Zettelkasten: How to Take Notes to Create Content Quickly and Find Unusual Ideas

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The Zettelkasten method creates a personal Wikipedia out of notes. You’ll be able to quickly search for notes years later, find unusual connections between them, and write several times faster.- Create Content Quickly

Zettelkasten was invented by Niklas Luhmann, the classic sociologist and doctoral student: with him he wrote two books a year and published 500 scientific articles. The method helped Luhrmann create original theories and work productively.

Here’s how the system differs from ordinary notes, what its principles are, how to set it up on the computer and not to abandon it after a week.  

Why Ordinary Notes Are Confusing and Annoying

Let’s imagine that a journalist writes an article about the stock market. He gathers facts: looks at analytics, interviews economists and reads special textbooks. His notes are stored in Evernote: in one record – a transcript of the interview, in the second – statistics, in the third – an outline of the textbook.   

There are cons to this approach:

  • The notes are hard to find. A few years go by, and the notes get lost among the new notes and transcripts. Conventional notes do not have a convenient search system: keywords, folders and references. To find something, you have to manually go through files or sheets of paper.
  • The notes aren’t connected. A journalist has a lot of information piled up: quotes from his favorite books, statistics, course notes, interviews with scientists. He could notice unusual connections between the notes to create an original article or even a book out of them. But the notes are kept in chronological order, and the ideas are “concretized” in a notebook-they can’t be swapped and pieced together.
  • Motivation falls flat. If the article is rejected, the journalist will have wasted his time. He will not use the notes in life, and they will gather dust in a notebook or an appendix.   
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Zettelkasten solves these problems: it makes it easy to search for notes, it links notes together and encourages the constant gathering of information.

How to Take Notes Using the Zettelkasten System- Create Content Quickly

Niklas Luhmann used wooden racks and paper cards. However, it’s hard, and if you want to make planning as easy as betting at Bet22, use Notion, Dropbox, or Evernote. The main thing is to remember the principles.   

Let’s imagine: we are writing an article about the stock market and want to try out this system.  

Step 1: Create a Card- Create Content Quickly

If we find an interesting idea, we need to create a card with it. One card is one complete idea. While researching, we come across a definition that we want to remember. We write it down in our own words so we can understand it even years later.

You can add illustrations in the appendices, on paper – draw by hand and glue images.   

Name the card in a way that makes it easy for you to find it.  

Name the sources right in the card: this protects against plagiarism and helps you get back to the original. You can just write in words: taken from so-and-so site or from so-and-so book.  

Step 2: Sort Cards by Category- Create Content Quickly

Let’s create a category “Articles about economics”: we will store all notes on this topic in one place.

Categories create order and make searching easier. They help when we are looking for notes from one area of knowledge or dealing with a big project: an article, a book, a course.  

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Step 3: Add Keywords

They link notes from different categories. For example, now we write articles about economics, and three years ago we were working on a publication about psychology – two large sections “Articles about economics” and “Articles about psychology”. Thanks to the keywords, you can see the connections between topics that did not touch before.  

Let’s imagine that our Zettelkasten has the keyword “statistics”. There are cards with this tag both in the category “Articles about psychology” and in the category “Articles about economics’. When we look at old notes on this keyword, we come across two cards: statistics on economic stagnation and the number of people on antidepressants. A theory emerges–the decline of the economy correlates with people getting on pills.

Step 4: Add Links

Imagine removing all the links from Wikipedia. You can search for articles by keyword, but you can’t spontaneously jump from one page to another. This kills a major advantage: the element of surprise.

Links help you navigate through multiple categories and dozens of tags. And they also turn Zettelkasten into a clever conversationalist and collaborator who prompts unexpected ideas. First, you “feed” the system with knowledge from different areas of life, interesting information with your own thoughts, and thanks to the links you stumble upon them years later, when everything has already weathered out of your head.

Each card should have a link, so it won’t get lost in the system. Explain why you joined the notes: leave a brief note right on the card. Otherwise years later you won’t remember why you left the link.

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Most importantly, don’t destroy the notes, even if your thoughts in them are out of date. Combine them with new notes that explain what’s wrong with the old ones. In this way, Zettelkasten will show the evolution of your thinking.  

The Connection Between Zettelkasten and Creativity

Creativity is about connecting ideas. For example, this is how poetry works: an author combines images that no one else has used together. Zettelkasten combines ideas from different walks of life that previously seemed incongruous.

How Not to Quit

Don’t Expect Results Immediately

Zettelkasten only gives out-of-the-box ideas when there is a lot of information in it. Use the system as handy notes at first. Gradually put your thoughts, research results, and link different cards into the database. After a few weeks, the system will start to surprise you.  

Don’t Write Everything Down

The method is ideal for two situations: when you’re creating content and when you’re learning. Some people keep personal diaries, book and movie lists in it, but it takes too much time and yields few results.

Before you create a card, ask yourself, “Is this information I need for study or work?”  If not, you can write it down in a regular notebook.

Try Other Ways

If Notion seems too fancy, try using handwritten cards, or Dropbox notes.

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