Zettelkasten Forum


How often are you making permanent notes?

Hi everyone,

I am just starting out learning the Zettelkasten method and am reading How to Take Smart Notes while simultaneously learning how to use Roam. As I am figuring out how to understand and use these tools in a way that works best for me, there is something I am struggling with: how often should I be making permanent notes? I am working on my ZK every day and am mostly writing literature notes drawn from years of underlines in books, but I'm finding that I really don't have much to say yet in terms of permanent notes. Instead, I feel like I am having to stretch to have an original thought and that my permanent notes are pretty weak. Did anyone else experience this when first starting?

Second question is, once you had built up more of a critical mass, how many permanent notes are you making per day? I'm sure the specifics will vary for everyone, but I am curious about other people's experiences-- do you typically have multiple permanent notes per day, or are you okay with sometimes just working on literature notes and trusting that later on you will be able to synthesize the info? I don't want to water down my ZK with what feel like fluffy permanent notes just for the sake of having them, but at the same time it can be discouraging to have so few, especially since they do not really connect at this point. Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

Comments

  • To me, it sounds like you are probably making more permanent notes than you think you are. Unless I'm misunderstanding you, I think that many of the notes that you are calling "literature notes" are already permanent notes, or could be developed into permanent notes with a little work. Permanent notes don't have to be fully original thoughts. They can be, but they don't have to be. Often they are restatements of the thoughts of others. You rewrite those thoughts in your own words to make sure that you understand them, but the note still can be derived directly from a reading.

    As I read, I take fleeting notes on what I'm reading. I might also underline or mark a section I want to return to later. I then turn these fleeting notes into permanent notes. Those permanent notes may be a restatement of one of the things that I read in the book, or they may be my own elaboration on the book's contents, or a question or thought that I have about the reading. When I'm reading in a newish area, the majority are probably restatements on the points that the book made, marking the book down as the reference.

    Once I finish with a reading, I make my literature note which is just an executive summary of the reading as a whole and maybe a link or two to starting points in the clusters of notes that I took during that reading.

    I've averaged about 3 notes per day since I started building my ZK. In August, I averaged about 8 notes per day. If I only look at the last 30 days, I've averaged 4 notes per day. Of course, these are the averages and not the actual numbers. There are many days when I don't take notes, and other days when I take 15 or 20. In general, it varies a lot based on what I'm doing. Am I reading a book? Am I developing an idea? Am I in the middle of writing a draft?

    I wouldn't worry too much about the number of notes that you are making per day, nor would I worry if you're having trouble building links at first. Starting out is always the hardest part. It takes a while before you have enough notes built up that linking every note is a certainty. Similarly, I wouldn't worry if your early notes feel light on content. It takes practice to figure out the right length and depth of each note. The more you work in your ZK, the easier it will get.

  • @UplandAbbey said:
    Hi everyone,

    ... I am struggling with: how often should I be making permanent notes? I am working on my ZK every day and am mostly writing literature notes drawn from years of underlines in books, but I'm finding that I really don't have much to say yet in terms of permanent notes.

    Second question is, once you had built up more of a critical mass, how many permanent notes are you making per day?

    First, the comments from @prometheanhindsight reflect a lot of my experience and responses to your questions, which I will not repeat :)

    A couple of additional thoughts:

