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Niklas Luhmann , a notable sociologist, was living proof for a system that is effective. During his life, he wrote 70 books and 500 scholarly articles. He attributes his success to a note-taking system called the Zettelkasten , which is the German word for slip box (Luhmann’s system was done on index cards or “slips,” stored in boxes, and later digitized).
Fleeting notes are ideas that pop into your mind as you go through your day. They can be really short, just like one word. You don’t need to organize them. They just serve as reminders of your thinking.
These notes have no value except as stepping stones for turning literature notes into permanent notes. You discard the fleeting notes once you transformed them into permanent notes (more on that in level 3).
You capture literature notes from the content you consume. It’s your bullet-point summary from other people’s ideas. I create these notes for all books, podcasts, articles, or videos I find valuable.
You can be extremely selective, or simply takes notes upon asking yourself:
By transforming consumed content into literature notes, you're using one of the most effective learning strategies. When you elaborate, you rephrase new information in your own words and connect it to existing knowledge. You’ll make it more likely to remember what you read.
A note is only as useful as the context you place it in. A note’s true value unfolds in its network of connections and relationships to others.
You don’t have to use your brain anymore to find separate ideas from different books related to each other. In a Zettelkasten, you don’t file notes in the context you found them but in the context in which you want to discover them.
“Making good cross-references is a matter of serious thinking and a crucial part of the development of thoughts.”
Here are two questions to ask yourself when you create references for your literature notes. Answering them will help you make good cross-references:
Permanent notes are the real value-adders. You create them by looking through your fleeting and literature notes. Ideally, you create them once a day.
Both Sönke Ahren and Andy Matuschak say a knowledge worker’s productivity should be measured by the number of permanent notes they write in a day.
“If you had to set one metric to use as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, the best I know might be the number of Evergreen notes written per day.”
As a rule of thumb, you can create permanent notes about every topic you're curious about or working on. When you’re in doubt, ask yourself whether you’re curious to explore your idea further.
When you create permanent notes, you think for yourself. In contrast to literature notes, you don’t summarize somebody else's thoughts.
While your literature notes are bullets, your permanent notes are written prose. A reader of your permanent note should understand it without reading its source.
Sometimes permanent notes are truly original. Other times they can be just a reference to the original source added with a personal anecdote.
Permanent notes are no holy grail — but a work in progress. Don’t be afraid to write them. You can change and update them whenever you want: what permanent really means is that they’re permanently useful to you.
Creating a personal knowledge database can feel difficult. First, the many options and tutorials confuse you. Then, building a system slows down your consumption speed.
A Zettelkasten can work as an idea-generation machine. You discover related ideas that you hadn’t thought of in the first place. As your notes grow, you likely start seeing puzzle pieces for the bigger picture. This picture can serve as the basis of your original work.
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From note-taking to note-making
From note-taking to note-making
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