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My Zettelkasten Journey: Understanding the Differences between Fleeting Notes, Literature Notes, Reference Notes, and Permanent Notes

4 min read

One of the ideas I've always wanted to implement is the Zettelkasten or Smart Notes note-taking method.

I was introduced to this idea in the book How To Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens, and I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how I can implement it for my writing.

The idea behind this note-taking method was that it could help you understand and learn what you read better and help you create articles effortlessly. This method was what Niklas Luhmann used to become a prolific writer. Thanks to this note-taking method he describes as his conversation partner, he published 58 books and hundreds of articles. The best part? It was effortless to him.

His productivity is, of course, impressive. But what is even more impressive than the sheer number of publications or the outstanding quality of his writing is the fact that he seemed to achieve all this with almost no real effort. He not only stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like, he even said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 154f.)[ 4]

With that being said, it's pretty hard for me to implement a Zettelkasten. New note-taking apps such as Roam Research and Obsidian have made the Zettelkasten meta and famous, but I can't seem to find out a way to implement it properly. I've started sharing a digital garden, but I quickly gave it up when I realised my note-taking workflow was holding me back. At this point, I was thinking - is a Zettelkasten a GTD equivalent or productivity porn?

That is until I stumbled upon Beau Haan's Roam Zettelkasten method. I joined Roam Book Club 4 for guidance on implementing a Zettelkasten in Roam, and albeit me playing catch up most of the time, having a community and a coach to guide me build my conversation partner has been priceless. It showed me where I was wrong when implementing a Zettelkasten.

Here’s what I learnt from the book club regarding the different types of notes one has to take to implement this method: fleeting notes, literature notes, reference notes, and permanent notes.

Fleeting Notes

Fleeting notes are notes of the thoughts you get when reading something. Whenever you read something and resonate with it, quickly write down what you are thinking, what it reminds you of, and how it's relevant. These notes are fleeting, and for that reason, must be captured quickly, or they will fleet away.

Take some time to jot down what a sentence means to you briefly. Once you're done with that, you need to process these notes and explain what you captured further.

The promise of processing your literature notes is that when you write down your thoughts, you are thinking for yourself, thinking through your writing, and improving your understanding of the topic. This act of processing your fleeting notes is when you start to generate even more new ideas and connect existing ideas to new ones.

Writing your fleeting thoughts is critical, as our memories suffer from the entropy of time. Writing it down not only helps with thinking but makes it permanent. By taking these notes, you can refresh your memory when you need context about why a sentence resonates with you and what you were thinking at that time.

Reference Notes

Reference notes are the original text that resonated with you. Other than being useful for citation, capturing them can also give context to what you were thinking, should you return to your notes at a later time. Beau encourages us to capture the whole paragraph but highlight the sentence that resonates to capture the entire idea in essence and give context to the highlight.

Literature Notes

Literature notes are the ideas of the author, explained in your own words. The clue here is that both you and the author must come together to create this note. This is where writing and processing fleeting notes become helpful, as the fleeting notes are where you expand on your ideas. Briefly review your literature note, check the reference notes, and ask yourself: How can I write the argument the author is conveying in my own words?

It's essential to use your own words, as doing so ensures you genuinely understand it. You only understand something fully if you can explain it to yourself.

I used to think of literature notes as paraphrasing the author in my own words, but I realised how doing so didn't give me the proper understanding. Taking fleeting notes and processing them showed me evidence of my thinking while reading and helped me understand the ideas better.

It's essential to put in the work to understand. You get what you give. To understand what the author is saying, you need to capture and process your thoughts.

Permanent Notes

Permanent notes are where the magic occurs. A permanent note is a declarative statement made out of your reference notes, literature notes, and fleeting notes. They are the seeds of your conversations and are placed strategically in the slip box and linked to other notes to create a conversation thread.

This conversation thread is responsible for making surprising, new, and original ideas out of what you consume.

It also makes it easy for you to write an article from your notes.

Here's an example of how a permanent note looks like in Roam, using Beau's method. Note that you can further expand each reference, literature, and fleeting notes to show context.

I'm still behind on my Roam Book Club journey, but I'm getting there slowly. I haven't covered another part of the Roam Zettelkasten; the Reference Notes. I'll update this article after finishing the book club and getting feedback on my Zettelkasten process.

Let's see if this note-taking method is handy for writing or if it's just another attempt for me to procrastinate from actually writing.

Roam Research


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