Welcome to part 2 of The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Starting A Zettelkasten In Obsidian As A Student.
In part 1 we learned that a Zettelkasten is and the benefits of creating one. In this part you will learn:
- The Five Mindsets You Must Have To Create A Zettelkasten
- Deep Dive Into The Zettelkasten Workflow In Obsidian: Idea Emergence And Collect, Connect, Create
5 MUST HAVE Mindsets For Building a Zettelkasten in Obsidian
If there is one thing that makes you fail to build a Zettelkasten in Obsidian, it's this: you come in with the wrong mindset.
That's because your mindset ultimately decides how the methods and the tool you learn will work. It doesn't matter how good your methods are or the tool you are using them with if you don't have the correct mindset. So before we learn the workflow of the Zettelkasten in Obsidian, we will learn the mindsets of the new-era student. To do so, we will explore:
- The New Era Student Pyramid
- The Five Mindsets Of The New Era Student
The New Era Student Pyramid
The new era student pyramid encapsulates the areas of importance not only when learning to take notes as a student, but for anything in life.
The pyramid shown below is from Bianca Pereira's Build Your Knowledge Portfolio Course, a course that teaches students how to build a knowledge portfolio, a collection of works--books, blog posts, academic articles, videos, etc.--that how you have the knowledge and expertise you claim you have. I highly recommend you check out her course as it has been one of the most influential in my own thinking toward PKM!
Things lower on the period that take up more space are more important, and things higher on the pyramid taking less space are less.
Mindset: the mindset that you bring to your PKM. It will change depending on your goal. Are you trying to create essays out of your notes, study, or something else?
Methods: the procedure and workflow you use to go about doing your PKM. For example, Capture, Organize, Distill, Express from Tiago Forte or ARC from Nick Milo. In this article, the method is The Three Cs Of Knowledge Management: collect, connect, create. But there are methods inside of that broader method I will teach as well.
Tools: the apps and other things you use to implement your methods and mindset. Next time you struggle using a tool, ask yourself, "Is the tool hard to use, or is it just using a different mindset?
The New Era Student has five mindsets they take when coming to their notes.
1. Notes Are For Understanding Rather Than For Truth
Seeing notes as truth is a problem for three main reasons:
- It keeps people from writing down their thoughts. Thoughts are unlikely to be true, so people think they shouldn't write them down in the first place.
- It doesn't allow notes to evolve. When you see notes as pieces of truth, there is no reason to go back to them and grow them over time.
- Personal notes are seen as disposable. Because personal notes have your own unpolished thinking, many people see them as trash worthy in comparison to the more fleshed-out work of other researchers and creators whose ideas might also be in their system. Never devalue your thinking.
New-era students see notes for understanding, representations of their evolving thinking.
This is great for three reasons:
- It allows us to avoid perfectionism. Our notes don't have to be perfect the first time we create them. It's natural to be uncertain when learning something new. We should be confused at points during the learning process!
- It allows us to evolve our notes over time. As we learn more and change our notes change alongside us. Our Zettelkasten becomes a reflection of our changing areas of interest, a reflection of our psychology.
- We value our notes more. Rather than see notes as that boring thing we do during lecture, we start to see them as the core of our learning and creating process.
2. Create Concept Notes Over Document Notes
Most students, when they take notes for class--or anything of that matter--create massive document notes.
The issue with document notes is they don't link well. They are too big. Linking a note called Oceanography with a note called Python doesn't create new ideas. The point of linking your knowledge is to create meaningful new knowledge and to understand old knowledge.
Linking document-based notes won't foster new understanding and knowledge; it will only create more confusion.
The solution is to create what is known in the Zettelkasten community as permanent notes, but I have rebranded to call concept notes.
Concept notes are notes that focus on only one idea. This doesn't mean they can't be large. It means one idea is the focus of the note, and the other ideas are background contextual or supporting evidence. Because concept notes focus only on one idea, connecting them together creates new meaningful knowledge unlike the document notes most students create.
It's through this linking together of concept notes that your knowledge connects across classes and scales across semesters.
This hilights a key idea of the Zettelkasten method of notetaking.
"There are no rigid disciplines in the universe, only concepts."
