What is an Atomic Note and How to Create Atomic Notes?
Updated: Jul 26
What is an Atomic Note? Atomic Notes are meant to be single ideas, or captures of thought -'atomic'' and 'autonomous' in the sense that they can be read and understood without needing to refer to anything more. They will have a Unique ID so that they can be connected to another atomic note card / idea in some way.
The principle of atomicity: The term was created by Christian Tietze. Each note should contain one idea and one idea only. This makes it possible to link unique ideas.
The principle of autonomy: Each note should be autonomous, meaning it should be self-contained and comprehensible on its own. This allows notes to be rearranged independently. It also ensures that notes existing on their own not reliant on another source. Ever since we created the first version of NoteDex we have always espoused the statement that Index Cards are amazing because they help the note taker focus on one idea or thought at a time. These also often called 'fleeting' notes by other note taking gurus on the internet, not to be confused with 'literature' notes. In this article we will explain what are Atomic Notes and how to use NoteDex to create them.
(source: David Clear - reference below)
With the advent in the last 40 years of the internet, the idea of hyperlinked and searchable content has meant that there is less of a need to 'connect' fleeting notes to each other manually - but there are some cases when this helps researchers or content creators 'construct' a set of ideas into a piece of their knowledge - into a map of thoughts.
This note-taking feature is recently getting more attention again as the idea of Zettelkasten (single idea index cards connected to each other) to allow for thought exploration and enhancement is having a second wave of interest and many note taking apps are building this feature into their apps. This is particularly important for those creating what are known as 'literature notes'. Niklas Luhmann, who invented the idea, kept his notes this way and was able to jump across his note cards to related cards and help him make connections between his ideas.
So the idea of single fleeting notes/ideas/thoughts onto a single note/card is not new and many people have written some great pieces about it - and one of them that caught fire over the last few years is something called the 'Atomic Note'. The rise in this term I believe has happened as the result of the book Atomic Habits (also a great read).
In this article I will do my best to explain (referencing other sources we found) what an Atomic Note is and how NoteDex is already designed to be your container for all your Atomic Notes.
The Anatomy of an Atomic Note:
A unique ID
So that it can be connected / linked / referenced to another card in some way. Most note taking apps already have this internally either as a unique key number or a creation date. The title can also be used but one should be careful in case two notes have the same title. You could also 'connect' notes together using tags. But in the most traditional sense this is where the linked-notes / Zettelkasten / backlink idea comes into play.
A Title Header
As mentioned above the note should have a title that 'could' be used to link to other cards but in general it is more for quick reference for what the note is about
There should be a 'Body note' for the note - where the main content goes
Inside the body one may want to link to other content - like you see in Wikipedia
To outside source material - if the note is a summary of other content it should reference it such as for your citations.
Also have text in a form that it can be searched (this is pretty obvious and standard in today's apps).
If your app allows you to do the above then you have an app that allows you to take Atomic Notes and implement Zettelkasten connected notes.
David Clear in his article also highlights additional Zettelkasten principles including:
Whenever you add a note, make sure to link it to already existing notes.
Avoid notes that are disconnected from other notes.
Explain why you're linking notes
Use your own words
Add your own thoughts to the Zettelkasten
Don't worry about Structure
Add outline notes
Add notes without fear
Definitely a good article to read. (link below in references)
Example of an Atomic Note
Are Atomic Notes the same as Smart Notes?
No - the idea of taking smart notes is more about the process of what to capture - we'll create an article about this also but the idea of Smart Notes came from Sönke Ahrens book 'How to Take Smart Notes'.
What is the difference between Literature Notes, Fleeting Notes and Permanent Notes?
Literature notes are notes that you have crafted yourself after reviewing other information - it is your own unique content to be used in your writing paper. Your thoughts might be stimulated from other source material and it is common to reference your source material in your literature notes.
Fleeting notes are just that - quick notes that you are capturing at any moment into your note database - usually with the intention of reviewing and doing something with them later. A fleeting note might be an idea, a thought, a reference to another article etc.
Furthermore, some people refer to the term 'Permanent Notes' - and it seems the common view on this is that these are the 'Fleeting Notes' that end up remaining in your note system and which have perhaps passed a first 'yes, let's keep this' review.
How Zettelkasten relates to Atomic Notes
The concept of Zettelkasten relates to creating atomic notes in several ways.
Zettel is a German word that means “note” or “slip of paper”. It is often used in the context of Zettelkasten, a method of note-taking that involves creating atomic notes on individual cards and then linking them together in a way that allows for easy retrieval and organization of information
First, Zettelkasten is a personal tool for thinking and writing that uses hypertextual features to create a web of thoughts. Atomic notes are small pieces of information that can be linked to other notes to form a network of knowledge.
Second, Zettelkasten emphasizes connection over collection, meaning that the value of the notes lies in how they are connected to each other and not in how many notes are stored. Atomic notes also focus on making meaningful connections between ideas and not on accumulating information without purpose.
Third, Zettelkasten encourages the development of one's own ideas by synthesizing and elaborating on the information from various sources.
Atomic notes also aim to capture one's own insights and interpretations of the information and not just copy or summarize it. Therefore, the concept of Zettelkasten relates to creating atomic notes by sharing similar principles and practices of personal knowledge management.
There is a good article written by the folks at LessWrong - Ambram Demski. They show visually that notes can be connected in a variety of ways like below - some of your atomic notes might relate to adjacent concepts with childern ideas, while others might keep linking in a deep way. Not how this also looks like different ways to do a mindmap or outline. There is a ton of discussion and notes on Zettelkasten and we don't intend to go into here in this article but the concept is helpful to know as you think about organizing your atomic notes in general.
How to take Atomic Notes with NoteDex
Does the idea of taking Atomic Notes as part of your reading workflow note-taking method sound exactly like taking notes in NoteDex? Yes, we thought so also so we thought we should write this article! To summarize, in NoteDex:
NoteDex cards (your fleeting notes) can be atomic and autonomous. They have unique ID's that can be referenced by other cards. The easy way is to just create your cards and associate them to each other either using a group or with a tag so that they are all connected to each other. You might also use the unique card ID (the weblink of a card) to link one card to another by inserting that link in the card if you want to link to a specific card.
NoteDex cards have a Title
NoteDex cards have a Body note (in fact the only app with body on both sides of the card actually!)
NoteDex cards can have hyperlinks for your source material references
NoteDex cards can be searched using our text search.
Once you have your atomic notes you can export them as plain text files into other apps for more writing.
How to Use your Atomic Notes
The great thing about atomic note taking is that it allows you to capture your concepts and thoughts as unique mental objects. Unlike when you write a long document in say Microsoft Word or your normal note taking app, it is all in one long page. Creating mind maps or concept maps help in research and learning and help to see a map of concepts visually, and can act as pre-cursor to building atomic notes.
You might be familiar with concept maps, mind maps and similar. Each of the entries you put on a map like this is similar to an atomic note - but obviously just the title. In fact creating a mind map can be a good start to create a structure and outline for your atomic note thoughts and then use a tool like NoteDex to write the more detail.
This is a good way to work on your projects or problem solving by creating a mind map first and then expanding them into more detailed atomic notes.
Atomic Notes might seem something new but in fact they are just the same good old Index Card notes with modern branding - OK, plus some extra tech to link them! But I hope you see that for researchers and content creators looking to create a set of ideas and thoughts as part of their literature notes or content maps, using the idea of Atomic Notes as part of your note-taking method, is helpful and NoteDex is ready to hold all your Atomic Notes.