A practice of Zettelkasten
The original article is written in Chinese and shared by one of flomo users, 机智的阿饭. We translate it into English. But parts of the images are his MEMOs and we didn’t modify them into the English version.
As a card memo tool, flomo helps this user to easily form the writing structure and write down articles faster. Let’s go deep into how he used flomo.
I read How to Take Smart Notes recently.
I heard the founder of flomo mention it several times. But I thought it was just a reference book. As a knowledge worker, I have read a lot of reference books like it. You know, reference books are sometimes inspiring, but you can’t expect them to bring changes to your life.
However, to my great surprise, I found a few overwhelming ideas while reading the introduction part of How to Take Smart Notes.
And more importantly, this book perfectly integrated the concepts of reading and note-taking. It is more than a reference book but an excellent process and system, which might change our life achievements.
So what is this miraculous note-taking system?
Before we dig into the answer, I’d like to briefly summarize this long article first. It can be divided into five parts:
- 1.The life of Luhmann and the birth of Zettelkasten
- 2.The simple process of Zettelkasten and the advanced one
- 3.Tool recommendation: Notion and flomo
- 4.Build your workflow first
- 5.Conclusion: simple is the ultimate principle
So let’s start.
(You can skip this part if you know Luhman well.)
Luhmann was a civil servant in Germany at first. After work, he went home and did something he enjoyed much, that is, reading and focusing on philosophy, the theory of organization, and sociology.
While taking notes, he realized that an idea or a note was valuable only in a context. But here the context was not from the original text.
So he started to think of a method, that is, how to make notes connect with different contexts.
He stopped adding notes to existing types or texts but took notes on cards. He also marked the cards and collected them on a slip box or “Zettlekasten” in German. The slip box had become his partner of conversation, the main creative origin, and the power of productivity. We can say that the slip box is a vital part of his success.
After that, his life became different.
Luhmann drafted the thoughts on the cards and then handed them off to the influential sociologist Helmut Schelsky in Germany.
Schelsky read Luhmann’s drafts and contacted him immediately. Schelsky suggested Luhmann teach sociology at Bielefeld University.
Please note that at this time, Luhmann was not a sociologist at all. Actually, according to his degree and work experiences, he was not even qualified for being an assistant of a sociologist. But Luhmann didn’t turn down this opportunity. Instead, he finished the dissertation of his Ph.D. and qualification with the help of the slip box in a year.
In 1968, Luhmann was selected as a professor at Bielefeld University for his lifetime.
Around 30 years later, Luhmann finished the last chapter of Theory of Society, which surprised the entire academy. This theory was a new aggressive one, which transformed sociology and inspired the discussion among philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology.
In these 30 years, he published 58 books and more than 100 essays (translations not included), most of which have become the classical content in relevant fields. After his death, his drafts in the office were sorted out. These drafts were later published as seven books about religion, education, and politics.
Luhmann’s experience is important because it is evidence of Zettelkasten’s value. But in order to take advantage of Zettelkasten, we need to rebuild our habit of reading and writing. But we could not make any change unless we fully understand the miracle of Zettelkasten.
Perhaps there are a few readers who don’t know how to apply the Zettelkasten in daily life, so I summarize a simple process here:
- 1.While studying, besides reading and taking lessons, you need to write down as many thoughts as possible in your own words (You don’t have to judge them. Just write down your questions and understandings).
- 2.Record all your thoughts and excerpts into one note-taker, e.g. flomo. Don’t categorize them in a hurry.
- 3.Review these cards or MEMOs from time to time. When you find a connection between two cards, then link them together.
- 4.When you have a thread of cards, try to draft an insightful article.
So this is the basics of Zettelkasten. Compared with the traditional linear writing steps, Luhmann emphasized more on preparing before writing.
He thought that a complete article was not finished in one’s brain. Our brain was not used to such a linear way of writing.
Zettelkasten also advocates capturing ideas.
You may have seen such a picture many times. What is your type while studying?
This picture reminded me of a friend. He loves reading and always sends me a few articles.
But when I asked him what he read, and why he loved it. He struggled to recall something but failed. He forgot most of them.
So in this pyramid of studying methods, reading, even in a concentrated state, could only store 10% of the information in our brain. I highly doubt whether we could store 5% while reading on a smartphone.·
Considering that the core of Zettelkasten is similar to Feynman's technique, which focuses on explaining and teaching others, Zettelkasten may increase the learning effectiveness to more than 50%.
To summarize, a simple step of explaining learning material on a card can increase our learning effectiveness more than ten times by simply reading.
In the world of lifelong learning, such learning effectiveness will bring a great advantage day by day.
- Please note:
Capture your ideas as much as possible. Try to write several cards every day.
Don’t worry about categorizing the notes or the value of each card. Just write down anything flowing in your mind. The process of Zettelkasten will transfer your cards into golden ideas. Trust it.
The advanced process is similar to the simple process. But as a knowledge worker, I just combined my workflow with Zettelkasten.
If you find it useful, you can build your own workflow.
I believe many of you might have this habit. I just share with you how to make it more convenient.
- If the learning materials are easy, I will write down my complete notes rather than a few keywords. It’s a burden to organize the notes after learning. So if you can write down complete notes while studying, that’s better.
- If the learning materials are hard for me, I will write down a few key points, and understand them afterward. This can make us feel more joyful while learning something hard.
