Supercharge Your Brain with Zettelkasten: The Key to Unlimited Knowledge Retention

Supercharge Your Brain with Zettelkasten: The Key to Unlimited Knowledge Retention

Dominic Zijlstra
Dominic Zijlstra
Publish date
Apr 6, 2023
Imagine being able to effortlessly memorize large amounts of information, whether it's for your academic studies or your personal pursuits. No more last-minute cramming sessions, no more forgetting important details. Well, here’s how to make it real:
There are many study techniques and note-taking systems out there, but - surprise! - not all are created equal. In this article, we will explore the benefits and drawbacks of various note-taking methods, and spoiler alert: make the case for why the Zettelkasten method is the best one for academics and lifelong learners.
keep reading and you'll understand how the Zettelkasten method helps you organize your thoughts and notes in a way that maximizes your ability to learn and retain information. We'll also address common misconceptions and provide actionable tips and real-life examples to help you implement this method in your own life. Ready?
Table of Contents

Common Myths Around Note-Taking

Many people believe that the Zettelkasten system is difficult to implement or only useful for academics. Turns out this is just a common myth: In reality, the Zettelkasten system can be adapted for any type of learner, not just academics, and it can save time and effort in the long run.
There also is the objection that it takes too much time to create and maintain the system. And while it does take time to initially set up and organize everything, the Zettelkasten method ultimately saves time by making it easier to recall and connect ideas: A study conducted by the University of California¹⁾ found that using a digital note-taking system like the Zettelkasten can lead to a 30% increase in productivity and time savings.
Another common challenge with the Zettelkasten system is the fear of losing track of notes or ideas. However, the Zettelkasten system is designed to prevent this issue. By using cross-referencing and a consistent tagging system, you can easily retrieve notes and connect them to other ideas, leading to a more robust understanding of the topic at hand.
And lastly, the biggest myth of them all: Note-taking is simply about jotting down the information. The best note-taking happens when you encode what you’re learning. Encoding basically is about making the content of what you learn meaningful to your mind - information that isn’t meaningful gets lost, of course. If you’re interested in encoding specifically, go to this article.

Why it works: Memorize Large Quantities of Information with Ease

When I decided to learn Chinese, I knew it was going to be tough. After all, the language has over 50,000 characters, with about 20,000 commonly used. And to make matters worse, each character can have multiple meanings and pronunciations. It seemed like an impossibly attainable goal, and after several attempts and failures, I almost gave up. But only almost.
I'm not one to give up easily, so I decided to dig into the science of learning and memory, stumbling upon the concepts of spaced repetition and the Method of Loci. That got me thinking about how I could apply these concepts to learning Chinese characters.
After some experimentation, I developed a system that combined the principles of spaced repetition with visual associations and mnemonics. I also realized that breaking down characters into their components and understanding the connections between those components, was like creating a personal Zettelkasten of Chinese characters.
Using this system, I was able to learn over 3,000 Chinese characters. It wasn't easy, but I got what I wanted. And through the process, I became more familiar with the principles of spaced repetition, visual associations, and mnemonics.
The Zettelkasten system was one of the tools helping me become fluent in Chinese, helping me to finally achieve the great feat of taking a picture with my father-in-law ;)
The Zettelkasten system was one of the tools helping me become fluent in Chinese, helping me to finally achieve the great feat of taking a picture with my father-in-law ;)
And it’s not just me. Ryan Holiday (aka Daily Stoic) is a bestselling author who has been using a Zettelkasten system for years to organize his research and ideas. In his book "Perennial Seller," he credits the system for enabling him to create a "personal library" of knowledge that he can easily access and draw upon when writing. By using this method, Holiday has been able to write several successful books, including "The Obstacle is the Way" and "Ego is the Enemy." His success is a testament to the power of the Zettelkasten system and its ability to help individuals organize and connect their ideas in a meaningful way.

What is the Zettelkasten system?

