the dirty lil secret about my note-taking system


This piece was written as a follow-up to a session I co-hosted at the LYT Conference 2022

There’s a little something I didn’t have a chance to talk about during the presentation, and I want to write about this here.

While the Zettelkasten Method preaches a steady flow from input to output, like shown in our slide,

… my notes as they currently work for me, mostly end right here:

That’s right. A lot of the ideas I meticulously organize into my Index file are rarely directly used as fodder for my content creation! 😱

There are several possible reasons for this.

1. I’m not there yet

In the early days when I started implementing the Zettelkasten Method for myself, I tried to design the ultimate note-taking system that covered all the different stages of processing, from the encounter of an idea, to the “publishing a paper” stage.

It turns out that trying to implement all these new ways of thinking all at once was a recipe for disaster. I tried in several ways to come up with elaborate pulleys, tag systems, naming conventions and so on that would work “seamlessly” across my note-making workflow. Frustratingly, I would set it up and… never use it as intended. It just wasn’t intuitive. I always ended up creating something complicated, not complex.

The real breakthrough happened when I decided that 

  1. I should focus only on one part of the system at the time and make just that one part work really well, and 
  2. I need to prioritize admin-light implementation. No elaborate, prebuilt tag system. No naming conventions to memorize. No crazy jungle of plugins to automate stuff. (I’d love to expand on my admin-light system one day, let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in this!)

Just me, and the ideas on my notes. That’s all that mattered.

So far, this rollout mentality has been successful. I now have a notes system where I’m regularly making new entries, digesting thoughts, and I’m “doing the work” of thinking and turning over ideas within my Index file – basically the Universe of my Collected Knowledge.

I may revisit the Outline/Output part at some point, which brings me to…

2. Stuck with implementation

Yes. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it or tried different things. I just haven’t figured it out yet. I don’t let this be an excuse for not publishing though, and neither should you!! Publishing work has outsized benefits for the writer. It gives you a mini-goal. A sense of accomplishment. And over time it gives you a signal of the type of writer you are, and what you’re doing in your brain to churn these things out. 

For example, I noticed, four months into publishing this letter, that I actually loved drafting them straight in the Substack interface. WOW! That’s a huge deal. I discovered that drafting in my note-taking app, copy-pasting over to here, and then reformatting was a huge drag for me. I rather just type my stuff right in here, just as I am doing right now.

While I’ve dialled in my process for short missives like this, I struggle with compiling longer essays. I also struggle with re-using content I’ve created in the past, because it’s scattered all around on Twitter, here and so on.

I think that my poor website, which I’ve been neglecting for a while, may play a key role in consolidating all this for me. That’s the project of this summer: revamping my website to become the gathering point for all my written work. And I’ll be taking huge queues from Visakan’s website, who does this brilliantly imo.

3. I still get huge gains from the reps

So I’m drafting this thing straight into Substack. When I first started writing, there was no way I could just churn a letter out like this in an hour. I just didn’t have the mental capacity to hold a whole, incomplete outline in my head for long enough to get to flesh them out.

I think that writing straight into Substack was a direct result of having sorted out my note-taking system thus far: from Input to Organization. Just those stages of the Zettelkasten method, because I was doing it in a rigorous, brain-on manner, it did something to my brain. My brain changed, and still is changing. I’ve become much more capable as a writer as a result of all the brainy work that I do in my notes.

I may not reference my notes directly when writing this, but all the thinking I’ve been doing on note-taking is reflected in the words I write here. The knowledge is embedded and integrated within me. This is a direct result of being brains-on and using things like the Idea Compass to work with my notes.

So now I think of my notes system as a brain gym. Every time I do some work there, I’m putting in reps.

And the reps help me be a better thinker when outside the box (ha!).


Even though I haven’t fully implemented the Zettelkasten Method, or stayed true to some of the idiosyncratic details of the original system, I still benefit a lot from my notes. I hope this glimpse into where I’m at in my note-taking journey will give you the confidence to be ok with where you’re at too. 

Focus your efforts on Finding What Feels Good (h/t Adriene Mishler), double down on that, and the rest really takes care of itself.

Originally posted on Substack

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