3 Lessons from 800 Note Cards in the Zettelkasten
The full version of this article is available at my website. I’d prefer you read it there!
I was talking to Bryan Collins before we recorded an episode for his Become a Writer Today podcast recently, and the Zettelkasten note cards have changed the way he writes. We talked about it because he found it through my Forge piece on it, and it also changed the way I wrote and worked. If you have no idea what a Zettelkasten is, that’s the prequel to this piece.
If you’re an OG Star Wars fan or hate prequels for whatever reason (and sequels even more so now), I’m sorry I brought it up and offer this summary: it’s basically a note-taking method that focuses on connecting note cards together.
Disclaimer: I’m well aware of the mystique and criticisms on writing about taking notes. In this case, let’s treat note cards like the writing surface it is… which is basically just any other — nothing magical. It just happens to work really well for me, and I think it could work for you too.
Here are three lessons I’ve learned from writing 800 note cards through a year with the Zettelkasten:
1. Start with Writing by Hand
I first started taking notes by writing them on 4x6 index cards. The constraints are really useful. The extra effort of writing by hand encourages me to figure out if something really is worth noting down, instead of just copying and pasting. Plus, it removes the distraction of the internet (which was the main reason I went analog). There’s evidence it’s better for memory.
The constraint of the physical size of the note card also means that a note won’t get too long before I run out of space. This would be a problem if I started digitally.
I did start buying heavy duty 4x6 index cards, I didn’t like how thin the regular ones were. If you’re a klutz like me, be wary of papercuts. The Zettelkasten can bite.
2. Structure Encourages Ideas to Evolve
A common point is, any time spent working on the Zettelkasten could be time spent on actual work. For eight years, I bought into this line of thinking. Of course I still took notes in meetings, at conferences, etc., but I’d skip organizing them or structuring them. Instead of writing notes, I’d just write an article (usually at publications like Fast Company, Quartz at Work, and Marker, and Forge, and used to be a staff writer for Lifehacker.) It was okay — my life wasn’t a mess — but I did notice some pains.
For example, I’d find shipping larger scopes or pieces of work nearly impossible. I would organize a ton of research into a point-form outline in Google Docs. Each doc got more difficult to manage, and I’d lose track of points, get fed up, lose interest in the idea, and move onto the next thing. You could say that this was more a timing/subject/focus problem, which I’d agree with you on, but the structure didn’t help me resolve this problem. Topics would always eventually and inevitably completely morph out of control. I’d also lose track of notebooks, because I never properly indexed them.
By contrast, the Zettelkasten provides a structure that works for me to gradually pick at ideas, prime my brain, through months (and I’m hoping years!) instead of just a fever pitch of writing. In fact, I have two threads that are probably around 100 cards each, but I haven’t taken them into writing yet — I still add cards to them occasionally, when my brain comes up with ideas. And that happens occasionally because I come across them as I flip through cards.
I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a fan of the metaphor of a person as a “vessel,” but in this case ideas really do seem to take a life of their own sometimes.
I used this thread of note cards to write my book, There Is No Right Way to Do This.
3. A Place to Remember Your Lost Gems
This brings me to the next point: I have a tendency to forget my ideas — some of them are valuable, perhaps not urgent or important enough for my brain to remember. I like to think I have at least an average memory. Sometimes, by happy accidents, friends remind me of an idea I mentioned in the past, but I can’t expect to rely on them for this service.
Jay-Z is Dunder Mifflins’ worst enemy, because he’s famous for being paperless. He never writes anything down before he records. He said in 2010 that he’s lost a couple of albums worth of material. Given that his records not only sell well but also are used as leverage in eight-figure negotiations (nine?), that’s a lot of value to leave locked inside the brain.
I have no tears to cry for Jay, but I knew I had at least a couple of books worth of material inside my brain — and the Zettelkasten is the solution. Because I’m frequently reviewing parts of it, its structure is perfect for these ideas showing up at unexpected, but pleasant, events. It’s like running into a good friend on the street.
By contrast, when my ideas are rooted in my articles, I experience a general, overwhelming, sense of, “I’ve covered a lot of stuff.” If I remembered a specific piece, which usually didn’t happen (I forgot it even existed), I’d have to spend 5–30 minutes finding it (“Where did I write that piece again? What was the headline again?”).
In other words, working on the work can make the work itself better, smoother, and more pleasant.
Getting Organized Is an Investment in Future Work
It’s like Tom DeMarco writes in Slack: when it comes to investing, a penny saved is not a penny earned. I spend time writing articles and books, but I invest time in the Zettelkasten. It works for me and has become a valuable asset. There’s a long way to go before the system is perfect, but it’s more than acceptable for now. I figure I’ll just keep working on it and improvements will gradually and slowly emerge.
If you don’t have a method, I’d highly encourage you to give this one a try. Make as many modifications as you need. I think you’ll really like it!