The Zettelkasten system is a powerful method for note-taking and knowledge management that has been used by many people throughout history. It was famously used by Niklas Luhmann, a sociologist and philosopher who is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.
At its core, the Zettelkasten system is based on the idea of creating and connecting small notes (”Zettel” in German, hence the name) that contain a single idea or piece of information. Each note is numbered and categorized and can be linked to other notes that are related. This creates a web of interconnected ideas and information that can be used to build a more complete understanding of a particular topic.
One of the key advantages of the Zettelkasten system is its visual nature. Because each note is physically connected to other notes, it becomes much easier to see how ideas relate to each other and to follow the flow of thought as it develops over time. This is in contrast to other note-taking systems, such as a simple notebook or a digital file, which can quickly become disorganized and difficult to navigate as more content is added.
Another important feature of the Zettelkasten system is its emphasis on atomicity, or the idea of breaking information down into its smallest possible components. This makes it easier to link individual pieces of information together, and to build a more complete understanding of a particular topic.
Overall, the Zettelkasten system is a powerful tool for anyone who wants to take control of their own learning and knowledge management. By creating and connecting small, atomic notes, and by emphasizing the visual nature of the system, it becomes possible to build a more complete understanding of a particular topic and to continue to expand that understanding over time.
A complete diagram of the Zettelkasten system (don’t worry, we’ll kill the overwhelm in the explanation below)
A complete diagram of the Zettelkasten system (don’t worry, we’ll kill the overwhelm in the explanation below)

4 Steps to start using the Zettelkasten system in your note-taking

In order to make the Zettelkasten method more accessible to everyone, we've broken it down into four simple steps. We call this framework the "Connect-Capture-Create-Review" method. In this section, we will take a deep dive into each step, provide actionable examples, and show you how to implement this method in your note-taking practice. With the Connect-Capture-Create-Review method, you'll be able to turn your notes into an interconnected web of ideas, which will help you learn and remember information more effectively.

Step 1 - Capture ideas quickly

Take brief, immediate notes on your fleeting thoughts and literary sources.
It's important to capture ideas quickly, especially when they come to you spontaneously or while you're reading. This way, you can ensure that you don't forget important insights or lose track of valuable sources. The key is to take brief, immediate notes that you can refer back to later on.
For example, when reading a Chinese text, I’d come across the character 响, which I don’t know yet. Rather than breaking my flow and learning that character right away, I just make a fleeting note of it to come back to later.
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Step 2 - Create Atomic Evergreen Notes

Atomic evergreen notes are the strong base of your Zettelkasten system. These notes should be created from previous fleeting notes and literature notes to ensure that they become permanent and easily referenceable. Atomic evergreen notes also allow for easy linking and cross-referencing, which is one of the key features of the Zettelkasten method. Here’s how to create ‘em:
To create atomic evergreen notes, start by identifying key concepts or ideas from your previous notes. Write these concepts as standalone notes, with one idea per note. Be sure to keep these notes brief and clear, using bullet points, diagrams, and tables as necessary. Include relevant tags and keywords in each note for easy linking and cross-referencing.
Example: Continuing the previous example of learning Chinese characters, I’d create an atomic evergreen note for each individual character learned, like 响. Each note includes the character itself, the meaning, the pronunciation, and any relevant visual associations or mnemonics used to memorize it. Additional notes could be created for concepts related to each character, such as stroke order or common radicals (like 口 and 向 which make up 响).
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Remember that the goal is to create individual, standalone notes that can be linked together as necessary, rather than long, sprawling notes that are difficult to navigate. By creating atomic evergreen notes, you ensure that your Zettelkasten system remains organized and effective.

Step 3 - Create connections: Link your notes to one another by using tags, keywords, or cross-referencing.

The Zettelkasten method is built upon the idea of creating connections between notes, which enables a generation of new insights and ideas. By linking your notes together, you can see relationships and patterns that may not have been immediately apparent. Do you want to see how this can lead to a deeper understanding of a subject and help you retain information more effectively?
To create connections between your notes, you can use links in most tools. Ideally, you also want to label the links to clarify the relationship between the notes. Furthermore, you can use groups or tags to group related notes together. Let’s work with the example above:
I’d link the two radicals above which make up 响. As I add more characters containing the same radicals, I can start seeing the relations between them. In practice, they will either have a similar meaning, or a similar pronunciation. Making these connections means that I only have to learn that once, rather than over and over again for each character.
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By creating connections between your notes, you are able to see patterns and relationships that may not have been immediately apparent. This can help you to generate new ideas and gain a deeper understanding of the material you are studying.

