In the process of doing my digital declutter, I came across this little book about a particular note-taking method that is really changing my thinking about how to behave with intentionality.

Chalk in a jar in a window
Chalk in a jar in a window

I usually save writeups about books until I’m done with them, but this book made some wheels turn and took me off in another direction, so this is partly a mid-read writeup and partially documentation of some lightbulbs lighting up.

The opening chapters of Smart Notes describe Niklas Luhmann’s “Zettelkasten” knowledge management system. In short, Luhmann kept a slipbox of notes, sequentially numbered and cross-referenced, each ideally written in an atomic manner about a single idea or concept. As Ahrens points out in the book, the underlying sensibility of the system is a sort of cousin to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, except for ideas instead of work/actions. Also similar to GTD is the proliferation of documentation and implementation details you can go find on the ’net.

I came to this book because I recently adopted Obsidian for note-taking, and it includes a few plugins and affordances that make keeping a digital Zettelkasten simple. I read enough about the approach to spark my curiosity, and all roads seemed to point to this.

As it turns out, the real value is less the “how to do a Zettelkasten” chapters. There are plenty of web tutorials that explain the mechanics. Plenty of those same tutorials miss out on the “why” of using a Zettelkasten vs. any other note-taking or knowledge management approach you might use. Here are a few of those whys:

Top-down hierarchies of notes (e.g. carefully labeled folders) over-direct and stifle the interconnected nature of how we actually think and know by predetermining where an idea “belongs.” By writing notes atomically – that is, about the most narrow idea possible – and storing them in a flat sequence, ideas are left free to be connected and assembled, then reconnected and reassembled over and over.

By providing a trusted system, Zettelkastens allow you to relax about where your knowledge is. It’s written down in brief notes that describe one concept well.

By keeping a collection of atomic notes – Luhmann’s own Zettelkasten reportedly exceeded 90,000 such notes by the time of his death – you make it easier to develop your thinking on a matter by constantly cross-referencing and connecting, allowing your understanding to change over time as new ideas come in and you write them down.

By making yourself write an idea down in as contained and focused a manner as possible, you also ensure that you actually understand it. As a former editor I remember using the coherence of individual passages in a freelancer’s submitted work as a guide to where I might want to fact-check or simply press the writer to rethink. If a passage didn’t read quite right, and if I had been through enough assignments from that writer to know they were an organized thinker, bad mechanics, stoppers, and uneven flow told me they might not understand what they were writing.

On that last point, Ahrens is a firm believer in the idea that writing is thinking, and that sitting quietly and letting words play out in your head is not. I have know this for a long time, and can remember key moments in my professional development where I used writing to develop my thinking, sometimes realizing at the end of three or five thousand words that I had ended up somewhere quite different from where I began.

There are a number of other “whys” that make the system work, but these are the ones that most stand out to me at just over half way through.

Where this book caused a spark to jump a gap came in combination with my recent read of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and the ensuing digital declutter I have undertaken.

The point of that declutter is to become more intentional about how I use technology, asking myself things like “What do you need to do to be intentional about this thing? Is that practical or useful?” and “When you adopted this thing, what aspirational idea did you have about it?”

I was doing some very basic writing about these things, but not in an atomic way. Instead, I was either making checklists, which involve believing that you “know” a lot about the thing you are checklisting; or writing essays, which are fine if you just want to publish a blog post or essay. What I realized, though, was that I wasn’t really thinking these things through deeply – I was plowing through a checklist of things to “consider” in a very superficial way. So I took a step back and tried a few things:

  • I decided to treat my checklists as prompts to think more about each thing on them, instead of as a collection of things I already understood and just needed to act on. Each of those prompts will become its own note.
  • I took an essay I was developing on tools I use in photography and decomposed it into atomic notes, making sure to use tags for each note so I could pull it all back together later, or build an index within Obsidian.

By taking the time to do that – to decompose my thinking about all the things I do around the topic of photography – I’ve made it easier to do my digital declutter, because instead of simply encountering an app, tool, or service and having a thought in the form of talking to myself briefly about its value, I’ve written about how I do photography, and why I have made the choices I have, the better to ask how that particular thing serves me.

Writing things down has also allowed me to anchor myself. I’m something of a tools and practices magpie and I don’t always slow down to think about how something is going to be in my life long-term. Sometimes I dart from practice to practice or tool to tool, leaving me with a hodgepodge of different approaches that take time to untangle or reconcile with each other. That means less time to do the thing I actually care about, and more time fussing with tools and processes. The act of writing things down, reasoning why I do things the way I do, gives me a grounding point to start from: “The best way to do this thing is this way for these reasons. So just do it that way. It’s better than the other ways you’ve tried. Leave room to iterate, but make that part of your practice of intentionality as well.”

On that last point, I’m adding some stuff to my longer feedback loops (monthly and quarterly reviews) so that I know I can address little paper cuts along the way without being in a state of constant flux. It’s been an interesting experience noting that something I do as a manager for teams I work with had to be rediscovered in my personal life.

So, great book so far, and I’m so glad my curiosity led me to it because it has truly enhanced how I’m coming at the overall theme of intentionality. It has had immediate applications for my digital declutter, and I’m applying it to the other areas of my life where I want to spend more time creating and less time fussing or reinventing wheels.

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens 📚