Our brains are terrible at storing information. Luckily, we have devised clever ways of externalizing our thought so we don’t have to rely on our memory as much. To name a few, we write down to-do lists to remember our groceries, use calendars to remember events and birthday, and we write notes during lectures to remember what was talked about. At the basis of all of this is writing. We write notes to externalize our thinking, which then provides an external basis to stimulate further thinking.
So much of our thinking is externalized on our computers across files, folders, programs, apps, websites, etc. When it comes time to do something with our written notes, like write an essay, we have to navigate across all these different files and folders, apps and platforms, to find the right ones.
Ideally, we want our notes to guide our thinking and contribute to our ideas over time. But, the way computers are typically used to store information forces us to store our notes in ways that make it difficult to navigate them effectively. Our notes can become too easily forgotten, never to be found again.
This is a key point: the way we store our notes on our computers greatly influences how we can navigate them. How we navigate our notes greatly influences how our notes can guide our thinking, and if we can’t find a certain note, it can no longer help guide our thinking. Ultimately, our notes serve little purpose if we can’t find them when we need to.
If we want our notes to really serve our thinking over time, they need to be structured in a way that aligns better with how we actually think. That is, our notes need to be networked.
For the uninitiated, this is quite a radical paradigm shift in how we can use computers to help us process, store, and navigate information. Let’s unpack its significance by first breaking down traditional computer information storage.
information storage on computers
Computers store information in a “tree structure”. Files live in folders, which live in hierarchies of folders. This is better explained through a visual.
When we are saving something (say, a note) we normally have to conform to this structure. We have to determine precisely where to store the note. Then, in the future, we have to somehow remember exactly where we stored the note, otherwise there is no other way of finding it.
When we want to find something, we have to navigate through the tree from the top. Each path is a dead-end, and if we don’t find what we are looking for we have to backtrack.
I’ve spent so much time just navigating through folders and subfolders trying to find the right file. It can be quite frustrating knowing that I have a note somewhere that is perfectly relevant to what I am currently thinking about but I just can’t find it.
information storage in the mind
If we think about our computer notes as externalized thoughts, navigating thoughts as a tree structure is quite unnatural. It’s not at all how we navigate thoughts and memories in our own minds (unless you’re a robot, in which case 100101110100100111 to you too).
Rather, we think about associations, connections, and related ideas. When navigating thoughts, we think about the context surrounding a memory (people, places, objects, smells, sounds, sights, etc.), and use that as an entry point to “find” the thought. A much better representation of how our minds store and navigate thoughts and memories is a network, not a tree.
networked notes: a computer-mind symbiosis
Computers are interactive information systems that guide our thinking. Any interactive information system that we are using to consciously guide our thinking should respect the chaotic, unstructured, networked nature of our thoughts.
This is exactly what networked note-taking methods like Zettelkasten try to do, and as far as I’m aware, is one of the best at it.
Networked note-taking apps allow the user to create notes that are connected to other notes in whichever way the user sees fit. Instead of forcing the user to decide a single place to store a note within a hierarchy of folders, notes can be stored contextually, living in a web of related notes. Instead of trying to remember the exact folder or file a note is in, finding it is simply a matter of thinking about the context of the note. Any one note can have many “entry points”, greatly increasing the likelihood that the note will be found at an appropriate time.
It’s a much more intuitive way of thinking about information. However, without an overarching note-taking technique, networked notes can be overwhelming due to their unfamiliar lack of constraints and structure.
the basics of Zettelkasten
There are a ton of really great existing resources that explain the principles of Zettelkasten and it would be pointless to try and give a comprehensive description of the method. Instead, I’ll try to give a brief overview so that you have a better sense of what Zettelkasten can do for your thinking and note-taking efforts, and then provide links to further resources.
At a high level, Zettelkasten provides guidelines on how to choose what kind of information becomes a unique note and what kind of information should contribute to existing notes. This is important because if done with care, the relationship between notes can add another dimension of value. It isn’t just the content of notes, but the relationships between them that can help generate insight and new ideas to think about.
The “basic unit” of a note (a file with a title and a body of text, for example, ‘word documents are not good for zettelkasten.docx’) in Zettelkasten is a single thought or idea. This means that each note (Zettel) should capture as concise and precise of an idea as possible. That way, when a certain note links to another note, we can be sure exactly what idea is being connected. Or, in more technical language: each idea should be uniquely identifiable and atomic.
We shouldn’t have to search through the contents of a note to find other embedded ideas. The title of the note should tell us precisely what the note is about (continuing off the example above, the content of ‘word documents are not good for zettelkasten.docx’ should only contain text that supports and explains the claim made in the title). The contents of each note are mostly there to clarify and support the atomic idea through facts, examples, stories, sources, etc.
By breaking down our own thinking into basic units (single ideas/concepts) and connecting them together with other related ideas, we are inadvertently creating emergent higher-level insight. Related thoughts cluster together. We can then step back and look at emerging patterns of connected thoughts across countless related notes. This process is quite effective at generating insight and ideas in a very systematic and tangible way.
Just imagine the kind of high-level insight that can emerge after 1 year of writing notes. What about 5 years? 20 years? This is what excites me most about Zettelkasten-like note-taking. Instead of growing in chaos (see desktop image near the top), every time we add a thought to our note-base, we are incrementally increasing the intellectual value and clarity of our collective thoughts. And the value scales exponentially. Zettelkasten provides a foundation for the value of our intellectual artifacts (notes, ideas, thoughts) to compound for life.
To get started with Zettelkasten you will need a networked note-taking program. My favourite is Obsidian, but there are many options. See my other article, “Getting Started with Personal Knowledge Management”, for more options or search “networked note-taking programs”.
A great book to read about note-taking and Zettelkasten is “How to Take Smart Notes”. It will forever change your perspective on the role of writing and note-taking for intellectual and academic pursuits.
For a more practical guide that doesn’t take as long to read, I found this article very helpful.
Seeing examples of other people’s Zettelkasten-like notes can be extremely helpful for getting a sense of how to break down ideas and thoughts into atomic notes. Andy’s notes are a great resource. Another is Mental Nodes. Navigating through these notes can be quite an enjoyable experience in itself!
Zettelkasten-like note-taking can truly transform your thinking and writing. Not only that, it’s incredibly fun. But perhaps more importantly, it can provide you with a space to be more intimately connected with your own thoughts.
In a world with an alarmingly corrupted attention economy (definitely watch the social dilemma if you haven’t yet), our attention is being exploited and our ability to think deeply is being depleted. Without the individual ability to stay focused and think deeply, we have little hope of collectively addressing the immensely complex issues our world faces. Zettelkasten and networked note-taking is at least a step in the right direction.
On that note, I hope you found this essay helpful and thought-provoking. I encourage you to download Obsidian (or another similar program) and start making some networked notes.
In my next essay, I’ll likely give an overview of Obsidian and how I’m using it for Zettelkasten.