Have you ever read a ton of papers and still don’t have any idea what to write for your introduction or literature review? I have.
I used to underline sentences in books or papers, make comments in the margins, and keep journals with the ideas generated from my readings.
It did take me a long time to realise that such a note-taking system was very unproductive, though. Because once written down, it was difficult to find the notes when I needed them (i.e., during my writing).
When I was sitting to write, it felt like I was always starting from scratch or I had nothing to say. Or even when I remembered X, Y, Z, I forgot who said that, so my writing was appearing poor due to the lack of references. I used to think…. I will remember this…I will remember that. Did I remember? NO! Never! Okay, let’s give my brain a chance. Sometimes I will remember something. However, I was not efficient and I was losing most of the valuable content of my readings.
I used to think that I had a useless brain until I read that our brains are for having ideas and not storing them. Therefore, whenever we have an idea, we want to capture it as soon as possible because our brains will not hold on to them for too long. Thanks, Ali Abdaal, for this incredible revelation! So, I was not completely stupid!
On top of those issues, ideas would also stay passive and disconnected in my old note-taking system. They wouldn't mingle with each other. Thus, it was difficult to see patterns between different concepts and ideas that would help me to come up with original content for my own writing.
Thus, I started thinking about writing as a heavy lift, and I started putting off writing,
Last year, I read the book How to Take Smart Notes (1) that describes the "Zettelkasten" knowledge management method. Since then, I have implemented the Zettelkasten method, and so far, I’m very impressed with the results.
This is part of a series of two blog posts dedicated to knowledge management. This first part will describe the Zettelkasten concept. The second blog post (to be released on the last Sunday of February.) will show, practically, how I implemented the Zettlekasten in Notion and how I’ve been using it in my own writing process.
The workflow of the Zettelkasten method consists in taking three main types of notes: fleeting notes, literature notes, and permanent notes.
Always have something to write or capture every idea that comes to your mind or piece of information that resonates with you. It doesn't matter whether you capture it with a digital app or a physical notebook. And don't worry too much about how you write it down or record it. These are mere reminders of what is in your mind at a specific time.
You must collect all these ideas in one place (e.g. in an inbox) to process them later. The inbox for fleeting notes can be organised as a table in Notion, where every row correspond to a single fleeting note. The Notion web clipper and the Notion phone app are perfect tools to share your (digital or physical) fleeting notes with your inbox.
The fleeting notes are called "fleeting" because they are meant to be deleted relatively soon. It could be within a day or a week, but quickly enough to not forget the context and why the note was taken in the first place. Remember that the context in which that idea was taken is as important as the idea itself.
Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. For example, write down what you don't want to forget or think you might use in your own writing.
Keep the literature notes atomic, and write them down in your own words. Unless you are taking a note about a specific quote, don't just copy the passages that interest you, or you will be skipping the step of understanding.
Keep these notes together with the bibliographic details. Do you remember what we said before about not remembering who said what?
Don't categorise the literature notes at this stage. It would make your note-taking system inflexible. It might indeed stop you from using the same note to formulate multiple ideas that might not look directly linked to each other now, but they might in the future.
In Notion, you can store your literature notes on a table. Let's maintain Ahrens' terminology, and call the table "literature slip-box" (slip-box is the English word for Zettelkasten). Every row in the table will correspond to a single literature note.
Permanent notes reflect a thinking process inspired by your fleeting and literature notes. They also reflect how they are related to what is relevant for your own research.
Write down the outcome of this thinking process as clearly and precisely as possible. Write as if you were writing for someone else. Use complete sentences, disclose your sources, make references. Try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible. One atomic idea, one permanent note.
In Notion, you can store your permanent notes on a table. Again, let's maintain Ahrens' terminology and call the table "slip-box". Every row in the table corresponds to a single permanent note. The key here is to use the backlinks feature in Notion to link together your notes. And yes, you can also link permanent notes to each other.
Now you don't need your fleeting or literature notes anymore. All that matters is in the slip-box.
Have the following in mind every time you write a permanent note, though. The idea here is not just to collect notes. We want to use them to create structured arguments and discussions. Therefore, before you write a permanent note, think about how a new idea contributes, challenges or alters something you have written down before.
Last tip. Don't store your permanent notes in preconceived categories. Instead, let any order emerge bottom-up by making connections between your notes.
Think like a writer, not like a librarian. (Sönke Ahrens)
If you want to actually use your notes, do not fall into the "in-which-category-this-note-might-fit-better?" trap. Think instead, "how can I stumble on this note next time I need it when I'm writing?". And, how do you achieve that? It is all in the title of your permanent note. Actually, you might benefit from being a bit more verbose with your titles. For example, let's say you are writing a permanent note about how flash flood reports can come from different sources, and how that can affect their discoverability and their standardization into a single database. Then, save your permanent note as "Challenges of collecting flash flood reports", and tag it with keywords such as "Flash floods" and "Observations".
Very few people take detailed notes when they read. Indeed, investing time in taking notes systematically feels like an impediment to learning more by quickly moving on to the next book or article.
But if you actually want to do something with the knowledge you encounter, not taking notes systematically is the actual waste of time.
The first part of any note-taking system consists in discovering and capturing passages of books, papers, posts that resonate with us.
However, those two steps will not create an efficient knowledge management system. We only know and internalise what we create. Therefore, a review process is necessary to make those notes usable for us.
Does this process take longer than just reading? Unfortunately, yes! But think of it as an investment in yourself, so you can consume knowledge and actually use it at a later stage.
Just by making this a daily routine, you have enrolled in a life-long master class on clear thinking and concise writing. (Sönke Ahrens)
The Zettelkasten is very likely to also help you reduce writer's block!
When we have a blank page in front of us, our brains get scared, thinking…. "this is going to be hard!".
Instead, if the only thing we need to do is put together all the ideas and material that we have collected over time, life becomes easier. First, you won't start writing from a blank page: you will have already written! We will indeed "start from abundance" (Thanks, Ali, again for the concept!), i.e. from pieces of writing we created over time. Then, you will just need to act as the curators of your own ideas to slowly build a structured piece of work.
Second, we will stop the leading cause of procrastination in writing. We procrastinate because we think writing is a long, complex process that will drain our energies. Instead, let's think about writing not as a "heavy lift" but as a "slow burn" (thanks again, Ali Abdaal, for providing this concept). In that case, you will approach the job with a different mentality. A piece of writing can be done over time, little by little, and it will not be scary anymore.
One last important thing to remember: you don't need a perfect note-taking system to improve your approach to writing. Just start! The system that I will show you is not perfect. I'm sure if I write a blog post about the revision of the system in a year, I will be embarrassed. But it is a start, and it is helping today. And that's what matters! I will be investing in my personal knowledge management today and not tomorrow when the system will be only 1% better than what it is today.
I'll see you in February to show you in detail how I built my Zettelkasten in Notion and how I use it in my PhD writing,
(1) How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking–for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Sönke Ahrens, 2017.
Useful external links
Official website of "Take smart notes" by Sönke Ahrens.
Ali Abdaal's video about knowledge management.