Zettelkasten

The zettelkasten (German: "slip box") is a knowledge management and note-taking method used in research and study.

Reading about Zettelkasten

Tools

Zettelkasten Software Comparison

The Zettelkasten / Slip-box

The Reference Manager

The Editor

  • LibreOffice and Word (work well with Zotero)
  • Scrivener.

Source

Alternative App

Notes about Zettelkasten

  • Zettelkasten-like approaches are useful when you're trying to synthesize knowledge into a framework/perspective, sometimes as a way to find and contextualize new ideas. If one doesn't care about that, and ones notes already have a well-defined taxonomy/structure then the linking feature of Zettelkasten is not particularly useful.
  • What works very well is to use Zettelkasten as the next step after taking notes from reading book, blog posts, and articles to collect your personal insights. Probably also from movies, podcasts, whatever.
  • I believe Zettelkasten will help me with writing for my own blog and when I'm collecting information for personal projects. In both cases, I have lots of ideas which are not fully formed yet to be published or implemented. With a job and a family there is little time to pursue it, so I have to work in little steps. Externalizing this ideas is essential and a very-hyperlinked style like Zettelkasten seems to fit well.
  • For learning little facts about programming languages, spaced repetition is probably more suitable.
  • Going down a wikipedia-style rabbit hole of my own notes is cool, like I'm exploring my own brain. Sometimes I completely forget how something works, and when I look up the note I took I just have to read a few of my own words to immediately remember it all.
  • I will say though that progress actually feels pretty slow compared to my usual strategy of just reading through books and articles once or twice, and then web searching whenever I forget something.
  • As far as I can tell, both in studies and in personal experience, the fiddly details of your note-taking schemes don't matter. The only thing that matters is attempting to integrate the information into a cohesive whole, which takes intentional thought.
  • With linear notes, there's a failure mode where links that should be made aren't; you can even walk around believing outright contradictions without noticing. But with a web, there's an equally bad failure mode where your knowledge gets diffuse and unstructured (instead of "X causes Y if Z", you get "X, Y, and Z are related. But… was Z the thing that caused X? Wait, but then what was Y for?").
  • Both of these reflect a failure to aggregate and chunk the information into hard tools, but no productivity system can magically fix that; it always takes time.
  • This looks interesting, but one potential problem with this method is that you start treating the number of notes or the size of the graph as a success metric. The author even notes how it is ‘pleasing' to see their note graph grow in size. This could be a perverse incentive.
  • I think your proposed system captures the important part of the knowledge intake, ie two levels of abstraction (writing a source note, and then connecting the new knowledge from source note to (or just dumping it in) some existing node.)
  • But one other idea from Christian and Sascha is to avoid folder structures, and allow the organization to develop over time. On a work topic, notes from a few guidances and presentations, plus my experiences, cluster to create a note which transcends a categorical boundary I would have erected with a folder structure.
  • So, the suggested alt strategy is dump everything into one folder and create clusters using other structures, as they reveal themselves to be useful.
  • Creating a hierarchy of notes using folders can be counterproductive. It will be easy to classify the majority of notes, but some of them will match multiple categories, or even none of them. Unfortunately, those notes are usually the most interesting. Case in point: I have some notes regarding good technical writing, and some notes concerning good Git usage. If I had a hierarchy, the first notes would go under "writing", and the second ones would go under "development". But where would I have filed the notes regarding Git commit messages? I feel like they belong on both categories. Choosing just one of them means ignoring the other. That's why, if you still want to classify some of your tags, I strongly advise to use a tagging system, and to avoid creating note hierarchies.
  • It can be way more simple: I use one folder for my notes, and another one for my "sources" (linear notes on articles, books, talks, etc). Files have unique filenames (guaranteed because a timestamp is added to the name when they are created).
  • In the book "How to take smart notes" by Sönke Ahrens, there's a lot of thought given on the real value of tags. I'd say the problem you describe happens because you are trying to create a taxonomy using tags. Classifying the notes using tags can feel rewarding in the short term, but it's not useful in the context of a linked notes system.
  • When creating tasks, the main question that is answered is "in which contexts would I like this note to show up?". The answer to this question is completely subjective. If, for instance, you were doing research for game level design, it makes sense for the systems architecture notes to be tagged with "game engine", "achievements", "quick save", or anything else that you will want to look up later on. The Napoleonic architecture notes could be tagged as "level design", "gameplay cues", or "side quests".
  • As you can see, these tags would be different for every person, and that's kind of the point. Two people can read the same content, and take the same note from it, but the intended purpose could still be completely different, and that would show up in the tags.
  • I don't think one should suggest Zettelkasten to anyone who is looking for a simple to-do list or note taking implementation. Regular notes are perfectly fine if one wants to take regular notes.
  • Luhman's zettels weren't random thoughts or casual ideas that popped into his head during a stroll with the dog., but rather full, jargon-laden sentences that were close to publication-ready in quality, sometimes highly abstract in nature. He would take a couple dozen related zettels, arrange them on a table in sequence, rearrange them and eventually have a rough outline for an article or the chapter of a book.
  • Here's a random zettel from Luhmann's archive, translated by deepl.com. This is 1 out of 90,000 total:

