Learn Faster by Writing Zettel Notes

As a knowledge worker, you have to learn a lot in your field. The internet is full of information, and there’s the books you just have to know in and out. How do you speed up the process and learn efficiently?

Scott Young learned linear algebra in 10 days due to a very efficient method. It works for other fields of knowledge as well. The “Drilldown Method” consists of three stages:

  1. Coverage
  2. Practice
  3. Insight

I’ll show you that a Zettelkasten covers these stages well.

How a Zettelkasten Facilitates Learning

Rabbit Reading
Photo Credit: Toms Bauģis cc

I’m going to cover the three stages in detail right away. Here’s the gist so you know what to expect:

  1. Coverage: apply efficient reading techniques to drill through texts quickly.
  2. Practice: take notes to see whether you understood what the text contains.
  3. Insight: integrate the notes into your note archive to create lasting knowledge.

Let’s dive in.

1. Coverage

To read efficiently is essential to get good coverage. This is part of the Zettelkasten method: when you’ve got an elaborate knowledge system like the Zettelkasten set up, you will need to read differently to work with it in the most effective way.

Adler/van Doren wrote a great book about reading, aptly called: “How to Read a Book”.1 If you’re not familiar with this book already, see the summary at Farnham Street to get to know the basic techniques.

Here’s what I think is essential to get started with the analytical reading technique.

Just skim the material before you dive in to find the places where useful information is so you don’t get lost in details right away. These are the steps I usually take:

  1. Get a feeling for the structure by looking at the headlines first.
  2. Ideally, decide what you want to know afterwards. Sometimes, the answer to this question simply is “everything this text has to tell about X.”
  3. Peek at the paragraphs quickly to get a sense of what’s inside each section of the text.
  4. Mark or take note of the passages you find useful. Don’t take elaborate notes just yet. Instead,

In this stage, you’ll already have learned something, albeit not in detail: you got a first glimpse of the text’s contents. Maybe the text was written well and the paragraph beginnings told you everything about its form. Ideally, you should be able to tell what the text is about and what its main points are. Often, though, a text isn’t structured well. Then you have to scan the whole text to find words and phrases which signal definitions, metaphors, and hypotheses to work with in later stages.

Prepared with the gist and structure of the text, you’re going to get the content out next.

2. Practice

After you get to know the topic, you have to understand it to be able to learn it. Scott answers the question if you can learn to understand something faster:

Without a system, understanding faster seems impossible. After all, the mental mechanisms for generating insights are completely hidden.

Worse, understanding is hardly an on/off switch. It’s like layers of an onion, from very superficial insights to the deep understandings that underpin scientific revolutions. Peeling that onion is often a poorly understood process.

The first step is to demystify the process. Getting insights to deepen your understanding largely amounts to two things:

  1. Making connections
  2. Debugging errors

During practice, you deepen the knowledge you just obtained. You already obtained an overview of the text and the locations of interest to you. Now you are prepared to get the information out of the text to work with it. Here, you’re going to “debug errors,” as Scott calls it.

  1. Re-read the passages you marked as ‘interesting’ before. Do it as slow as you need to understanding the contents. Read whole passages only if you’re positive that there’s stuff you want to keep.
  2. Take notes. This is the way of the Zettelkasten to compact the information and deepen your knowledge. Re-phrasing information in your own words is a great way to memorize it. Search for irritating stuff, for statements which caught your attention and got you thinking. These are lasting points of interest.

Using your own words will make the information more accessible to a Future You who is going to read the note. Compacting the key statements is a task which will challenge you intellectually a bit every time. This is how you make your knowledge last.

When you take notes about a challenging topic, you may have to come up with good examples to make its point clear. This way you already work with the information and apply it creatively. The resulting note will contain a compact key statement, elaboration of the concept, and examples you came up with. This note will be way more useful for your work than the original stuff from the text you just read.

This is the best feedback you’ll get: to answer the daunting question “Did I really understand how the text does X?”, you’ll only have to try to use your own words to say what the text told you. If you get stuck, you know that something’s missing and that you’ll have to look up details until you get the missing piece. If you finish a helpful note without any handwaving, you can be certain that you really got it. Writing it down is immediate feedback about the quality of your understanding.

