TAKE BETTER NOTES
How to Start Your Digital Zettelkasten (In 4 Simple Steps)
Discover the 4 Easy Steps to Get Started… Today!
When it comes to note-taking, starting a digital Zettelkasten is the hot thing right now.
And for good.
Because it makes you become a better thinker, helps you get more done in less time, and boosts your creativity.
But here’s the issue:
A lot of people talking about the Zettelkasten like to make it complicated…
And thus, many people get bogged down by the complexity of it and just keep taking notes the dumb way.
I don’t like complicated stuff.
So in this article, I will show you the 4 simple steps so that you can start your digital Zettelkasten right after reading this.
Because the earlier you get started, the better it is.
By the time I’m writing this, I started my own Zettelkasten 4 months ago
And here’s what it already looks like:
This a Graph View of my Digital Zettelkasten showing you the connections between the notes. The bigger the dot, the more connection it has (more on that, later on!)
The good news?
I’m going to give you everything you need know to do to the same.
So let’s get started.
What is a Zettelkasten?
Before going into the meat, let’s just have a quick recap (or introduction) to the Zettelkasten note methodology.
Zettelkasten is german and literally means “slip-box”.
What does this slip-box contain?
Nothing else than… Notes!
Every note contains one big idea followed by some metadata (like mentioning the source and links to other relevant notes).
Even though the Zettelkasten wasn’t invented by the german sociologist Niklas Luhman, a lot give him credit for that.
He was probably one of the most prolific Zettelkasten users as he built up a Zettelkasten of around 90 000 notes (!) which helped him in writing 70 books and nearly 400 scholar articles about a variety of subjects.
Why start a Digitalzettelkasten?
You could start a physical Zettelkasten like Luhmann — or a digital one on your computer.
A digital version takes less physical space,
and can be backed up in different locations (external drives, cloud services, etc.)
A digital Zettelkasten makes it also easier to make connections between your notes (more on that later on).
But hey — why should you care?
Because many of us want to write books, articles, emails, or just scripting out great Youtube videos.
For that, you need ideas.
Not random ones.
But great ideas.
Here’s what one of the most famous man in advertising history says about that:
“It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product.
Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.
I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.”
— David Ogilvy
Because the internet is flooded with too much content.
Too much noise.
And most of the noise is just regurgitating what others say.
Look: As a content creator, you rely on your ideas.
This is your most important asset.
So the only way to stand out and build a long-term relationship with your audience… is to create not good, but great content.
And great content emerges from great ideas.
What would your business look like if you had that kind of prolific asset?
Don’t you think that you’ll be ahead of the curve?
Of course, you would be.
And the Zettelkasten actually allows you to achieve that exactly.
With the Zettelkasten say goodbye to scattered notes.
Say goodbye to guessing where you stumbled across this or that idea.
Everything is here, in your Zettelkasten.
The Zettelkasten is designed is to guide you in coming up with great ideas.
I think that you’ve got the point now why having your own Zettelkasten is that kind of important.
(If not, let me know,
and I’ll rewrite this part to be sure that you understand the value of it!)
The Problem with most digital Zettelkasten’s
But there is a problem.
What you’re going to see on Youtube is that most people focus on the tools: Should I use Roam? Obsidian? Or any other similar tool?
The quest for the “right” tool blinds us from actually understanding the most important stuff and actually doing the work.
Because using the tool is not as important as understanding the big picture here.
So let me boil that down for you.
Step 1: Where does the value of your digital Zettelkasten resides?
The first thing to understand is that the value of your notes is more than the sum of them.
Let me explain that:
Let’s assume that you have 3 notes in your Zettelkasten (Each containing 1 idea).
So you may think that the value of the Zettelkasten is 3 (as you only have 3 notes.)
But that’s not true.
the value resides in the 3 ideas PLUS all the combinations possible between these ideas.
As an example,
let’s say you have 3 standalone ideas: Idea A, Idea B, and Idea C.
The combination of A + B adds another value point.
The combination of B + C adds also.
