Writing your first Zettelkasten note is intimidating. Most of the resources on Zettelkasten are principle-based, with few examples of how to implement the principles in practice.
The premise is that when you understand the principles, you can then go on to design your own implementation method.
However, according to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (Dreyfus, 1980), people learn first by following rules until they’ve learned enough that they feel confident in experimenting with their own way of doing things.
I hope this article helps to get you started with your own Zettelkasten.
Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten
The Zettelkasten method was made famous by Niklas Luhmann, who was a German sociologist who published over 70 books and 400 academic articles (Ahrens, 2017, pp.30). Luhmann credited his achievements to his Zettelkasten, which contained over 90,000 ideas that helped him develop topics by knitting together ideas into a cohesive whole. His books wrote themselves, idea by idea. Even after his death, Luhmann’s ideas were combined to publish more books on his behalf.
The word Zettelkasten is German for “slip box”, which refers to a box containing many slips of paper (Ahrens, 2017). Each slip represents a single, atomic idea that makes sense by itself, and also in combination with other ideas (similar to how our brain works, but with a better memory).
The Zettelkasten method has totally changed my approach to learning for the better. There are five different types of note-taking processes that build on each other. I’ll go through each of these and demonstrate how I implement them in my own system below.
1. Fleeting notes
2. Literature notes
3. Permanent notes
4. Index notes
5. Keyword notes
Fleeting notes are temporary reminders of ideas.
These can be ideas that you get in the shower, things you think you might want to do, questions you have etc. Or they can be ideas that you get from a book, movie, article, social media etc.
It doesn’t matter where you write these. A notebook or a text-editor file is a good option. I personally prefer a notebook so I don’t have to be at a device to jot them down. I love using a Rocketbook, which is a reusable notebook that you write on with Frixion pens. It can be wiped clean with a damp cloth.
How to take fleeting notes when reading a book
When taking notes from a book, it’s important to keep in mind a couple of things.
First, fleeting notes are reminders of ideas, a ‘hold this thought’ location pin on a map.
Second, in order to take a fleeting note, it must meet at least one of the following two criteria:
1. You want to remember the idea permanently.
2. You want to use the idea in your work (in a blog, book or something that will help you take a step forward in achieving a concrete goal).
When I take fleeting notes from a book, I start by writing the title of the book at the top of the page.
Then for each idea that meets one or more of the criteria described above, I write down the page number the idea was inspired by, and a word or a short phrase that will trigger the full idea in my mind when reviewing the notes at the end of the day (quick processing is critical for these reminders to work).
Here’s an example:
At the end of the day, or sooner if you want, go back to your fleeting notes and pick out the ideas that you really want to keep. I have found that ideas that I thought I wanted to keep or use become less important when compared to all of the other fleeting notes on the page. The fleeting notes that spark joy/interest stand out.
The next step is to elaborate those reminders of those ideas into a paragraph that describes the idea in full.
When doing this, don’t look up the original idea on the page you got it from. Really try and write it in your own words yourself. It’ll make it really clear to you what you do and don’t understand yet, and also whether you want to invest the energy in filling those gaps (for ideas that are really important to you, you will). If you’re really stumped, make it up, just complete the idea and move on. Don’t interrupt yourself to research more at this stage, one type of task at a time.
There are five criteria it would be beneficial for your literature note to meet:
1. Write it in your own words.
2. Write it in such away that if you read it 10 years later it would make complete sense by itself.
3. One idea per note. If you need to define a term for the idea/concept to make sense, create a term definition card and link to it from the concept note.
4. Include the complete reference for the source you got the idea from.
5. Include the relevant citation (lastName, year, pp.22).
Here is an example of how I write literature notes:
There are a couple of differences between Literature notes and permanent notes:
- Literature notes are written in the context of the source they were inspired by. Whereas permanent notes are written in the context of your own ideas and interests.
- Literature notes only have one connection, to the book they came from. While permanent notes can have many connections (to individual notes, as part of multiple topics etc).
These differences are key to understanding how to write permanent notes, because unlike literature notes, they must be connectable across multiple contexts. This is why it’s important to capture a single idea on each page.
When you have a single idea, you can click it together with another idea, like a jigsaw piece with infinite sides. However, the moment you bind two or more ideas together (into one note), then you lose the ability to take them apart or insert new ideas between them.
Here are four examples of how I write permanent notes:
Content first topics (writing)
Example of topics forming from content
Embed dynamic content into elements with JSX (programming)
What is perspective (art)
How to connect permanent notes to other permanent notes
Connect notes chronologically
Connecting notes chronologically is where we provide a link to another note that can be combined with our current note in a way that still makes sense without needing to modify either of them. Some examples:
- A term mentioned in a note which links to a term definition note.
- An author mentioned in a note which links to an author biography note.
- A note which directly contradicts findings in a note that contains a fact, study, opinion.
- A note which adds something to the existing note.
