Smarter Notes: Zettelkasten Method

So I’ve been talking about this method in previous posts. But now I want to give enough details that you can start implementing it yourself. And more importantly, see for yourself how useful it is.

A Quick Recap

Niklas Luhmann, German Sociologist. Brilliant dude with a body of work that is indeed impressive, he had over 70 books and almost 400 papers by the time of his death. And people found over 1000 pages of unpublished material later on. So he was actually even more productive than his published assets seem to suggest.

How did he do it?

He invented what we call Zettelkasten method, a different note taking system. Or in his time “Communicating with Slip Boxes”.

How does it work? But more importantly, why did Luhmann feel the need to invent a new note taking system?

Motivations

Luhmann noticed that during the production of any particular knowledge, he had tons of ideas for other projects as well.

Source

So what to do with all those byproducts? Should he immediately go think about how to create a special hierarchy for those as well?

He wanted to capture those byproducts in the least amount of time and as distraction free as possible. He didn’t want to spend precious minutes of his time to create folders and hierarchies for every byproduct. If he were to do that, he’d have no time to actually finish the project!

So he decided to focus his attention into Relationships first, hierarchies last.

How so?

Relationships First

How fun would it be if you could write notes and throw them all into one basket, but every time you look for a piece of information, you could find it easily? No need to create special systems of hierarchy, or create colour codes for each topic.

Here’s what Luhmann came up with. His idea is to create a web of connected notes (which he called Zettels -> German for Note). And to make it possible to have connections, he needed a way to reference a particular Zettel.

So in this manner, all he had to do was create addressable Zettels, that way, no matter where in the box the Zettel is, he would be able to find it.

Going back to the byproducts problem. Now all you have to do is write a byproduct note with an address, and then stuff anywhere you put your other notes. Then go back to the main project.

Hassle Free.

Creating Addresses

Here’s an example of possible addresses that he created:

  1. Luhmann ID:
1. 
1.a
1.a.1
1.b
2.
--------> Going deeper in a topic
|
|
|
V Going farther in other topics

2. Time Based: (2022)(04)(09)(09)(49)
YYYYMMDDHHMM

3. Arbitrary random string (hash generated perhaps)

4. Title of the article, as long as it never changes

Relationships Between Different Zettels

Now that we have a box full of notes with addresses, there’s some fun stuff we can do with them.

The power of using the Zettelkasten Method when compared with other note taking systems, comes from the connectivity between notes.

This method focuses on making every Zettel connected.

Now what is the benefit of making those connections?

When you relate pieces of knowledge to others, you create relationships between those pieces of knowledge.

Knowledge relationship significantly improve recall, and forming those relationships trains your brain to look for patterns.

As you connect you learn, as you learn, you understand, and then your knowledge base will increase.

You’ll start observing more, and pattern matching better between different pieces of information.

That leads us to What should be in a Zettel Then?

Zettel

Here’s the anatomy of a zettel.

Source

We’ve been through the Unique Identifier, it is our Address, our way to reference a particular piece of information.

Now let’s take a look at the body. What should be in it?

Body

You should write the thought down in your own words. You can capture verbatim, but the core rule is to make it your own. Create a different version of it just for you.

This alone will improve recall.

If you want to create a web of THINGS (notes, thoughts, excerpts), then the body of a singular zettel must contain one single THING.

Thinking, then becomes a web of thoughts. We start seeing thinking as a relationship between Units of Thoughts.

You can even link to other zettels here as well.

But it is important to give context to those links. No just copy pasting links!

Footer And References

This is where you put the sources of your information.

  • Books
  • Articles from the web
  • Academic papers

If no reference at all that zettel is your own thought by default.

Context Matters

If you look up you zettels without confidence that following a link will lead to something meaningful. You will start judging your past self as unreliable.

Why even look up your zettels then?

You waste both your present self time by capturing unusable and uninteresting information and your future self that eventually will have to look up and learn that information again.

Here’s an example of giving context alongside with the other parts of the zettel:

Source

As you can see, the links inside the text point to specific zettels “More interesting” or “Merely being good is not enough…”.

Web of Thoughts

As we discussed, thinking is a web of unit of thoughts. That way, each zettel should have a single idea in it’s body.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to create some Structural Zettels, to add hierarchy when needed.

Some hierarchy is desirable.

Even Luhmann needed one.

Because he used physical notebooks, he had hub notes to list many other places to look for a continuation of a topic.

The potential of Hierarchical structure is to increase knowledge creation. Structuring could help you see the bigger picture.

Structure Note

Structure note is a Meta-note. Zettel about other Zettels and their relationships to a particular idea/thought/thing.

Think of it like an index in a book. It is useful to get the big picture and to know what to look to begin exploring an idea.

Can also be used to capture relationships and arguments like:

a -> b -> c, and therefore a ->c

With a, b, c different Zettels linked in this Structural note.

Finally, How can I start implementing it?

You can pick software or paper, or both if you’re like me. Although you’ll have an easier time fetching data from software.

What do you need in a software?

  1. Hypertext.
  2. Navigation between links and full text search
  3. Be able to easily manage files

There’s different software with different features, but most of these have what you need to begin today!

Paper based

You can use the approach by Luhmann in Communication with Slip Boxes.

And that is it, you are ready to start implementing this method and seeing the benefits for yourself. I hope I could explain it well, but if you have any questions, feel free to comment them.

Here’s how many claps I usually give:
0 -> Don’t Agree/Didn’t Read
1 -> Neutral, but I’ll give you a pity clap
~4 -> Don’t like all of it, but there are some good points
~16 -> This is a pretty good article
~50 -> Everyone needs to read this!

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Lucas Schiavini
All my content | LinkedIn

Originally published at https://lucas-schiavini.com on April 23, 2022.

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Engineer. Badass all day errr’ day. More on https://lucas-schiavini.com

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