How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian

A Zettelkasten Tutorial

Having the ability to rediscover, catalog, and connect ideas is what the most modern note-taking systems and apps lack, but Obsidian and a note-taking method from the early 1900s offers exactly that.

In this article, you’ll learn how to start taking Smart Notes with Obsidian.


What are Smart Notes?

"How to Take Smart Notes” written by Sönke Ahrens, resurrected a note-taking philosophy called The Zettelkasten Method.

Zettelkasten was developed and made famous by a German sociologist by the name of Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) who was most known for his insane level of productivity. Luhmann published 58 books and over 600 articles over his lifetime.

To use the Zettelkasten method you write three different types of notes; fleeting, permanent, and project. Permanent notes are stored long-term in two different places, a reference system, and a slip-box. It is through these notes that ideas are captured and elaborated on until the point of understanding.

What makes the Zettelkasten unique is the slip-box. When added to the slip-box, notes get a unique identifier that connects them to an existing thought or starts a new cluster of thought. It is through this connecting of notes that Zettelkasten begins to lay the latticework required to build an external knowledge base.

In order to create a Zettelkasten in Obsidian, you must follow The Four Underlying Principals of How to Take Smart Notes.

  1. Writing is The Only Thing that Matters: Thinking through the medium of writing will improve your reading, thinking, and other intellectual skills. And so this principle implies you must consume information with the purpose of writing about it.

  2. Simplicity is Paramount: To be successful, the system must reduce the number of decisions made by standardized note-taking, having a clear separation between the different types of notes, and designated storage for each type.

  3. Nobody Ever Starts from Scratch: The system must build trust by surfacing insight, connecting different lines of thought, and improving one’s thinking. As it’s used, thinking and writing should become easier and more valuable.

  4. Let the Work Carry You Forward: It must have a workflow that generates its own momentum through positive experiences and at the same time improve the learning process.

Take Smart Notes in Obsidian

Having a learning system will continuously improve your thinking through the feedback of deliberate practice.

Zettelkasten provides that and it starts with three different types of notes:

Fleeting Note 🟩 - Used for capturing ideas quickly. They serve as mere reminders of information and can be written in a variety of ways. Taking them should not distract you from your work.

Permanent Note 🟥 - Used to capture ideas from text (literature note) or used to elaborate on and create an atomic note (permanent slip-box note). Permanent means they are kept forever.

Project Note 🟨 - Used to capture information pertaining to a particular project. Kept together in a project-specific folder and are archived or discarded when the project is finished.

Both Obsidian and the Zettelkasten method encourage non-hierarchical structures for note-taking, but it’s critical that these three types of notes are kept isolated from one another in different locations:

Inbox 📥: - the temporary location for fleeting notes that are being processed.

Reference System 🗄️: - for literature notes, also called reference or source notes.

Slip-box 🗃️: - stores all permanent slip-box notes.

Project Folders 🗂️: - for project-specific notes such as reminders, to-do lists, outlines, drafts, etc…

How to Take Fleeting Notes in Obsidian

Unfortunately, you cannot immediately distinguish a good idea from a bad idea.

So, capture as many ideas as possible instead. That’s the purpose of a fleeting note.

You need a place to capture these ideas, and the best place is a daily note.

Create the Daily notes folder

Open Obsidian and create a folder named daily notes.

Enable and configure the daily notes plugin:

  1. Open the Settings, (the gear ⚙️ icon on the bottom left).

  2. Under OPTIONS select Core plugins and toggle on the Daily notes plugin.

  3. Once enabled, select the Daily notes plugin under PLUGIN OPTIONS.

  4. Change the New file location to your daily notes folder.

  5. (Optional) Toggle on Open daily note on startup

  6. Close Settings menu

Create a Fleeting Note

Click the Open today’s daily note button on the left toolbar.

Throughout the day capture your fleeting notes in your daily note. Fleeting notes are mere reminders of information and can be written in a variety of ways.