All disciplines — Biology, Neuroanatomy, Behavioral Statistics, American History, etc. — are just highly related concepts linked together into a coherent and more easily digestible form. It's through the linking of these highly related concepts, from class to class from semester to semester, that your knowledge base starts to grow. Your Zettelkasten becomes more than the sum of its individual parts.
3. Notetaking Allows You To Clarify Your Thinking
Most students, when they think of notetaking, think of:
That's so sad, but it's not your fault. The schooling system has taught you to think this way. Most of the time we take notes, we do it in the boring, awful, verbatim style that is so easy to fall into.
As I hope you will realize, the new era student loves notetaking.
They love it not only because it's fun and engaging but because it helps them clarify their thoughts in a way they never thought imaginable.
Thoughts inside the head are jumbled and confused. It's through externalizing them into the world that the new era student gives themself the flexibility to examine and mold ideas into their existing knowledgebase.
4. Notetaking Allows You To Compound Your Thinking
Throughout school, we get taught to memorize vast amounts of information to regurgitate it when the testing day comes.
But this doesn't allow our ideas to grow in any way. When you externalize your thinking into notes, you allow your present self to leverage your past self's thinking.
The new era student understands the power notetaking has to compound thinking over semesters and even after college and therefore associates notetaking with joy, exploration, and learning rather than boredom, sadness, school and death.
5. You Don't Have To Take Notes On Everything
Isn't this whole article about taking notes? That's true, but just like taking notes in a misinformed way can cause catastrophe, feeling the need to take notes on everything can become a form of procrastination. Don't turn the act of creating notes out of every idea in school into a chore. That's a recipe for spending tens of hundreds of hours creating notes that not only don't help your understanding but you never use.
Instead, I will explain later on, take notes only on information that isn't USE, unimportant, self-explanatory, or easy enough to memorize on the spot.
Only if I find something that isn't USE do I consider taking notes and distilling what my Professor (I'm talking lectures here) said in my own words.
This way, I don't spend countless hours taking useless notes and can spend more of my time enjoying what I'm learning.
Deep Dive Into The Zettelkasten Workflow In Obsidian: Collect, Connect, Create, And Idea Emergence
Now we are finally ready to talk about the actual workflow of doing this in Obsidian.
The horizontal Zettelkasten process in Obsidian, for me, works through three steps, collect, connect, and create. Call it the creative process, the knowledge process whatever you want. The idea is the same.
You collect information that resonates with you over time, connect it to old information, and than create things out of it.
Let's go over each step.
To connect, study, and eventually create knowledge, we need to have the knowledge to do so in the first place.
This is what happens during the collection portion of the Zettelkasten process. You collect information from all aspects of your life. Lectures, textbooks, articles, podcasts, YouTube videos, films, television shows, conversations, and more. All of the notes you take on these things go into the Literature Notes folder we created earlier for your system.
Incorporate these four mindsets/methods into your life, and you will be well on your path to starting the collective journey of the Zettelkasten knowledge process.
📽️A) Adopt the Mindset of a Curator and Creator
Curators and creators understand that thoughts and ideas are transient and, therefore notetaking must become a habit.
Make these questions a reflex whenever you consume something new:
- Does this information resonate with me on an intuitive level?
- Does this information reflect my values and curiosities in life?
- Does this information have future use?
- Do I want to remember this for later?
Stop being a mindless cookie-cutter student and adopt the mindset of a curator and creator—become opinionated, objective, and reflective.
Not everything you hear in lecture or read in your textbook is insightful or even worth collecting. You need to develop a skill of being able to sift what's golden versus what isn't. Take notes only on things that aren't USE, unimportant, self-explanatory, or easy enough to memorize on the spot.
Curators and creators understand information is like food .
Similar to how consistently eating unhealthy processed food like pizza, ice cream, and french fries will make us feel terrible, consistently eating informational garbage will make our thoughts awful. Curators and creators know the quality of their expression depends on the quality of information they collect. To ingrain their mindset, you should learn how to create a better information diet by setting priorities, rules, and regulations for what you consume. Collect mostly what resonates and sparks joy while at the same time never flinching from contradictions. These are what foster change and make interesting insights.
The way you prioritize is by following the next three mindsets of collection.