    1.6c1 "About an activity, at one time, central and centralization." – In some ways comparable to the view of Mary Parker Follett, Dynamic Administration, p. 183ff., e.g. p. 195: "Unity is always a process, not a product." – But she confuses unity and unifying, and says below quite correctly (p. 195): "Business unifying must be understood as a process, not as a product." – Except, of course, that the word unity does not mean process, this dynamic view is that the process can be described as valuable and characterizes the organizational view, from the finished fake unit to the unification unit process.

  • The only note taking approach that's ever worked for me:
    1. Read/listen/absorb
    2. Write down ideas it creates while you're absorbing
    3. Wait
    4. Create Your mind (or at least mine) finds connections you aren't even aware of and when the time comes, when the right prompt sparks, there it is. The knowledge is ready to be used.
  • Zettelkasten is exactly what you wrote here, with one addition. It not only offloads querying for detail (i.e. search) to the machine, it also offloads some connection-making. Search and lookup is internet-as-extended-memory, links and backlinks are internet-as-serendipitous-thought.
  • The part about "just write it down" is the most important. Connecting information as you go can add value to the knowledge base, but writing down everything that's important is the first step and the tool you use should support that. I think the book keeping part is more of a personal thing and some people feel that they need to do it and others do not. I for myself "separate" notes into problem domains (when I think about them I have a broader topic in mind) and connect all the notes that belong to the same topic when I see fit. That greatly reduces the book keeping part and I can add connections as I go.
  • I would say if your workflow is not research-centric where you only implement software, these kinds of methods are not necessary. Only simple note-taking would suffice to ease your brain.
  • On the contrary, if you are reading papers and doing research, taking notes in a meaningful way is more helpful than you would realize. The human brain tends to skip information while reading and you only realize you didn't actually understand that part when you try to write it yourself. The note-taking part doesn't actually take that much brain resources. I am not a native English speaker but I am taking my notes in English. While taking my notes I don't care about grammar or anything, I just read and write what I understood. When I finish the paper and I am comfortable with the topic, I return to my notes, fix grammars and, link them with my other notes. For example, sometimes I come up with a research idea, I make a note about it. In the future, while reading a paper, I realize some of the techniques that are described in the paper might be beneficial to that idea so I link them together.
  • In conclusion, it really depends on your area of work whether to take regular notes or Zettelkasten notes. Forcing your workflow to these methods might hurt your productivity but if you are a researcher I can say, it will be beneficial.
  • Normal notes are fighting complexity by creating smaller and smaller categories of notes Example: splitting "engineering notes" to "software notes" and "technical writing notes", and then "software notes" to "java notes" and "design notes". And this way the notes get deeper and deeper in your notebook and you stop interacting with them. This described well my personal experience. Zettelkasten fights this complexity by much more up-front work when adding and linking note, instead of a tree structure, you have a network.
  • Most of the time, it's more be beneficial to file notes according to the situation in which they'll be useful rather than where they came from: If you're going to have a tree structure, the original sources should be out at the leaves as external references rather than the root. This manifests in many forms from lots of different people giving advice:
    • In Getting Things Done, Allen spends a lot of time on the importance of organizing your todo lists by where you'll be able to do the actions.
    • Luhmann used his original Zettelkasten to store passages that he could pull to make drafts of papers, and cross-referenced them to other passages that could be included together.
    • In How to Write a Thesis, Eco recommends writing a preliminary outline of your thesis and then tagging notes with the section number they're relevant to.
    • In his MasterClass series, Chris Hadfield emphasizes the benefit of collecting summary notes organized by the interface you'll see when actually performing an activity.
  • It depends on the goal. Your goal is to learn things, apparently. Memorize what you wrote on the notes. Zettelkasten's isn't. Its goal is to produce great books and papers.
  • As far as I can tell, the crosslinking required by the Zettelkasten approach provides two main benefits:
    • It forces some retrieval practice of the notes you've taken before, which reinforces all the ideas involved.
    • Most of the benefit comes from the act of writing, but there's an inevitable sense of futility that comes about if those writings are inevitably lost to time. By giving each note an ongoing purpose (to be linked to), the Zettelkasten system dodges this particular trigger to stop writing notes.
    • Zettelkasten has its benefits: If you want to be able to casually browse through your notes, looking for ideas to spark your imagination, Zettelkasten will most likely have superior results since the ideas are already summarized right there for you. Zettelkasten makes it easy to compose essays and put together speeches, but that's because you've already done the hard work of writing down your thoughts ahead of time.
  • It's requirement to link all notes ahead of time is a HUGE barrier to entry, so Zettlekasten may be best suited to people with a strong research oriented disposition who're already used to similar practices.
  • Why not jut search?
    • I think this trend of better knowledge tools is missing two very important pieces of human nature
      • If we have time to enter something into a knowledge base of any kind - then we have time to just jot it on a piece of paper.
      • If we dont have time (or think it is important at that moment) then what solves the problem for us is not a knowledge base, but search.
  • There are problems with search: you have to know to search for something, and you have to know how to search for it. In some cases this is an issue, in some it isn't. I have had many times over the years where I reviewed my notes and reminded myself of things I had completely forgotten. Search is useless in that case. But in any event, there's no conflict between a knowledge base and search. They are different things and you can search a knowledge base.
  • [Zettl practice] I can stream thoughts into a lightweight inbox without having to do the organizing upfront. I then have derived categories from the main stream of thoughts. If the thought is a task, I further process these into categories. I have recurring tasks and events that I handle on a "Time" page that is effectively a calendar, and I have one-off tasks that go into a Kanban style backlog. What I really got from Zettlekasten is that trying to establish your system upfront is a mistake. Things inevitably leak through your categories and then you lose faith in your system. By just having a running stream of thoughts and then relating them after the fact and deriving categories afterward, you get the benefits of organization without a lot of its failure modes.
  • Your template misses backlinks. Zk notes have five elements:
    1. An id (I presume it is yyyymmddhhmmss.md as filename for you)
    2. Tags
    3. Backlinks (in the form of [[backlink]] in most zk software tools such as zettlr/obsidian/thearchive etc;)
    4. Source or reference (checked)
    5. Content (I suppose it is your # Notes)
  • Also all zettels are atomic, so you will deilberately limit yourself to one topic idea, ideally with a question or something (I suppose that is why you have # Title).

