the actual work is not taking notes | obsidian

Kemal Tekce
4 min readApr 27, 2022


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I started digital note-taking by consuming content — reading books, listening to podcasts, watching videos — and taking notes. But I didn’t really take notes. I honestly just transcribed and copied what was being said.

By transcribing notes, I missed the point of rephrasing and self-explaining what I consumed, I didn’t really take time to understand, and I didn’t make connections to what I already knew. I just wanted to get it done because the next insights were just waiting around the corner.

This changed after I learned about the Zettelkasten (slip-box) method and read the book “How to take smart notes” by Sönke Ahrens.

I started using the power of links and backlinks in Notion. Most recently, I moved to Obsidian, where I feel like I can take my note-taking abilities even further.

With the idea of the Zettelkasten in mind, I started rephrasing and self-explaining insights in my notes. I took time to understand concepts a bit more. I started connecting my notes.

Note-taking felt great.


But this is still not everything. Learning, a Zettelkasten system, and the purpose of taking notes don’t stop after taking notes.

Taking notes only helps us build up knowledge. But this knowledge is not worth much if we don’t use it. In addition to building knowledge, we should also build up experience through practice and play.

So, the actual work is not reading, taking notes, or connecting your notes.

The actual work happens when you start playing and tinkering with your notes. The actual work happens if you start building experience.

Actively thinking and playing with your notes will strengthen your understanding. It might reveal gaps in your understanding. It might spark new curiosities and new questions.

This tinkering and thinking with your notes might also result in projects you might want to pursue. It might result in a product you want to build, an article you want to write, or even a book you want to publish. There is no limit to what it might result in or what it might spark.

So, we should find a balance between taking notes and using notes. A balance between building knowledge and experience. Only through this balance do we start learning.

think and play in Obsidian

For thinking and playing to happen, we need a space where we can think and muddle through our notes without any judgment. Not every thinking and playing has to result in a big breakthrough. We just have to build a habit of thinking and playing in our note-taking system. See your note-taking system as a non-judgemental dialogue partner.

I personally do this in two spaces in Obsidian in form of vague-notes and thinking-notes.

Vague-notes are more random. I create a new note — my new vague-note. I randomly pick an existing note and link it in the new vague-note. And then, I start writing whatever comes to my mind regarding that random note. I let my writing be influenced by my day and thoughts. I follow other links and notes. I just write and think. There might be something hidden or a new curiosity to discover.

Thinking-notes are more specific. If I have a thought or idea I want to think and muddle through, I create a thinking-note. I write down my thoughts, pull up notes, and create links. I try to shape the thought. But I also keep it flexible. I move the text, notes, and links around. The thought doesn’t have to result in a project or product. You don’t have to finish the thought. Come back to it whenever you feel like working on it again. Just take your time to think.

Both note styles — vague-notes and thinking-notes — are based on bottom-up and top-down note-taking methods, respectively.

bottom-up note-taking

Bottom-up note-taking starts with taking notes and connecting notes at “the bottom”. You keep taking notes and connecting them until clusters of notes emerge. These clusters emerge from the bottom of your note up. They can be a great source of inspiration. They can be hubs to focus on and dive into deeper.

The bottom-up approach is a great way to avoid writer’s block. You just look at the emerging clusters and in an instance, you can pull up a bunch of connected notes to think and write about.

Bottom-up note-taking follows the steps:

  1. Doing research
  2. Thinking, understanding, taking notes, and connecting them
  3. Discovering interesting clusters
  4. Writing more specifically

You start with your notes and try to think about them. You let your notes inspire an idea or thought.

Notes are the starting point here.

top-down note-taking

Top-down note-taking works in the opposite way to the bottom-up method. You start at the top with a certain topic, idea, or flexible goal in mind. It might be vague at the moment but maybe something worth pursuing further.

You define the thought and start doing your research. You collect relevant existing notes. You start consuming new content. You build up a new understanding.

This approach is more intentional and directed. But it holds the possibility to hit an obstacle and getting blocked.

Top-down note-taking follows the steps:

  1. Defining a thought
  2. Do the research
  3. Thinking, understanding, taking notes, and connecting them
  4. Writing more specifically

You start with an idea or thought and search for the relevant notes and insights.

Here, a thought or an idea is the starting point.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. But try to incorporate both into your note-taking system, so that you not only take notes but also think with your notes.