Creating Smart Notes to Organize Your Thinking

"We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains." (Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes)

In the world of continuous learning, taking notes is an essential part of the process. However, not all note-taking methods are created equal. In his book “How to Take Smart Notes,” Sönke Ahrens introduces the zettelkasten note-taking system, a method used by German sociologist Nicholas Luhmann to write 58 books and over 500 academic papers.

The zettelkasten system is a remarkable way of connecting index cards to simplify the way in which you write the first draft of your book, academic paper, business plan, or article. It uses a two-stage filter to prevent mediocre ideas from diluting existing notes. Here’s a breakdown of how the system works:

Stage One: Capture Literature Notes and Fleeting Notes When making notes, capture literature notes by highlighting passages in your ebook reader or taking notes in a mobile note-taking application. You can also capture sections of online articles or podcasts that discuss the topic you’re researching. You can also capture fleeting notes by writing down random ideas that come to your mind throughout the day.

Stage Two: Create Permanent Notes Once a day, preferably at the same time every day, go through your literature notes and fleeting notes from the past 24 hours. Determine which notes you should convert to permanent notes. Two criteria for converting a note into a permanent note are:

  • Does this note produce a similar level of excitement as when you first captured it?
  • Does this note add value to other permanent notes?

If an idea from your literature notes or an idea from your fleeting notes meets those two criteria, make it a permanent note by rewriting it on an index card. Add a location code prefix to the title, a list of keywords in the top right corner, and links to permanent notes in the bottom right corner.

One of the advantages of the zettelkasten system is its bottom-up approach to writing. Rather than outlining your book or article from the start, the system encourages you to follow your curiosity, generate a list of keywords as you go, and organically grow an outline over time. By adding keywords to every permanent note, you can group notes together and quickly find relevant notes.

Location Code Prefix When you prefix every permanent note title with a location code, you make it easy to reference your notes later on. The first note you add to your zettelkasten system will have one prefix to its title, and your second note will have a two prefix to its title. If your third note builds off the first note, it should go between notes 1 and 2 and have the code 1a prefixed to its title.

List of Keywords Identifying keywords is as important as taking notes. Aim to add one to three keywords to the top right corner of every permanent note. Identify keywords by asking yourself what one word or phrase relates this note to existing notes. When you develop a new keyword or phrase, put it on your master index, located on an index card at the very front of your index card box.

Note Links A new permanent note may have many potential friends in your zettelkasten system. If a note could fit nicely behind note 12a1 but it also relates to notes 2b1 and 24b, don’t spend too much time debating where the note should go. Simply put it behind 12a1 by giving it the code 12a2 and write down the location codes for related notes in the bottom right corner of the note. These links will be helpful when you write your first draft.

To summarize, start by capturing literature notes and fleeting notes in a mobile note-taking application. Then, convert a select few into permanent notes by rewriting them on index cards. Continuously update your master index with keywords and use it to outline your first draft. Go through your zettelkasten system sequentially, one card at a time, and effortlessly write your first draft. The zettelkasten system is an incredibly powerful tool for anyone looking to improve their note-taking and writing skills.

So, what are you waiting for? Give the zettelkasten system a try, and transform how you take notes forever!

Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom

celebrating juneteenth


It’s important to recognize and commemorate significant events in American history. Juneteenth is just such an event, celebrated on June 19th each year. Juneteenth is an important date in American history because it commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.

The History of Juneteenth

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in the Confederate states were to be set free. However, it wasn’t until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were now free. This announcement came two months after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. The news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War had not reached Texas until then.

The newly freed slaves in Texas celebrated their newfound freedom with great joy and jubilation. They held parades, sang songs, and read the Emancipation Proclamation out loud. This day became known as Juneteenth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth.”

Why Juneteenth is Important

Juneteenth is an important date in American history for several reasons. First, it marks the end of slavery in the United States. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two and a half years earlier, it wasn’t until Juneteenth that the news reached all of the states. This day symbolizes the end of a dark period in American history and the beginning of a new era of freedom and equality.

Second, Juneteenth celebrates the resilience and perseverance of the African American community. Despite years of slavery and oppression, African Americans were able to maintain their culture, traditions, and sense of community. Juneteenth is a celebration of their strength and determination.

Finally, Juneteenth is a reminder that the fight for civil rights and equality is ongoing. Although slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, systemic racism and inequality still exist in America today. Juneteenth serves as a call to action to continue the work of those who fought for freedom and equality in the past and to work towards a more just and equal society for all.

Resources for Teaching about Juneteenth

10 Powerful Books for Adults, Teens, and Kids to Celebrate and Understand Juneteenth

For children:

Addy: An American Girl

In this American Girl classic, Addy Walker is a young slave living in 1864 who dreams of escaping to freedom with her family. However, their plans are foiled when their owner decides to sell Addy’s father and brother to a different plantation. Left with only her mother, Addy must escape alone and hope to reunite with her family in Philadelphia. Follow Addy’s courageous journey as she adjusts to life as a free person in the North and strives to be reunited with her loved ones.

Freedom’s Gifts: A Juneteenth Story

Young Black girl June celebrates Juneteenth, while her cousin Lillie celebrates the Fourth of July. Can June teach Lillie the importance of Juneteenth at the family picnic?

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom

This picture book tells the story of a little girl’s liberation on the first Juneteenth. The book includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline of notable dates, and a glossary to help children understand the significance of Juneteenth.

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl

This Coretta Scott King Honor winner tells the story of Patsy, a 12-year-old girl living in Mars Bluff, S.C., after the Civil War. Written in diary format, the book follows Patsy as she observes the changes around her and embraces her newfound freedom to read and write. Through her own determination, Patsy creates a better life for herself and her fellow formerly enslaved people.

For teens:

Crossing Ebenezer Creek

During the Civil War, General Sherman leads Union soldiers through Georgia, setting enslaved Mariah and her younger brother Zeke free. The two join the march for protection, but as Mariah dreams of a better life for herself and her people, the harsh realities of slavery continue to weigh on her.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Preteens and teenagers who are too young to read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning can still learn about antiracism from his collaboration with young adult author Reynolds. The book uses critical race theory, history, and pop culture references to keep young readers engaged.

For adults:

The Deep

This novella is a fantasy story inspired by the song “The Deep” from Clipping, a Hugo Award-nominated rap group led by Daveed Diggs. It follows the descendants of African enslaved women who were thrown overboard during their journey to America, now living under the sea. Yetu, a historian, must remember her people’s traumatic past since no one else can. But she escapes to the surface, discovering the world her people left behind and the traumatic memories held there.

Between the World and Me

In this essay about race, Coates writes a letter to his son about his life as a Black man, his fears and dreams for his son, the nature of the Black body in America, and his aspirations for the Black community. Coates weaves an intimate look into Blackness in America.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

In this deep dive into Black history, Ibram X. Kendi details the history of anti-Blackness in America, from the first enslaved people to today. He highlights five key historical figures in American and Black history: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. Each represents the attitudes of their era and played a significant role in the fight for or against abolition, segregation, assimilation, or equal rights.

The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology

Romance fans will enjoy this anthology about love and hope after Juneteenth. The stories cover various topics, from the day enslaved people were freed to a Juneteenth-themed cruise, out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the early 20th century, and boxing rings during the Civil Rights Movement. Each story captures love and Black joy during difficult times.

On Juneteenth

In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon-Reed discusses the history of slavery in America, leading up to the events that culminated in Juneteenth. She also weaves together American history and her own family history to pay tribute to the integral role of Black people in shaping Texas. The author previously wrote Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which challenged Americans’ perception of the founding father due to his exploitative relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on his plantation.