This is a loose book summary of How to Take Smart Notes, the seminal resource on Zettelkasten.

What is Zettelkasten and why use it?

Zettelkasten is a note-taking system associated with Niklas Luhmann, a prolific German sociologist.

Use Zettelkasten because it allows your articles to write themselves

😲

Instead of starting with a blank page, you start with organized notes and references.

“Imagine some friendly genie… has prepared a rough draft of your paper for you. It is already a fully developed argument including all references, quotes and some really smart ideas. The only thing left to do is to revise this rough draft and send it off.”

Also, when you and your Zettelkasten (slipbox) think and write together, you get more insights.

(Imagine making connections to books you read years ago.)

“The slip-box is not a collection of notes. Working with it is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insight by letting ideas mingle.”
“Its usability grows with its size, not just linearly but exponentially.”
“It is not the slip-box or our brains alone, but the dynamic between them that makes working with it so productive.”

If you write nonfiction, consider Zettelkasten.



Table of Contents
The Zettelkasten System

Examples
Why a daily review?
What should I title my note?
How should I approach reading?
What app should I use for Zettelkasten?
How would I implement this in practice?

The Zettelkasten System

Summary: Capture Fleeting Notes and Literary Notes (your inbox). Then, turn those notes into Permanent Notes and Structure Notes (your slipbox).

<insert flowchart>

Inbox

Fleeting Notes: Capture thoughts to process later.

Literary Notes: Capture highlights/notes from reading.

Daily Review: Process your inbox to create Permanent Notes for your slipbox.

Slipbox

Permanent Notes: Make Permanent Notes that are atomic, in your own words, and densely linked to other notes.

  • Atomic
    Each note should be a single (self-contained) piece of knowledge. This allows remixing across contexts.
  • In your own words:
    1. Notes in your own words are easier to understand when you rediscover them later.
    2. You don't understand an idea until you express it in your own words (active recall).
  • Densely linked to other notes
    To generate insight, you want your ideas to mingle. Plus, you rediscover notes through clicking links, not search.

Structure Notes: When a Permanent Note gets too big, split it into smaller notes. Then, link to those notes in a Structure Note.

Examples

Fleeting Notes

example

Literary Notes

example

Permanent Notes

example

Structure Notes

example

I aspire to Andy Matuschak’s notes.

Why a daily review?

A Fleeting Note can go stale. Process the note before you forget its context.

“Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later.”

Literary Notes take longer to go stale. You can process them when you finish the book. But I often read books to only halfway, so I stick to Daily Review.

What should I title my note?

Usually, use a sentence or phrase that captures the essence of the note. If your note is atomic, you should find this easy 😉

Sometimes, questions and nouns make sense, too. Play it by ear.

Related: Think of titles as API calls to concepts.

How should I approach reading?

“You are free to use whatever technique helps the most with understanding what you are reading and getting to useful notes.”

“The only step that really counts… is to take the permanent note that will add value to the actual slip-box.”

“I always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.”

What app should I use for Zettelkasten?

You can do Zettelkasten with less effort in Roam

In Roam, you can create links between pages (or parts of pages, called blocks) in a cinch. In Notion and similar apps, I found more friction.

With Zettelkasten, you link notes together 24/7, and so Roam is delightful.

Also, the Daily Note in Roam is a nice place to capture Fleeting Notes.

That said, if Luhmann can do Zettelkasten with index cards, you can do Zettelkasten with any note-taking app.

How would I implement this in practice?

Implement this one habit at a time.

  1. Capture Fleeting Notes in Roam's Daily Note.
  2. Take Literary Notes on Kindle/Instapaper, and sync them to Roam with Readwise.
  3. Write one new Permanent Note a day. Start small!
  4. Bump up the number of Permanent Notes you write a day.

Avoid trying to write Permanent Notes for all the previous reading you've done. That's a rabbit hole.

I recommend this article by Padmini Pyapali to implement a template for your Permanent Notes.

In Summary

  • Use Zettelkasten to have your articles write themselves.
  • Use Zettelkasten to get more insights.
  • Capture Fleeting Notes and Literary Notes (your inbox).
  • Turn those notes into Permanent Notes and Structure Notes (your slipbox).
  • Permanent notes should be atomic, in your own words, and densely linked.
  • Do a daily review, read with an eye on your slipbox, and use Roam.
  • Start with one permanent note a day.

That’s all, friend. Happy note-taking 🥳