How to take smart notes using the Zettlekasten method

The litmus test for a high-impact productivity system is the ability to implement it on a sheet of paper. The timelessness and universality of David Allen’s GTD and the Bullet Journal can in part be attributed to their analog origins. So imagine my giddiness when I stumbled upon an index card-based system for note-taking called The Zettlekasten Method.

Don’t let the tongue-twister frighten you, it’s a deceptively simple approach to taking smart notes built on the principle of interconnecting ideas. I’ve been dabbling in the Zettlekasten’s principles through two sources: Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes and RadReader Shu Omi’s YouTube channel.

The origins of Zettlekasten

The method was developed in the 1960s by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. The son of a beer brewer, Luhmann dabbled as a lawyer only to be bored by the paper-pushing nature of the work. According to Ahrens, he’d zip home from work to do what he loved most, “reading and following his diverse interests in philosophy, organizational theory and sociology.”

And, as Luhmann took and organized his notes onto index cards into a physical slip-box (Zettel translates to “slip,” Kasten to “box”), a system evolved. This system enabled him to compound his knowledge while making valuable inter-disciplinary connections. The result, according to Luhmann’s Wikipedia page was a vast and prolific body of work:

Luhmann wrote prolifically, with more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love.

Furthermore, there was an effortlessness and lack of resistance to Luhmann’s creative process, who stated:

I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”

The implication here is that Luhmann did not have to rely on stores of willpower to overcome resistance. Instead, his success was the result of:

Smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place. Instead of struggling with adverse dynamics, [he] deflected resistance, very much like judo champions. This is not about just having the right mindset, it is about also having the right workflow.

How to apply the Zettelkasten Method to note taking

This note taking process is straightforward (and tool agnostic), but requires you to change your behavior (i.e. how you take notes). Luhmann distilled his process into three types of notes:

  1. Fleeting notes
  2. Literature notes
  3. Permanent notes

Type 1: Fleeting notes

To use productivity parlance this is nothing more than a quick capture process into your favorite app. (As an aside, I’ve been LOVING the Drafts app as a workaround for Notion’s slow-ish capture and Roam’s lack of mobile app.)

Type 2: Literature Notes

Literature notes most closely resemble the more brute-force approach of exporting your Kindle highlights into a note-taking app like Evernote, Notion or Roam.

But that’s where the similarities end. While the “copy-paste-export” approach does make your notes searchable, it injects a ton of noise into your workflow – diminishing the odds of identifying a valuable signal.

To combat this, Ahrens suggest you:

keep it very short, keep it selective and use your own words. Be very selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean.

Alas, this is where my own note-taking system breaks down – I’ve never gone through the effort to re-write what I’ve read to ensure that I understand it.

Type 3: Permanent Notes

This type of note is where the magic happens – what Snoop has referred to as the Sticky-Icky-Ooh-Wee. In this step you review each literature note and think about “how it connects to your own research, thinking or interests.”

Whereas each literature note contains a distilled idea (from another author), in this step you form the new idea “as if you were writing for someone else” by “using full sentences, disclosing your sources, making references and trying to be as precise, clear and brief as possible.” I interpret this step as taking someone else’s idea and mashing it into your worldview, assumption set and interests.

And here’s where it gets extra-spicy. Ahrens then insists only permanent notes go into the slip-box. Fleeting notes get discarded and literature notes get their own “reference” box.

Stringing them all together

The last step is creating an environment to encourage serendipity by manually linking the new permanent notes to others in the slip-box. Since Luhmann organized his cards manually, he would “file each one or more behind related notes” and then add “manual links to other notes” using his own taxonomy. He also created an index to ensure that you could “find a note later” by identifying a note that could serve “as an entry point to a discussion or topic.”

Fortunately for us, in the world of hyperlinks, bi-directional links, blocks and wikis – we can recreate this process with limited additional work and improved search-ability.

In a follow-up post, I’ll show this in action (yes, I’m still in the theory phase of this exploration). But I love Ahrens’ subtle take-down of my legacy “Export Kindle Highlights” method:

Learning would be not so much about saving information, like on a hard disk, but about building connections and bridges between pieces of information.

After last week’s issue, many RadReaders shared that they too just dumped their Kindle Notes into a notes app and prayed for the best. Deep inside, like me, y’all knew that you were doing a disservice to your future self. So here’s the new process:

1. As you read, paste your favorite paragraphs into a new page

To avoid having the entire text of an article in my searchable notes, I read using two browser tabs. In the first tab, I read the article (typically on the original site) and the second tab is open to my note-taking tool (Roam, in this case).

(And for book notes, I export the highlights using the Readwise app.)

So here’s the “raw notes” of two articles. First, Institutional Investors’ The Most Overlooked Career Hack (on coaching):

And Emily Anhalt’s tweetstorm (on impostor syndrome):

As you can see, I just pasted my favorite paragraphs and tweets (from the tweetstorm).

2. Create your permanent notes, in your own words

I really struggled interpreting the two-step Zettlekasten process of Reference Notes → Permanent Notes.

I really liked the (missing) part of summarizing the best bits in your own words and then tying it to your quiver of ideas, so sought to protect that. But most importantly, if this added a ton of work – I knew it wouldn’t stick. So I really centered on a simple approach that I knew I’d repeat.

Below, you can see me commenting on the best paragraphs in my own words, tying it to related ideas and then designating it a permanent note.

Here’s another example from the tweetstorm:

Now even though the entire tweetstorm was about Impostor Syndrome, I only wanted to capture 3 (of the 12) tweets that provided me with a unique insight. (I also saved the link, so I could easily re-read it in it’s entirety at a future date.) You can also see I tied this permanent note to another recurring idea about keeping a jar of awesome.

3. Watch your permanent note collection build up

Now, here’s my permanent note collection. Since I just started it, it’s quite small:

I pointed out the little filter button in the top right corner. It’s an extra tool to go through the list of topics (i.e. tags) that span all permanent notes. So if I ever wanted to write a post about coaching, all I’d need to do is toggle that setting, and it would show:

Last takeaways

Whenever something gets so (seemingly) contrived like this, I always check-in with myself:

How does it align with my broader goals and values? Is it worth the extra effort?

And TBH, I’m not sure. It definitely hits on two of my goals (Creatively express myself every day and Energize and teach others) but I feel like I’m already able to do this without some fancy-schmancy note-taking system. So the jury’s still out, but I will most definitely keep the best element: summarizing an idea in your own words.

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