    1. I find in the process of trying to capture and condense the main idea from someone else's writings, and stating it in my own words, that I discover I actually have something of "my own" to add. By "my own", I mean something that pops into my head. It may not be a truly original idea, which is rare, but nevertheless something additional that I've learned over the years in some manner.
    2. I write 1 to 2 Zettels per day, on average, but in fits and starts - so it's better to say 7 to 10 per week. It depends on how much I'm reading or having interesting conversations, and how energetic I feel.
    3. To start, it's difficult to connect all your Zettels, as you have so few threads of thought yet developed. I use an @unlinked tag on some Zettels, with a saved search on that particular tag, so that I check so often and see if there are Zettels to which I could now make connections (when I couldn't before). When I check these @unlinked Zettels, and find new connections for them, I often discover I have more of my own thoughts to write down as well.
    4. I also use an @unfinished tag when I haven't finished writing a Zettel or when I think its a bit rough, and want to come back to it later. Again - having a saved search on that tag makes it easy to find those Zettels later on. You might add this tag to those Zettels that you feel just summarize some idea and don't yet contain any of your own thinking.
  • @prometheanhindsight
    Thank you so much for the thoughtful answer. It sounds like I am maybe being too stringent on what a permanent is “supposed” to be. Is it fair to say that you consider permanent notes anything you don’t want to forget, hopefully with original insights/connections added but at the very least restated in your own words? If so, that would address another issue I’ve been having, which is figuring out how to revisit/make use of (what I was considering) literature notes later on in the process. I’ve been summarizing all of these points without really understanding how I would come back to them later.

  • @GeoEng51
    I love the idea of @unlinked and @unfinished. From what I can gather, so much of a ZK’s value comes from its density and scope, so at the beginning it’s feeling a little pointless to have these floating, one-off notes that don’t lead anywhere. I know it will build up over time, but @unlinked and @unfinished seems like a great way to pin these thinner, early notes so they can be revisited later and not disappear. Thanks so much for your help!

  • When you say permanent notes do you mean notes that have original thoughts or connections on them? Or just the restating of ideas that you found interesting while reading into note form?

    source: everything is a remix

    Permanent notes to me are all of the above. They are the copying, the transforming, and the combining. Each note you make will have different levels of those. I even have notes in my collection that are pure copy (e.g. APA psychology definitions) that I use as hubs (collection of links under definition) for that term I copied.

    When first starting out I tended to have a lot of copy notes. But as time goes on it became more about transforming and combining. But part of creativity is exposing yourself to novel information that you let intermingle with your existing knowledge base to see if new ideas or solutions emerge. This novel information are notes I still essentially copy.

    Did that help at all?

  • @UplandAbbey said:
    Thank you so much for the thoughtful answer. It sounds like I am maybe being too stringent on what a permanent is “supposed” to be. Is it fair to say that you consider permanent notes anything you don’t want to forget, hopefully with original insights/connections added but at the very least restated in your own words? If so, that would address another issue I’ve been having, which is figuring out how to revisit/make use of (what I was considering) literature notes later on in the process. I’ve been summarizing all of these points without really understanding how I would come back to them later.

    I definitely forget things that are in my ZK all the time. That's part of how the ZK can surprise me, as I stumble across something that I forgot. The "permanent" label refers to the strategy when designing a permanent note. You want the note to be permanently useful. If you forget about that note's contents, you want to be able to remember the purpose of the note by stumbling across it in the future. That's why people on this forum talk about notes needing to be atomic. You want them to contain a single idea, and you want them to be self contained, and you want them to make sense on their own. Your permanent notes need to make sense to a stranger because your future self that stumbles across that note is, in all the ways that matter, a stranger to your current self. You won't necessarily remember the context in which you took that note, and so you need to make sure that the note's context is explicit and written in a way that can be understood without returning to the reference that inspired the note.

    I make permanent notes of anything that I might find useful in the future, or anything that I might want to stumble across again in the future, or anything that I might find useful currently, or anything that I might want to remember again in the future. It's like every note is another tool in my toolbox, and so I make permanent notes out of any idea or thought that looks like it could be a useful tool for building something. I may not even know what I'm going to use it for yet, but I know that I could possibly use it. If I never stumble across it again or end up using it, that's alright. If it takes me ten years to stumble across that note again, that's OK, too, since I've written the note to be understood without needing to remember why I took that note in the first place.

