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Do You Really Need a Zettelkasten, or Is It Just the Latest Productivity Gimmick?

This Note-Taking App Methodology Is Gaining Popularity Right Now…

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

We’ve all been trapped into shiny object syndrome.
(Okay maybe not you… but I’ve been at least).

And when it comes to productivity, testing a new tool or technique that is supposed to make our life easier is always tempting.
Shiny objects, hidden tactics, and the latest hacks are everywhere. Especially online. They all promises “quick fixes” and “magic pills” to problems we ,lazy humans, have.

In the past few years, a new type of note-taking method started to gain popularity: The Zettelkasten methodology.

Screenshot provided by Author

Zettel… What?

Zettelkasten is a German word that literally means “Slip box”. As its name suggests, in his analog version, it’s nothing else than a drawer full of index cards. In the last century, Niklas Luhmann (a German sociologist) has been intensively using this methodology for prolific scientific output. He credited his Zettelkasten for cranking out more than 70 books and nearly 400 academic articles.
Not only is it supposed to be great storage of ideas and knowledge, but it also encourages thinking and creativity.

“I, of course, do not think about everything by myself. It happens mainly within the Zettelkasten.”
— Niklas Luhmann

In one way or another, it can be linked to Robert Greene’s technique of writing books using index cards.

Commonplace Book 2.0

If we dig a little bit deeper, the Zettelkasten could be described as a “Commonplace Book 2.0”.

The “Commonplace Book” idea was used by great minds like Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, or Leonardo Da Vinci to record their thoughts and as a help for remembering useful concepts or facts.

Illustration of a Foetus by Leonardo Da Vinici (Image: Wikipedia (Public Domain))

The advantage of the Zettelkasten resides in that notes can be flipped around and cross-referenced instead just of being on a fixed page in a book.

The Rise of the “Zettelkasten Mania”

This enthusiasm and spike in interest triggered a lot of new note-taking tools to enter the already crowded arena of note-taking apps. Obsidian, Roam, Remotes (to mention a few) are meant to be the “next-gen” note-taking apps.
In opposite to more broad and mainstream note-taking apps like the one that ships natively with your smartphone, Evernote, or OneNote — those new tools are built primarily around links. This means that instead of tagging or placing your notes in a specific folder, you simply connect notes between them using backlinks.

Let me explain:
Let’s assume you take a note about “How Procrastination Harms Your Life”.
While taking the note, you start thinking about another note, let’s say your note about “Making Excuses”. (Because, after all, procrastination is just an excuse not to do the work, right?) Instead of tagging your notes with #selfimprovement #goals #whateveryouwant, you add a link from “How Procrastination Harms Your Life” to “Making Excuses”.

“Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in.”
– Sönke Ahrens (Author of How to Take Smart Notes)

Connecting Your Notes Is Mimicking How Your Brain Works

Linking notes between them is simply mimicking how our brain works.
Our brain works with connections. Our neurons build links with other neurons using synapses. The stronger the connection between neurons, the stronger we remember the information associated with it. And while traditional note-taking teaches you to classify by tags or folders, Zettelkasten veterans use links.

And if you think about it, it makes sense:
Think of your note-taking app as your brain. Think of every note as a neuron and every link as a synapse that connects notes together. In short, the Zettelkasten mimics how we think by nature. And mimicking nature is often the best thing to do to find solutions to a problem.

Here’s what hedge-fund investor Ray Dalio says about that:

“We are incapable of designing and building a mosquito, let alone all the species and most of the other things in the universe. So I start from the premise that nature is smarter than I am and try to let nature teach me how reality works.
— Ray Dalio (in his book “Principles”)

And a lot of successful inventions are inspired by nature, like bird wings on planes or butterflies to absorb light in solar panels.

But the Zettelkasten Is Not for All “Note-Takers,” and Here’s why…

Note-taking is not created equal. And as I like to say, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

Why do I say that?
Because in the last 30 days alone, I’ve got 975 people who signed up for my “How to take better notes” email course. This allowed me to get 272 emails from real people who openly admitted having issues with taking notes.
(Sounds crazy but yes… I answered all of them with my bare hands.)

After digging deeper, a lot of them lacked a system and methodology.
And when I asked: Why do you take notes? I’ve got a myriad of answers that gave me a nice little overview about what note-takers actually need.

This made me realize that the Zettelkasten methodology is not for everybody.
Humanity has an extensive spectrum of profiles. Some people simply use notes to record meeting actions steps or want to recall facts about their suppliers or clients. For those, the Zettelkasten is not intended to work.

The Zettelkasten is a great thinking tool for those who look to think and spark creative insights.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Niklas Luhmann, or even Thomas Jefferson… All those genius minds were creators. They used their knowledge to create something in the world and leveraged their creativity.

For That Kind of People, I’ve Crafted a Free 7-Day Email Course, “How to Take Better Notes.” If That Sounds Like You, You Can Get It for Free Here (Safe Link to My Website).

– Matt Giaro

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A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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Matt Giaro

Matt Giaro

6 Figure Creator. Helping Busy Creators Get Their Time (And Freedom) Back. Feel overwhelmed? Go here 👉 https://mattgiaro.com

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