Taking them should never distract you from your main work.

Fleeting notes also need an inbox to be reviewed. Left unprocessed, fleeting notes will become useless as their context is lost.

Create an inbox 📥

Click the New folder icon, and name the folder inbox. Adding an underscore makes it easier to find by moving it to the top.

Within one or two days move a daily note into the inbox for processing.

Move any project-related notes to their designated folder and create permanent notes for your slip-box. Not all fleeting notes will be translated into permanent notes but too many unprocessed fleeting notes will lead to chaos.

Once processed, archive the daily note by moving it back to the daily notes folder.

How to Take Literature Notes in Obsidian

Read, listen, and watch with a pen in hand or a keyboard under your fingertips.

Literature notes are meant to abstract interesting ideas. They’re how you’ll remember what you've read, watched, or listened to long enough to expand on it. Writing literature notes is a catalyst for your own intellectual development with the side-effect of being the beginning of your external knowledge base.

Next time you watch a video, listen to a podcast or read a chapter in a book, start a literature note.

Create a Literature Note

In Obsidian, create a new note and move it in your Inbox.

Rename the note to reflect the source material.

For example Writing Workshop Part One.

In the Zettelkasten method, literature notes are only connected to the source from which they came, which means the literature notes you create in Obsidian require metadata.

At the top of the literature notes, add the following metadata:

Author:
URL:
Tags:

Fill out the metadata by providing the creator or author’s name as a link, add the URL of the resource, apply tags for the type, and label it as a #literature-note. Keep literature notes very short. Be extremely selective in what's written down. Put it in your own words and never copy unless it’s a direct quote or a reference.

Taking these notes should not become a chore, their primary purpose is to help with writing permanent notes for the slip-box, anything else is a distraction.

Eventually, literature notes will be archived.

That means the ideas they contain will be lost unless something is done with them, which is why they start in your Inbox. However, once translated into permanent notes, literature notes are placed in the reference system and forgotten.

Create a Reference System 🗄️

In Obsidian, create a new folder named reference.

Move your literature note into the reference folder to archive it in the reference system.

How to Take Permanent Notes in Obsidian

Once-daily (ideally), go through your fleeting and literature notes and translate them into permanent notes, using the following process:

  1. Identify what’s relevant to your own research, interest, or thinking

  2. Elaborate on the idea until it’s understood without its prior context

  3. Connect (link) it to existing permanent notes in the slip-box

“If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself.” (John Searle)

Create a Permanent Slip-box Note

Within the slip-box, notes are organized by a unique ID, called a ZettelkatenID.

Obsidian has a core plugin that handles the generation of new notes with unique IDs called the Zettelkasten prefixer. It uses a timestamp format down to the minute to ensure each prefix is unique.

In Obsidian, complete the following steps to enable the plugin:

  1. Open Settings

  2. Click Core plugins

  3. Toggle on the Zettelkasten prefixer plugin

Click Create new Zettelkasten note on the left panel to create a permanent note.

Next, open an existing fleeting or literature note.

Hold ⌘ + Shift then left click (macOS) or Ctrl + Shift then left click(Windows) to open the fleeting or literature note in a new horizontal panel.

Reference the existing fleeting or literature note and use it as a writing prompt to elaborate on the idea until it can be understood without its original context. Write them carefully, as if for someone else.

Use full sentences, be concise, and as clear as possible. Each permanent note should be atomic, containing only a single idea.

Luhmann, using pen and paper, constrained permanent notes to a single side of an index card. Use that as a frame of reference for the length of each note.

Aim to have it no shorter than a tweet (180 characters) and no longer than an atomic essay (300-500 words).

Choose the note’s keyword(s)

ZettelkastenIDs give notes their position, but a unique ID isn’t very memorable.

When adding notes to the physical slip-box, Luhmann would add one or two keyword phrases to the top of the note, opposite of the ZettelkastenID. These keyword phrases would be re-written in an index next to their ZettelkastenID to remind him of the contents of the note without having to read its contents.

