Zettelkasten

Should You Have One Zettelkasten or Many?

When you start with a Zettelkasten, you may feel hindered by the plethora of options. Paper or computer? Which application should I choose? Which categories should I create? (Hint: none) How many archives do I need for my projects?

The short answer for the last question is: one.

The longer answer is, of course: well, it depends.

Keep in mind that a Zettelkasten is a thing which is made up of tools, like an app to store notes. The Zettelkasten Method is not a thing; it is a manual to productivity. It contains advice on picking the right tools to create a Zettelkasten, and then it provides guidance on how to use it. It makes sense to ask “How many Zettelkasten instances should I have?”, but it doesn’t make sense to try enumerate the Method.

Why use a single Zettelkasten only?

When I enumerate “Zettelkasten”, each one consists at least of a note archive and a dedicated reference manager. See the building blocks post for details why that’s enough.

A single Zettelkasten instance means you will start with a note archive and a way to do reference management. Assuming you work on a computer, you’ll pick at least one app to handle both, or two dedicated applications. The details don’t matter much for the sake of this post. Once the software is ready, you can begin to file your notes and thoughts and become productive.

So why a single Zettelkasten?

You should use only one Zettelkasten if:

  • you want to do knowledge work for the rest of your life,
  • you’re an information junkie,
  • you enjoy filing or collecting things for the sake of it.

It makes sense to use a single Zettelkasten because you will increase the chance for serendipitous discovery of interesting connections. In 2015, you learn a lot about flowers, in 2018 you learn a lot about bees. You’ll be able to connect both topics and create something new, like notes about honey, or about pollination of plants.

I did a lot of programming recently. In the past, I found articles and books about the beauty of program code. Maybe my upcoming university degree in philosophy will point me towards theories of aesthetics. Armed with philosophical theory, I can contribute to the discussion in the field computer sciences again. Years may have passed between the two encounters. Doesn’t matter, since everything is connected – probably at least through the tag #beauty.

Why use multiple Zettelkasten instances?

7 sucklings
It’s taking a lot of energy to manage multiple projects at the same time. Photo Credit: Amy Loves Yah via Compfight CC-BY

(The correct plural form of the German word would be “Zettelkästen”. I didn’t want to use throughout the text because you might find it confusing, but there you go, I couldn’t resist.)

There is one reason I can think of: you are not interested in any long-term endeavors.

For example, you may create a project-based Zettelkasten for your master’s thesis, or for any other writing project which seems bigger than usual.

In fact, that’s the approach Umberto Eco wrote about more than 30 years ago.

If you work on two big projects at the same time, I can imagine you set up two totally different Zettelkasten instances, but why should you? Don’t over-complicate things. If you’re going to ditch the note archive and the reference database after you’re done with both projects anyway, then it doesn’t matter much that you mixed topics in the meantime. Maybe you even find useful cross-connections.

I picked the example of a master’s thesis in favor of a PhD thesis because a PhD is probably going to stay at university anyway and will make good use of a life-long Zettelkasten.

If you must, divide by duration of use, not by topic

Overall, I think you should stick with a single Zettelkasten because of all the benefits of a long-living system. If you’re in doubt, aim for one instance and longevity of notes.

If you’re never going to look at your notes again and just want to finish a project you will not care about in the future, the Zettelkasten method will make you productive, too. When you don’t have to worry about longevity of the notes, it doesn’t matter much which software you chose and how your notes are stored. That’s a tremendous relief.

In no way should you create separate instances with the intent of using all of them for the rest of your life. Just go with one archive. Topics will separate themselves naturally through keyword clusters while the notes are, in principle, open for cross-connections.

In a nutshell:

  • Use a topic Zettelkasten to finish that darned big writing project only if you aren’t going to work in that field ever again, and only if you don’t want to do knowledge work at all ever in your life.
  • In all the other cases, create a Zettelkasten once and fill it with everything you got. If that’s not too much today, that’s okay, too. Maybe in a few years you will embark on a longer journey of knowledge work. If you need a Zettelkasten now, you are likely to need it later in your career, too.

Sascha’s Comment: I believe that you should follow every lane that leads you to a new idea. However, I don’t believe in an approach of multiple Zettelkästen. It is always beneficial to have the opportunity to look back at your old notes. If you throw that out of the window, your effort just has gone to waste and produces no benefits whatsoever.

In the making of this post, Christian and I had some disagreement. We discussed what counts as one Zettelkasten and what is an archive. We hope that this is not too confusing.