How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian

A Zettelkasten Method Tutorial

Perhaps you’re like me, frustrated.

Frustrated because the knowledge you acquire from reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching YouTube lectures collects dust.

It clutters your mind until your short-term memory purges it or until you become overwhelmed with notes that you either drag into the recycle bin or throw in the trash for a fresh start.

What you need is a place to store your ideas, a method that advances your intellectual development, and a way to improve your thinking.

Obsidian and a note-taking method from the early 1900s offer exactly that.


What are Smart Notes?

"How to Take Smart Notes” written by Sönke Ahrens, resurrected a note-taking philosophy called The Zettelkasten Method.

Zettelkasten was developed and made famous by a German sociologist by the name of Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) who was most known for his insane level of productivity. Luhmann published 58 books and over 600 articles over his lifetime.

To use the Zettelkasten method you write three different types of notes; fleeting, permanent, and project. Permanent notes are stored long-term in two different places, a reference system and a slip-box. It is through these notes that ideas are captured and elaborated on until the point of understanding.

What makes the Zettelkasten unique is the slip-box. When added to the slip-box, notes get a unique identifier that connects it to an existing thought or starts a new cluster of thought. It is through this connecting of notes that Zettelkasten begins to lay the latticework required to build an external knowledge base.

In order to create a Zettelkasten in Obsidian, you must follow The Four Underlying Principals of How to Take Smart Notes.

  1. Writing is The Only Thing that Matters: Thinking through the medium of writing will improve your reading, thinking, and other intellectual skills. And so this principle implies you must consume information with the purpose of writing about it.

  2. Simplicity is Paramount: To be successful the system must reduce the number of decisions made by standardized note-taking, having a clear separation between the different types of notes, and designated storage for each type.

  3. Nobody Ever Starts from Scratch: The system must build trust by surfacing insight, connecting different lines of thought, and improving one’s thinking. As it’s used, thinking and writing should become easier and more valuable.

  4. Let the Work Carry You Forward: It must have a workflow that generates its own momentum through positive experiences and at the same time improve the learning process.

Take Smart Notes in Obsidian

Having a learning system will continuously improve your thinking through the feedback of deliberate practice.

Zettelkasten provides that and it starts with three different types of notes:

  • Fleeting Note 🟩 - Used for capturing ideas quickly. They serve as mere reminders of information and can be written in a variety of ways. Taking them should not distract you from your work.

  • Permanent Note1 🟥 - Used to capture ideas from text (literature note) or used to elaborate on and create an atomic note (permanent slip-box note). Permanent means they are kept forever.

  • Project Note 🟨 - Used to capture information pertaining to a particular project. Kept together in a project-specific folder and are archived or discarded when the project is finished.

Both Obsidian and the Zettelkasten method encourage non-hierarchical structures for note-taking, but it’s critical that these three types of notes are kept isolated from one another in different locations:

  • Inbox 📥 - the temporary location for fleeting notes that are being processed.

  • Reference System 🗄️ - for literature notes, also called reference or source notes.

  • Slip-box 🗃️ - stores all permanent slip-box notes.

  • Project Folders 🗂️ - for project-specific notes such as reminders, to-do lists, outlines, drafts, etc…

How to Take Fleeting Notes in Obsidian

Unfortunately, you cannot immediately distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. So capture as many ideas as possible instead. That’s the purpose of a fleeting note.

You need a place to capture these ideas, and the best place is a daily note.

Create the Daily notes folder

Open Obsidian and create a folder named daily notes.

Enable and configure the daily notes plugin:

  1. Open the Settings, (the gear ⚙️ icon on the bottom left).

  2. Under OPTIONS select Core plugins and toggle on the Daily notes plugin.

  3. Once enabled, select the Daily notes plugin under PLUGIN OPTIONS.

  4. Change the New file location to your daily notes folder.

  5. (Optional) Toggle on Open daily note on startup

  6. Close Settings menu

Create a Fleeting Note

Click the Open today’s daily note button on the left toolbar.

Throughout the day capture your fleeting notes in your daily note. Fleeting notes are mere reminders of information and can be written in a variety of ways. Taking them should never distract you from your main work.

Fleeting notes also need an inbox to be reviewed. Left unprocessed, fleeting notes will become useless as their context is lost.

Create an inbox 📥

Click the New folder icon, and name the folder _inbox. Adding an underscore makes it easier to find by moving it to the top.

Within one or two days, move a daily note into the inbox2 for processing.

Move any project-related notes to their designated folder and create permanent notes for your slip-box. Not all fleeting notes will be translated into permanent notes but too many unprocessed fleeting notes will lead to chaos.

Once processed, archive the daily note by moving it back to the daily notes folder.

How to Take Literature Notes in Obsidian

Read, listen, and watch with a pen in hand or a keyboard under your fingertips.

Literature notes are meant to abstract interesting ideas. They’re how you’ll remember what you've read, watched, or listened to long enough to expand on it. Writing literature notes is a catalyst for your own intellectual development with the side-effect of being the beginning of your external knowledge base.