With the digital Zettelkasten in Obsidian, you have the luxury of being able to put the keyword in the name of the note after the ZettelkastenID prefix.

In Obsidian, append the keyword to the note’s name after the ZettelkastenID prefix.

Separate the keyword and prefix by space and a hyphen to make it more readable.

How you choose keywords also reveals if you’re an archivist or a writer.

An archivist asks “Which keyword is most fitting?” But a writer asks “In which contexts will I want to stumble upon this note in the future, even after I’ve forgotten about it?”

Choose your keywords carefully and always assign them with an eye towards the topics you’re working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation.

As a general rule, good keywords are normally not already mentioned as words within a note.

Create a Slip-box 🗃️

In Obsidian, create a new folder named slip-box. Then Move the permanent note into the slip-box folder.

Adding notes to the slip-box

Notes in the slip-box are stored in a flat (non-hierarchical) structure and are connected rather than filed neatly away in isolation.

That’s correct, no subfolders.

In the physical Zettelkasten, notes that relate to one another are clustered together in a sequence. Notes without any specific note to follow, are added to the back of the slip-box, taking the next available number.

For example, if a new note was added to the slip-box with a ZettelkastenID of 31, a follow-up note would take the ZettelkastenID of 31a. If there wasn’t a specific note to follow, the next available ZettelkastenID would be 32, putting it at the back of the slip-box. Following this logic, a follow-up note to 31a would be 31a1 and so on.

By using a combination of letters and numbers, notes that are related to one another can branch out in an infinite amount of ways.

The digital Zettelkasten in Obsidian also benefits from the use of ZettelkastenIDs.

By using the ID as part of the note’s name, notes visually cluster together inside the non-hierarchical slip-box. And because the numbering is handled by the Zettelkasten prefixer plugin, which uses a date to generate the uniqueID, new permanent notes will also be filed behind previous notes.

Make note-to-note connections

Note-to-note links are the weak ties that exist within the slip-box that yield powerful results.

By linking two or more notes regardless of their location or context, surprising new lines of thought and insight are sparked. These links help you to find connections and similarities between seemingly unrelated topics. Patterns that aren’t visible in isolation emerged after multiple note-to-note links have been established.

In short, note-to-note connections help you weave interesting stories between seemingly unrelated ideas.

  1. In Obsidian, add the following metadata to your permanent note:

topic:links: tags: #permanent-note  --- 1234

2. Add links (connections) to existing notes in the slip-box or links on existing notes to the new note.

When making note-to-note connections, ask if these two notes could be strung together to make a point or to support an argument.

Note: Obviously, it’s not possible to link to other notes if there are no other notes. Keep the links metadata section to remind you in the future to establish connections between your notes, if that’s the case.

Add the note to the index

Connections between notes are much more important than the connection from the index to a single note, but it’s the index that ensures notes aren’t forgotten.

Make sure the note can be found again by adding it to an index.

Create an index note

An overview of the entire slip-box is never the goal, just as you certainly won’t ever get an overview of your internal memory as a whole.

What is required, however, is an overview of a specific topic. Within the slip-box, there are several methods for providing an overview of a topic and at the top is an index note.

  1. In Obsidian, open your permanent note.

  2. Review its contents and ask “If I were to find this information in a bookstore, which section would I find it under?”, the answer to that question is the name of your index note.

  3. Create a new note. Name the note after a section or genre in the library.

  4. Add the following information:

tags: #index-note  ### Key Topics    ---  [[permanent note]] 12345678910

Replace [[permanent note]] with a link to your permanent note in the slip-box.

Update the permanent notes with their new index as the topic.

Linking is bidirectional in Obsidian, but having links on both notes makes navigation easier.

Placing permanent notes directly in the index provides them with a staging area.

