A system to improve your knowledge, thinking, and productivity
Zettelkasten system of note-taking is the best thing I have learned this year. It has completely changed how I think and how I read. It took me quite a long time to learn because there are not many resources available online for this.
I’m taking smart notes in obsidian with the Zettelkasten method for almost 2 months now. It clearly has made me a better reader and a better thinker. In this article, I will try to explain in detail the principles of the Zettelkasten system and how you can take smart notes in obsidian.
It doesn’t matter if you are a non-fiction writer, researcher, or just a curious learner, this note-taking system will help you improve how you learn in life.
New to obsidian? Want a Jumpstart? This starter vault can help you ease your obsidian journey.
Obsidian Starter Vault- Kickstart Your Obsidian Journey Jumpstart your obsidian journey. 500+ Notes, templates, and workflows. Learn from examples and play in the sandbox of notesbeingpax.gumroad.com
What is Zettelkasten System
Zettelkasten, also known as the slip-box system is an open-ended process of writing, learning, and thinking invented by Niklas Luhmann. He read a lot of books, papers, and articles just like you and me and collected many notes.
He soon realized that his notes were not taking him anywhere. So, he developed a system to collect all of them in one place called a slip-box.
He found out that one idea or one note was only as valuable as its context, which was not necessarily the context it was taken from. He thought about how one idea could relate and contribute to different contexts.
He collected his notes in a slip-box in such a way that, it became his partner, main idea generator, and productivity engine.
In the span of 30 years, Luhmann published 58 books and hundreds of articles. Even after his death, about a dozen more books on different topics like religion, politics, and education were published under his name, all based on the manuscripts lying around in his office. When he was asked about his secret to productivity, he always mentioned the slip-box.
The slip-box helps you create a smart working or writing environment that helps to avoid resistance.
Note: Most of the ideas in this article are taken from Sonke Ahrens's How to take smart notes book. If you want to know more about the zettelkasten system, you can deep dive into the book.
The Four Underlying Principles
Writing is the only thing that matters
Studying done properly is research. Even if you decide to never write a single line of draft, writing will improve your reading, thinking, and other intellectual skills.
If you can think, speak and write, you are absoultely deadly, nothing can get in your way. — Jordan Peterson
Simplicity is paramount
It is often believed that big transformations have to start with an equally big idea. But, it is the simplicity of the idea that makes it so powerful. The biggest advantage compared to a top-down storage system organized by topics is that the Zettelkasten system becomes more and more valuable as it grows, instead of getting messy and confusing.
Nobody starts from scratch
Decide on what to write about, plan your research, do your research, and write. Writing can’t be this linear. Every intellectual endeavor starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquiries and can serve as a starting point for following endeavors.
Let the work carry you forward
Once we get into the workflow, it is as if the work itself gains momentum, pulling us along and sometimes even energizing us.
How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian(Zettelkasten Method)
Obsidian is one of the best free tools for Personal Knowledge Management and building your second brain. It is free, open-source, cross-platform, works completely offline and notes are stored locally.
Also, the notes are stored in markdown formats which means that even if the tool disappears tomorrow, you won’t have to mourn over your notes.
You can just use obsidian as a simple note-taking tool or manage your entire life with the help of 300+ plugins from the obsidian community.
Now let us dive into the different types of notes and when and how to take them.
Fleeting notes are reminders of what you have on your head. They are your everyday thoughts that you might think to be important. You don’t have to worry about where or how you can write them. They are only reminders and can be written in any kind of way and will have to end up in the trash within a day or two.
Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget or what you can use in your own writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words.
Don’t just copy the content. Understand first and write them in your own words. Now place all of these notes in the same place with bibliographical details. They are tools for understanding and grasping the text.
Go back to your slip-box and through the fleeting and literature notes ideally once a day. Think about how they relate to what is relevant for your research. The idea is not to collect but to develop ideas, arguments, and discussions.
Can you add something? Does something contradict? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by them?
Use full sentences, make references and be as precise, clear, and brief as possible. They will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way.
A permanent note is what will add actual value to your system. Literature notes are short and meant to help with writing slip-box notes. Everything else either helps to get to this point or is a distraction.
Permanent notes are directed towards an audience ignorant of the thoughts behind the text and unaware of the original context, only equipped with a general knowledge of the field.
Examples to Help You Get Started
Enough talking about the principles, there’s already too much of it out there. But let’s talk about how I take smart notes in obsidian using the Zettelkasten method.
