Zettelkasten Method: Taking smart notes

In the 1960s, the origin of the Zettelkasten method was established by a German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. He took the initiative of implementing his ideas and notes in an analogue-based system that relied on index cards. Stored within a physical slip-box called (Zettel translates to slip and Kasten to box). Through this, Luhmann compounded his knowledge for various interdisciplinary categories such as religion, law and economics. And, as a result, he was able to write 70 books and 500 academic papers.

Zettlekasten method – How Luhmann made it work?

  1. Wrote down each idea on an index card.
  2. Linked each card one after another through his taxonomy.
  3. Sorted individual cards based on reference or permanent slip box.

The slip box aided him to retrieve relevant knowledge to build ideas and arguments.

The practice of such a process in the current day of age while reviewing ideas from sources like kindle highlights, articles or Youtube videos can become simpler through bi-directional linking and tags. Using RoamResearch, I actively connect dots and create connections between different ideas. Something, Luhmann would have appreciated who built a Zettelkasten comprised of 90,000 handwritten index notes.

Something to consider: a book on how to take smart notes by Sonke Ahrens. A video by Shu omi.

How to apply the Zettlekasten method?

The break down of this method is based on three elements:

  1. Fleeting Notes
  2. Literature Notes
  3. Permanent Notes

Fleeting Notes

Ahren suggests:

Fleeting notes are just mere reminders of what is in your head. They should not cause any distraction. Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox.

Fleeting notes are trinket of information and ideas, which have a similar resemble to the concept of capture habit. In a podcast interview, Tiago Forte expands on the concept of Capture Habit. He suggests that capturing ideas should be based on intuition and something that deeply resonates with your interests. The initial philosophy behind this idea was recycled from a book called Getting things done by David Allen.

I have broken down my resources of capturing Fleeting notes:

  1. Drafts – I use this app while exercising my Default activity during lunchtime. This is free on App store.
  2. Walling.app and mymind – These are two different google chrome extension I’ve recently come across that allows you to create and save information on the internet.
  3. Voice Memos – while working out in the gym, the immediate access to this app allows me to dictate my ideas.

Literature Notes

In my previously written blog post on ‘My process of reading a book‘ – I highlighted my kindle highlights are synced into Goodreads, which requires the manual input of copy-paste export onto Notion. 

Notion doesn’t have bi-directional links that allow similar ideas from various pieces of literature to be linked together.

Therefore, I have decided to break down my Literature Notes into two components:

As a primary Notion user – I have been compounding knowledge in my Scavenger’s list. I consider this as my Bulk storage which doesn’t consist of a tag system that can link different resources with similar ideas.

And, that’s where RoamResearch comes in as my value storage – the reason why I considered it as my value storage because I can be selective of the information that I wish to import and use my thought process to elaborate and reflect on the ideas that I’ve highlighted. I tend to keep this short and selective. These ideas will go on to become a permanent note with bi-directional links.

For clarity purposes, let’s provide a demonstration using RoamResearch.

I recently finished reading Make time – How to focus on what matters every day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. I’ll be filtering down my bulk storage and input few of the key insights from the book into my value storage.

Every (resonating idea) from a book, article or video becomes part of my literature note. Every literature note has the following:

  1. tag stating #literature note
  2. Type of resource (book, article, images or video)
  3. As a user preference, each literature note is highlighted.

The highlighted fields are either summarised in my own words or directly acquired from the resource. The example above highlights literature notes for four different points that will become permanent notes.

Permanent Notes

Ahren suggest:

The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions. Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have.

Permanent notes are a means to make you think about how each ‘literature notes’ can be relevant to your ideas, interests and own research. The emphasis is to make you better at combining ideas to generate newer ideas. This, in fact, raises many questions within the realm of understanding the idea. And, ultimately when piecing together an idea on a single note, write as if you’re writing for someone else. Write in full sentences, using the sources from your literature notes as a reference.

Ahren emphasises that only Permanent notes go into the slip-boxFleeting notes get discarded and Literature notes get their own reference box.

Here’s how my permanent note looks:

Following a repetition process of creating various Permanent Notes, you can begin to file additional (resources/ notes/questions) behind one another by supplementing your permanent notes through researching and strengthen your arguments, filling out missing information and answer difficult questions. Through the addition of bi-directional links wherever relevant, you can keep tabs on your ideas. And, such relevance is often complimented by “tags or keywords” that are a direct result on your interests.

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A secondary network

Introducing the following article written by Tiago Forte: Building a Second Brain: An Overview in which he describes the following message:

How many brilliant ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you failed to take action on? How much useful advice have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed? We feel a constant pressure to be learning, improving ourselves, and making progress. We spend countless hours every year reading, listening, and watching informational content. And yet, where has all that valuable knowledge gone? Where is it when we need it? Our brain can only store a few thoughts at any one time. Our brain is for having ideas, not storing them. Building A Second Brain is a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we’ve gained through our experience. It expands our memory and our intellect using the modern tools of technology and networks.

Coming across this article, the initial paragraphs provided an insight into a question that I been asking myself for a very long time…

How do I recall everything that I’ve learned?

And, the solution was pretty simple ‘Building a secondary brain‘. This was the point where I realised I was so dependant on my brain for storing every information that I found online and offline. I was wasting my time in a relentless pursuit to accumulate information but never being able to action this knowledge because I would have forgotten it in a matter of days. And, the reason for this was explained by Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Forgetting Curve

Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve explains that the ability of the brain to retain information decreases over time. He found that the forgetting curve to be exponential because memory loss is rapid within a few days of learning any new information. 

Notion

This idea of building a secondary network to act as a digital brain that is used for preserving ideas and turning these ideas into reality. A digital repository for centralising digital information into one network that can be used to store and retain information such as articles, books, quotes or even messages from podcasts.

Having discovered this new concept of a secondary brain, I now religiously practice this through the use of an app called Notion. I’ve previously been using Notion during my postgrad year as a means of note-taking – having realised that the potential of this app can be far greater I now use this to build my own secondary network/brain.

A typical example would be if I am listening to a podcast, and I came across a message that resonates with me, I pause it, write my thoughts and ideas on Notion in an individual folder called ‘Key message’ along with the timestamp. Then I can then use this “potential idea” for creating a future blog post or supplement it with additional ideas. But, the message I wanted to highlight was that it sits in my secondary network. I don’t worry about it or tell myself ‘I wish I’d written that down somewhere’.

As a novice, I’m relatively new to the idea of creating a Second Brain/network. It’s already provided a measurable way to organise my digital and non-digital information. I’ve found that storing new information and more importantly retaining that information to be a relative ease. So, you readers out there give it a shot and share your methods of a secondary network in the comments below.