In this step of taking notes, I prefer to write down short summaries on paper at first, one piece per mark in the text. Afterwards, I move to my computer and gather related key passages in digital notes. You can see an example in my post on creating Zettel from reading notes where I introduced the phases of collecting, processing, and writing. Guess in which phase we’re in now – collecting.

3. Insight

To gain profound understanding of something, you have to integrate it into your existing knowledge. Scott called this key ingredient “making connections.” A well-written note is a solid foundation. On its own, though, it’s of little long-lasting value. Strengthen the connections in your external knowledge system to make the knowledge accessible way after your brain refuses to recall the note’s contents.

Concept-based notes, opposed to notes slavishly based on a text’s structure, open up opportunities for expansion. You may also find similar concepts in other texts. Merge the concepts in a single note, or write about their relationship in another one. The digital notes I create focus on a concept each. Put together what belongs together, judging by the contents, instead of adhering to the text’s inner structure.

I tried to come up with an example from my note archive where the Zettel, or notes, refer to each other in a way which, in sum, spans various contexts. That’s where creative connections come in, and that’s where working with a long-lasting note archive gets fun and productive. So here’s what I came up with (I highlight the kind of connection):

  1. The entry point is an old note about “fear of death.” Fear of death is to be afraid of not becoming who you decided to become. Missing opportunities.
  2. The picture we have of ourselves is painted by forces within us which mutually influence one another. It’s not a conscious effort, it kind of happens to us. We can only alter the influence of the forces, not the resulting picture itself. (This is another statement by the same author in the same book.)
  3. Emotions structure the way we perceive the world; they’re judgements, basically, functionally equivalent to rational judgements. (This note I found because the second one linked to it directly.)
  4. When you fake emotions, you enter another world ideologically and mythologically. “Ideologically” means you form normative expectations and wishes about how the world should be, and “mythologically” translates to what is making sense in this world and what isn’t. (This is related to the third note by back-link, by tag, and by author.)
  5. Playing theatre means to become someone else for a moment, which puts the actor into another person’s world. (Related by tag. This is where the trail ended.)
  6. Playing theatre might cause a fear similar to the fear of death, because the actress is forced to not become who she wishes to be. – I came up with this conclusion after I read the preceding five notes and immediately created a new note to keep hold of it.

The concluding statement is just food for thought: I’ll have to dig deeper and see whether the hypothesis that playing theatre causes a feeling like fear of death can be backed up from other angles. I already have something in mind, but that’s not part of the exercise just yet.

The takeaway is: it is important that you see a connection between information, and that it makes sense to you. It may not make sense to other people. That’s no problem, though, as the Zettelkasten is your personal knowledge tool which only you have to work with. The Zettelkasten and you share an understanding and a growing inner logic which is something new, and which differs from what’s established out there. Later, you make these crazy connections available to other people by writing texts about them.

Wrapping Up

In short, how does a Zettelkasten facilitate learning?

  1. Efficient reading techniques give great coverage of written material.
  2. You practice with the new stuff when you take notes and phrase things in your own words. Getting stuck reveals that you didn’t quite get a detail and have to return to the text.
  3. Not all notes are created equal. Notes you take while reading certainly contain information, but they don’t add lasting value to your knowledge system at first. It’s a first step to store all notes in one place so their accessible. The second step is to connect the notes. This mimics the way of our “wetware”, the brain; see my post on extending mind and memory with a Zettelkasten. Integrating the notes into your knowledge system creates opportunities for permanent connections between information. This is real, lasting knowledge.

I recommend you go and read Scott’s article to see how he applied the process to maths. You’re probably going to find some additional detail which suits your field of expertise.

All in all, to take lasting notes changes the way you’ll work with information. You will obtain lasting knowledge, opposed to shoveling information into your short-term memory. So don’t just write down stuff anywhere, write down everything in a smart way instead. The note archive of your Zettelkasten is destined for this task.

  1. Affiliate links; I get a small kickback from the vendor if you buy from my link but it won’t cost you anything.