Review: How to Take Smart Notes

I’ve been trying out a new app lately: Obsidian. In my unending quest to organize my notes and recategorize them over time, I’ve grown more appreciative of some level of independence from proprietary services or platforms, which always runs the risk of effectively going out of business. To that end, Obsidian is a new app, reasonably pretty with plenty of nerdy functionality and a surprisingly extensive list of plugins, whose killer feature—for my use case anyway—is free personal use with files saved as simple .md files, easily syncable via any major cloud storage provider.

But Obsidian wasn’t made as just a replacement for Apple Notes; the app is designed for its users to take connected notes, which are meant to link to each other, and in aggregate can be visualized in its powerful graph view. This reminded me of my previous attempts at wikifying my notes in the past to little success, so I picked up How to Take Smart Notes to see if someone has figured out a way to make personal note-taking stick. I kinda got more than I bargained for.

How to Take Smart Notes turns out to be a book that introduces the Zettelkasten (ZK) system. Its inventor, Niklas Luhmann, was a prolifically productive author of academic literature, and his work relied on this system of notes that he started and expanded throughout his career. The gist of ZK is that notes are taken as you read through an article or book or publication; each note is narrowly scoped and focuses on a single idea; and because they’re small, you can link notes to each other liberally along the way. Writing things down also gets them out of your head, in a callback to the Getting Things Done principle of codifying to-do lists by putting them on (virtual) paper.

The goal is to create a matrix, or a lattice of interconnected thoughts that over time emerges insights and novel thinking. This is the key difference between what ZK is trying to accomplish versus that of wikis and mindmaps: it’s a bottoms-up approach to generating ideas that does not presuppose categories or hierarchies a priori. The key concept that I keep on coming back to is that the ZK system facilitates the emergence of ideas, by encouraging organic connections between atomic notes to eventually weave a valuable insight between loosely related bubbles of thought. It’s a causal inversion that I’m still wrapping my head around.

The organic nature of these insightful tidbits means that they don’t presume any direction to start, and that’s a major caveat to their applicability. How to Take Smart Notes‘s author is up-front about how ZK was borne of an academic and is meant for academic research papers, particularly at the doctorate and post-doc levels where the goal—for some, anyway—is to generate novel hypotheses1. For those of us who aren’t trying to maximize our academic publishing credentials, creating interconnected networks of notes can be fun as a personal pursuit, but it’s likely not going to make a huge difference to our (knowledge-based) work.

Except, the recent release of ChatGPT and recent AI advancements challenges those assumptions. Specifically, if summarizing and regurgitating simple ideas becomes automated and therefore commoditized, the ability to deeply understand domains and draw new insights from that understanding elevates in value. It’s not quite the human counterbalance to AI advancement, but it’s a timely personal discovery at a time when AI-powered products are making such big jumps in utility and the imagination is running wild; in direct contrast, the ZK system optimizes for and focuses on human intuitions.

I’ve been practicing Zettelkasten note-taking with Obsidian for the past several weeks. It’s too short of a time for me to garner any grand insights from my corpus, but one positive effect it’s had is that the technique has forced me to read more slowly and mindfully, jotting my thoughts down along the way and seeing whether they can connect to previous notes2. Time will tell whether these additional efforts will ultimately pay off, but for now, the exercise hits on and expands on several mental models and philosophies that I’ve adopted over the years, and so it has fit right in.

  1. And to apparently publish prolifically.

  2. One of the other core tenets of ZK is writing notes in your own words to ensure understanding, which then harkens back to my principles around the utility of writing.

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