- A personal comment on the idea contained in another note.
Connect notes with a bridge note
Connecting a note through a bridge is where you link two seemingly unrelated ideas together with a separate note that explains why you think they’re connected. This prevents you from looking at the notes years later having forgotten why you thought they were related.
Connect notes with a topic index
A topic index is a note which contains a of links to ideas that are directly relevant to a specific topic, question or discussion etc. You create topic indexes once your notes have naturally formed into their own topic clusters (see next section).
An index note represents a cluster of related permanent notes. They are very similar to an individual article/chapter outline, and they are created from content that already exists. A really cool thing about index notes, is that you can end up writing an entire chapter or article just by linking related notes together.
Keyword notes are very similar to index notes in that they contain a list of links to relevant notes, except at a more general level than index notes. So, while an index note might represent a table of contents for a chapter or an outline for an article, a keyword note might represent a table of contents for a book or entry points to many different sub-topics within a broader area.
In the example below, I used a hashtag to differentiate my keyword note from an index card. The links in my keyword notes generally lead to index notes that contain links to relevant notes on each of the sub-topics mentioned.
Writing your first Zettelkasten note
To write your first Zettelkasten note, start with an article about something you’re interested in. This process will work for books too, but an article is easier to practice with.
Take fleeting notes, then literature notes. Use the first literature note you write as your first permanent note. After that, write every new permanent note with an eye towards how it fits in with what you already have. If it doesn’t, just add it as a new, standalone note.
When you first get started, you’ll probably find that your initial topic clusters form quite quickly. It’s going to take time for clusters to start forming between-topics instead of in-topics, but that’s the whole point of doing this. As long as you make an effort to connect your current note to relevant existing notes, those will form by themselves.
Some notes are going to end up getting totally lost in your Zettelkasten, just like how we forget things naturally. That’s okay. The advantage with a Zettelkasten in this case is that you can actually scan through orphan (forgotten) notes to see if they spark reminders that you can turn into connections now and again.
Obsidian for Zettelkasten
When I first tried Zettelkasten, I started with a bunch of flashcards. I hated it because it caused all sorts of perfectionist issues to flare up. I’m also a minimalist who moved to Australia with a backpack, and the thought of lugging around physical notes made me feel opposite of free. That being said, I like to write down my notes on paper before I add them to my digital Zettelkasten, to get the benefits of both worlds.
My tool of choice (after trying a couple) is Obsidian for a few reasons.
- I like that every time you write a note, it is stored as a markdown file in a folder that you specify on your computer/cloud etc. So if the software ever breaks down, you have all of your notes with working links (as a software developer myself, I wanted to make sure I had full control over my notes in an easy to backup/use format if the software ever gets discontinued/corrupted).
- It’s pretty simple to use, and seems perfect for Zettelkasten.
- You can hover over links in your notes and see a preview of the note it links to without clicking on it (turn this feature on in the settings).
- You can add a date and timestamp (like this: 202010051024) to the start of the filename when you create a new note. This means I can create notes with the same title (I try not to), but distinguish them by the unique date and timestamp which acts as an ID.
- You can create aliases for notes when you link to them. This is useful when you want to link to a note as part of a sentence, but the exact phrasing you want to use for the link doesn’t match the title of the note it refers to. In this case, you can link to the note as normal, and also provide alternative link text at the same time. Like this: [[original-title-name|link text you want to use]].
My favorite part of Obsidian is the graph view. Mine currently looks like this (Oct 2020):
Obsidian graph view features that I love for Zettelkasten:
- Each note in your Zettelkasten is represented as a node (small circle) with its title above it (Showing the title is optional).
- You can click on a node to go directly to the note it represents.
- The links between notes are represented by arrows (single direction and bidirectional).
- When you hover over nodes, the node and all of its direct connections are highlighted in a different colour, to make it easy to see connections. Connections might span clusters (mine doesn’t do this yet):
- Tags (which I use to represent keyword entry points to a series of sub-topics belonging to a more general area) show up in a different color. In the graph view, they act as entry points to clusters.
- The graph view is a force-directed graph, which connected notes pull towards each other, and unconnected notes repel each other. This makes topic clusters really obvious. You can change the force intensity in the settings.
I hope this article helps you get started with your own Zettelkasten. Feel free to ask questions if anything is still unclear or if you want feedback for your first few notes.
Software and tools:
- Obsidian: A knowledge base that works on local Markdown files. (2020, October 03). Retrieved from https://obsidian.md
- Rocketbook Australia. (2020, October 05). Rocketbook Everlast (Core) — Lined Pages. Retrieved from https://getrocketbook.com
- Bear — Write beautifully on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. (2020, September 25). Retrieved from https://bear.app
- Dreyfus, Stuart E.; Dreyfus, Hubert L. (February 1980). “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition” (PDF). Washington, DC: Storming Media. Retrieved June 13, 2010.
- Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking — for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. United States: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.