🎣B) Create A Collect Toolkit
Your collect toolkit is the specific sources you prioritize collecting information for in your Zettelkasten.
I find choosing five to six main information mediums and sticking primarily to those is a good number. As a student, some of the mediums in your collect toolkit will be non-negotiable, like textbooks, lectures, and academic articles. But I strongly encourage you to adopt some mediums outside of your schoolwork into your collect toolkit. Things like paper books, anime, YouTube videos, podcasts, and more. I consume mostly lecture content, textbooks, ebooks, articles, and podcasts.
For each of these pieces of information I have a templates in Obsidian for my literature notes.
By continuing to interact with ideas outside of your classes while in school, you keep yourself intellectually curious.
You stop yourself from falling into a rigid echo chamber where all you learn about is related to your major.
One app which I recommend everyone adds to their toolkit is Readwise. Readwise collects highlights and annotations from your mediums of consumption and sends them seamlessly to your notetaking app of choice. I can't describe how much easier this makes collecting information. Obsidian has a fantastic plug-in integration with Readwise that makes collecting highlights seamless.
However, as a student, I know subscriptions can be tough. So a free alternative you can use is simply to export your Kindle highlights into a book note every single time you finish one. You can also take notes on articles or textbook chapters directly inside Obsidian, so you don't have to do any copying of highlights in the first place.
➕C) Reduce and Add Friction to Collection
To collect effectively, you have to reduce the friction of capturing in your capture toolkit and add friction to capturing outside of it.
For lectures, textbooks, ebooks, articles, and podcasts, I make collection seamless by using Readwise. But for other informational mediums, I purposefully increase friction. For example, while using Twitter, I make copy and paste the only methods of collection. This makes certain only the most actionable and valuable information enters your second brain.
It also leaves more time for thinking, the main part of the PKM workflow where you come up with creative solutions to problems.
❓D) Create Your Twelve Favorite Questions
Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while, there will be a hit, and people will say, 'How did he do it? He must be a genius!" - Richard Feynman.
"You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large, they will lay in a dormant state.
Feynman is one of my idols. He's famous for his teaching skills and Physics discoveries, but above all, he was a great questioner. He even questioned his student's knowledge of basic arithmetic. He did this through drafting a set of his twelve favorite questions, which he filtered through everything he did in life. This made every day an opportunity for him to advance them.
It gave immense clarity to what actions he should take in life because he only had to ask, does this further me in one of my questions?
I drafted out my own Twelve Favorite Questions, which you can check out for inspiration on drafting your own below.
Drafting out these questions will help you immensely with your academics because it will bring clarity to the main thematic questions of your classes. When taking your courses daily, it's easy to get caught in the weeds. Your twelve favorite questions help you see the bigger picture. You start to see how a piece of information you learned during the first day of class relates to a piece of information you are learning halfway through. Plus, you keep yourself interested in learning outside of class.
Now that you understand the mindsets behind collection in Obsidian, what are the different types of notes you can collect in your Zettelkasten, and how do we collect them using the folders mentioned above?
Types of Notes
Fleeting notes are passing thoughts that you have throughout your days.
They are usually one to two sentences long and exist only to remind you of an idea. I usually write them down in my daily note, but If I don't process them within two days of creation, I will probably forget what they mean.
Literature notes are your notes from the various pieces of information you consume, like podcasts, academic papers, books, etc.
These are the highlights that come from Readwise into my Literature Notes folder that await to be summarized and processed into the other types of notes.
Concept notes, usually called permanent notes but sometimes referred to as evergreen or atomic notes in the PKM community, are a specific type of note within a Zettelkasten or note-taking system.
I didn't like the original Zettelkasten term permanent note because it makes it sound like once you create them, they don't change, which goes against the principle of growing notes for understanding rather than for truth.
There are a couple of things that make them different from the previous two notes:
- Ideally, they should focus on only one idea. One idea forms the emphasis of the note, and the other ideas are background contextual or supporting evidence. This means they can actually be quite large and have many ideas.
- They should contain your own ideas. They can and should contain ideas--even quotes--from your literature notes but should have your own thinking inside.
