Note-taking mistakes
Posted on Dec 28th, 2021

Recently, I was discussing my approach to note-taking with a friend. I have been using the Zettelkasten method for a year or so. In the beginning it was extremely beneficial for me, but gradually my notes turned into a collection of random definitions which were not particularly helpful for anything. As we talked, I have discovered that even though I was well aware of method's key principles, I have been neglecting them.

As of today, I will follow the Zettelkasten approach more strictly. Namely, I am going to make the following four changes:

Avoid using tags in any form

Using tags to categorise notes leads to hierarchical structure of your note-taking system. Even if you are using a graph based editor you end-up having bunch of "folders" with "files" in them. This significantly undermines extensibility and flexibility of the way you link related ideas together.

Instead of relying on tags, you should only rely on backlinks. This way you are not just saying these two ideas are related but also describing how exactly they are related. In a way this is similar to Subject, Predicate, Object relation - an important concept in study of Grammar as well as the way to store information in Knowledge Graphs. Using backlinks in a free text format instead of tags helps to keep context of how exactly ideas in your notes are connected to each other.

Anything that sounds like a tag, a category, a collection, an index and represents a different type of a note is making things worse. In the past, I have made a mistake by avoiding "tags", but still having other similar structural elements that made my note-taking and thinking limited and rigid.

Search within your note-taking graph is a more powerful way of finding related ideas than grouping them by categories and exploring these categories later. During the early days of the Internet the website catalogues were the primary way how people found what they were looking for on the Web. Up until the point when the search engines have made them completely redundant. The same is true with personal note-taking systems as they grow.

Avoid using note-taking for collecting interesting ideas

I have major tendency to collect things. I love making lists of movies, songs, books. I have starred over 2K repositories on GitHub. However when it comes to note-taking it is important to switch off the inner collectionneur. Note-taking shouldn't be about collecting ideas (mental models, tools, techniques, theories). Anything that just seemed useful shouldn't be written down. Your notes should be a reflection of your thinking.

For example, if you have recently learned about some interesting technique, just writing it down will not help you. Unless you use it in practice and reflect on the experience you will forget about it.

If it feels like bookmarking, you are probably falling into this trap. Use a separate bookmarking system if you need, but don't pollute your knowledge graph. Remember, you are not trying to recreate your personal version of Wikipedia. This is not the goal of note-taking.

Avoid copy-pasting when creating new notes

It is important to avoid copy-pasting because that prevents you from thinking through the idea that you are writing about. It is distracting you from the real-time write as you think flow. This flow is about writing down your thoughts as they appear. It's a great way to slow down your thinking and zoom in into the ideas.

Copy-pasting doesn't only refer to actual copy-pasting. Reading each sentence, paraphrasing and writing it down is still copy-pasting. Describing larger chunks of information in your own words works better. As well as summarising large ideas and concepts. But ultimately, aim to express your own ideas that build up on what you have learned.

Use clear and meaningful titles for notes

It is important to name notes meaningfully. The title of a note should be indicative of its content. The title itself should contain a valuable bit of information.

In past, I have used fancy titles like "the turtle theory" or "the secret of 3 monks" - which make no sense without knowing the content of the note. Fancy titles are good if you are writing an article or a book, but in note-taking they create unnecessary complication. Titles like that indicate that you are probably trying to collect someone's metaphor or story. And this is an example of the collecting mistake discussed above.


Another important takeaway is that reviewing your note-taking process with friends is very beneficial. As I was describing my approach to my friend, I have realised that I have been breaking my own rules in many cases without even being aware of it. Discussing it with a friend helps you to step aside and have a fresh look at your system.

Note-taking and Zettelkasten related links:

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