In the world of continuous learning, taking notes is an essential part of the process. However, not all note-taking methods are created equal. In his book “How to Take Smart Notes,” Sönke Ahrens introduces the zettelkasten note-taking system, a method used by German sociologist Nicholas Luhmann to write 58 books and over 500 academic papers.
The zettelkasten system is a remarkable way of connecting index cards to simplify the way in which you write the first draft of your book, academic paper, business plan, or article. It uses a two-stage filter to prevent mediocre ideas from diluting existing notes. Here’s a breakdown of how the system works:
Stage One: Capture Literature Notes and Fleeting Notes When making notes, capture literature notes by highlighting passages in your ebook reader or taking notes in a mobile note-taking application. You can also capture sections of online articles or podcasts that discuss the topic you’re researching. You can also capture fleeting notes by writing down random ideas that come to your mind throughout the day.
Stage Two: Create Permanent Notes Once a day, preferably at the same time every day, go through your literature notes and fleeting notes from the past 24 hours. Determine which notes you should convert to permanent notes. Two criteria for converting a note into a permanent note are:
- Does this note produce a similar level of excitement as when you first captured it?
- Does this note add value to other permanent notes?
If an idea from your literature notes or an idea from your fleeting notes meets those two criteria, make it a permanent note by rewriting it on an index card. Add a location code prefix to the title, a list of keywords in the top right corner, and links to permanent notes in the bottom right corner.
One of the advantages of the zettelkasten system is its bottom-up approach to writing. Rather than outlining your book or article from the start, the system encourages you to follow your curiosity, generate a list of keywords as you go, and organically grow an outline over time. By adding keywords to every permanent note, you can group notes together and quickly find relevant notes.
Location Code Prefix When you prefix every permanent note title with a location code, you make it easy to reference your notes later on. The first note you add to your zettelkasten system will have one prefix to its title, and your second note will have a two prefix to its title. If your third note builds off the first note, it should go between notes 1 and 2 and have the code 1a prefixed to its title.
List of Keywords Identifying keywords is as important as taking notes. Aim to add one to three keywords to the top right corner of every permanent note. Identify keywords by asking yourself what one word or phrase relates this note to existing notes. When you develop a new keyword or phrase, put it on your master index, located on an index card at the very front of your index card box.
Note Links A new permanent note may have many potential friends in your zettelkasten system. If a note could fit nicely behind note 12a1 but it also relates to notes 2b1 and 24b, don’t spend too much time debating where the note should go. Simply put it behind 12a1 by giving it the code 12a2 and write down the location codes for related notes in the bottom right corner of the note. These links will be helpful when you write your first draft.
To summarize, start by capturing literature notes and fleeting notes in a mobile note-taking application. Then, convert a select few into permanent notes by rewriting them on index cards. Continuously update your master index with keywords and use it to outline your first draft. Go through your zettelkasten system sequentially, one card at a time, and effortlessly write your first draft. The zettelkasten system is an incredibly powerful tool for anyone looking to improve their note-taking and writing skills.
So, what are you waiting for? Give the zettelkasten system a try, and transform how you take notes forever!