68: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

68: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

Episode found at: https://bookworm.fm/68/

It’s been said that for a writer, nothing is as intimidating as a blank page. But the author of today’s book says that doesn’t have to be the case. Join Joe & Mike as they look at how to take better notes and automate the writing process. Links – Support the show – Bookworm Shirts…

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As our recommended @Gaby said: the title says it all.
I was disappointed, @mikeschmitz and @joebuhlig with your initial responses to the book and the low grades you eventually awarded it, but having heard your criticisms and comments I think I would probably have agreed. I will not be reading the full text.
I hope your actions planned in response make your efforts in reading the book worthwhile.
Keep up the good work.

I do believe it’s a worthwhile read, and it is pretty short so it doesn’t take a ton of time to get through it.

The real value from some of these ideas presented in books we don’t absolutely love doesn’t show up until months later when your brain has had a chance to take ownership of it and modify as needed. I have a feeling this book falls into that category.


Having read this book (before I knew Joe & Mike we’re reviewing it!), I have deceived it to others as the theoretical introduction to Zettelkasten. Then I point them to https://zettelkasten.de/ to really dig into “how” this works. Plus, I’m trying out their software The Archive in implementing my personal Zettelkasten.

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I finally had the chance to listen to this episode. I was sorry to see you didn’t like the book (felt slightly responsible for suggesting it), but I think most of your criticisms are well-founded. I agree that the strength of the book isn’t in its style. Still, I think the Zettelkasten method is a valid one.

As @g_bailey already mentioned, The Archive is a very clean, simple and nice app for implementing this system. It assigns a unique name to each note. (On the Zettelkasten forum there are nice Keyboard Maestro macros to auto-compile tags, to create the index of your cards etc.) And, Joe, it’s just text files (with hyperlinks, though). :wink:

I got curious about the Notion app Mike mentioned.

I smiled (sorry) at Mike’s story about the ‘accusation’ of plagiarism on the book report as I do the same with my (university) students. Hope I don’t traumatise them and start acknowledging X, Y and Z at each statement they make. :wink:

Thank you for suggesting it! I’m glad I read it, and I like the system - just need to think through how to implement it the right way :wink:

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Gaby - I am wondering how much you implement the reference manager aspect of the Zettelkasten method? It’s probably the one part of the discussion that I have struggled with the most in terms of figuring out my workflow.

I think these are good (related) reads.

I personally like the “commonplace book” concept.

Note taking

Commonplace book

What’s zettelkasten:

My reference manager is DEVONthink. I love its powerful search. When I want to add a reference to a note in The Archive, I copy the item link.
When I write an article, I use Bookends for citations (one can also index the Bookends folder in DEVONthink, if one keeps PDF in Bookends).

Hmmmm… Zettelkasten is less of a method, more about three principles than anything else:

  • Mobile notes
  • Stable notes
  • Combinable notes

See here:


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It does look nice. And it seems well thought out given the team was coming from nvAlt. But at this point I have my workflow nailed down in vim and text files. Sooooo, I’m already there. :man_shrugging:

@AFC, I recently learned that Ryan Holiday was using this system. I wish I had known before we recorded this episode. But, then again, it’s still fascinating to learn about.

@Antonio_Lopez, thanks for the link. The more of these I read, the more I understand the nuance of the process.

I was very interested in this subject as organising and using notes effectively is something I’m always trying to improve on. I looked through the websites and rightly or wrongly the impression I got was of a system that seemed too focused on its physical past. I tried the app and did think that it was no improvement on Onenote that I already use.

I also use the Cornell Method for taking notes which is useful as it gets you to start thinking and writing in a way that makes notes far more effective. It also fits in nicely to hyperlinking and tagging. If you haven’t tried it give it a go.

I still think there might be a more effective way of storing the notes as reading notes back in Onenote is a bit dry and lacks visual appeal. I looked at Notion and don’t think its the way forward for me, but a personal wiki or blog are options that I think might give me what I’m looking for, which is good structure, easy to search and to look visually appealing.

