I’ve been procrastinating on writing this article for one simple reason: I don’t feel qualified. Zettelkasten is a technical topic with a long history, and many people practice it more precisely than I do. There are lots of opinions on how to do Zettelkasten in Obsidian, and they all have merit.
However, I’ve learned a lot about it in the last couple of years. I’ve read several books, numerous articles, and attempted to implement it in my own life.
I’m sure I don’t practice it “properly”, but it has been hugely beneficial in my life. Creating a Zettelkasten-like system is one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last two years. It has changed my life.
So despite my lack of expertise, I’d like to share my Zettelkasten-like method.
I’ll also add some helpful resources at the end of this article for you to explore if you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole.
My main interest in Zettelkasten was selfish.
In the 21st century we all consume a boatload of information daily, and most of it goes “in one ear and out the other”. Like everyone else I was consuming tons of information every day, and yet I retained very little of it.
This was depressing to me: I love to learn and research topics, but what’s the point of consuming information if you don’t remember any of it?
So I started taking notes. I started writing down a brief summary of the things I learned every day. This felt good in the moment. It felt like I was actually doing something with the knowledge I was acquiring, so I continued the experiment for a while.
After a couple of months, I had a huge stack of notes, but I was even more depressed than before.
When I went back to review my notes, I didn’t understand any of it. My notes relied heavily on context, and when I forgot the context, the note became useless.
Here’s an example of one of the notes I took during this time:
10 gallon pot
Copper dripper tubes?
No context, no additional information, just a random assortment of items. When I took this note I’m sure it made sense, but several months later I look back at this with no idea what it means.
Zettelkasten is all about creating heirloom notes
The whole point of Zettelkasten, as I understand it, is to create notes that last a lifetime. If I write a note today that is still helpful to me in ten years, then my Zettelkasten is a success.
And believe it or not, my Zettelkasten is a two step process. It’s extremely easy to implement, and the results (for me at least) are spectacular.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about my system, we should talk about where Zettelkasten came from.
A short history of Zettelkasten
Zettelkasten was invented by Niklas Luhmann. It is a note-taking system that was intended to aid him not only in writing, but also in thinking. Luhmann found that his note-taking system not only helped him to remember things, but it also inspired new thoughts and new innovations.
The word Zettelkasten in German means “slip box”. It’s a reference to the boxes that Luhmann kept his notes in. The box itself has no purpose other than to hold the notes, but Luhmann called it a Zettelkasten and the name stuck.
Niklas Luhmann was an incredibly prolific writer. He published over 70 books in his career, (more than one book for every year he lived) and nearly 400 scholarly articles. All of this productivity he attributed to his Zettelkasten, his method of taking and organizing notes.
While researching this article I stumbled across this video where you can actually see Luhmann using his system. It looks very different from modern day Zettelkastens, but I enjoyed seeing it.
The ultimate goal of Zettelkasten is to publish. It is a writer’s tool, meant for creating published works, but it can do a lot more than that.
My process for Zettelkasten in Obsidian
One of the most important processes in Zettelkasten for me is distinguishing between two different types of notes.
These note types come to us not from Luhmann, but from the seminal book How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens.
Ahrens outlines three different types of notes:
- Fleeting notes
- Permanent notes
- Literature notes
I rarely use Literature notes, so I’m not going to go into those here. Fleeting and Permanent notes are incredibly helpful concepts though, so let’s go into that now.
Fleeting notes are temporary notes.
These are the notes that all of us take. Any time you need to jot something down in order to remember it, this is a fleeting note. Fleeting notes are raw, unfiltered reminders of things we want to remember.
Fleeting notes are useful because they don’t distract you. You can add a fleeting note at any time, about anything, and it will act as a reminder to that idea. I frequently add fleeting notes when I’m reading books or articles, or when I’m listening to podcasts. It’s a great way to remember something later, while not distracting you in the now.
But fleeting notes are only useful if you change them into something else. They are not heirloom-quality notes; they lack context. In order to create notes that will stand the test of time, you have to revisit all of your fleeting notes and refactor them into something better.
When I first started taking notes, my notes were all fleeting notes. I never revisited them, and thus the ideas decayed over time; my notes, and the time I put into them, was wasted.
Fleeting notes are only useful if you revisit them and change them into something else. What do we turn them into?
Heirloom-grade Zettelkasten notes are often called Permanent notes.
Permanent notes are also called “Atomic” notes. There are many different types of permanent notes, but I like to think of them as “connected” notes, notes that I have intentionally connected to other notes in my vault.
My own personal rules for creating a permanent note are something like this:
- One “big idea” per note
- Understandable without context
- Written in my own words
- Linked to other notes
These rules are flexible, but these are things that I have found help me to manage my ideas.
All notes should eventually be thrown away, archived, or converted to permanent notes.