    So, it's very much a fine approach to summarize point without knowing how you will come back to them later. So long as those notes can be understood without needing to return to the reading where you originally found them. That's part of why restating things in your own words is the bare minimum of making a permanent note. If you don't understand the note contents enough to even state it in your own words, then it's very unlikely that a future version of you will understand that note's contents. If that is the case, then the future you will have to return to the reading, which negates the benefit of trying to place your notes in a more personal context through linking.

    I also think that approaching your notes in this manner--focusing strongly on making notes that could be understood by a stranger who is your future self--can help with realizing what personal thoughts and ideas should be written down in notes. I've seen others on this forum discuss writing permanent notes as writing post cards to your future self explaining a new idea you've just stumbled across.

    Think about it this way: Even notes that you are directly restating from a book have two separate and distinct contexts. Those notes have the context of the book; this is the easy context to grasp since it is the context in which you stumbled across that idea. They also have a unique and personal context, which is the why of the note. Why are you making a note out of that bit of information specifically? What about that idea or information do you find note-worthy? This why context, this personal context, may be explicit in the links that you make to and from the note: "This note is interesting because it relates to these other thoughts and ideas that I have found interesting." The personal context may not yet be apparent in your ZK since it is a new interest that you are building, in which case you can add notes that describe your interest in that subject. That could be something as simple as a note that says, "I find this interesting because..." You can also make that interest explicit in the form of a question, which I treat as an IOU for future notes. "How does this relate to [blank concept]?" Then, in a separate note you can give your expectation of the answer to that question. "I wonder if [hypothesis of the question answer]." That is essentially marking out future territory that you want to tread or look into. The beautiful thing about the linking system is that these notes are never out of date. They are permanently useful and interesting notes. When you answer your question, you can link the answer to the question. If your hypothetical answer is proved wrong, you can write out the correct or more nuanced answer and similarly link it so that you can see how your thinking on the subject evolved.

    That's a long way around the idea that I was hoping to communicate, which is this: In choosing what notes to make and what links to put in those notes, you are adding your own thoughts to the note. Realizing that fact will hopefully help you to be able to more easily and explicitly express those thoughts directly in your ZK. Even if the only connections you make at first are the links that map out the arguments and flow of the book you are reading, you are still choosing which notes to take from that book and which notes to ignore. That is inherently setting you up for future personal insight. The act of choosing notes is a reflection of personal thought, and will naturally lead to insight in the future.

  • @Nick
    That is very helpful, thank you! I had been thinking of permanent notes as strictly original insights/combinations, but I’m realizing now that’s too narrow and unrealistic, especially at this point in my ZK process.

    @prometheanhindsight
    I really like the idea of “permanent” just meaning “permanently useful”. Even though it’s not stated anywhere, and is actually antithetical to the entire idea of ZK, I think I was getting tripped up on the phrase “permanent”, implicitly associating that with “unchanging/fully formed.” That’s a total misreading of the idea of permanent notes on my part, but it can be hard to pinpoint your automatic assumptions, so your definition has definitely helped clarify. Similarly, the idea of postcards to your future self is kind of beautiful and very useful. I also am going to work on making my interests/reasons more explicit; I’m sure it will feel a little forced at first, but that is just me being self-conscious about writing (which is what I’m trying to change by building my own ZK). Thank you again for such a thoughtful and thorough answer.

  • I don't have a quota for permanent notes per day. However, every wednesday and saturday night I spend some time completing notes and making some of them permanent.

    The way I do this is I set three different progress tags according how a note develops as if it was a scrum board (backlog-->sprint-->in-progress). For example, fleeting notes might only have links and some comments and instead of highlighting text in books I just write in my notes paragraph 4, p. 34 and some brief comment. Then I assigned those notes a tag (#0fn, fleeting note). The moment I decide to work on my fleeting notes I do them in batches, for those notes I change their tags to #0fs (sprint notes) in groups of 5 until they're moved to the next stage. Then I have a final tag for those notes in-progress (#0ip) and once they're done and permanent they won't have a progress tag.

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