For many years, I wrote notes on paper using the bullet journal method. It’s a method I still highly recommend.
Now that my days are spent exclusively behind a computer, I’ve been searching for the right note-taking strategy. I recognize that note-taking is like pricing strategy: you never get it entirely right, so you’re always inclined to tinker.
Nklas Luhmann invented an idea that’s taking off in many academic circles and beyond called Zettlekasten. The son of a German brewer, he published 58 books in 30 years and is heralded as one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century.
His main innovation is to write small notes that cross-reference each other. Then, as new ideas emerge that reference each other, update these notes continually. Sönke Ahrens wrote a book called How to Take Smart Notes that explains the main and the method in great detail.
In short, the system works this way
- Make a fleeting note: a short note of an idea with links to related ideas
- Collect these notes into a synopsis and update them as more notes arrive.
- Refine these into a rough draft.
- Proofread and publish.
You can see the idea is to publish as much as possible, no surprise given Luhmann’s literary prolificacy.
Today, we don’t need cards; we can use digital documents that link to each other. In effect, modern Zettlekasten is building our individual intranet of notes. Each one is linked to others by context (people, places, times, ideas). And importantly, they are bidirectional - which means you can navigate your notes the way you might surf Wikipedia.
Roam Research and Obsidian.md are two of the most popular software companies building tools to support Zettlekasten. They have different philosophies. Roam focuses on note-taking, is web-based, and is closed-source. Obsidian is more focused on writing, is a local-client, and sort of open-source using markdown and local files with a promise to open source if the company winds down. Many years ago, I used VoodooPad, a freeware Mac app in the early 2000 that also works. I’ve chosen Obsidian because I prefer having a local copy of all my notes and in markdown since this blog is also in Markdown, but all are great.
Also, there are significant communities around both Roam and Obsidian that help newcomers understand the features and the philosophies to maximize success. At the same time, these ideas are evolving quickly and it’s fun to be part of that change.
After more than 6 months and thousands of notes, I can vouch for the method. The idea of linking people and companies to new startup spaces and new ideas has helped me compile research faster and also write blog posts more quickly.
If you need to capture lots of ideas and link them together to recall them for some later purpose, give it a whirl and let me know what you think.