You find the most valuable insights at the intersection of ideas.
Do you finish a book or an article and think you’ve found great insights but don’t know what to do with them?
If you ever feel like reading isn’t moving you forward, it’s likely because you don’t collect and connect your knowledge in a good way.
You can read the best writing in the world without changing at all. As Ratna Kusner once said:
“Knowledge trapped in books neatly stacked is meaningless and powerless until applied for betterment of life.”
But what if there was a simple way to build a database for your personal knowledge? How much easier would your life get if you always find what you need when you need it?
Luhmann, the Zettelkasten inventor, found the answers and lived by them. During his life, he wrote 70 books & 500 scholarly articles. He attributes his success to a note-taking system called the Zettelkasten.
Here’s why this note-taking-system works and how you can make this method work for you.
Why Zettelkasten Outperforms Other Systems
For the past years, I experimented with various note-taking systems —outlining, sketchnoting, mind-mapping, Notion workflows, and BulletJournals — before I finally settled on Zettelkasten. Here’s why this note-taking system beats others:
#1 Your Zettelkasten gets better the more you store
Tools like OneNote, Notion, Evernote, or your physical notebook exist in a top-down hierarchy. They are like a filing cabinet.
In the beginning, each note-taking system looks tidy and clean. But once you store more notes and ideas, they become unorganized.
Zettelkasten, on the contrary works like a bottom-up network. A lack of hierarchy helps you build a giant knowledge web of ideas. Your network works better the more information you store because connections and interlinks grow stronger.
Plus, a Zettelkasten can work as an idea-generation machine. You discover related ideas that you hadn’t thought of in the first place. As Sönke Ahrens writes in his book about the Zettelkasten:
“The more content it contains, the more connections it can provide, and the easier it become to add new entries in a smart way and receive useful suggestions. “
#2 You automatically use state-of-the-art learning science.
I used to rely on ineffective learning techniques like highlighting and rereading. I consumed more and more content instead of reading better.
Now the Zettelkasten will stop you from doing that. It’s an amazing learning tool as it forces us to use all the strategies that are known for effective learning — elaboration, spacing, and retrieval.
#3 You find the right idea at the perfect time.
As you’ll see in a minute, cross-references are at the core of the Zettelkasten. Whenever you add a new note, you think about how it relates to the existing notes.
You use networked thinking to link your notes together. And the more notes you add and connect, the bigger the network. You stumble upon useful intersections and move from note-taking to note-making.
In that way, the Zettelkasten not only captures your notes but helps you generate new ones as well. After all, the best ideas are the ones we haven’t anticipated. Or in James Clear’s words:
“The most useful insights are often found at the intersection of ideas.”
5 Steps to Start Your Own Zettelkasten
The system is simple. Before I set up my system, I read through +20 resources. Here’s the quintessence on how to get started:
1) Decide on a digital tool
When I started, I tried to implement the system in my existing Notion database. But Notion is built for collaboration, not for building your second brain.
While there are some people saying you can also start an analog Zettelkasten, I wouldn’t advise for it. There are so many great digital options that really ease your workflow.
You can pick between programs solely built for Zettelkasten, like Zettlr and The Archive, or more functional alternatives like TiddlyWiki (free and open-source), Obsidian, RemNote, Craft, Amplenote, and Org-roam.
2) Import your highlights or start from scratch
If you pick Roamresearch, you can rely on a tool like Readwise. Alternatively, you can transcribe your former notes manually or simply start from scratch.
Create a page for each of your highlights, and bold or highlight the most important ones.
3) Create literature notes
From your highlights page, create a new page for literature notes. Your literature notes are a bullet-point summary in your own words where you write down what you don’t want to forget from the initial source.
When taking literature notes ask yourself questions like:
- What is interesting about this?
- What’s so relevant that it’s worth noting down?
Lastly, create some tags for your literature notes. Your tags serve as a reference and help you find this literature note when you need it. Your tags can be longer than a single word and are the answers to ‘In which circumstance do you want to stumble upon the note? When will you use the idea’?
4) Create permanent notes
These notes will stick with you forever. You find them by looking at your literature notes, your highlights and asking yourself: ‘Which insight do I have based on the material I read?’
The answer requires serious brain work but it is exactly why a Zettelkasten is such a valuable learning tool.
In contrast to the literature notes, your permanent notes are written prose. A reader of your permanent note should understand it without reading the original source that led to your idea.
In Ahren’s words:
Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else. Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references, and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible.
5) Create cross-references for your permanent Notes.
Now, this is, in truth, the most important step. A note is only as valuable as its context — its network of associations, relationships, and connections to other information.
Use the digital tool’s power of bidirectional linking to connect permanent notes that relate with your idea (of course, in the beginning, you can’t link much). Ask yourself questions like:
- How does this idea fit with what I already know?
- How can I use this idea to explain Y?
- What does X mean for y?
Referring one note to another is the heart of the Zettelkasten method and crucial for idea development.
Creating a personal knowledge database can feel hard, especially if it slows down your consumption speed. But becoming a slower reader isn’t a time-waster. The contrary is true:
“Not learning from what we read because we don’t take the time to elaborate on it is the real waste of time.”
— Sönke Ahrens
I set up my Zettelkasten only a few weeks ago. Yet, it’s already transforming the way I store and discover knowledge. It makes reading much more meaningful, and I sincerely hope it does the same for you.