How I take smart notes

Note-taking is an activity that occurs in the present moment but is in service of a future one.

Notes need to be connected to a larger purpose, otherwise they’re mostly irrelevant —Sönke Ahrens

Taking notes is about collecting information and ideas in this moment, and making them available for our future selves to act upon. We’re seeding ideas now and helping them grow stronger as we explore and learn new things.

It’s important to shift attention from individual project towards open connections —Sönke Ahrens

The goal is to build a body of work that, over time, compounds on itself, offering future returns greater than the present sum of their parts. Like a long-term investment strategy, the more you put in on a consistent basis, the better your returns will likely be over time.

Note taking allows us to seed initial ideas, tend to them over time, and eventually, harvest the best ideas the moment they turn ripe. It’s this analogy that leads people to build digital gardens for tending and nurturing ideas—a fascinating practice I’m actively exploring for myself.

There are good and not-so-good ways to take notes

The first thing to know when taking notes is the importance of translating notes into your own words. Take notes in your own words while reading, watching, and thinking, as it will help you process and better understand your ideas.

The best way to take notes that improve over time is to take what Andy Matuschak calls evergreen notes. Evergreen notes are written intentionally to evolve and develop over time, ideally with minimal effort, and provide maximum return if cared for properly.

Getting started on this journey can feel overwhelming—I personally have gotten lost down many a rabbit hole while exploring all the possibilities—so the best thing to do is simply to get started and see where it takes you.

As always, learn by doing.

Let structure emerge over time. Just take notes and start to connect them. This will lead to new ideas, new organization, and new output. — Andy Matuschak

Your starting goal is to capture your ideas and write contextually relevant notes that can always be referred to and understood.

Underlining, margin notes, and fleeting notes become useless if they are not acted on within a day or two, so it’s important to revisit your “fleeting” notes—notes made in the moment—and turn them into “evergreen” notes—notes written to be easily understood in any future context.

It’s best to create notes which are only about one thing—but which, as much as possible, capture the entirety of that thing. — Andy Matuschak

Ideas improve by writing about them not by thinking about them. By emptying our minds onto paper and into external systems, we free up our brains to do the cognitively-heavy work of connecting ideas and generating new ones. Which, after all, is perhaps what sets humans apart from every other species on the planet.

The key to writing good Evergreen notes is to write them in your own words and to write them for other people. By writing them as clearly as you can, you set yourself up for insightful collisions between your past ideas and future thinking. According to Sönke Ahrens, “the only step that really counts is writing the permanent note.”

Since note taking is about building knowledge by remixing your thoughts in ways that facilitate the emergence of new ideas, it’s important to link notes to one another (Notes should be densely linked) and regularly review them in ways that connect dots and grow your ideas into ones worth writing about.

Novel connections tend to appear where they’re not quite so expected — Andy Matuschak

Different types of notes:

  • Fleeting: off the cuff
  • Literature: while reading
  • Evergreen / Permanent: crystal clear + in your own words

Places to store them:

Ways to process them:

Notes mentioning this note