A couple of months ago I stumbled on something which stopped me in my tracks. I realized that the way I consume and retain information and form ideas was not efficient. Innovative ideas are typically amalgamations of concepts accumulated over time. But my note-taking and information retention system was fundamentally broken. What could I have accomplished if I had an effective way of retaining every important idea?
The problem I encountered
I was writing a blog post about B2B product sales. I had some immediate thoughts of what I wanted to cover, but I needed to gather materials that would help me write the post. My intuition about B2B sales didn’t form overnight—it’s been in the making for over 10 years. It was shaped by experiences, study of various concepts in the psychology of decision making and choice, business, economics, numerous concepts from the theory of Jobs To Be Done, etc. How would I even begin to recall and summarize all the empirical and academic information I’ve encountered over the decade? I could probably recall a handful of concepts that relate to the subject, but to gather everything that explicitly and implicitly shaped my thinking would be daunting and practically impossible. What’s even less possible is trying to discover relationships between seemingly discrete ideas that might be related to the topic I was currently writing about.
I wrote a short blog post, but it left a lot to be desired. I didn’t have weeks or months to spend on gathering all the data, and I was even intimidated by having to revisit ideas I haven’t touched in years.
Imagine a world where you can easily tap into most of the ideas that shaped your mind on a particular topic and understand the relationships between those ideas. Imagine being able to replay the story of how you shaped your thoughts on a topic. Imagine being confident that you have recalled all the information that might be related to your project.
What’s wrong with note-taking
In order to retain information, people take notes. There is a seemingly endless supply of apps that people use to take and organize notes. But they rarely if ever revisit them, especially outside of the current project.
Most current notes taking systems are transient and disconnected. We don’t have a way to connect and network thoughts. The creative process is messy and dependent on creating relationships between discrete ideas over time.
We consume information daily, deliberately or not. A lot of information we consume has little relevance outside of transient entertainment value. To be honest, most of the information I come across daily, I wish I could erase from my brain. The knowledge which we deliberately acquire in the process of working on a project, reading a book, writing a blog post, doing research, etc… is what we want to retain. We want to be able to tap into that knowledge at a later point in time. We want this knowledge to affect our future thoughts and ideas.
In order to tap into the knowledge we acquired at the time when we need it, not only do we need a way to store it, but we need to have an easy, intuitive way to discover and retrieve it all over again.
During his prolific research career, Niklas Luhmann published more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles. Not only is his productivity admirable by today’s standards, but he accomplished all of this without most of the modern productivity tools we use today. When asked what he attributed such productivity to, Luhmann gave credit not to his wit and amazing memory, but rather to the note-taking system he developed early in his career.
Luhmann named this system Zettelkasten, which is German for a “note box.” The two crucial elements of this system are the note labeling system and the relationships between notes.
He adopted a hierarchical numbering system, which allowed him to not worry about where each note goes. To insert a note, he could in theory add it to the end of the “note box”. Say you have 200 notes in the box labeled 1 through 200, the next note would be labeled as 201. Because some notes expand on existing ideas in the note box, if, say, you want to add more information to the topic discussed in note 155, you’d simply make the next note nested and number it 155.1. In theory, this nesting is limitless, as you can then expand on 155.1 using two notes 155.1.1 and 155.1.2.
The hierarchy is important, especially given that Luhmann wrote all notes on index cards. Due to the space limitations, to expand on previous ideas, you’d have to create new index cards vs. edit the current one. The hierarchy also allowed him to see how his ideas formed over time.
The second, and most critical, element of his system is the interconnection of notes. Whenever he would connect two ideas, he’d reference these ideas in his notes, by using the immutable numerical label assigned to each card (i.e. 155.1). The idea wasn’t to relate this card to every relatable note in the note box, but rather to relate it to something. Just a couple of relationships on each card exponentially increase the related content as you navigate the degrees of separation.
