How I take notes to develop insight
Published @ samxsmith.com
In the unlikely event that you were interested in asking about the idea that has had the greatest impact on my life, I would be able to answer instantly:
I had been searching for Zettlekasten long before I knew it existed. I tried to implement it before I realised there were tools and whole communities based around this idea. I was in fact in the early stages of creating my own tool for doing this, when I stumbled across the internet subcultures of Zettlekasten & Obsidian. The day that I did marks a moment of enlightenment for me, ending the dark ages prior.
This should be taught in school. Everyone, in my view, interested in thinking about anything should use Zettlekasten. I’m quite angry that even as a note-taking nerd, Zettlekasten eluded me for so long.
I’m here to share it with you, in the hope that it can help you as it has helped me. Each of the benefits I list may resonate with you more or less than others, but I’m confident that any one of these benefits will make it worth your while.
I am a huge fan of
Zettlekasten so you should be aware of my bias. My hunt for this system for so long may make it unduly exciting to me. Even so, I do believe the benefits are logically evident, as other more rational beings seem to prove.
Second, although I have been using a system similar to
Zettlekasten for a few years, I only discovered
Zettlekasten relatively recently. Therefore my views here should not be taken as gospel or stress-tested. In fact my exact views are still in development, using
Zettlekasten to help of course. For well developed and more experienced views on this, I have provided a number of resources from which I have personally benefited.
I am choosing to write this now following my reading of
How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. Throughout, Ahrens' ideas and examples are referenced. As I will discuss later, the book is a good resource for using
Zettlekasten but is especially focused on academic writers. My hope here is to make clear the benefits for a much wider set of people.
If you’re a thinker or “knowledge worker” in any capacity, and you don’t capture your thoughts in a way that lets them connect and develop, then you are destined to constantly repeat those thought processes, without accumulation or progress.
Zettlekasten is an idea-focused, connection-rich, bottom-up method for making and storing notes. In this way, it resembles your brain, and can effectively act as a physical snapshot of your thinking, allowing thought to accumulate and in time, for insights to emerge.
Table of Content
- Insight isn’t linear
- Insight isn’t isolated
- Insight requires serendipity
- Insight should accumulate
- Note taking for iterative, connected, serendipitous, accumulative thought
- What is Zettlekasten?
- So why Zettlekasten?
- A case study
- Use once, apply everywhere
- Time Consuming
- Where next
Insight isn’t linear
We can’t plan for insight to happen. We do not sit down at our desk and decide to have an insight. There is no series of steps that guarantees insight at the end. Yet many people, students, writers, software engineers, to list only those areas in which I can speak from experience, often approach insight as if it is linear.
The example Ahrens provides is of a student who is handed an essay assignment. Typical advice for this student is to sit down and make an essay plan, selecting a very narrow topic, and then to go and read about it. Once their reading is done, they should write an outline, then the essay.
As Ahrens points out, how is the student expected to plan an essay prior to doing reading? On what basis can they choose an interesting topic if no reading has happened? Conversely, if they choose to do the reading before choosing their topic, how would they know what to read?
It becomes clear that this cannot be executed as a linear process. For ideas and insights to emerge, the writing and reading must happen in a cycle. More broadly, for us to develop ideas about anything, we need to take take inputs and reflect on those, then take further inputs in an iterative fashion.
The typical method for taking notes is to collect all the interesting ideas from a book or text and store them somewhere, digitally or not. This form of note taking is inadequate for developing ideas iteratively, as we’ll see shortly.