How To Create Fleeting, Literature, and Concept Notes
Now that we know the three types of notes that go into creating a Zettelkasten system let's go through an example of the core workflow of the Zettelkasten.
✈️How To Create Fleeting Notes
Let's say your having a conversation with one of your friends about spirituality.
You're discussing the spiritual path, how to begin meditating, breathing exercises, yoga, and journaling. They say something really interesting. In the West spiritual practice has been been made into a ego strengthening exercise. They want to do meditation to get better focus, do yoga to get better flexibility, or journal to get more happy rather than to dissolve the ego like spiritual practice is meant to do. This is called spiritual materialism.
You don't want to forget this idea, it resonates with you.
So you write what's called a fleeting note to remind you to write more about it later on when you have the time.
This note get's put in your +Encounters folder where all new new growing notes in your Zettelkasten go. You might jot down a few words elaborating on what you were thinking in the moment. Than later that night or the next day, you come back to it and flesh it out into a full on concept note.
That's how fleeting notes get created and used.
📚How to Create Literature Notes
Literature notes are created in your literature notes folder.
You can automate this through using Readwise, some other automation platform, or through manually adding your literature notes into Obsidian. I recommend differentiating between different types of literature like podcasts, videos, blogs, academic articles, lectures, etc.
My literature notes have a tag showcasing the inbox image if they have not been processed yet.
The best way I have found to process literature notes and create concept notes with them is to make it a habit.
So everyday, for 15 minutes usually in the morning I will go through my literature notes that need to be processed and create concept notes. This is the single highest leverage habit you can build toward your Zettelkasten. This seemingly small amount of time spent processing literature notes is how you create a notetaking system that scales across semesters.
💡How To Create Concept Notes
Concept notes are created from the mixing of your own ideas with those of your literature notes from podcasts, lectures, books, videos, etc.
Concept notes are stand alone notes that focus on one idea. My favorite way to create them is to word them like statements. For example, my concept note everlasting happiness comes from living a life in accordance with virtue.
This is an idea I had after reading Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and Siddartha by Herman Hesse.
This note started out as a fleeting note but over time as I learned more about the idea and fleshed it out it became its own concept note.
Notice how it focuses only on one idea, that everlasting happiness comes from living a life in accordance with virtue and links out to other concept notes in my system. You can tell it's because more fleshed out because of the tag next to the status symbol up above. Concept notes start with "#🟥" than go to "#🟨" and finally to "#🟩" over time. I change these tags as I grow the note more and more to reflect it being more fleshed out and time tested.
This is the core process through which your Zettelkasten grows on a individual note level, fleeting notes and literature notes become concept notes which then grow and get fleshed out over time.
The collect process while ultimately the same for lecture content is helped by understanding my step by step process for taking conceptual lecture notes and having a specific structure set in place in Obsidian to take notes from your classes. You can learn how to take specifically lecture literature notes for your Zettelkasten system inside of Obsidian through this article right here: My Step By Step Process For Taking Conceptual Lecture Notes .
In addition, you can learn to create a structure to organize the information from your school classes in Obsidian through reading the The Four Step MOC Creation Process I Use to Maximize Understanding of my College Classes in Obsidian.
🎊Congratulations on making it through part 2 of this three part series of starting a Zettelkasten in Obsidian as a student!🎊 You now know the three note types that make up a Zettelkasten and the habit that will allow you to create them over time.
In the third part of this series you will learn:
- Deep Dive Into The Zettelkasten Workflow (Continued)
- 3 Biggest Beginner Zettelkasten Mistakes
- 6 Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Zettelkasten
- The Zettelkasten Transformation
Join me in the third part to complete your Zettelkasten transformation.
If you want to learn more about how to implement this system for school, check out my and fellow Obsidian creator John Mavrick's flagship notetaking course Obsidian University: Your Secret Weapon In School. In it, you will:
- Learn how to find enjoyment in learning and studying by breaking out of the Cookie Cutter Mindset
- Flesh out a systemized process for taking notes on class lectures and outside learnings
- Create a unique personal knowledgebase inside Obsidian that scales across classes and semesters
- Learn how to navigate the overwhelming level of information and overcome FOMO
- Learn how to study using your Obsidian notes
- Gain access to a community discord with fellow students looking to make the same transformation