This is the benefit of building a workflow. You can do the things at the right time, and make the hard things easier.
- Trust your feelings and focus on the knowledge which inspires you a lot. Don’t learn something out of being afraid of missing out.
Now we are bombarded by information, which might make us stressed. We can just pick those things we really need. If some information is really important, we will meet again around the corner.
- I recommend you to read e-books. You can copy your notes to note-taking apps after finishing a book. Then you can move the books out of your e-reader, and test yourself if you truly understand them.
Keep the reference notes short and simple. Choose them carefully and use your own language. Be picky about the reference. Do not take notes without understanding.
If you truly want to understand something, you have to transfer it into your own language. The thinking process should happen in your brain as well as on paper.
What is agreed by most professionals is that you have to materialize your thoughts, that is, write them down. Richard Feynman and Benjamin Franklin had the same opinion.
The author of How to Take Smart Notes reinforces the importance of explaining in your own words, which is considered the core of an increase in learning effectiveness. As for the reference notes, it is a tool to help us to understand the gist of texts in the process of Zettelkasten.
I used to read a lot of articles, books, and materials. I had loads of notes on note-takers. However, as a five-year blogger, I could say 95% of these excerpts are just excerpts. They had never appeared in my articles.
So next time when you take reference notes, remember to explain the notes in your own words after them. It can push you to fully understand the excerpted words so you may recall them faster when you need them.
While dealing with my temporary notes, I will ask myself the question “what is this paragraph talking about?” And then I will summarize them in my own words. If you are already familiar with this step, you can try to picture the way you teach others the points.
But at the first stage, I recommend you to write as free as possible. Don’t push yourself too hard. The best way to stick to doing something is to love it first.
Review the notes you made before and consider the connection between your notes and your research or interests. The permanent notes are not for collecting materials but for generating ideas, thoughts, and discussions.
I have a process to deal with the reference notes written in my own words.
- 1.Some notes only increase my knowledge. I don’t have any thoughts on them. Then I will save them as reference notes and mark them with special tags.
- 2.Some notes trigger a few new thoughts. Then I will write them down and think of the connection between these new notes and the topics on permanent notes. If there is a suitable existing topic, I will put new notes under the topic.
- 3.If there is no suitable topic, then I will build a new one (or threads), and put notes under it to wait for more thoughts.
So there are many topics under my permanent notes. But not all of them are full of notes. Don’t try to fill them up in a hurry. As long as we keep reading, the permanent notes will be more complete.
Until one day we find there is a clear thread of the narrative, then we could move this thread of notes to the editor and start our writing.
It seems that the whole process is complicated, but it encourages us to use our learning habits and tools. So after a few deliberate practices, you will find it natural to do so.
The best part of Zettelkasten is that as long as you are practicing it, you can “automatically” publish insightful articles as many as possible.
Such positive feedback will encourage us to record more ideas, which is proof of an effective system.
- Please note
It is better to follow the above process in your energetic time, especially for the thinking and writing part.
I happened to listen to Plidezus’s live stream at 9 p.m. the other day. I was inspired but I felt tired, so I only wrote down a few keywords. However, when I got up the next morning, I felt so energetic that I wrote more than 2000 words of ideas.
Therefore, just rest and play when you are tired.
I agree with a sentence from How to Take Smart Notes: the tool is going to make things easier rather than more complicated.
So it is better to follow your own habit. The note-takers which support bi-directional links, such as Notion and Obsidian, are not easy to use. So it’s better to use them when you are more familiar with the process.
flomo is a lightweight note-taker I have used a lot this year. Notion is great for thematic content, while flomo is for popping-out ideas, which are the treasures of your future writing.
Only flomo can bring you an easy and free writing experience. Such an experience is created by flomo’s design, which is valuable in today’s world.
I transferred to Notion from Evernote this year. I found Notion suitable for permanent notes. It supports a simple quotation system, which is enough for now. I am looking forward to more visualized features.
Specifically, Zettelkasten is not a technique of taking notes or a slip box. It is an effective workflow that helps us to think deeper and write better.
I introduced Zettelkasten in a detailed way because it is important to make clear how I use Zettelkasten in my own writing workflow.
Only when all of your work processes are connected and all the frictions are diminished can the effectiveness of Zettelkasten be shown.
In How to Take Smart Notes, there is a case of how Mclean’s containers change the world.
Containers were created a long time ago. However, it was not promoted until Mclean made efforts to formalize the industry including the companies which built them, warehouses, workers, trucks, ports, and ships in order to push them to optimize for containers. And after that, the cost of international freight was reduced by 95%.
It is similar when it comes to the value of Zettelkasten. We have to optimize our daily routines for this Zettelkasten workflow so it can benefit us the most.
Though I realized the importance of workflow before, I forgot to diminish the friction in the process and I didn’t change my habit to fit into this workflow. So my previous workflow didn’t bring me too much value.
After reading this book, I finally understood the importance of diminishing the friction in the process.
When could you say you have mastered the Zettelkasten?
Just see if you can finish each step in the process easily and joyfully and if you can find all kinds of topics for your writing.
There are more inspiring thoughts in the book. For example, it suggests that do not consume your willpower to finish tasks because it can’t last for long. Make tasks push yourself forward (Chapter 2).
In a word, Zettelkasten is a method emphasizing simplicity.
Now, after completely understanding the above process, you can start to write down a few cards every day and save them to your note-takers.
Just do it.