Zettelkasten

How to Not Get Lost in a Book

I am a huge proponent of not having any overview. The reason for that is the self-selective nature of the need for an overview. The need for a reasonable amount of overview can become a fetish which not only is not only unnecessary but even harmful for your productivity and creativity.

If the need of generating overview for your knowledge archive becomes self-selective, it becomes non-functional and is cancerous to your knowledge system we call a Zettelkasten.

However, not having an overview at all can be hard. The less overview you have the more trust you need in you method because you have less insight into the process of your knowledge machinery.

The goal of this blog post is to provide a solution for investing just enough effort into generating overview to optimize your knowledge work without consuming too much energy for actions that don’t translate into productivity and creativity in an optimal way.

The Overview: My beastly ex girlfriend

How does this need harm your knowledge work? It forces you to juggle two mental states. If you want an overview of the context of information and knowledge while you explore the potential of the piece of knowledge itself, you have two balls in the air. While juggling two objects is a pretty simple feat in the real world, mental juggling slows you down. It is the classical problem of multi-tasking.

I avoid this problem like a beastly ex-girlfriend. I was trapped with a non-functional but pressing need for an overview until I met Christian. With the plain text approach I learned from him I gave up on some features for the benefit of having the freedom of simplicity. Old friends turned enemies are the most ferocious. This happened with techniques to increase overview. I avoided them like a crazy ex-girlfriend who mistakes getting into a fight for having a relationship.

Making peace with an ex-girlfriend that is not as crazy as initially thought

a dog, d'uh
Dog by Activedia, License: CC0 Public Domain

Over time, I acknowledged that I threw the baby out with the bathwater. Not every overview is bad. An overview is tolerable as long as it is a means to accelerate and deepen your knowledge work.

I still see some danger in having a fetish for nice pictures and graphs. I had an app, can’t recall its name, that basically simulated the view of a neuronal net. A note was a clickable point in a net and I could see all the connections, hierarchies and what not else. This didn’t result in any additional productivity or creativity. It improved neither did the speed of knowledge acquisition nor its depth. It even hindered me by distracting.

However, some structures turned out to be useful because of measurable improvement of my knowledge work. In my case, I measure the output. I cannot distinguish between higher quality and lower quality notes at the time I write them. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes, it is pretty clear that I write something with very little relevance for anything. Other times. I write something that is a center piece of a new article, book, model, or theory and I know it from the beginning of the first sentence. Often, I misjudge these things. Sometimes, I think that something is profound and it turns into a lame loser idea and other times I come back to a previously thought boring piece and my mind explodes in a burst of creativity. Because I misjudge I don’t have any metric for quality output but only for output in general. I count all Zettel and not quality Zettel only.

I have one particular tool that I want to present you. It is quite specific to nvALT but can surely be adopted within a wide range of other apps. I made the experience that it increases my output of Zettel.

Hack the book into pieces but keep a manual

After I finished a book I go through all of my reading annotations (which are super minimal at this time) and make Zettel out of them. My former method consisted of creating new notes sequential. If I needed an overview over all the Zettels on a book I did a full text search for its “cite key”. I then got a list of all Zettels on the book in the reverse order of creation demonstrated in this picture:

list of book notes
List of Zettel notes about a book

When I process notes, I do one page after another, from start to finish. That means that the order of Zettels is 100% correlated with the order of the pages of the book I refer to. Problem solved I thought.

My ex comes back but without her craziness

Then I had difficulties to manage more complicated works. That are mostly works that I go through more often (like the Bible or classics in philosophy) or which are inherently complex text that present a whole theory (e.g. Evolution in Four Dimensions by Jablonka/Lamb).

I started to need an overview to become at least a bit effective in my knowledge work. That is not true for most of the texts I read because I plow through texts in a pretty relentless manner. I don’t care much if the author would approve with what I take out. I don’t want to understand an author. I want to understand ideas and generate ideas.

Method of book overviews (my ex without craziness) applied

My solution is to generate one Zettel for the book and begin with chapters as subsections. See this picture:

book overview notes
Book overview note with Zettel links and page numbers.

Then I start to go through the book and create Zettels but always make sure that I leave a link to the overview note for that particular book.

I started to use the wiki link feature of nvALT which didn’t accelerate the creation of notes but was a bit lighter on my mind because I can use a lighter mental model. The wiki link feature of nvALT is a basically a shortcut for a search. If you click on the link nvALT performs a search within the omnibar. But for me it means that I can now directly create a Zettel through the wiki link. I have the book overview as a mental crouch (the lighter model) instead of juggling the structure of the book in my mind.

In spite of not being faster, I felt that I consumed less mental energy. This saving is measurable for me because I train three times a day and the last training session can function as a proxy to gauge how stressful my day was.

What happens after I finish the book? Sometimes, only sometimes, the overview Zettel would stay in my archive (the Holy Bible, Nietzsche, Luhmann, …). In most cases, the overview note for the book served me well and becomes superfluous. It made my work more efficient (not: effective) and I will delete it afterwards. It would be just clutter in my archive.


Christian’s Comment: For most books, I start to write all my Zettel in a single file at first. That’s because when I look at a book page and write a Zettel from the notes I took there, I often cannot remember what the rest of the book has to offer about that topic. For example if on page 10 a new concept is introduced that’s elaborated later on page 200, chances are I have 2 paper-based notes. Writing a Zettel from my paper-based note about page 10 is useful but incomplete. When I reach page 200, I’ll want to expand that Zettel. Book overview notes force me to transcribe and elaborate these paper-based notes in advance; then I can create Zettel with references to multiple relevant places in a book thanks to clustering.

Starting to collect everything in one file proved to be a useful trick when too much time passed since I finished a book. In these cases I cannot remember the big picture anymore. When stuff is fresh on my mind, like when I worked really hard on understanding a book, I retain more knowledge about the context. Then I feel more competent to start with atomic Zettel notes right from the start. That’s not very often, so I employ book overview notes a lot.