As you continue to take notes, topics and sub-topics will emerge and the link to the permanent notes will be moved there instead of the index, and a link to the topic will replace them in the index under Key Topics.

Start a sequence

Ideally, every note is written with explicit reference to existing notes already in the slip-box.

Obviously, that’s not always possible. Especially at the start of the Zettelkasten, but it will eventually become the default.

When notes are written with reference to an existing note, it starts a note sequence. An initial sequence that attracts many follow-up notes easily becomes the main topic with several sub-topics over time.

By forming sequences within the slip-box, topics emerge, the future text develops, and ideas form augments that solidify your understanding.

“Note sequences are the clusters where order merges from complexity” - Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes

  1. In Obsidian, click Create a new Zettelkasten note.

  2. Browse your slip-box and open an existing permanent note in a new horizontal panel.

  3. Hold ⌘ + Shift then left click (macOS) or Ctrl + Shift then left click (Windows)

  4. Append -1 at the end of the Zettelkasten prefix of the permanent note.

Take a moment to think. Ask yourself:

  • “What ideas does this permanent note spark?”

  • “If this existing permanent note were used to write an article, what information is missing?“

  • “What does this idea remind me of that I’ve read before?”

After some thought, choose a keyword for the new permanent note and add it to the file name.

Spend an adequate amount of time writing the contents of the new permanent note.

There is no single linear path to taking permanent notes. New follow-up notes can be the result of your own thinking or sparked by other sources from your research.

NOTE: Zettelkasten IDs only organize sequences. Indexes, topic notes, and sub-topic notes do not form a perfect branch sequence that goes all the way down to the individual permanent note. Avoid the temptation to impose a hierarchical structure from the index down by refactoring ZettelkastenIDs as topics emerge.

Develop a topic

Eventually, note sequences develop to the point at which an overview is needed or becomes useful.

Topic notes structure thoughts and act as an in-between for manuscripts and outlines by collecting links to sequences and subsequences. Above all else, however, they’re there to orient you within the slip-box by providing an entry point into a line of thought.

Luhmann would add, at most, 25 links to each of his topic notes. He’d also include short 1-2 sentences that gave an indication of what the linked permanent notes contained. Topic notes also became a scratchpad for thinking, he’d place unanswered questions at the bottom to capture what pieces were missing or to contemplate the relevance to other notes.

Developing a topic bottom-up requires you to start on both sides and work towards the middle.

Create a topic note

In Obsidian, expand your slip-box folder and review the existing notes and note sequences.

  1. Identify a sequence or cluster of notes that support a common idea or argument.

  2. Ask, “What topic would be best positioned in the middle?”.

  3. If the index was a section in a bookstore, the topic would be the title, section, or chapter of a book within that section.

  4. Once you have an answer, you have the name of your topic note.

  5. Click, New note.

  6. Give the new topic note a name that helps bridge the index to the slip-box notes.

  7. Add the following metadata to the note:

index: [[indexName]] tags: #topic-note   ---12345

Replace [[indexName]] with a link to the appropriate index note.

Within the topic, add links to permanent notes and note sequences that support the topic. Place follow-up notes in a sequence under the starting note as a bullet list.

The end result should start to resemble an outline or the beginning of a manuscript.

In the graph view, Obsidian puts weight on notes that have the most links. To build a bottom-up visual representation of your interest, you must link the permanent notes to the lowest level possible.

Update each permanent note’s topic field with a link to the new topic note. Doing so will accurately update the weight of the topic notes in your slip-box.

NOTE: Some Zettelkasten practitioners refer to topic notes as hub notes.


What’s next? Read “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens. I’ve done my best to condense his wisdom and to show a possible solution for using it with Obsidian, but I’ll never do it justice.

Above all else, enjoy the process of building a knowledge base of your ideas! 🎉

Upcoming articles:

  • Getting Started with Obsidian

  • Make Smart Notes a Habit

  • Developing ideas into manuscripts with Smart Notes in Obsidian