When explaining how he finished three books in three years, Ryan Holiday said: “Always be researching.” In fact, Ryan’s books all begin as a humble collection of note cards, which become blog posts and then book chapters. (He describes his method here.)
Ryan’s method is one form of distributed cognition — using tools such as note cards and computers to extend our thinking. After all, your mind does not reside only in your brain. It’s distributed across all the objects that you use to incubate and share ideas.
For me, the practical application of distributed cognition is to change the way that I take notes. My goals are to:
- Capture ideas faithfully from many different sources
- Recall ideas easily (and never forget them)
- Combine ideas creatively
- Ease into writing projects
Instead of a simple pile of archived notes, I want a personal bank of ideas that grows organically over time and becomes an active partner in thinking.
Turns out that there’s a word in German for such a thing — zettelkasten. Christian Tietze defines it as “a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.”
Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten: Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes.
Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten: In short, you and your note archive can communicate with one another if the results your archive produces are sufficiently surprising and thought-inspiring.
You Only Find What You Have Identified: The objective of a Zettelkasten note archive is to store notes and allow connections. Both are necessary to extend our mind and memory.
Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing: Notes can and should stimulate new associations and foster your creativity just like a good talk does.
The Need to Craft: Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.
Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing: A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through.
Note: The zettelkasten is another version of the commonplace book.