The first time I started hearing about the Zettelkasten method was on Cal Newport’s podcast.
It seemed like it was more trouble than I wanted to engage in.
After reading this post, How to Take Smart Notes: 10 principles to revolutionize your note-taking and writing, I saw this as a system that filled in some of the blanks in stuff I was already doing.
But after hearing more about it through Austin Kleon, talking about reading Sonke Ahrens’s book, How to Take Smart Notes, I started reading it on Kindle.
I realized that I already cobbled this method together. About 70 percent of it. I use it through the Bear notes application and work through the process in my journals and pocket notebooks.
So to give you a summary of what I do, I’m going to explain the basics of my note-taking habit and how I marry that to this method. I won’t talk about what I ditched.
There are four kinds of notes, according to Ahrens:
- Fleeting notes: where I take notes on the fly that are informal, short, and quick. I use my pocket notebook for these since I carry it around in my wallet. It’s typically a Field Notes notebooks. It’s just filled with questions, observations, and things I notice. I sometimes post these on Twitter about once a week.
- Literature Notes: These are the ones that I use the most. They are notes that I take in physical books in the form of marginalia, and that usually goes to Instagram once a week. When I finish a book, I’ll collect all the pages that I fold over. I write a summary or review in the back of the book about what I learned or what I noticed that attracted my eye. For example: this post on Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal.
- Permanent Note: from the literature note, I’ll make a permanent note in Bear and save it as a doc in my Dropbox, then I’ll edit it a few times and post it to my blog.
- Reference Notes: These are digital things I read on Kindle that will get a short summary in Bear (like a paragraph), and I’ll usually talk about it in my newsletter.
Really what this process solved for me is what I do with books or articles I read online or on Kindle. Kindle’s highlighting and note feature is about as good as that device is ever going to get and I don’t care for it. So the method I worked around concerning literature notes with Kindle is using notecards to write out the particular things I highlighted or noticed, then that goes into Bear. I tag it with a specific theme, the author, or a concept connected to it.
I know the magic of this method is when a bunch of unrelated permanent notes reaches a critical mass that’s when you have new connections to make. But that’s not really been the case for me yet. I’ve found that paraphrasing what I read, looking it over, is enough. For example, I’ll tag everything that I wrote over a season. Let’s say this summer, so I’ll use the 2021/summer tag and get a bird’s eye view of every note that I put in throughout a season. I wrote 137 notes over the course of the summer, that’s roughly two notes a day all summer, and I came up with one essay idea, and one short story idea.
When I look at the weekly newsletters I write that include my reference notes, notes I take on books, and references to other articles I get a picture of what I write about and how that interests me. This is not something I had before the summer. Sure, I had a general idea, but not the hard evidence of what it is that I notice and read about, and therefore come up with things that no one is writing about.
For example, writing about practicing Stoicism when you’re neurodiverse is something that is barely written about. Massimo Pigliucci has one article on it. There’s an article by Anna Joy Tanksley on practicing Stoicism as an Aspergian. There’s a great article by Sophia on employing the dichotomy of control to neurodiversity and practicing Stoicism helped with ADHD. But mostly, men don’t cover it at all.
Ryan Holiday doesn’t cover it, and William Irvine mentions the limits of Stoicism on his website. Donald Robertson–a cognitive behavioral therapist doesn’t touch it at all other than saying you should get a diagnosis. Instead he focuses primarily on the negative emotions that are all too frequent when you’re neurodiverse, like being quick to anger, anxiety, and depression. So that gave me the idea that’s something I’m going to specialize in, because none of the people currently writing about Stoicism are neurodiverse, so perhaps, they don’t feel like that’s something can write about, because it is not their personal experience.