Any thought or idea that pops into my head, I place it down in my fleeting note. If I’m not on my computer, I use obsidian on my phone to quickly capture. Or you can use any other tools like a notebook or a diary.
Note: You can use obsidian sync or sync using syncthing for free between your phone and computer.
The obsidian community is what adds more value to this tool. There are over 300+ plugins that can help you with different functions. One such plugin is Zettlekasten prefixer.
Zettlekasten Prefixer gives your note a 12 digit Zettelkasten ID. You can enable it by going in: Settings> Core plugins> Zettelkasten prefixer.
You can go to the plugins setting to choose where you want to store all these Zettelkasten notes. In my case, all of these notes are stored inside the references folder.
Templates for bibliographical details
Templates help you to save time. You can use templates or templater(which is more robust) for template functionality. Create a new note and add it under a new folder called templates in your obsidian vault.
You can add a template to your note by Alt+E(templater) or Alt+T(templates) or you can create your custom hotkeys.
Understanding types vs topics in obsidian
Some people use tags for topics but I don’t prefer so. I use tags only to know the status of notes. For example #litnote and #todevelop mean this is a literature note and it has not been processed. Once the note is processed and a new permanent note is created, the #todevelop tag is removed.
Topics are used to describe under what category or topic does this note falls. Instead of using tags, we use links. Here is an example of a literature note from the book, ‘The Almanack of Naval Ravikant’.
Taking literature notes
I try to take notes of everything I consume from books, articles to videos, and podcasts. For example: If I have to take notes from an article that I’m reading online, here’s what I do:
- Use eloquent browser extension to capture highlights
- Copy the captured notes as a fleeting note in obsidian
- Process the note in my own words as a literature note
The process I use for taking notes for different types of content is also different but they all follow the same basic principles:
- Don’t just copy, write them in your own words
- Keep it short and be extremely selective
- Keep bibliographical details
- Store them in the same place
A permanent note is the soul of your Zettelkasten system. The fleeting and literature notes are all written to facilitate writing a permanent note. These notes are written entirely in your own words to express your understanding and opinion about the idea. The basic rules for creating a permanent note are:
- Use full sentences and be clear and as brief as possible
- They are atomic in nature i.e. one note can only have 1 idea
- Make references
- Link with related notes
Here is a screenshot from my vault. All the green dots are the permanent notes I made from the book by Naval Ravikant.
Creating permanent note
I try to get through all of my recent literature notes and fleeting notes once a day (ideally). I go through these notes to develop ideas, arguments, and discussions.
Sometimes one literature note can generate a single permanent note while some literature notes especially are taken from books can have multiple ideas and so multiple permanent notes.
You can either create a new note by clicking on the ‘new note’ icon or you can create a link to a new note in the same literature note by adding [[Your Note]]. Once you have done that you have created a new note.
This is my template for creating a permanent note. References help me to easily find where the idea came from. In the related field, I add other relevant notes that I have created.
On topics, first I add the major category under which these notes fall and then I add under which context will I need this note. Don’t get it? let me share an example.
Here’s an example of my permanent note. This permanent note was created from the literature note of the book, ‘Discipline equals freedom’. So, in the reference, I have a link to that note.
On topics, the first one I have is a broad category called ‘discipline’. If I only link this note with a broad category, I might never find it again. Or, it would be hard for me to fetch it again when I need it (because there can be thousands of notes under one broad category). So, I link it with a more relevant context I’d want to stumble upon this note.
Here’s where the principle of the Zettelkasten system is used.
You don’t tag notes in the context you found them. Instead, tag them in the context in which you want to discover them.
Note: In the beginning, I struggled a lot with permanent notes. I was confused about when to create one and how many should I create. But there is no fixed rule. Whenever there’s an idea that you can elaborate on or argue with or are curious about, you can create a permanent note. If you get more than 1 idea from a literature note you can create multiple permanent notes as well. But remember, each permanent note should only hold 1 idea.
This is my current system of taking smart notes and it's evolving constantly. If you have just started on your journey to take smart notes, I hope this article contributes something to you.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section.
- How To Sync Obsidian Notes Across Different Devices For Free
- Fleeting Notes Vs Literature Notes Vs Permanent Notes
Obsidian Note-Taking All the articles and tutorial I've created related to obsidian and note-taking in generalbeingpax.medium.com