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A Beginner's Guide to Zettelkasten and Building a Second Brain

As a writer, these systems can double your idea creation.

By Sam H ArnoldPublished 5 months ago 10 min read

What if I told you that I have a system that allows articles to virtually write themselves? All it will take from you as a writer is some curation of ideas and you will have a masterpiece.

To be a writer, you have to be a thinker; it is a concept a friend introduced me to. I will drop her article below for a read. No one wants to read an article that summarises and repeats another article; they would read the original.

You need to take ideas, develop them and then tell your readers about them.

The average person will consume the equivalent of over one hundred newspapers a day. So if you can convert just 1% of that, you will be an idea factory.

The idea is to capture such detailed and thought-provoking thoughts and notes that you have a vault of ideas to slip into articles.

Capturing Ideas

What is effective note-taking? It is a question that has intrigued writers, academics and learners for years. The problem is that the note-taking systems taught at school are ineffective. Remembering information by rote does not make you more intelligent; it's just a filing system.

It is this ineffectiveness to write successful notes that means writers struggle for ideas. For the last five years, I have been one of those people. I had a list of ideas that didn't appeal to me.

The trick is not to write everything you read or hear but to put the ideas and concepts into your words. Doing this makes you more likely to remember them and have ideas that make an article.

Now I am not going to tell you this is easy. We all had that idea that vanished in the shower or with sleep. The trick is to train your brain to capture everything; like any muscle, we need to exercise it and practice.

Your brain is for having ideas, not for holding them. - David Allen

First practice capturing ideas. Spend a day writing everything that pops into your head. A thought, something you read or a conversation you had. Take a note, don't make them pretty. Just note it down.

Now we will look at two methods I use to turn these random captured thoughts into ideas for articles. Don't worry if not all aspects make sense at the beginning. It didn't for me. I also have a solution at the end of this article to help.

Zettelkasten Method

Before we go into depth with either of these methods, you need to understand the concept of an atomic note. An atomic note is one idea per note. One single thought. If you have more than one idea for each captured note, turn it into two notes.

You compress multiple ideas into a single thought or reduce a big idea into numerous specific ideas. When referencing, you have to have one idea per note, or you are heading for a headache.

So let's look at the process of Zettelkasten, which means slip-box in German. It was designed by thinker and writer Luhmann. During his almost 40 years of research, he published over 70 books and 400 scholarly articles on various subjects using this system.

With this, you have three types of notes:

Fleeting Notes - Remember all those random captured ideas I suggested in the previous section. Congratulations, you have your fleeting notes.

Literature Notes - These are the second type. I want to bet you are doing this already as well. When you read a book, do you highlight interesting passages? Add to them with your thoughts, and write notes.

These are literature notes; all you need to do is keep these notes in one place, referenced back to the source. Luhmann used a single note card for each literature note. I will show you later how technology can help with this.

Permanent Notes - These are the final type of notes and are where the thinking and idea generation occur. Take each of your fleeting and literature notes and ask yourself what idea comes from these notes. I suggest doing this within a week, so the context of your notes remains.

Distil what you have written into your own words, one idea per card. The process of writing them in your own words means that you remember them easily. They can also be paragraphs for articles.

Finally, connect your ideas - Do you have multiple notes on the structure of poems or recipe ideas? These are a collection of notes that can be linked. It is this link that will provide an article. Luhmann used a complex numbering system. I have an easier way.

This is where technology helps; no matter what program you use, you can group these notes and connections. Obsidian, Roam, Evernote and Apple Notes all have the ability to link ideas.

This connecting of ideas is the beauty of this system. Think of your old note-taking as old Twitter where you could write a single tweet. You could write several on one subject, but they would not be shown together and your followers would be rubbing their heads trying to make sense of it.

Connecting ideas is the new Twitter with tweet threads. You are building a story one tweet/note at a time but combining them into a dynamic thought.

One killer tip, when it comes to labelling these notes, whichever system you use, make the titles as expressive as possible, making linking easier.

Second Brain

The second system that is just as effective is called Building a Second Brain and was designed by Tiago Forte. Again, the principles are very similar, so I will not go into much detail.

That's your Second Brain: a single, centralised repository of all your most valuable knowledge to fuel all your future endeavours. - Tiago Forte

The same theories apply. Capturing is the most crucial process. Distil your ideas as soon as possible. Make the titles descriptive and link your thinking. So let's get into it.

This system uses two acronyms that are easy to remember. The first is for processing your ideas, CODE.

Capture - This is the same as your fleeting notes; capture those random ideas that pop into your head, you read, or you hear.

Organise - Sort these notes by saving them in a specific folder, more about that in a minute.