One last thing and my personal and work Onenote systems both use it; I find the PARA system by Tiago Forte to be a fantastic methodology for structuring your files. I listened to a Podcast with Tiago a couple of years ago and implemented the system the next day and I still use it now and don’t see myself changing as it gives such a well defined bad useful structure.

My pleasure, Joe.

I also found this golden nugget:


Scroll down to the header “The Bear Minimum of a Zettle Note” which is where Zettelkasten newbies like me are provided with a step-by-step means to correctly learn how to practice this kind of note-taking.

So, yes! Zettelkasten is both a set of principles and a method simultaneously.


I, too, use Devonthink and Bookends to take notes in zettel form and I think this is a really good combination. The searching and tagging features in Devon are really helpful. However, I do think though that it takes a while to learn how to produce zettels that are actually useful for writing.

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This is really interesting. I think I’m doing a lot of those pieces already. But I’m breaking pieces apart and keeping them in separate notes.

First off, welcome, @mpopescu! Second, this point is spot on. I’m finding that it likely takes a while to learn how to connect these notes meaningfully.

I heard you mention the online course „30 Days to better Writing“ on the show. This sounds very interesting to me. Can anyone recommend the course?

Thank you for the welcome, @joebuhlig. It’s nice to be here. Zettels are tricky because they are meant to serve a particular style of writing, one meant to articulate an argument rather than describe something or synthesizing different readings. The temptation is always to use Zettels to record “facts” or quotations rather than “points” that can be connected with other points. (For that reason, tags are not good substitutes for connections because they organize around keywords. Links are probably better, but I don’t think they are a good substitute either for the process of physically ordering cards to “grow” an argument. When you order cards physically you have to commit to a particular argument structure. Digitally, what links to what is not obvious precisely because the process is non-linear.)

Anyway, for how to write Zettels, I found these entries helpful:




How I propose to use Ulysses for your Zettelkasten:

  1. Create sheet for one new Zettel

  2. Provide the sheet its ID number with a level 2 (##) markdown header (YYYYMMDDHHMM) and you can optionally annotate the header with the ID for the X-callback URL; there’s however a caveat since annotations require you to activate Multimarkdown, thus deactivating regular Markdown

  3. Provide the sheet its Zettel title with a level 3 (###) markdown header containing within a phrase (not a sentence) the Zettel’s core idea

  4. Include an optional line separator for aesthetic purposes only

  5. Provide the sheet its Zettel idea with a level 3 (###) markdown header titled “What this source states”

  6. Summarize the Zettel idea with a full sentence; do not use bullets or lower-level headers; only add in bold font the word “Summary:” and then add the summarizing full sentence

  7. Follow the requirements in step 6 for ancillary ideas supporting the main one (for example, evidence and expressly stated purpose, when applicable)

  8. Repeat step 4

  9. Provide the sheet its Zettel comments with a level 3 (###) markdown header titled " My comments"; here, the sky is the limit; work with bullet points and full sentences

  10. Your Zettel is done when you add relevant keywords in the form of colorful tags to the sheet

  11. You might want to maintain a Zettelkasten index or journal with all the Zettel ID numbers and x-callback URLS

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Thanks for the links, @mpopescu. Really helpful.

@Antonio_Lopez, great write-up. :+1:

And for anyone else looking for implementations with different tools:


Regardless of your chosen tool, the most important steps are 9, 6, 10 and 2, in that order from most to least. You’re not supposed to hoard information but to collect it strictly for purposes of assimilating it, that is to say, for making it your own by absorbing its concerns and integrating those concerns to your own concerns.

Ideally, you have at least two completed Zettels and you start composing a manuscript. This is where Ulysses shines with its new “second editor” feature on both macOS and iOS. Picture the Zettels on one side and the manuscript on the other side. Crazy!

Notion is another great option for non-Apple users who want to nurture their Zettelkasten, but which has yet to considered in www.zettelkasten.de/tools (linked earlier by Joe), as it runs on the Web, supports Kanban, alongside embedded files, dynamic table of contents, regular Markdown and many other bells and whistles. Plus, the yearly subscription is less than what you pay for with Ulysses.

Great time to be alive with such powerful technology.