Next time you watch a video, listen to a podcast or read a chapter in a book, start a literature note.

Create a Literature Note

In Obsidian, create a new note and move it in your Inbox.

Rename the note to reflect the source material, for example, “Writing Workshop Part One”.

In the Zettelkasten method, literature notes are only connected to the source from which they came, which means the literature notes you create in Obsidian require metadata.

At the top of the literature notes, add the following metadata:

Author:
URL:
Tags:

---

Fill out the metadata by providing the creator or author’s name as a link, add the URL of the resource, apply tags for the type, and label it as a #literature-note.

Keep literature notes very short. Be extremely selective in what's written down.

Put it in your own words and never copy unless it’s a direct quote or a reference.

Taking these notes should not become a chore, their primary purpose is to help with writing permanent notes for the slip-box, anything else is a distraction.

Eventually, literature notes will be archived.

That means the ideas they contain will be lost unless something is done with them, which is why they start in your Inbox. However, once translated into permanent notes, literature notes are placed in the reference system and forgotten.

Create a Reference System 🗄️

In Obsidian, create a new folder named “reference”.

Move your literature note into the reference folder to archive it in the reference system.

NOTE:

  • It’s not practical to always read, listen, and watch with a pen in hand. Instead, use highlighting and fleeting notes, but be sure to migrate them to literature notes when possible.

How to Take Permanent Notes in Obsidian

Once daily (ideally), go through your fleeting and literature notes and translate them into permanent notes, using the following process:

  1. Identify what’s relevant to your own research, interest, or thinking

  2. Elaborate on the idea until it’s understood without its prior context

  3. Connect (link) it to existing permanent notes in the slip-box

“If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself.” (John Searle)

Create a Permanent Slip-box Note

In Obsidian, open an existing fleeting or literature note.

Identify an interesting and relevant idea that jumps out at you. Condense the idea into a phrase or a single sentence. Add double square brackets around the phrase or sentence to make it a link.

For example, [[Boredom is a gift]] or [[You Are What Makes Your Ideas Different]]

Hold ⌘ + Shift then left click (macOS) or Ctrl + Shift then left click (Windows) to create and open the new permanent note.

Use the existing fleeting or literature note as a writing prompt and elaborate on the idea until it can be understood without its original context.

Write them carefully, as if for someone else5. Use full sentences, be concise, and as clear as possible. Each permanent note should be atomic, containing only a single idea that is understood without the context that it came from.

In the physical Zettelkasten, permanent notes were constrained to a single side of an index card. Use that as a frame of reference for the length of each note.

Aim to have it no shorter than a tweet (180 characters) and no longer than an atomic essay (300-500 words).

Create a Slip-box 🗃️

The slip-box provides an external scaffold to think by giving you a space to store and collect the ideas you’ve elaborated on to the point of understanding.

Its purpose is to store all your atomic ideas in a simple non-hieratical structure that connects ideas and surface insight.

Within Obsidian, create a new folder named slip-box.

Next, move your permanent note(s) into the new slip-box folder.

Connect (Link) Permanent Notes

Permanent notes are the pylons of your external knowledge base.

Connecting permanent notes in the slip-box is what lays the latticework of your external knowledge base. In the physical version of the Zettelkasten, this is done by connecting notes with a unique identifier, but in Obsidian you’ll use links.

Make Smart Connections in Obsidian:

  1. Create an entry-point, link the permanent note to a topic note.

  2. Add keywords to cluster insight in-between topics

  3. Link note-to-note, creating weak ties to different ideas

Define a Topic, Create Keywords, and Link Ideas

In Obsidian, open a permanent note.

Add the following metadata to the permanent note.

topic:
keywords:
links:
tags: #permanent-note 

---

Define a topic for your note. Ask, “What broad area does this relate to? What area in a bookstore would I go to find this information?”

Next, create a keyword(s). Don’t use search engine buzzwords, that’s not how your brain works.

Instead, think of keywords as a way of finding your way back to the information in your permanent note. Ask, “How would I retrieve this information? Even if I had forgotten it.”3

Finally, link your new permanent note to existing notes in the slip-box.

If this is your first permanent note, skip this step.

Next, connect it all together by creating an Index note.

Click the New note button, name the note _index.

Within the _index note add links to the topic notes created on your permanent note.

What’s next? Read “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens. I’ve done my best to condense his wisdom and to show a possible solution for using it with Obsidian, but I’ll never do it justice.

Above all else, enjoy the process of building a knowledge base of your ideas! 🎉

Upcoming articles:

  • Getting Started with Obsidian

  • Make Note-taking a Habit

  • Creating Indexes and Navigating Smart Notes in Obsidian

1

Both literature notes and permanent slip-box notes are referred to as permanent types of notes because they are kept forever. However, literature notes are stored in the reference system and permanent slip-box notes are, of course, stored in the slip-box.

2

Having an inbox creates a visual reminder of your work in progress. Use it to help keep your consumption under control.

3

Archivists ask “Where should I store this note?” Writers ask “How could I retrieve it?”