Keeping fleeting and permanent notes separate
In Obsidian, there are plenty of ways to make sure you refactor your fleeting notes into permanent ones. I favor the simplest approach, which also works with any other note taking app: use folders.
I have a folder named “Fleeting” and another folder named “Permanent”. By default all new notes go into the Fleeting folder, and I have a habit at the end of every day to go through the fleeting notes and refactor at least one or two. I don’t aim for “inbox zero” here, because I don’t want to make it into a chore. But I also don’t want my fleeting notes to grow stagnant and to forget the ideas, so I tried to do at least a couple every day.
Usually I enjoy it enough that I end up doing five or ten!
Putting it all together: my entire system for Zettelkasten in Obsidian
Let’s go through the creation of a permanent note. Currently in my fleeting notes I have a note called “The Rise and Fall of GTD”. The only thing that exists in this note is a link to an article that I wanted to take notes on:
The Rise and Fall of GTD
Looks interesting: https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-rise-and-fall-of-getting-things-done
So in order to create a permanent note here, I need to open up that article and take some notes.
Going through the article, I find it pretty wordy and uninteresting. However, there are a couple of ideas that seem interesting and deserve assimilation into my vault.
Rather than adding both ideas to this one note, I’ll add two more fleeting notes. The first note I’ll call “There’s a person for whom GTD is a perfect fit”:
There’s a person for whom GTD is a perfect fit
parent:: [[The Rise and Fall of GTD]]
Merlin Mann said this, according to this article.  The implication is that GTD doesn’t work for anyone but David Allen. (even though, ironically, Mann admits he still uses many of the concepts)
In this note I provide a reference to the quote, and clarify the meaning in my own words.
The next idea I found interesting is this one:
GTD is only a band-aid for disfunctional company culture
parent:: [[The Rise and Fall of GTD]]
This idea comes from a New Yorker article.
Kind of a strange critique,
because it implies that it is useful for those stuck in toxic companies with constantly competing priorities.
And if that’s true,
why wouldn’t it be true for anyone with a complicated life that has constantly changing priorities?
Now that I have these to ideas encapsulated in their own notes, I add links back to the original note. The original note becomes this:
The Rise and Fall of GTD
This is the title of a wordy and largely uninspiring New Yorker article. [^1]
The article critiques GTD by saying that [[GTD is only a band-aid for disfunctional company culture]].
In this article it is also stated that [[There’s a person for whom GTD is a perfect fit]].
You can see how I’ve tried to keep only one idea in each note, and I used links to connect those ideas together. I’ve also written everything in my own words, and attempted to capture the essence of the article as I saw it. I also always add a reference back to the source material, so I’ll be able to look at the article again if I need to.
The two additional notes I created both link to the “parent” note, but they don’t have to. They are independent ideas, and they can link to whatever note seems to make the most sense.
Organizing my notes
Understanding fleeting and permanent notes has been huge for me. I love taking fleeting notes on the go, when I’m reading or listening to something that I want to remember. At any given time I have 10-50 fleeting notes in my vault, but every day I try to refactor at least a few of them, so that I don’t lose the original idea. Converting fleeting notes to robust permanent notes is satisfying, so it’s a chore I do willingly.
If you struggle to figure out what notes to link to other notes, then you might want to look into MOCs, or Maps of Content. This is another concept that I’ve found useful: all of my permanent notes ultimately link to a MOC, which allows me to keep things more organized. Since Luhmann had physical notes, he was able to order things physically, and place notes in a logical sequence. That is one thing that we don’t have in the digital realm: you can’t place similar notes sequentially next to each other. I find that MOCs help bridge that gap, and allow you to group related notes together with little fuss or mess.
If you’re using Obsidian for your Zettelkasten, you can also automate the creation of MOCs.
We’ve gone through all the details above, but here’s a quick summary of how I do Zettelkasten in Obsidian:
- Find an idea, create a fleeting note in my “Fleeting” folder (dedicated to just fleeting notes)
- Hours or days later, go through fleeting notes. Rewrite the original idea, create new notes for new ideas if needed, and link related ideas together
- Move permanent notes out of the Fleeting folder, into my permanent notes folder
- As time goes on, connect more and more ideas to the original idea
Ultimately it’s a simple idea that has profound results. The more ideas you add to your permanent notes, the more valuable it makes all your other notes.
There are tons of high quality resources out there on Zettelkasten in Obsidian. If these ideas seem interesting to you, here are a few places where you can learn more:
I’ve read this books and believe them to be worth your time:
- How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens
- Building a Second Brain, by Tiago Forte (also see our review)
- Martin Adams on Zettelkasten
- Artem Kirsanov on Zettelkasten
- Bryan Jenks on Zettelkasten (VERY in depth)
Note: the above Amazon links are affiliate links, which help pay for this blog at no additional cost to you. No need to use them, but if you do, thank you!
Leave a Reply