And the combination of A + C also adds another value point too.
So the value of your Zettelkasten builds up and compounds over time.
Let’s assume you have 100 notes.
By simply adding one note, you multiply your potential ideas by 1000 (if I’ve done the math correctly 😅).
Of course, not all ideas can be combined, but you got my point.
The quality of a note resides in its connections to others
In a conventional note-taking system, when we take a note,
what do we do next, fellow note-takers?
We just add some hashtags (or put them into a relevant folder) so that we can retrieve them later on.
But this practice is outdated.
Time to upgrade your operating system!
Because once you’ve understood that the value of your notes is not in the hashtags or in the folders but resides in its connections…
You don’t need to categorize them anymore. You simply need to link your note to what comes to your mind.
Think in terms of associations, not categorization.
Because our brains work in associations, too.
What you’re going to replicate in your Zettelkasten is the exact same process that happens in your brain.
And this is why the Zettelkasten is often referred to as a “second brain”.
It works like an extension of your brain.
This means that when you come across an idea,
you remember another thing…
that remembers you another…
and then another and then another …
This linking process is how we remember things.
And the more connections we have to specific information, the stronger it gets.
In our brains, those connections are called synapses.
In our note-taking system, links!
So the more ideas you have,
the more you’re able to connect those ideas with past things that you stumble across, the more value it will have, and the more odds you have to remember (and learn) from it!
Step 2: Understanding the difference between Fleeting notes vs Permanent notes
You maybe stumble across folks on Youtube that have all those fancy and complicated workflows.
(Even just looking at the workflows makes you feel dizzy!)
And they have a dozen of different daunting note names:
Fleeting, permanent, literature, evergreen, and the list goes on.
This terminology can be useful if you have already dipped your toes into the note-taking world, but as a beginner, it’s nothing else than confusing.
This is absolutely NOT the purpose of note-taking.
If you have to smash your head against the wall to start understanding how taking notes works, getting the names right…
You’re NOT going to do it the long haul. You’re simply getting discouraged even before starting doing it.
Which is, again, NOT the purpose of note-taking.
If you don’t enjoy the process, trust me, you’re not going to be consistent.
That’s why I want to make it darn simple so that you don’t get bogged down by all the unnecessary complexity.
As Charlie Munger says:
“Take a simple idea, and take it seriously.”
So the best thing on how to start a digital Zettelkasten is to actually differentiate between 2 types of notes.
Yes, only 2!
The first type is fleeting notes.
The second type is permanent notes.
Understanding Fleeting notes
Fleeting notes are notes you take on the fly.
So the way I want you to think about it is simple.
Throughout your day, you’re going to get insights, stumble across new information.
What you simply have to do is to capture those ideas in a specific inbox.
You can do that with the note app of your choice.
The only rule of thumb is that you should be able to capture your notes quickly.
Being an iOS user, I like to create shortcuts with a simple prompt to capture my ideas straight into Bear like so:
(But you could create the same workflow to capture it to Apple notes — which is free.)
Now you have fleeting notes that you’ve captured.
Think of them as drafts.
What you’re going to do now is to go back to those fleeting notes on another point in time.
This could be on the same day later on,
or it could be on the next day,
or it can be on a specific day in your week…
Up to you.
The key concept is that you need to dedicate some time where you’re going to review your inbox and go through those fleeting notes and see which one of them is worth to be turned in a permanent note.
If not, delete it.
Because turning your fleeting notes into a permanent note is actually the end goal.
Understanding Permanent notes
Every single note in your digital Zettelkasten is a permanent note.
This means that this note has earned the privilege to be a permanent resident in your Zettelkasten.
So a permanent note is just another way to say that this note will have its permanent place in your Zettelkasten.
So what you have to do right now is create a special inbox where you’re going to store all the ideas that you come across.
And then in a second time, you are going to convert the fleeting notes that matter into permanent notes.
Step 3: How to write a permanent note ?
Permanent notes are the backbone of your digital Zettelkasten.
So you’d better know how to create them right.
