Three Things I've Learned Using the Zettlekasten Method

I discovered the zettelkasten note taking method a month and a half ago and recall mentioning it briefly in one of my newsletters. I had written it looks interesting because I'm always looking for ways to improve my recall on things that I've read. Note taking is a way to do that and the zettelkasten method is a form of note taking that had not heard of before. I had also written that I'd post a future blog on the method after I've had a chance to work with it. Well, I've tried it out over the past two weekends and this is the first in a series of posts on the zettelkasten method.

First, what is the zettelkasten method?

The word zettelkasten is German for "slip-box". Think of a collection of individual slips of paper, each containing one idea or concept, and cataloged in a way that allows you to reference relevant ideas to each other. It's a note taking system that isn't so much about organizing your collection of notes of what you've read; the system is more about collecting your ideas on what you've read and allowing you to make connections among those ideas. Those connections are what allow for creativity and innovation, making the work of learning and writing much easier.

The method was made famous by Niklas Luhmann, a researcher and writer who credited the zettelkasten system in allowing him to write dozens of books and hundreds of academic articles. Clearly, Luhmann was hugely productive in his writing and the potential to be able to write this much appealed to me about the zettelkasten method.

The three things I've learned in two weekends

I've only been trying out the zettelkasten method for the past two weekends, and so I've only put in a handful of hours using implementing the system. There's much more to learn and, in researching for this post, there are things that I need to tweak as I continue working with the zettelkasten method. Regardless, here are the top three things that I've learned.

I'll have future blog posts that go into more detail because I believe this is a system that works for the readers and writers out there.

1. Zettelkasten is a note-taking process

Properly implemented, there is a short series of steps to follow before creating a zettel. (This is one of the tweaks that I need to make as I jumped in with both feet and started creating zettels!)

The normal way that I would read and take notes was to highlight and scribble a few thoughts in the margin of whatever I was reading. If I was reading something digital, and it was good, I'd import the document into Evernote or MS OneNote and do the same highlighting/notetaking in that app. If we're reading to learn, this is how most of us annotate the reading. The main problem with this is that our notes reside only with that particular thing we've read and marked-up. To refer back to our notes, it's a discovery process wherein we have to open up the book, come across the magazine article, or re-read the file in Evernote or MS OneNote.

In the zettelkasten process, notes that you create are stored in a database. Also, the notes that you create aren't simply summaries and highlights of certain passages. Rather, the notes that you create are your own thoughts and ideas on what you've read. The illustration above shows five steps:

  • Step 1. Annotate and highlight noteworthy passages.
  • Step 2. "Pull the notes." On one slip of paper, write one note taking care to capture reference information (i.e., page number, section title, etc.)
  • Step 3. Create clusters. Group the slips of paper whose topics go together under a certain theme or topic.
  • Step 4. Create zettels. From the clusters/themes/topics, create the individual zettel. This is your permanent note stored in your zettelkasten..

The method is a bit of work, but the process is a way to continue working with the text after you've completed reading. And in working with the text, you'll have a greater understanding of what you've just read and make connections among those ideas easily.

2. Software makes implementing the zettelkasten method easy

Back to Niklas Luhmann. He had a database of over 90,000 index cards in his zettelkasten system. Being dedicated to amassing and maintaining a catalog of ideas and notes, it's no wonder that Luhmann was as a prolific writer as he was.

Now a card catalog like that is a tremendous amount of work, but thankfully, we have digital tools for implementing zettelkasten easily. The zettelkasten method is more than just a collection of notes; it's the connections between the notes that allow for the creativity and deep understanding of the notes it contains. With software, these connections are created through hypertext, hashtags, and search results. Each of these methods create connections differently, but the end result is the same: a collection of notes for a topic of interest to you at the time.

The software that I chose to try out (and will eventually purchase) is called The Archive and you can learn about it through this link. What drew me to this particular app is the 60-day free trial. The creators realize that you need some time working with the zettelkasten method and hence the generous trial time. After two weekends, I've decided that the $20 cost is absolutely worth having permanent access to the app.

What I like about The Archive app is it's simplicity. The text editor plain text as the only font, the user interface is very clean and simple, and you can easily navigate between zettels because of hypertexting, hash tagging, or searching. A very small drawback is having to learn markdown language in order to provide some formatting to the text, but markdown is pretty easy to learn and not needed when you're first starting out.

Below is a screenshot of one of my zettels. It's neat, simple, and easy to read. There's a structure to each zettel, and I'll get a future blog post on each element of a zettel together soon.

3. I was able to write my blog faster

The final thing that I learned after my trial run with the zettelkasten method was that I was able to write a little faster and easier. I used the method to organize my thinking for this blog post and last week's post on MECE. I was pleased with how easily the ideas and words came for these two blog posts.

There's a few principles that I'm still learning about like the principles of atomicity and connectivity and optimizing searches. And I also need to tweak my note-taking process (see #1 above), so there's much more to learn and write about the method.

But I do know that in just a handful of hours, I've been able to be more productive in my writing. One thing that I definitely wish was that I had learned about this method during my PhD time. Looking back, the zettelkasten method would have been such a game-changer for me and my dissertation research. So for anyone looking to be a better researcher, better writer, or even a better reader, I think the zettelkasten method is a tool absolutely worth trying out.

Resources

As always, I end each blog post with a list of resources for anyone interested in the blog post topic. Below is just a handful of links to help with anyone interested in learning more about the zettelkasten method.

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