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Why I need a Notes index

Note-taking is something I’ve been working on, ever since I’ve read Sönke Ahren’s “How to Take Smart Notes”. The note-taking described in the book, also named “Zettelkasten” (it’s German, but it’s well-known in online communities), can be daunting at first. The idea is simple: you take notes and organize them, over time you expand and elaborate on them, eventually, you’ll have so many notes you can’t help but share the knowledge you’ve gathered. Furthermore, your collection will become a place where you start to further explore paths of reasoning. It’ll become a sort of 2nd brain as it’s often called.

That’s all good and well, but how do you get started, what is the use of the index when all you need are the notes? This was a question recently posted on the /r/Zettelkasten subreddit, feeling I had the book freshly in my mind I answered it. This post is largely a distillation of my thoughts on indexing.

For me, keeping an index is all about (A) not forgetting about having written it in the first place and (B) making sure my future self can re-discover the note easily.

The book “How to Take Smart Notes” talks about there being 2 types of note collectors:

  • The Archiver, who is more concerned about the way a note is stored
  • The Writer, who is more concerned about retrieving relevant notes when needed

Nobody is a pure Archiver or Writer, consider this more to be a spectrum where you lean more towards one than another. The book, however, heavily encourages you to lean more towards being a Writer. This certainly makes sense to me; there’s little point in keeping all these notes if you are never going to reread them. Just like you’ll eventually forget what you’ve read, you’ll forget what you’ve written. So whenever adding a new note into your collection think “how would I like to stumble upon this note in the future?“. I try to make it re-discoverable by adding tags and adding every note to a primary index note.

Your brain works through “hubs” of information that’s clustered together. Just think of a strain of thought: “I really like to learn new things! I try to do this by reading, watching documentaries, interesting YouTube videos, talking to friends about subjects that interest me, taking notes,…” If you were to translate this simplified example into notes, then I’d make a note “Learning Index”, in that I would make links to reading, reading, watching documentaries, … and in each of those notes, I may drill down more specifically if I choose to do so.

Like I mentioned before, I’ve only recently started note-taking I think I’m around 12-15 notes. At this point, I don’t want to worry about specific indexes, so I add every note I make to my primary index. My notes are scattered over different subject matters anyway, the primary index is just there so I won’t lose track of them. Over time, I’m sure that notes around a certain topic will accumulate, that’s when I’ll move to a specific index note, and adjust the primary index accordingly.

The question then becomes “how do you ensure you get to rediscover your notes?“. Like I said, my note collection is very limited for now, so just glancing at my files in Obsidian, or going through my primary index is usually enough to refresh my memory. This, of course, won’t stay this way once my collection grows. There are various ways to rediscover your notes:

  • Whenever adding a new note you should consider how it relates to your other notes on the same (or related) topic. Always make sure to make relevant links to notes that already exist. This linking in itself will force you to rediscover notes. This was a bit vague for me as well until I discovered Andy Matuschak’s website/online zettelkasten as an example. Also, I’m a firm believer that notes aren’t written in stone, update a note if that seems to make more sense.
  • Obisidian’s graph view lets you visually see how your notes are connected and will guide through rediscovery as well (or at least, that’s what I hope)
  • Obsidian can also open a random note for you whenever you please

I hope this clears up why you would want to use an index for your notes.

Thanks for reading!