For example, I retrieve a note with a particular idea, which relates to two notes, which themselves relate to two more. I now have 7 notes which are all possibly related to the idea in the original note at hand. There are huge benefits to this. One is you’re not forced into figuring out every possible related concept at the time of note-taking. Two, it allows you to find the spontaneous indirect relationships which form over time.
Obviously, I’m missing a few details about Zettelkasten, but in my opinion, the two elements above are the core of the system.
Can we take the core parts of Zettelkasten and make them even better given today’s technology choices? First, let’s define what the core parts of a good personal knowledge base are.
Quick unobtrusive entry
Quick unobtrusive way to take notes, anytime, and anyplace. You can’t build a knowledge base if you can’t easily write down your thoughts and ideas when they arise. These notes don’t have to be fully refined, rather you just need a way of capturing them in the moment.
Just like Wikipedia, your knowledge base should allow you to go down the exploration rabbit hole. You pick a topic, and you can follow links to discover the related ideas which you have come across at different times of your life. This allows you to find all linkages when you need them and even infer relationships you didn’t know existed. Your knowledge base gives you instantaneous ability to amalgamate the ideas you form over time.
Not only are you able to follow links and discover relationships, you can also look backward through backlinks. Backlinks allow you to look at a topic and see how many other notes reference it. This is important when say, you want to reference “Confirmation Bias” in your current project. Looking at all other notes which reference this topic would allow you to resurface ideas you’ve come across but have forgotten.
Ideas are formed by consuming information over time. Referencing this information in your notes is important, as you might want to return to the source at a later time to see if your understanding evolved or if there is something you missed.
Instead of cluttering your notes with repetitive bibliographical references, you should keep them separate and reference them in your notes.
A powerful way to explore
The reason you’re creating the knowledge base is to actually use it. This means you need a way to discover the information you need at the time you need it. Today’s technology allows for full-text contextual search.
Trying to recall all possible related concepts and ideas while you’re forming your thought is impossible, courtesy of your human brain. Contextual search can also allow you to discover implicit relationships.
Portability for life
Your personal knowledge base is your life’s work. You can’t depend on some proprietary software to be around forever. You need to make sure that notes remain accessible in formats that would allow you to easily port them to other products and workflows. This means that notes should be in plain text formats (i.e. Markdown). They should be accessible on a filesystem as files, not in a proprietary database format.
Not only should you be able to work offline in case your internet connection is spotty or unavailable, but the best way to do deep thoughtful work is to sometimes disconnect on purpose. Web applications have poor support for offline work. I believe native applications are much better in this regard. Not only do they work offline, but they are often faster and more polished.
It’s useful to be able to track how your thoughts and ideas evolve. Programmers use version control systems to allow them to look back in time to see how the application and code evolved over time. Just as any application, thoughts and ideas evolve over time and you want a way to reconstruct your evolution chronologically.
Taking notes purposefully
Given the ideas of Zettelkasten what if any changes are needed to your note-taking practices.
- It doesn’t matter where you take transient notes. If you’re reading a book, you can highlight, underline, and make notes in the marginalia. You can use a pocket-sized notebook and take handwritten notes, or use a digital note-taking system. Just make sure there is little impediment to quickly taking notes anywhere.
- Review and integrate your transient notes frequently. Don’t allow too much time to pass between taking a transient note and before you decide if and how it fits into your Zettelkasten. As the name implies, transient notes are quickly forgotten. If you’re taking notes while reading a book, reviewing and synthesizing your notes every chapter is something that works for me.
- Takes notes with a purpose. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this something I want to retain?
- When will I want to recall it?
- How does it relate to other ideas in my current “note box”?
- Refine ideas in your notes by keeping track of how your thoughts evolve chronologically.
I’m currently building and refining a system to fit my workflow and working on building my Zettelkasten. There are numerous tools out there that attempt to help implement the ideas I discussed, but in some way or another, they fall short. I’ll probably do a review of some of these tools in the near future, but for now, I’m focusing on refining my process and I’m purposefully staying away from the rigidity that some of these products introduce.