Zettelkasten method

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Zettelkasten is one of the best methods for thinking and writing. It is a note-taking and Personal Knowledge Management method created by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist and thinker in systems theory. Using his Zettelkasten (which means ”slip box” in German), Mr. Luhmann managed to publish more than 70 books and hundreds of articles.

While the Zettelkasten method was created as an analog system, it is perfectly applicable to digital systems.

This method is at the very core of the Obsidian Starter Kit, so take your time to explore it.

Before we dive in, consider the fact that there are entire books dedicated to this method. Here, I’ll focus on the core ideas of the system and will not cover the nitty-gritty details or the fascinating story behind its creation. My goal here is to help you get started using this approach. If you want to dig deeper, then check out the references at the end.

The Zettelkasten method aims to help you forget. It aims to help you create an external mind of sorts. A second brain. A system in which you can store everything that inspires you, your ideas, and your own creations. Zettelkasten puts the focus on connecting ideas rather than accumulating isolated pieces of information. Using this method, you can build a deep Web of knowledge. This can help you do research, explore ideas, write articles, and even entire books.

Zettelkasten is both something you create/use based on a set of guiding principles and rules (i.e., a structure) and a method/process you follow to create, maintain and organize your notes over time.

The Zettelkasten method/process describes how to capture, explore, store and organize interesting ideas/information/knowledge (i.e., inspiration) as well as your own creations.

On the other hand, the structure ensures that you don’t end up with a big ball of mud and can continue to leverage your Web of knowledge as it grows.

Together, the structure and the process will help you create a structured and deeply connected Web of knowledge.

A Zettelkasten is personal. Yours will differ from mine, and that’s normal; you are a different person.

Before we dive into the method, let’s first look at the structure and the concepts.

Zettelkasten structure, concepts, and principles

A Zettelkasten is composed of three parts

  • An Inbox
  • An archive of Literature notes
  • An archive of Permanent notes

Within those containers, you will store different types of notes, but those can all be referred to as Zettels; which means “paper slip” in German.

The Inbox is where you temporarily store thoughts, ideas, facts, and questions. Those notes are called Fleeting notes. Fleeting notes are raw and unpolished. They might later turn into diamonds (permanent notes), or might simply be removed later on. Taking fleeting notes is like writing on the corner of a piece of paper. You do NOT want to accumulate those.

The Literature notes archive is where you will store notes about everything that inspires you. That includes verbatim quotes that you like, information about people you look up to, interesting tweets, book notes, information from articles you’ve read and found fascinating, etc. Literature notes are your inspiration. It’s not your own content.

The most important part of Zettelkasten is the Permanent notes archive. Permanent notes are yours. They correspond to your own thoughts, your own ideas, your own interpretations, your own quotes. Permanent notes are ideas you explore, develop, and connect with other ideas and literature notes. It’s your own knowledge base, your Web of knowledge.

Generally speaking, both literature and permanent notes should be Atomic notes. Each note should focus on a single idea. You’ll build more complex knowledge by linking atomic notes together to form longer texts.

Importantly, all your notes should be easily understandable. Both now and in the future once you don’t have all the contextual information in your mind. Write in a way that will still make sense to you later. Don’t assume anything and write as if you had to learn for the first time. Always write to understand later.

Notice that Zettelkasten only uses 3 main “containers” to store notes: the inbox for fleeting notes, the literature notes archive, and the permanent notes archive. That’s it. You should not try to create complex folder structures within each “container”. Instead, you should keep those containers are simple as possible. If you take a look at the Folder structure of the Obsidian Starter Kit, you’ll see that there are just a handful of folders within the “Fleeting notes”, “Literature notes” and “Permanent notes” folders. I would even argue that some of those are actually unnecessary because tags could easily serve the same purpose. Some people expand the base structure to separate “Reference notes”, but I chose not to. To me, those are also literature notes.

Notes in a Zettelkasten have a simple structure:

  • Unique title
  • Content
  • Summary (optional)
  • References: your sources, links, etc. You can use a reference to another tool dedicated to bibliographical data (e.g., Bibtex, Zotero, BibDesk, etc)
  • Tags

The Zettelkasten method

Now that you know the concepts, let’s look at the method.

The method/process is the part of Zettelkasten that brings the most value. It’s what will help you think and write better. Trust it!

The method goes as follows:

  • Capture fleeting notes when you don’t have time to do more
  • Create literature notes based on what you explore/consume; anything that inspires you
    • While doing so, take note of your thoughts and questions
  • Review your literature notes and create permanent notes to distill your ideas, your thoughts, and make connections with the rest of your knowledge base
  • Review your fleeting notes regularly to aim for zero inbox

Capturing fleeting notes

First, whenever interesting ideas or questions cross your mind, and you don’t want to let them vanish, you should create a fleeting note. As I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t need to be polished. Fleeting notes focus on ideas, not on the form, not on the quality or depth of the text.

A fleeting note could be as short as “Interesting how code quality is influenced by team cohesion”. There could be typos or missing words. Fleeting notes quality doesn’t matter much. All that matters is that you can understand what you meant later on.

I personally use fleeting notes whenever I don’t have time to write proper literature or permanent notes. I create those, so I can come back to those ideas later on. Another way to think about those is as building blocks for future literature or permanent notes.

Ideally, fleeting notes need to include the source(s) of inspiration.

