A Zettelkasten is a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.
Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes. You need a permanent storage for your notes so they can give a cue for the things you want to remember. You also need to manually connect notes to create a web of notes which adjusts to the way your mind works.
It is the bottleneck of scientists and humanists, authors and other kinds of knowledge workers that ‘reading’ isn’t always ‘learning’. I’m going to focus on an archive for notes you create while reading because then connections between notes will be obvious. It’s going to be the non-obvious connections which blow your mind, but let’s keep things simple for a start. First, reading notes consist of your interpretation of other people’s thoughts. Second, when you analyze a text, you decompose its web-like whole into pieces and keep track of their relations to one another. That’s where some of the connections are. When you’ve taken two texts apart already, a Zettelkasten will help you draw connections between them, see their similarities and oppositions. Thereby, you’ll be able to distill a bunch of texts and find out something new for yourself with time.
Start with the first key ingredient: collecting stuff.
Extend Your Memory With a Permanent Storage
We humans use tools to enhance our brains and bodies all the time. A Zettelkasten is an archive of notes which extends your mind just like a hammer extends your arm. A hammer allows us to hit hard things without ripping our skin off; an archive of notes helps our brain to both remember and juggle with details. A Zettelkasten is to your thinking and writing what an abacus your ability to compute.
A Zettelkasten can extend your memory. It grows as you learn and as you store your knowledge inside of its archive. You need to make thoughts tangible by writing them down so you can continue to work with them in the future. That’s because you probably can’t reproduce every single thought you ever had when you need it. You need to capture them before they fleet away. When you capture a thought on a note, you can come back to it later. If you also care to put it into an archive, it’s accessibility is future-proof. In this respect will a Zettelkasten extend your memory: it offers a safe storage for your thoughts and for what you learn.
I use my Zettelkasten to store things I’d otherwise need to look up on the internet like shell programming tricks. I also use it to keep track of web development hacks I stumbled upon. There are notes on rules of typography and the meaning of various programming paradigms. Mostly, this is information I keep for reference offline in my own words to cut the fluff from the sources. I can identify every note by its unique timestamp. The timestamp of a note’s creation becomes its ID. I refer to a note via its ID to create connections between them.
A useful Zettelkasten will aid your mind to remember things but above all aid you when you want to discover new ideas. If your archive of notes consists of reference notes which don’t link to one another only, the disadvantage is that you only get out what you previously put in. It’d be nice to get more out of it, though.
Enter the second key ingredient: creating connections.
Extend Your Mind and Thought With a Web of Notes
Some note archives never move beyond a storage of thoughts and stuff you need for reference. If you connect your notes heavily by creating links between them, though, eventually your Zettelkasten will do more than fill memory gaps. Instead, it will improve the depth of your understanding.
An archive of your notes can reflect your personal way to think as long as it works in similar ways. Just as one thought leads to another in your mind, one note can lead to another in your Zettelkasten. As I mentioned earlier, every note in my archive has its unique date-time ID. This ID can be used to create links between notes. When you solely put notes into the archive, you get out what you put in. That was stage one – the storage phase. When you create connections between them, though, you will be surprised to see them paint a bigger picture. This is different from the reference notes I mentioned before.
If you look something up in your Zettelkasten, you need to get unexpected results in order to form new thoughts. Surprise is the key ingredient here, as I pointed out in my introductory post on this topic. The links between notes make this possible since you’ll generate new ideas by following connections and exploring a part of your web of notes. The non-apparent connections are generally more beneficial to creative thinking than the obvious ones as they generate greater surprise. While your mind usually continues to work with the obvious, your Zettelkasten instead shows you the bizarre. It sparks your imagination and blows your mind as it confronts you with the unexpected.
When I began to plan the book on the Zettelkasten method I even found another way to be surprised by the web of my notes: I was amazed just how many notes I had on the topic. When I queried my archive for keywords like ‘zettelkasten’ and ‘writing’, I found old gems from which I drew connections to more recent notes and findings. Moments like these make me realize how big the potential of this tool really is when you research on a topic for a long time.
We All Have Our Personal Needs
Both of us have special needs when it comes to structuring knowledge. You’ve derived models of the world from experiences which differ from mine, so while the method of two Zettelkastens may be similar in concept, their contents and connections will differ just like our mind’s ways to structure knowledge do.
The topics of Zettelkasten notes can be as broad as you like. Mine certainly vary. Next to the reference material like shell script snippets I mentioned above, I use my Zettelkasten to store results of my research. That’s the material I want to expand upon over time. It consists of notes about topics I want to learn more about and marks gaps in my current knowledge clearly. For example, these notes contain what I found out about software architecture, object-oriented programming and similar computer sciences stuff. I’ve got notes on Plato, Kant and Aristotle, for example, next to excerpts of books on how technology affects our brains and children. There’s a recurring theme of systems theory and what I call “lean thinking”, like notes on our cognitive difficulties when we deal with non-linear, complex systems. I’ve also got quotes about what love is. This is stuff I’ve read, and it’s the stuff I care about and want to work on. A Zettelkasten happily stores a colorful mixture of topics because this is how it blows your mind with unexpected connections that turn up on searches.
Your topics will be different. When you commit to take notes while you read a book and carefully weave these into your existing web of knowledge, you will be able to think more creatively. Also, this will make you write texts which are well backed-up by citations.
Both note-taking and filing are important to be truly creative when you work with texts. You need to literally take note of something important and write it down to remember it later. You also need to put the note in an archive so you don’t lose it. Sticking to the example of reading notes: as soon as you find inspiring ideas in a book you read, you either need to commit the idea to memory or take note of it and file it away for later. Arguably, taking notes is more effective than memorization. Also, it opens up opportunities to connect thoughts over the course of years which in turn will generate moments of surprise. This eventually leads to discoveries of unforeseen connections and enables you to think out of the box.
With a Zettelkasten your mind will blow your mind, as my good friend Sascha likes to say.