Stop Overthinking Your Zettelkasten System: How To Get Started Writing Your First Notes

Ev Chapman
September 12, 2021
7 min read

A year ago I didn’t know what the heck a Zettelkasten was. Permanent Notes? Literature Notes? Now I’ve made hundreds of notes that have turned into published content. It’s how I stay so prolific.

But there is still so much confusion around the Zettelkasten system, and even when you understand it in principle, it’s often hard to grasp practically how it works. Often the best way to learn is by watching someone else do something, so here’s a real-life note I’ve taken from consuming all the way through to permanent note.

First, let’s make sense of all these different note types. In reality, there are only three types of notes you need to worry about.

  • Literature Notes: Ugly, incomplete notes you take as you are reading.
  • Permanent Notes. Top-level topics or groups of notes that help you establish thoughts and arguments.
  • Sequence Notes. Atomic notes with one idea each that sit inside your top level permanent notes.

Now, let’s look at these notes in action

The Humble Literature Note

This part is pretty simple. As you consume content, take notes. No highlighting here, take notes in your own handwriting. Yes, it seems like work because it is the work. You’ll recall much more of what you read and have many more ideas just from doing this.

When I’m taking literature notes I write in bullet points and usually note down the page number (if it’s a book) and then a quick note about the concept or why something is resonating or even a question that it raises.

Metadata like page numbers or timestamps are important for me so when I go back to write my permanent note I can get some context.

Think of literature notes like the first draft of a note. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, just capture your thought and move on.

This is a literature note I took from a video I was watching about Maggie Appleton’s Zettelkasten setup

Let the Ideas Simmer

I usually leave a few days in between writing literature notes and processing notes into my permanent Thought Library. Ryan Holiday has a similar process where he will leave a week in between the note taking and the processing, to let ideas simmer and percolate.

Subconsciously after you’ve created the note your brain is going to work thinking about that note and connecting it to what you already know. That doesn’t happen if you are just reading and highlighting.

Now we’ve let our brain do its best work it’s time to Re-read our literature note and find a permanent note to slip it into (get it, The Zettelkasten is your slip box?).

Let’s talk Permanent Notes!

Permanent Notes are the backbone of your Zettelkasten and are groupings of notes on a central idea. Every one of my permanent notes consists of:

  • A name
  • A bunch of sequence notes
  • Links to any relevant notes
An example of one of my Permanent Notes About How To Setup A Zettelkasten System

Permanent notes are not just random subjects like ‘Self-Improvement’ or ‘Mindfulness.’ I like to think of them and name them like I would name an essay or a piece of writing. The example above is called ‘How To Setup Your Own Personal Zettelkasten System.’ And has a bunch of notes around that particular topic. I also have other permanent notes about Zettelkasten that have different angles and answer different questions.

So if our permanent notes are not just wide topics, then it makes sense to give our permanent notes a name. This is my quick and dirty guide for writing permanent note names:

  • Use declarative statements
  • Ask a question
  • Explain the topic to your future self
  • Describe What Your Thinking
  • Clarify a thought.

At the end of the day, don’t overthink it. Just start writing permanent notes. Write some bad notes. Create Choas and you can clean it up later as you get better and more comfortable with the process.

When Should You Start A New Permanent Note?

When I first started my Zettelkasten I got stuck wondering whether I should start permanent notes or add notes to existing permanent notes. The reality is, that in the beginning, you’ll be starting a lot of new permanent notes — because the system is new. As you progress you’ll probably start less permanent notes because you have some solid topics that you can slip sequence notes into.

My general rule of thumb for the Zettelkasten is don’t overthink it. It’s a living system. You might be going over your notes later and realise that two permanent notes are similar and you’ll merge them together. You might re-write a note title. Think of your system as a living ecosystem that can grow and change over time.

The most important thing is to just get started writing. Create chaos. Clean it up later.

Sequence Notes Are Where The Magic Happens

Sequence notes are the atoms of your permanent notes. They include:

  • A reference link to the literature note (so you can follow the trail back to where the thought originated)
  • The note itself.
  • Relevant note links

Think of your sequence notes as your next draft. I don’t like to think of it as my final draft, because I’m often in my notes months later re-writing and rethinking things. But they should be the next logical draft from your literature note.

They should be atomic. One note = one thought. And this is why sequence notes sit underneath permanent notes. They add thoughts and ideas to the original permanent note.

How my literature note started compared to how it finished in my permanent note

Organise & Name Your Sequence Notes

Your permanent notes aren’t just a bucket for random sequence notes. The key is to find a place for this new note among all the other sequence notes. For instance my note on spaced repetition I slipped in between a note on friction and a not on why your Zettelkasten should be attractive.

This is exactly the way I build structure for essays and articles. The work that I’m doing in my Zettelkasten now by structuring the information this way, means when I go to write this article, I spend very little time actually doing the writing and the structuring.

Content for articles and essays bubbles up from my notes, not the other way around. I’m very rarely searching for random notes on an idea. I go to my Though Lab and the ideas and notes are already there.

If i’m not sure what order a note fits in I’ll just put it at the end. Again, don’t overthink the process.

The Zettelkasten Practices

Your Zettelkasten can be a powerful system for thinking and generating new ideas. I consider it one of the secrets to my success. But not necessarily because of the structure of the notes, or the interconnectedness of the system. It’s because of the practices I employ every day that make the system work.

Without the proper practices you’ll most likey be running into one of these problems:

  • You are clipping WAY too much and never reading it.e
  • You’re collecting lots of notes but don’t have a good way to organise them.
  • You’ve built a big graph of notes but you never go back to them.

The reason I can dive into my notes a year later and still find an idea to write about is that as well as a great system, I’ve built practices that support the system and help me to find new ideas, surface those ideas, and build a thought library to support even my toughest days.

My Three Zettelkasten Practices

  • Engage daily in the library. Every day I pick at least 2 things in my library to engage with. I deliberately don’t use the word consume. Engaging is intentional & deliberate. I take literature notes as I read.
  • Spend 30 minutes processing literature notes. I set a timer each day and process literature notes into permanent notes. I usually process notes after a few days (but not too many days) so they can have some time to percolate and simmer.
  • Once a week I take a wander through my Permanent Notes. Usually on a Sunday when I’m feeling rested, I grab a coffee and I open my permanent notes. I let my mind wander where it wants. Reading, re-writing passages, asking myself questions, letting new ideas form.

Build your system, then support it with good practices.

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