I'll remember 2021 not because of a global pandemic, but because of a stack of 300 index cards.
Early in the year, I read a book titled How to Take Smart Notes. It promised one simple technique to boost writing and thinking.
At the time it seemed like a Godsend. I had been struggling for months to scratch together a few semi-coherent pages for a book I'm writing. Smart Notes seemed like more than just a cure to my writer's block. It was a system.
Being a systems administrator for over a decade, I developed an ability to reverse engineer things to understand how they work.
I felt like Smart Notes had given me a way to reverse engineer the process of writing itself. I was hooked. I was certain that if I invested enough time and effort in understanding the simple technique, I could crack the code. That belief lead me to read the book not once, not twice, but four times.
It also lead me to publish an article that took 30 hours to write, record and upload hours of YouTube content, and launch a short ebook and video course.
Iteration’ed to death
Using a note-taking tool called Obsidian, I took the note-taking technique and translated it into a digital version. It was progress. But something was off.
My first iterations had a tremendous amount of friction. Those I shared my work with loved it, but never stuck with it. Like a good idea that was missing an element of reality. Despite the failure, I told myself “you just need to try harder”.
Frustrated, I returned to the book. Putting on my engineering hat, I re-read the book and this time used Smart Notes to take notes on Smart Notes. Very meta of me, I know. With nothing more than a pencil, a stack of index cards, and a few binder clips, I created my physical version. After a month and 76 physical index cards later I had my physical Zettelkasten!
Determined to correct the mistakes of my previous misunderstandings, I began to update my article. Effortlessly the words sprung onto the page. It wasn’t until I checked the word count a few days later that I realized I had written 4,000 words. I wasn’t writing an update, I was writing a book.
Not only that, I had proven the system worked. Or so I thought.
Publishing the short-book and video course in haste— I scheduled a few tweets—asked a friend to share a link in her newsletter— then got back to work.
Diving straight back into writing my book, I applied Smart Notes to my research. Endlessly optimizing my time, I dedicated my mornings to writing and note-taking and left the evenings for reading. In a month’s time, I had read four books, written two hundred or more notes, and connected them elaborately to an index.
Churning through a tremendous amount of research, I thought I was ready to finish the book. But there were two significant problems; it left me with zero time for anything else, and it wasn’t helping me write. 😱
Smart notes were meant to be a means to an end. It was supposed to remove writer’s block with endless idea generation and material. But when the faithful day came— there I sat staring at a blank screen.
There was a disconnect between the latticework of notes and the story I wanted to tell. Unless a note could be taken wholesale and pasted into my writing, I couldn’t find a way to make them seamlessly line up and have only the transitions between notes left to write.
And so— there I sat— staring at that blinking cursor once again.
Use your own brain
Wallowing in despair I decided to stop fiddling with notes.
Instead of endlessly rearranging my notes within Obsidian for the perfect sequence, I just started to write. Every day for two weeks I wrote. Day after day I crushed my daily word count goal of 800 words.
On good days I’d write north of 1,500 and on bad days I’d squeak by with 900 or so. By the end of it all, I was left with 13,553 words or 53 pages, which completed the second part of the book. I learned that the human brain can’t be replaced. Ultimately it’s the writer who’s the creator.
Still, part of me knows that without the effort invested in taking all those notes (even though I didn’t use them as intended), they were the reason I was able to write so fast.
Having taken nearly a thousand notes— digitally and physically combined— I’ve learned a few things. Here’s what I’m changing:
No daily quota for notes. Even three notes per day were soul-crushing. Instead, I’ll batch note-taking. For whatever reason, the pressure of a daily quota ruined the enjoyment of reading.
Wait to take notes. Another tip I picked up from Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene is to let the ideas in books age, by leaving them to sit for a week or more before you take notes. Which lets your mind sift through the good, bad, and excellent ideas. Improving the quality and reducing the number of your notes.
Stop taking notes on everything. Information is abundant, your time is finite and your brain is more powerful than you give it credit for. Instead of attempting to capture every nugget of information in my knowledge base, I’ll let memory do its job. Forget. What repeats will be recorded.
Project-based vaults. An idea I got while reading Ryan Holiday’s, How I Wrote a Book, was a concept of a project-based vault. He stores his notes in either a general-purpose card box or project-specific boxes for the books he writes. I’ll be doing the same for my notes.
I’m downgrading my notes. Taking smart notes is too much pressure.
My biggest mistake wasn’t taking so many notes, but not leaving enough room for my own creative process to mold the workflow. It’s not about taking notes on everything but taking better notes, organizing them in a way that makes sense, AND in a way that improves your thinking, learning, writing, etc...
No matter the system you use. It has to serve you and not the other way around.
I’m not done taking notes. Instead, I’m taking the lessons I learned from the Zettelkasten method and modeling them to create my own method, based on its principles.
It takes a brave man to so publicly admit to what some would call an error. It would take a coward to remain silent when you feel that your advice has gone astray.
I applaud your courage and hasten to add that your experience does not demonstrate any sort of erroneous thinking, but a well designed experiment. Unfortunately, the experiment did not turn out the way you and your readers wanted. Life is too often that way. Better to know the bitter truth, than the sweet taste of illusion.
I, too, have experienced great friction in using Zettlekasten for current writing. Your post has led me to think that perhaps the difficulty lies in time expectation. By that I mean maybe this system is best used to create the framework for next year's book, not this year's book. Going down to the "atomic" level of permanent notes is time consuming. It is, for me at least, anti-flow.
Creating a current book, OTOH, is easier in a flow state, where we know almost all of the puzzle & we are just allowing our brain to assemble the pieces on the fly.
So I am not giving up on zettlekasten, just reframing my expectations of its best use.
Thanks for your insights.
I love the way you write! I've fallen into a rabbit hole reading your articles... Not complaining!