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How to Take Smart Notes in Roam Research

By Brian Sunter

Posted in Productivity, Notetaking, Roam

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens using Roam
How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens using Roam

By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of your own intellectual development, topics questions and arguments will naturally emerge without force.

How to Take Smart Notes Book + Roam

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens describes a strategy to improve understanding, remember what you read, and generate new ideas by taking notes.

Roam Research is a web based tool for finding, collecting, and connecting related ideas that works well with the Smart Notes method. You can use it to take bullet point notes with headings and subheadings. Roam Group

Summary and Impressions

The author describes a workflow to take notes on what you read, how to integrate notes into your total body of knowledge, and how to use your notes to generate new ideas. The book encourages you to take notes while reading in two phases. In the first phase you take "fleeting notes" whenever you have a passing idea and "literature notes" when reading source material. Next you transform these into "permanent notes" which are fully formed self contained ideas in 1-3 sentences.

"Work as if nothing else counts but writing. An idea kept private is as good as one you never had"

I really enjoyed this book and it warmed me up to the idea of note taking. Before I thought of taking notes as busy work and unhelpful, but this book made me think of it as a form of active learning. The author emphasizes rewriting the source material in your own words, as opposed to copying and pasting, underlining, or highlighting, which are proven to be less effective.

I really like the proposed workflow, especially after being frustrated by traditional folder organization systems like Evernote which made it difficult to make connections between unrelated topics.


The problem with sorting by topic is you're faced with the dilemma of adding either more notes to one topic which makes the notes harder to find or adding more topics and subtopics to it which causes the same problem at a higher level.

The author's method can be used for idea generation in addition to note taking. The book advocates letting interesting topics emerge from your broad research, rather than picking a topic and finding research that supports your points. Start with open ended research before picking a topic to write about.

Roam Graph

The method is based on the technique called Zettelkasten used by a 19th century German sociologist named Niklas Luhmann. He took notes on index cards with references to other notes, rather than organizing the notes purely by topic. The author spends a lot of time detailing Luhmann's method and it's a good source of inspiration, but I don't take his method too literally and try to leverage new technology to enable workflows that might not have been possible for him.

Permanent notes

Permanent Notes are directed towards an audience who are ignorant of the thoughts behind the text and unaware of the original context. They are only equipped with a general knowledge of the field.

The emphasis of the workflow is to generate permanent notes: useful self contained ideas in 1-3 sentences. These ideas are potentially useful in different contexts. You should think of how these notes relate to existing notes.

For example:

Dunbar's number states that humans can maintain close social relationships with at most 150 people.

Roth IRA contributions are not tax-deductible, but earnings can grow tax-free, and qualified withdrawals are tax and penalty-free.

A 5% improvement in some area of your life per year can mean that you are twice as good at something in 15 years.

Ideas for Permanent Notes

The criteria for a permanent note is that it's "permanently" useful outside the context it was discovered. These permanent notes live on pages related to topics such as "AWS Networking" or a page for the book where the idea was discovered. In Roam, the location of the note isn't that important because you can embed and reference it on other pages.

Permanent Note


The archivist asks which keyword is the most fitting. The writer asks under which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note again, even if I forget it?

Backlinks are a very helpful feature to implement the smart notes notetaking workflow. Backlinks act as a tag that you can use to look up and group information as well as creating a dedicated page for that tag that can house more developed thoughts. These pages are useful for housing permanent notes.

When creating backlinks, we should think of under what circumstances we would want to discover this information later, rather than the most descriptive keyword. Good keywords are usually not specifically mentioned in the source material; they should related to your existing notes and goals.

[[writing]] [[productivity]] [[how to take smart notes]]

Roam makes it easy to discover backlinks later with the linked references view.

Roam References

Index pages

Another useful concept is creating an index page which is meant to be the entry point to a topic and organize other pages and can contain many links. These can contain short descriptions to introduce a topic.

Roam Index Page

Smart Notes Method

1. Make fleeting notes whenever you have an idea

Sometimes you'll spontaneously have an idea and want to write it down. Sometimes these are questions you have or ideas to investigate. Roam automatically creates a page for the current date and I use this to record thoughts as I have them. I try to record the ideas with at least two tags: one general and one more specific.

Roam Today

2. Make Literature Notes

The book encourages you to take notes on everything you read. Literature notes are short summaries of the source material and very selective use of quotations. I create dedicated pages on Roam for the book or article I'm reading.

Notes from Designing Data Intensive Applications

Data Intensive Applications

Notes from Egoscue home therapy


Whenever I read source material, I make a link to the literature note page in my daily notes as a reminder of what I did that day and for organizational purposes.

3. Make Permanent Notes at the end of the day

The distinction between fleeting notes and literature notes isn't that important, compared to the distinction between permanent notes and all other notes.

Turning fleeting notes into permanent notes

At the end of the day, I go through my daily notes. I turn them into permanent notes and put them on dedicated pages if I think they're worthwhile. If the ideas aren't worthwhile or developed enough, I just leave them on the daily notes so they can still be discovered later.

Turning literature notes into permanent notes

I usually take literature notes on a page dedicated to the book or article I'm reading. Often I write permanent notes on this same page. For common talks like reading I have templates that help me fill out permanent notes. The templates prompt me to answer: "Describe the book in 3 sentences", "Impressions on the book", "How the book changed me".

Simple Path to Wealth

Also, I look through the literature notes I've taken recently and compare them with related pages and permanent notes. I write permanent notes on different pages in different contexts based on the literature notes and create references to them.

The two pass method of taking notes, then converting them into permanent notes helps our notes be understandable outside the context they were written in.

4. Decide on a topic to write about based on your notes

After taking extensive notes on a topic an interesting angle or connection should start to appear. Start a page for the topic and look through your roam graph for supporting details

Separating idea intake and note taking from the act of content creation is a really good idea because they require different mindsets and this helps you focus effectively. Here's an example of the output of my permanent notes, an article that consists of notes from Roam combined with notes from the Smart Notes book.


Brian Sunter
Brian Sunter

Whatever problem you have, I will solve it.