Creating literature notes

We are all inspired by different things. When you work on your personal knowledge base, you need to focus on what inspires you. The purpose of literature notes is to capture what you find noteworthy and could be used as a reference and/or inspiration later on.

Taking literature notes requires more time and effort than taking fleeting notes. Literature notes are here to stay, so you need to polish those a bit more. The goal when you write those is to capture the essence of what inspires you. Ideally, those should be written using your own words, and represent your own interpretation of what you read/heard/learned. That being said, it’s okay to capture verbatim quotes here and there. What is of the utmost importance is for your future self to be able to re-understand the what and the why of the information you’ve captured.

If you read an article or a book, then take notes and create literature notes based on those notes. I’ve published an article to explain my process for capturing book notes.

Build the habit of capturing what you find interesting. Although, be mindful of the Collector’s fallacy.

Writing permanent notes

The most important part of the Zettelkasten method is the elaboration and linking of permanent notes. While you capture ideas and write literature notes, you should always take note of your own thoughts and ideas. Those will be the starting point for permanent notes.

Writing permanent notes means writing what you know, what you think, and what you care about.

Permanent notes are the ones you should spend the most time and energy on. You want those to be well-written, using full and clear sentences. Just like literature notes, permanent ones need to be written to be easy to understand by your future self, without additional context.

Just like literature notes, permanent notes should be Atomic notes: short and focused on one idea or concept. As a tool for thought, thoughts are the base unit for Zettelkasten. Hence the importance of creating atomic notes.

Permanent notes should be connected to other notes; either permanent or literature ones. You want to link those to other notes that relate to or that inspired this specific idea. Over time, those bi-directional links will help you surface additional thoughts and ideas, leading to additional notes and further strengthening your Web of knowledge.

It is of the utmost importance for permanent notes to be 100% yours. It’s totally okay to take inspiration elsewhere and “steal” ideas, but you don’t want to plagiarize. Anything that ends up in your permanent notes should be the result of your own thinking process, even if inspired or influenced by what others have said or written.

Linking and tagging notes

As I’ve mentioned, linking is one of the core practices of Zettelkasten. Atomic ideas are great, but they become much more valuable when combined with other ones. In tools such as Obsidian, this can be done in multiple ways:

Linking and tagging are part of the note-taking process. It’s something that you should almost always do when you add new notes to your knowledge base. It doesn’t have to be perfect (nothing can!), but you should take time to think about how these new ideas relate to the ones that are already there; whether those are literature notes or permanent notes.

The simple act of creating those links will help your brain realize that those ideas are connected. Again, this helps with memorization and recall, in addition to adding value to your knowledge base.

Reviewing fleeting notes

As I’ve mentioned, fleeting notes are not meant to exist for a long time. Those are transient in nature, and you should avoid accumulating them in your knowledge base.

Also, the longer you wait before you decide what to do with a fleeting note, the less you’ll remember the reasons why you created it in the first place.

For these reasons, you should regularly review your fleeting notes (ideally once a day!) in order to decide what to do with each. You should either:

Turn it into fleeting notes or permanent notes

If you decide to turn it into a permanent note, then make sure to remove the fleeting note afterward; there’s no use keeping it around.

Emptying the Inbox containing fleeting notes relates to the Inbox Zero principle. The goal is to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to process ideas before it’s too late.

Structuring content

As your knowledge base grows, you’ll need to invest some time in creating and maintaining indexes. Those will help you further structure your content. Indexes are very useful to quickly access related notes.

One technique to create such indexes is Maps of Content (MoCs)

Organizing content

I want to insist on the fact that you don’t need to waste time creating a complex organization system in your Zettelkasten. As I’ve mentioned in this article, the core containers of Zettelkasten (the inbox, the literature notes archive, and the permanent notes archive) are all you need. You don’t need to further organize your content into sub-folders.

Three key elements matter:

  • Putting your notes in the right Zettelkasten container
  • Linking your notes together
  • Tagging your notes

That’s it. If you do that, then you will be able to find what you need when you need if, even if you have thousands of notes in a single folder.

Continuous improvement

Perfection doesn’t exist, but we can tend towards it using continuous improvement.

Whenever you go back to a note you wrote previously, look for improvements you can make; no matter how tiny:

Rephrase to improve the clarity and quality

Also, if re-exploring an idea generates a new one, then take the opportunity to capture it; either as a fleeting note or as a permanent note.

With this approach, your Web of knowledge will keep improving and become more useful over time.

Benefits of the Zettelkasten method

The Zettelkasten method provides us with a structure and a process. Those are two keys to success in note-making. The structure helps us to be organized, focused, and eases the process of growing a knowledge base. As a result, the Zettelkasten method makes us more productive.

The focus on atomic notes helps us focus on one idea at a time, and makes it much easier for us to reuse content and connect ideas together. Thanks to this, we can create a real Web of knowledge. It also helps us think better.

The process itself and the Web of knowledge helps with ideation and creativity. While taking literature notes, we get to think about many ideas, and how those relate to our existing body of knowledge. This yields the creation of permanent notes that further develops our Zettelkasten.

Creating larger texts becomes much more natural and manageable. We expand ideas over time, as we add content to our knowledge base and create links between different ideas.

As an added benefit, the whole process of taking atomic notes and linking ideas together helps with memorization and recall. It thus extends both your mind and memory.

References

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