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Taking notes plays a critical role in helping understand complex concepts. It's hard to wrap your head around something when you don’t have a mental map to start with; good notes can help build the ideal atlas. The Zettelkasten note-taking method is transforming how people aggregate data – and synthesize knowledge. Of the numerous ways to take notes, what makes Zettelkasten different? Below is an overview of the fundamentals and how to use a Zettelkasten approach in the digital world.
The word "Zettelkasten" is a German term that translates to "slip box", after a box containing slips of paper (notes). Historically these notes were taken on small, similar sized pieces of paper. They would contain small amounts of information or ideas, created as they occurred and then categorized. The notes could be categorized by a certain hierarchy, with tags, numbers, or in a way that references other notes. Together these notes create a system of knowledge.
A fundamental aspect of a Zettelkasten is to keep all of the information in one place but enhance it with various forms of metadata. Metadata, or information about information, is data that describes records – think of the file size information, last-saved date, and other facts you can view when you select a folder on your computer desktop.
In the realm of note-taking, the utility of metadata goes beyond describing the contents of individual slips. Zettelkasten notes include numeric identifiers that make it effortless to uniquely locate each item of information, tags that describe broader topics, and cross-references that link related notes.
One helpful way to get used to how a Zettelkasten works is to consider the library. In addition to storing records with unrelated information, each repository of data includes an overarching indexing system that makes it easy to immediately jump to a particular spot in the building. Just as libraries employ librarians whose general topical knowledge lets them suggest related items of interest, a Zettelkasten uses tags (and tag indices) to make the connections between seemingly separate ideas more readily apparent.
Zettelkasten note-taking is informed by a few core principles. And although the system has undergone a series of evolutions over the centuries, many of the original principles continue to define the modern Zettelkasten.
Atomicity is the idea that concepts that belong together should go together in your notes. For instance, after creating a cluster of general notes about a topic you're researching, you might condense them down into a single item before inserting them in the Zettelkasten. While some concepts really ought to remain separate, getting into the habit of consolidating can dramatically improve organization and reusability. After all, it's far easier to reference something later when you can find all of the highlights in one convenient spot.
Be diligent about keeping distinct topics independent. Doing so creates enhanced freedom – so that even if you want to split a note into multiple topics, you can return to the original at any time. Keeping notes atomic also helps you hone in and focus on one thing at a time.
The principle of autonomy means that each note needs to stand alone, even if it refers to other bits of knowledge. An item that provides a big-picture view of a broad topic might reference prerequisites, but it should still be a complete thought on its own accord.
Suppose your Zettelkasten contained a note about the topic "cats". It might include a basic description, such as: "Cats are cute furry animals that have tails and like to sleep." The same note, however, shouldn't go into details such as explaining what fur, tails, or sleeping were, although it could include links to other notes explaining those topics.
Autonomy is helpful because healthy mental maps evolve. For instance, if you learned something new about the evolution of cats, you might want to revamp your concept tagging system for the "cats" note from the previous example. By maintaining autonomous notes, you make it easy to reshuffle, regroup, or even rework ideas – even if the source information gets lost.
Linking your notes shouldn’t be an afterthought. Ideas only have value within broader contexts; a note that doesn't connect to anything else isn't as useful in helping your brain draw new conclusions. These notes are also harder to find and reuse because they're isolated.
Add links to and from other existing notes anytime you insert a concept into your Zettelkasten. Don't wait until after you've already inserted the new record, as it's easy to forget. Get into the practice of cross-linking before you finalize each note.
Always explain why you're linking notes. This explanation doesn't have to be lengthy; a few words is usually enough to get the job done.
You shouldn't have to go back and figure out why you wanted to connect two different ideas. The point is to make such ties obvious at a glance, and a short blurb can provide loads of useful context.
When writing notes, you should always use your own words – not simply copying things down verbatim. By rephrasing concepts, you exercise your brain and keep it actively involved in building the overarching mental map, increasing the likelihood of memory retention.
Paraphrasing or rephrasing ideas also promotes heightened utility. Imagine that you set your notes on a technical concept aside for a few years before coming back to the topic. If you wrote the ideas in your own words, you'll find it easier to recall your original train of thought without redoing all of the research. Taking ownership also motivates you to trim down unnecessary information instead of simply filling your Zettelkasten with walls of copy-pasted text.
Keeping references serves a couple of extremely important purposes. The obvious benefit is that it simplifies further research: You never have to waste time hunting down old books or websites to flesh out ideas if you've referenced these sources and links in the notes.
A more subtle advantage is that references decrease the likelihood of plagiarism, making your work more original. For instance, if you create an article, project proposal, consumer journey map, or other document based on your Zettelkasten's contents, you can confirm that you're bringing something new to the table before you publish.
References are extremely helpful in a world overwhelmingly rife with media saturation. Digital Zettelkasten tools that preserve your ability to use references as intended – such as by jumping to links at a click – help you stay focused even when your research journey takes detours.
When keeping a Zettelkasten, don't be afraid to add your personal thoughts. Sure, some reflections might lack the same level of refinement found in your information sources and references. Nonetheless, they're vital landmarks in the overall conceptual landscape – ones you can benefit from reexamining later.
Stick to the system of consistent linking and autonomous, atomic concept organization for the best results, but trust your instincts and let the creativity flow.
An easy mistake to make with Zettelkasten note-taking is trying to impose an ill-fitting structure on your knowledge network. Remember that this method is all about enhancing your power to learn from ideas and synthesize knowledge, which demands organic flexibility.
You might not know that certain ideas are connected until you've built up a system of tags and links that displays the individual ties. With an arbitrary organizational structure, however, your chosen categories could make it impossible to spot the relationships. Needing to remember a preconceived information taxonomy also increases the workload. (Hint: Notably create a flexible, but intentional structure so you don’t have to worry about this part.)
Let the structure evolve on its own. By following the method and keeping sufficient links and tags, you'll see the big picture start to come together by itself, which is pretty magical, especially when you leverage AI tools that can suggest tags and build metadata on the fly.
When adding your own thoughts to a Zettelkasten, it's helpful to focus on connection notes and outline notes. These records serve no other purpose than to make browsing simpler and weave seemingly distinct ideas together, but they ease future access and improve navigability.
Keeping a Zettelkasten is a great way to free up room in your brain – so why not take advantage of the opportunity? Instead of deleting incorrect notes, add new ones that explain the errors and prevent you from retreading the same dead-end paths. This is also a great way to preserve ideas that might later turn out to be valid and keep track of your intellectual progress along the way.
There's no such thing as an overpopulated Zettelkasten. The more organized, well-connected notations you maintain, the more tools you'll have for navigating complex ideas. Some famous users successfully accumulated and kept thousands of physical cards over their lifetimes.
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Unlike many knowledge network schemes, keeping a Zettelkasten isn't a passing fad: It has a centuries-old track record of successful use worldwide, enjoying popularity among academics, authors, politicians, and even comedians.
The general public – and technology – are finally catching up. Traditional Zettelkästens often don't stray far from the literal "slip box" translation. These repositories can occupy entire shelves packed with folders, paper notes, and index cards, which turns many potential adopters away from the start.
Modern apps, like Notably, solve these problems by lowering the barriers to entry, making it easy for anyone to build a Zettelkasten. Ready to use a Zettelkasten method to refine your solo research strategy – or enterprise knowledge management practices? Get started by trying Notably for free.
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