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Taking effective notes: the Zettelkasten method

Taking effective notes: the Zettelkasten method

I am a wild consumer of content. I read books and articles, listen to podcasts, take courses, watch videos.

Very often, however, I have felt inefficient: it always seems that my head retains little of everything I consume. I would like the time spent consuming to be an investment and not a waste. That is, I would like to gain something long-term: teachings, ideas, new perspectives.

What am I doing wrong? How can I remember more?

Taking effective notes is one of the best techniques I discovered that helps me to remember and learn better. Plus, it also helps me create my own content.

My disastrous past with notes

For most of my life, I haven’t had any real system to manage my notes.

At school and university not only did I take very few notes but they usually were of very poor quality. Outside of school I also used to write a few notes here and there and blandly highlighted the books I read.

This process, if you can call it that, was more like a messy accumulation than an effective management system: everything I collected stayed in my archive without me ever revisiting it. Notes and highlights helped me neither to learn nor to produce anything of my own.


Some time ago I was wandering on YouTube and I came across a channel that, among other things, talked about a method with a strange name, Zettelkasten, which I had never heard of.

As often happens when you discover something new, I started to find it everywhere: among the links in a newsletter that I subscribe to and in a podcast that I follow. In the end, I felt compelled to investigate and then adopt it.

I am not sure if I have grasped the orthodox technique, but I’ll try to tell what I have understood and have started to implement.

Zettelkasten is a Personal Knowledge Management system that was widely used by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann who lived in the last century.

People tend to attribute Luhmann’s prolificacy precisely to this system, given that he wrote dozens of books and hundreds of articles. However, I prefer to remain cautious and not assume that there has been a direct cause-and-effect relationship, both because a sample of a person is not statistically significant, and also for fear of falling prey to the survivor’s bias.

In any case, I am convinced that the Zettelkasten method helped Luhmann and can help those who adopt it. I would not waste my time writing this article otherwise. 👀

The name of the method, Zettelkasten, is a German word that means slip box and it derives from the physical place where the notes were kept, since no digital magic was there at that time.

The system

In Zettelkasten there are three types of notes: fleeting, literature, and permanent.

Fleeting notes are quick notes. Their purpose is to capture the ideas you have in mind as quickly as possible. Thoughts are ephemeral and therefore, if you want to remember one, it is necessary to put it in black and white. Everyone has experienced that sensation of having a brilliant idea and then forgetting it in no time.

They are unstructured: they only need to be understandable enough for when your future self revises them.

Literature notes are notes taken from content: books, courses, podcasts, articles, videos… They are short, contain a reference to the original source, and summarize passages that strike us and we consider worthy of being remembered.

Each summary must be written in your own words and should not be a simple copy-paste. This is because in order to rephrase an idea you must first understand it and therefore this process stimulates understanding and learning.

Definitely very different from what we usually do, that is to just underline, highlight, copy.

Permanent notes arise from the process of reviewing fleeting and literature notes.

Zettelkasten process

Thre review process

Permanent notes, also known as evergreen notes are comparable to concepts in long-term memory. The Zettelkasten which, at its heart, is nothing more than the archive of permanent notes, is meant to be a second brain.

The goal of the review process is to consolidate concepts and ideas each into a single note, which should then be atomic ⚛. That is, it should deal with a single concept.

Rather than creating long notes containing multiple ideas, the Zettelkasten method invites you to break them down into smaller, more focused notes.

As with literature notes, permanent notes must be expressed in your own words. This should come naturally if literature notes have been written with care.

For each permanent note then you have to:

  • reflect on how it connects to the rest of your knowledge, ideas, notes and create these links (for example with a link or reference)
  • add tags that must serve not so much to categorize the note, but to make it easier to find it when needed

I like to think of each permanent note as if it were a small article.

Obsidian Zettelkasten notes example

Two of my notes as an example. Instead of creating a single note with all the information on Zettelkasten, I created one for the method and one for each component of the system, like the one on Permanent Notes

The benefits

Three types of notes, a review process, synthesis, reworking… What are the benefits of such a laborious system?

First: it helps to remember and learn.

  1. Writing down concepts using your own words requires you to understand them and it is a way to actively engage the brain. It is the active effort that helps you to remember.
  2. Reflecting on, looking for, and creating links between ideas strengthens them and deepens understanding.
  3. It allows you to create a second brain, the Zettelkasten, which you can revisit whenever you want, for example by using each permanent note as if it were a flashcard.

Second: it helps to produce your own content.

The more the Zettelkasten grows, the easier it becomes to create content. As mentioned before, each note is like a small article interconnected with other small articles.

When I want to write a new post I will not have to fight with the blank sheet, but I will be able to visit my archive, choose some notes, follow the connections, and end up with a ready-made base to start from.

And, as a bonus, producing content helps clarify ideas and learn too.

Third: it favors creativity.

The process of writing permanent notes pushes you to find connections between ideas. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to see links between concepts that at first glance seem to belong to separate domains.

And it is right when you create relationships between different ideas that something new is born: originality is nothing more than the ability to find new ways of linking pre-existing concepts.

In conclusion

This article is the result of what I understood about Zettelkasten and describes the process that I have been using for a while now. I have no idea if it is accurate or strictly orthodox, but personally I find it interesting, inspiring, and useful.

Fun fact: to write this article on Zettelkasten I started with the first notes that entered my Zettelkasten, that is, my notes on Zettelkasten. #meta

Happy note-taking, my friend.