Distil - Think about the notes and put them into your own words. It can not be expressed enough how this act aids retention, learning and thinking. These are your permanent notes.

Express - This is the only area different from Zettelkasten. As writers, though, it is the easy part. Express the ideas to someone else. Write an article, a tweet and share your knowledge.

The second acronym you need to remember is for your filing system—this one I love. The word we use for filing is PARA. You divide your filing system into four folders; everything goes in here.

Projects - Anything you are working on. My projects are my article writing, tutoring business and writing a new book on

Areas - This can be anything important in your life. It might be information on insurance for your dog, family concerns or your kids' reports. Sort these into areas. You can divide it into more files inside the four main ones with all of these.

Resources - Information, pretty self-explanatory.

Archive - Again, very self-explanatory. You never need to look at those files again, but you can't throw them away just in case.

I have sorted my files and my internet bookmarks using this system. It can take a little getting used to, but it is easy once you start using it.

My Workflow

As a practical person, I need to see this system working. So here is my workflow and how I use a mixture of the above methods.

Yes, I went rogue and use them both for different areas. Is that not the essence of what I have been talking about in effective note-taking? You take an idea and distil it into your own concept.

You can take from my structure or use it as a basis. The fun with these note-taking systems is in altering them to your way of thinking and writing. So take all the systems and make a unique workflow for yourself.

Throughout the day, I capture notes and ideas. I use Apple notes for this because it is simple. It is on all my devices; a couple of clicks and I have a note done. The important aspect of your capturing system is that it needs to be frictionless and capture the note in the easiest way possible.

I have always read with post-it notes and highlighters. These are my literature notes. I transcribe them if they are from a book; kindle does this for you with their highlight and note function. Did you know you can email these highlights to yourself for a permanent record?

For web pages and other media, I use Instapaper; here, I can save articles to read, highlight and make notes on later. Instapaper is free, but you are limited on highlights, so I subscribed to the service at $2.99 a month.

To process my permanent notes, which I try to do at the end of each day, I use Obsidian. Obsidian is one of the best platforms I have ever used. It is an article in itself. Obsidian is also free, which amazes me every time I write it.

Obsidian allows me to connect my notes; it even shows me the connections on a graph. The search function is the best I have ever come across. It is effortless and, once set up, an incredible platform to spend time on.

It is now the platform I use for all my writing; this article was written on it. Another significant bonus is that the data is saved on your cloud system. You own the information, no one else.

The files are stored as plain text files, so minimal on space, and you can take them with you to any new platform that accepts markdown files.

My last application is Zotero, where I store all my references and build my bibliography.

Killer tip when setting up your file structure in whatever application you decide, use emojis and words; it draws the brain quickly to what you need.

You can also use tags to help the search function with any platform. I don't, because I do not fancy remembering one hundred tags when I have thousands of notes. Instead, I use tags to show the status of the note. You can do whatever suits you.

Just Start

The most important thing is to start. Regardless of which software or system you decide on. Do not become so engrossed in designing the perfect system that you forget to take notes.

Nothing is perfect; you can change and adapt as you go. Accept the limitations of your system and start producing those ideas. These ideas are the structure of your writing.

This article is the product of some eight notes I have written over the last couple of weeks. They all had a theme, so it was apparent they were an article. The article told me it needed to be written; I did not have to look for it.

With this system, you don't have that moment as a writer when you start an article to find out it went in a completely different direction. Instead, this system gives you clarity of thought.

Don't be too hard on yourself if you can not get all the elements in your head straight away. It was two weeks before this completely clicked for me. Now to the part where I said I could help you if you still don't understand.

I want to show you my second brain on Obsidian. I will show you how to set it up, the plug-ins you need to make it truly effective and how to customise it. The tips and tricks I have learned on note taking using the software.

This system is not exclusive to Obsidian; you might want to use Evernote. If you are interested in the one-to-one tutorial, click this link and we can arrange to meet and start your expert note-taking journey.

Now here is your challenge, whether you do this yourself or I help. Whatever platform you choose, stick with it for thirty days—a thirty-day challenge. Don't change platforms; just capture and process ideas.

Come back in thirty days and tell me whether this has changed your life. I am willing to bet it has.

An idea is like a tomato. It ripens nicely as you tend to it and work on it. But if you leave it too long, it starts to rot. - Stephen Moore

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to my writing, share it and give it a heart. As a writer tips and pledges mean a great deal to me, so a massive thank you if you send one.

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About the Creator

Sam H Arnold

I know where the bodies are buried and I’m not afraid to tell you - author of True Crime, History and Fiction. Find me on Twitter [email protected]

Or find my crime magazine here -

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