Alternative to Zettelkasten

PARA (Second Brain)

  • Link:
  • With P.A.R.A. you organize all your notes by purpose, not by category. Let's say you're trying to build an app. You'll have a folder called ‘app' for all notes about it. Now if you study databases in order to build it, you'll file any notes you take inside the ‘app' folder, not in a separate ‘databases' folder.
  • Instead of forcing myself to be disciplined about organizing my notes, P.A.R.A. + Progressive Summarization takes advantage of the times when I'm already excited to work on them. Each time I touch the notes, I have to take a small amount of effort which is proportionate to my level of interest in the task. We've replaced forced discipline with leveraged excitement.
    • P.A.R.A. is great for those who don't have the time (or willpower) to force themselves to write down notes they may never use. Instead it's Just-in-Time philosophy saves many hours and lets you be more productive. Tiago has designed P.A.R.A. to work with most productivity apps, but the process is optimized for his app of choice: Evernote.
    • All in all, I'm finding P.A.R.A. pretty useful so far. It has yet to pass the ultimate test of any knowledge management system: Will I still be using it three months from now? (ask me after July). I'm already noticing productivity boosts by using the PARA method to store notes for all my projects, so prospects are looking good

Bliki

Spaced Repetition

Combination Method

  • Zettelkasten
    • Unique IDs - facilitates linking - can use beyond your note-taking system if you use it on other files and documents and use a file explorer
    • Linking - link relevant ideas and information
    • Atomicity - reuse future-proof notes/ideas in different contexts
  • Progressive summarization - pare down your notes while keeping the original source - ideas: you could pick out key terms, write a summary at the top, make a TOC of the things you want to navigate to easily
  • IMF - a way to organize notes without necessarily tying them to a certain category. I think of it as creating different ‘views' of your notes.