If you’re reading this, then chances are extremely high that you’ve already heard of Zettelkasten. But just in case you haven’t, Zettelkasten is a personal knowledge management method of interlinking notes to make it easy to access information that would otherwise be forgotten and buried by an incoming deluge of new information.
Now, you can go down the internet rabbit hole and spend days researching this method like I did. Or you could read this easy summary on Zettelkasten for Beginners, and just get started making smart notes. The choice, as they say, is yours.
Zettelkasten for Beginners
If you’re anything like me, and you’ve been working in the same area for nearly a decade, you’ve forgotten more than you currently know.
And if you’re anything like me, you’ve used a metric fuckton of different software options for making notes. Notes you no longer have access to. Notes you’ve forgotten. Notes that probably contain your next best business idea that will almost certainly never resurface.
That’s what Zettelkasten fixes: the inaccessibility of old information.
Initially it was developed by Niklas Luhmann to make writing academic papers easy. But at its essence it’s about accessing information, linking ideas, and developing knowledge. Which (clearly) is applicable to any knowledge worker out there whether it’s law, medicine or digital marketing.
How to Read a Book.
How to Take Smart Notes.
Writing to Learn.
So you’re not an academic. You’re not a student. You’re not writing research papers or publishing novels or techincal writing. Fuck, you’re not even a blogger.
I probably can’t convince you of the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but if you already do value knowledge simply in and of itself, then Writing to Learn is the best way to learn anything.
This is the solipsistic version of “See one, do one, teach one”: you read (see) it, you do (note) it, and you teach (write) it. Essentially, if you want to get good at something, get good at explaining it to other people.
Step 1: Active Reading
Read How to Read a Book and come back to me later. I’ll wait.
Step 2: Note Taking
Read How to Take Smart Notes and I’ll wait. Go on.
Step 3: Choose Your Software
Step 4: Zettelkasten Your Permanent Notes
Step four is in reality deeply intertwined with How to Take Smart Notes. It isn’t a purely linear process: I find myself skipping fleeting notes and literature notes more often than not.
The key points here are that unless you’re using RoamResearch or another outliner software, you should make a file per note/idea, and backlink it.
Our Zettelkasten software will do this using an auto generated file name, but the modern (better, in my humble opinion) way is to backlink using keywords that are in the body of text. The software will automatically find and add links to all references of that topic.
This very quickly matures into an observable network of notes, knowledges, ideas - basically, it gets your brain out of your head and infront of your eyes. Especially when your software has a graph view that literally shows a functional neural network of notes.
Why Zettelkasten Works
- Using the Zettelkasten method means writing, and writing is the best way to learn anything. If you’re honest with yourself and write notes in your own words, you’ll ensure that you understand them in the future.
- Whenever you add a new note, adhering to the Zettelkasten method boths forces you to and enables you to look for existing information and notes that are linked to your current thoughts. It broadens your thinking simply by following the process and you consider how your current thought relates to past thoughts.
- It’s progressive summarisation for your brain. By considering how your current thoughts relate to past thoughts, you build upon them. It’s like editing for ideas: the Zettelkasten builds and matures over time and actually becomes smarter each time you link and idea.
- You’ll be more productive. By putting the hard yards in early on, polishing finished pieces is easy. This post, for example, was written in 20 minutes and constructed easily using old notes from - you guessed it - my Zettelkasten.
I’ve successfully used this to hone and build my strategies in SEO and Paid Marketing that were previously overwhelming me. For months it was very much a case of going in one ear and out of the other with a big “no space at the inn” stamp on the ticket.
But since starting down the Zettelkasten path in an extremely clumsy, amateur way I have been able to keep track of ideas and knowledge like I could before my brain got full.
It helped me unpack, understand and manage Impostor Syndrome.
It helped me unpack and understand Growth Marketing, and remember things I’d done years ago that I’d forgotten were successful.
It helped me unpack and understand the ever changing rules of SEO, and see immedate changes in my clients’ SEO ranking as a result of this.
Just Get Started
There’s no point trying to jump into an advanced Zettelkasten straight away. It really doesn’t make sense until you have at least 1000 notes with inter and back links.
Just get started, one note at a time.
As you apply the method you’ll naturally come across ideas that gravitate towards each other. You’ll naturally find areas that you don’t fully understand, or that expanding your knowledge in will help deepen your understanding of something else.
A mature Zettelkasten is the closest thing we can get to that pill in Limitless (a movie which I love even though it’s awful…).
If you care about remembering the ideas you have, if you care about furthering your knowledge in a wide range of topics, and if you care about forming new ideas of your own, try the Zettelkasten method.