Anatomy of an Atomic Note (Zettel)

Bryan Lee
Bryan Lee
Jan 16 · 3 min read
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Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash

ID: [[202001151848 Anatomy of an Atomic Note (Zettel)]]

Tags: #pkm #zettelkasten

From: [[201912162347 Planting The First Seeds]]

Spirit of the note

There is an atomic nature to notes in the Zettelkasten. Each note should contain just a single idea. Niklas Luhmann, the original creator of the Zettelkasten, kept his notes bound to the space of a single index card. In general, I avoid adhering to a minimum length — a single sentence is fine. On the other hand, since I have a little more wiggle room with my digital Zettelkasten over physical index cards, I let myself go up to 500 words per note (and I’m generally not too strict about this rule).

Each note has its unique place in the more extensive web of notes. There isn’t a topical hierarchy sorted by recency. Time and topic are still valuable, but they’re not used in locating a note.

This adherence to atomicity allows you to use the same note between numerous lines of thinking.

Anatomy

I generate a unique ID for each note. The ID is programmatically generated using the current date & time. For example, if you take a look at the top of this note, the ID for this note is 202001151848. It breaks down to the year, month, day, hour (24-hour/military time), minute: yyyymmddhhmm. So it was created on January 15th, 2020, at 6:48 pm.

This way, it’s not only unique (a note may share a title with another note, but each will have its own unique ID), but it also serves as an extra piece of information telling me when I first wrote the note. This allows me to sort my notes by creation date, and since my ideas usually come in bunches, notes with a close date/time proximity will probably be around similar topics.

To know what the note is about without having to check each note’s contents, I append the title to the numeric ID.

The header of the note is the section that appears at the very top before any of the content. It will contain the note’s own unique ID (so we will be able to reference it later), any tags you may wish to add to help you find it again later, and any formal links to other notes.

These formal links are generally of two kinds, Related and From:

  • Related — there is a relation between these notes that I find relevant enough to list, letting me quickly jump to notes covering similar ideas.
  • From — the current note is a direct continuation of the idea in the note linked. If I want to explore an idea further, I will usually address it in a new note and create a backlink towards the originating idea.

The body of the note contains the idea. In general, you should try to write the note with enough clarity so that a stranger could read it and understand it. I often find myself playing the role of the stranger as I discover notes I’d forgotten I’d written months ago.

Within the body of the note, I may also link to other notes. These are usually times when I’m making a direct reference to another idea that’s related to the sentence or paragraph leading up to it.

If the note was inspired by outside source material (it usually is), often, the body of the note is simply a summary of the source material in my own words. This helps with learning and retention and serves as a simplified version of the Feynman Technique (using plain English to describe a topic as if you were teaching it to a new student).

This section is optional and only used when there was source material that inspired the note. For me, this is the majority of my notes — I usually generate notes and ideas while reading books, so I include a quote from the book and a quick reference so I can find it again later.

Still on the fence about whether you should start a Zettelkasten? I wrote about The Life-Changing Magic of Zettelkasten.

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Branching Thoughts

Creating my second brain, one thought at a time

Bryan Lee

Written by

Bryan Lee

Website: bryanlee.net, Product Manager @ Datadog, formerly Undefined Labs, Docker, & Tutum. Past lives include firefighter and CrossFit Trainer.

Branching Thoughts

Creating my second brain, one thought at a time

Bryan Lee

Written by

Bryan Lee

Website: bryanlee.net, Product Manager @ Datadog, formerly Undefined Labs, Docker, & Tutum. Past lives include firefighter and CrossFit Trainer.

Branching Thoughts

Creating my second brain, one thought at a time

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