I used to take notes without a proper system, and as time passed, my notes were only temporary. After a few weeks or months, notes I had written didn't have much use, and I needed a note-taking method to last. I created the first entry of my Zettelkasten, my digital brain, 3 years ago.
Zettelkasten isn't a particular software, but a note-taking method from the 50s. If you have ever heard of it, you know that its learning curve is quite steep and requires adaptation. For this reason, my Zettelkasten workflow has adapted to fit my needs over the 3 years. In fact, it is still changing to this date.
This read is not an introduction to the method, but the process of shaping my slip-box workflow. If you are new to Zettelkasten, I recommend reading the zettelkasten.de blog.
Sweeping off literature notes
My first Zettelkasten workflow consisted in two phases: literature and permanent notes. Literature notes are notes taken from books, blog posts, articles, and videos. When you consume enough content on a subject, you can use your own words to compile it into a permanent note.
That was the easiest path for starting my Zettelkasten, but not the most effective. Literature notes would not have much use after some time, leaving unused notes in my Zettel.
I changed this workflow by creating three folders where I store my notes. I don't have any other folders or subfolders, only these three:
- Inbox. A folder to store temporary notes, for example, literature notes and incomplete thoughts. I can either compile the notes here into permanent notes, or delete them if they have no use. I sometimes use good old paper and pen to jot down thoughts and reading notes.
- Zettelkasten. The folder where I store permanent notes. More on how they changed in the next heading.
- Outbox. The folder where I store my publications, for example, blog posts or articles I wrote. They usually reference notes in the Zettelkasten folder.
Thoughts > Definitions
When I first started with Zettelkasten, I would have more literature notes than permanent notes, and the permanent notes I had looked more like Wikipedia, a collection of definitions. While my workflow was maturing, I decided it was more useful to write thoughts than definitions. For example, instead of having a note on "Software performance" defining this concept and its strategies, I have more than one note on the topic:
- Software performance (map of contents note)
- Different approaches to horizontal scaling
- Software performance is deeply linked to business revenue
- Caching layers to scale software
This makes my notes more atomic and links are usually more useful than just definitions. This does not mean you cannot have definitions as permanent notes, and in fact, I still have those, but I extend that with what I call "thoughts". In other words, in my Zettel, knowledge is more important than information.
The original Zettelkasten by Niklas Luhmann used a unique identifier for each note. Notes would use this ID to reference one another. While this is not required in a digital Zettelkasten, I prefix my notes with a timestamp. For instance, "202304242030 Note title".
- I can rename notes without losing references, as the ID never changes
- I can sort notes by date no matter the software. Even the native file explorer on the OS sorts files in alphabetical order
- I can change the date if I need to
And to finish off, my software of choice
The software you use to host your Zettelkasten doesn't matter that much. You can think of the Zettelkasten software as the front end for your slip-box. Some people prefer bulky ones such as Roam Research, some go simple with The Archive or good old Emacs.
The software you choose needs only one thing: the ability to change. This is why you want a system that stores your notes in Markdown files (or can export to Markdown). This means your notes are in a format any text editor can open and edit. If your software doesn't do that, it may be storing your notes in a non-portable proprietary format.
My software of choice is Obsidian for its support for both Mac and iOS. I store my notes on iCloud as I already pay for their storage services. I tweaked Obsidian settings to keep the UI as minimal as possible, free of distractions. If you're looking for options on the Mac, consider The Archive and Bear.