Step 4 - Review regularly.

The human brain needs repeated exposure to information in order to retain it in long-term memory. That's why it's crucial to review your notes almost religiously, especially in the beginning when you're first learning new material.
Schedule regular review sessions in your calendar, and stick to them. Or even better, use a spaced repetition algorithm to review your notes at the optimal time. The frequency of reviews will depend on how quickly you need to learn the material and how much new information you are taking in.
During the review, focus on the most important concepts, keywords, or tags you've assigned to your notes. Use active recall to try to retrieve the information from memory, rather than simply re-reading your notes.
Now that I already have notes for all Chinese characters which include their meaning and pronunciation, and I have linked them up to their radicals, I can quiz myself on any of these ports.
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Here’s what reviewing Zettelkasten cards looks like in Traverse. The software has the ability to take any part of your mind map and turn it into a card.
Here’s what reviewing Zettelkasten cards looks like in Traverse. The software has the ability to take any part of your mind map and turn it into a card.
Regular review will help you reinforce your learning so you remember the material in the long term easier.

Common Challenges in Implementation

The Zettelkasten method may sound enticing, but it does come with its own set of challenges. The first challenge is the time required to create and organize the index. It can be overwhelming to create and manage a large number of notes and index them properly. This can lead to frustration and the impression that the time invested may not be worth it.
The second challenge is the risk of creating too many connections between notes. With so many potential connections to make, it can be tempting to over connect notes, leading to a tangled web of information that is difficult to navigate.
The need to review regularly can also pose a challenge. While spaced repetition can be an effective tool, it requires discipline and commitment to follow through with regular reviews. Without this key factor, the benefits of the Zettelkasten method could quickly disappear in forget.
Fortunately, there are solutions to these challenges. Breaking down the index into smaller, more manageable parts can help with organization and reduce the time required to manage notes. Limiting the number of connections between notes also helps to keep the web of information more manageable and easier to navigate.
Using spaced repetition for regular review is another effective tool for reinforcing learning and making it easier to recall information. Additionally, using a note-taking app like Traverse can help to make the process of organizing and managing notes more streamlined and efficient.
By being aware of these challenges and utilizing effective solutions, you can make the most of the Zettelkasten method and reap the rewards of more effective learning and knowledge management.

Conclusion and key takeaways

Ready to start Zetteling? Here are the key takeaways to get started:
  • The Zettelkasten method is a powerful note-taking system that emphasizes atomic notes, connections between ideas, and regular review.
  • By keeping notes brief and clear, creating connections between them, and organizing them into a simple index, you can easily navigate your notes and quickly retrieve information when you need it.
  • Some challenges of using the Zettelkasten method include the time required to create and organize the index, the risk of creating too many connections, and the need for regular review. However, these challenges can be overcome by breaking down the index into smaller parts, limiting the number of connections, and using spaced repetition for regular review.
  • Ultimately, using the Zettelkasten method can help you learn faster, retain more information, and connect ideas in new and interesting ways.
Incorporating this method into your learning routine may take some time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. By implementing the strategies outlined in this article, you'll be on your way to becoming a more effective learner and note-taker.

Start Zetteling today!

The easiest way to start is using a note-taking app designed specifically for this purpose.
Traverse is a great option, with features that make it easy to create atomic notes, connect them together, and review them using spaced repetition.
Start by creating a few notes and watch your knowledge base grow. The more you use the Zettelkasten method, the more connections you'll see between ideas, and the more insights you'll gain. Sign up for Traverse today and start taking your note-taking to the next level.
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1)"Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology” by Dr. Robert A. Bjork, UCLA, 2013
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