming process that prevents you from reaching the smart notes stage. 

Jamworks provides a distraction-free note-taking experience. This personal productivity learning tool records live and online lectures, seminars, and meetings with assistive note-taking and live-captioning features. Jamworks’ simple yet powerful features support smart note-taking and allow you to progress to the permanent notes stage quickly. 


Jamworks’ Flags and Highlights

In lectures, it can be hard to note down personal thoughts that act as fleeting notes because you’re focused on getting your lecture notes down. Jamworks’ flag feature can act as a fleeting note to remind you to come back to a topic or indicate the information relevant to the assessment. Alternatively, you can add fleeting notes to the note section of a highlight. Jamworks’ offers 1-button highlighting to break lecture material into key ideas and subtopics. For each highlight, you can write up fleeting or literature notes in your own words. 

These two features make it easy for you to start taking smart notes. You can focus in class while still organising your lecture material for easy access later on. There’s no need to worry about filling the gaps or working through messy notes. You can simply begin creating literature notes for each highlight and these will remain linked to their original source in the lecture material. 


AI-powered Summaries 

For each highlight, Jamworks uses artificial intelligence (AI) to create a summary for you. This can be useful for creating literature notes. Although literature notes should be in your own words, it can be hard to organise your thoughts when dealing with a lot of information. AI-powered summaries present you with what you need to begin forming your own literature notes. You won’t need to fast-forward through the lecture material to get to what you need. If you need to revisit the original material, you can view the full transcript of the highlight or entire lecture, or simply playback the audio-clip from the highlight. 

Your highlights with their attached fleeting notes, literature notes, and AI-powered summaries can then be used to create permanent smart notes. You can use index cards to make permanent notes just like Luhmann. You’ll have saved time with Jamworks which will make it easier for you to spend time refining those highlights and notes to produce permanent notes for your slip-box. 

Start taking smart notes with Jamworks today – Click here to get started.

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