I had a hard time creating notes.
Sometimes I would summarize a whole book in one note.
Sometimes I would just create a note with a quote.
I didn’t have a simple, standardized process.
And this costs me a lot of mental clarity.
One note = One idea
A big eye-opener I had when reading “How to take smart notes” was this simple principle:
One note equals one idea.
Let me say it again: 1 note = 1 idea.
Don’t try to put 500 different ideas into 1 specific note.
Even though this may seem easier.
In the long term, it will backfire.
Having a standardized way to treat your notes will give you way more clarity and improve your workflow.
Because it unloads your brain of a cognitive task.
You’ll never have to ask yourself again: “How shall I take or organize this note?”
No, you have a process that you just have to follow.
Isolate the idea from the context
Once you start working on your note, the first step is to isolate the idea from the context.
Because each idea you stumble across is given in a context.
What is context?
Context is what illustrates the idea.
Let me explain: In this article, I gave you several ideas around note-taking in the Zettelkasten.
So the goal here is to rewrite those ideas that they can be understood without the context.
For example, the idea of standardization.
It implies that having a standardized form of taking notes is a waste of cognitive energy.
Well, the context of this idea is note-taking. But when you isolate the context, it becomes:
“Standardization helps to reduce wasting cognitive energy ” or something similar.
It’s not easy to isolate core ideas, but I would encourage you to get uncomfortable.
(Remember, growth happens outside your comfort zone).
Why bother isolating?
Because creativity is simply combining ideas and connecting the dots.
So the more ideas you can isolate, the more you’ll be able to play with them and find new creative big ideas (that are the backbone of your business as a content creator, NEVER forget that.)
Think of your notes as LEGOs.
You can mix and match between them to create different things.
Depending on what you build, the overall shape changes, but the LEGO blocks themselves remain the same.
Isolating ideas is also a great exercise to think better, and start understanding the material you’ve captured:
May it be a quote from a book, a ted talk, or a podcast.
Link between your notes
If you want to benefit from the Zettelkasten there is one final thing to do:
You have to link notes between them.
Because as I mentioned previously, creativity is simply connecting things between them:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible.
We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
–– Mark Twain
To link your notes, ask the right question
So instead of asking yourself to which category does this note belongs to… Ask yourself : “When do I want to stumble across this note again?”
Because how we usually take notes is that we just copy/paste an idea and then categorize it with hashtags (or put it into a specific folder).
Before giving you an example, I want to emphasize that your Zettelkasten folder structure should be as simple as possible.
Let’s say I came across a great idea about how to lose weight. It is to actually eat marrows.
Well, I’m going to classify that this in a folder or under a tag called “health”.
Because I’ve implicitly asked myself :
“To which category does this note belong to?”
But what if I asked myself instead:
“When do I want to stumble across this note again?”
Well, if I have an interest in gardening,
I could also link this note to other notes about gardening.
This is actually a game-changer.
Because what you’re going to do is you’re going to make associations even with things that are beyond the typical category that you would have categorized your note in.
And this is how creativity happens.
This is how you can really take advantage of the digital Zettelkasten.
So to recap,
here’s how you create a note in your digital Zettelkasten:
- One note = One idea
- Isolate the idea from the context
- Link the notes between them
Step 4: Pick your Digital Zettelkasten Tool
Only after you understand everything I’ve mentioned comes the time to do some research about the tools.
The only tool that you have to pick is a tool that uses bi-directional links.
Aditionnaly, I’ve published a full list of the best zettelkasten apps on my website.
If you want to take it further, choose a tool that allows you to export your notes easily (so that you’re not hooked to any kind of platform and don’t see your work vanish if the platform goes away).
But you can add way more criteria in order to narrow down your choices like:
- Great UI interface
- Multiplatform support,
Because yes: there are a lot of tools out there.
And I bet that in the upcoming years more will flourish.
By the time I’m writing this article, here are some famous digital Zettelkasten tools:
- and others…
So start playing around with them and pick what floats your boat!