In today’s episode we used our crappy English (I don’t know what went wrong today) to talk about misconceptions when using the Zettelkasten: you cannot automate yourself away. The archive always needs an intelligent (!) user to help generate ideas, and you need to take note of them for later retrieval.
Also, Mr. Andersen was with us again and this asked about a proper reading workflow. (Answers about 55mins into the video.) Our response was pragmatic:
If you think the text is something you want to refer to as a unit later, create a structure Zettel note that resembles the text’s outline or table of contents.
If you only need parts of the text, take what you need and add proper citation. Don’t worry about being thorough for the sake of being thorough.
All in all, strict rules like “you always have to create a book note that resembles the book’s structure” don’t take you far. Go with the flow and experiment. Different things works best at different times.
If you work with the Zettelkasten Method you have to deal with a lot of reading. It is obvious that it is often not very obvious what to include into your archive and what not. I chose to create a typology of items to serve me as an epistemiologic amplifier. If you know how things look in general (type) you can find specific items more easily. I struggle a little bit with finding the correct english term. They are not themselves thoughts neither are they Zettel types. There are six of them:
‘[T]o know about something’ isn’t the same as ‘knowing something’. Just knowing about a thing is less than superficial since knowing about is merely to be certain of its existence, nothing more. Ultimately, this fake-knowledge is hindering us on our road to true excellence. Until we merge the contents, the information, ideas, and thoughts of other people into our own knowledge, we haven’t really learned a thing. We don’t change ourselves if we don’t learn, so merely filing things away doesn’t lead us anywhere.
Reading is cheap. Reading is easy. Processing notes is hard and time-consuming. But the hard work is the work that matters in the long run.
When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us.
That’s not much of an invitation: if you read, you don’t think for yourself.
Fittingly, Shane rephrases Schopenhauer’s point in this way:
We need to digest, synthesize, and organize the thoughts of others if we are to understand. This is the grunt work of thinking. It’s how we acquire wisdom.
Reading alone doesn’t cut it. Reflecting is important.
Now guess what the Zettelkasten Method helps you do. Part of the knowledge cycle is to take the inspiration from a text and transform it into knowledge, which is acquired through a process of constructing. Don’t stick to the exact words of the author and try to memorize them. Write something on your own.
Dan’s screenshots of Zettel notes in Sublime Text about his doctoral thesis in philosophy convey how you can tackle complex problems in the long term.
About a third of his example seems to be made up of annotated connections to other notes. As you can see in the “mini map” of his note in the upper right, his Zettel is quite long. That’s just fine.
Most of our recommendations sound like you should avoid anything longer than a paragraph. But brevity is quite ambiguous a term. I can imagine Dan is keeping it brief but the material is so vast he’s just adding more and more valuable references and connections to the note.
Writing a doctoral thesis often requires you go deep, and going deep will inevitably result in more details and more references to back up your argument and interpretation. Don’t chop off half of it only because you don’t like scrolling.
His setup is rather elaborate and the things he links to are pretty useful to read on their own.
With the latest iOS 8, it became a lot easier to do tasks like this without putting a universal script execution app as a middleman between your feed reader and the filing mechanism. With the new “app extensions”, you can send information from your feed reader directly to a note-taking application. No copy and paste needed, no additional script needed.
I have used this during commute extensively since I bought my iPad two weeks ago: if I think a post is worth keeping, I bookmark it at the excellent Pinboard web service, send the address and title to the Drafts 4 app extension, where I sketch the Zettel note, and then save it to my Zettel inbox. This inbox is processed about once a week. – But I’ll talk about this in more detail soon.
Do you happen to own an Android device and can fill the rest of us in how you process RSS subscriptions on your phone?
I have mentioned the German translation of Eco’s book in the past already (in “Collector’s Fallacy” and “Making Proper Marks in Books”). From his book did I learn that not all Zettel are created equal. If you worked solely with index cards in the 70s, all this mattered a lot.
Remember that it’s possible to have a Zettelkasten without a computer. If you work on paper, you’ll be slow as heck. But you’ll still be more productive than all the other folks not thinking twice about proper knowledge management. Eco’s workflow details will help tremendously if you don’t know how to work with the tools available.
Nowadays, we have reference manager software, note-taking software, PDF annotation software, and whatnot. We tend to think in terms of our tools. But this veils our understanding of the ideas we work with, the texts we read. If we managed everything with index cards (but in different boxes), it’d be easier to look behind the How and see the What instead. Paper is almost never feature-bloated. Software makes it harder, because you can always get stuck at the surface level, switching apps all the time and looking for the next great feature. (Note the book isn’t called What to Write a Thesis With.)
If you care for non-fiction scholarly writing, if you’re a student, or if you’re just trying to figure out what kinds of Zettel notes there are and where they come from – pick up the book! It’s an educational read, but keep in mind most of the tips are outdated since personal computers exist.
It’s nice to have an idea index in your book’s front pages. Revisiting a text you read years ago and finding an index in the front is a great feeling. Cal Newport recently blogged about idea indexes. I think they are very useful for fiction and personal journals.
I’ve got a confession to make. Years ago, I was driven by fear: What if I don’t fully understand what the author of a text is saying? I needed to have a backup plan; I had the strong desire to hold on to 100% of the information in a text. I put original articles into my Zettelkasten, and I pasted pages of books into notes without much commentary. The rationale was, to simply store the original text would be the best way to achieve 100% coverage of the author’s intent. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
I am moving next month, and so I though about getting rid of stuff in my life. There are lots of books I’ve read, but from which I never processed all the notes. I know for sure that at I finished least one book in the collection about two years ago! You see, I was, and still am, vulnerable to the Collector’s Fallacy. While I try to get through the pile of books, I reviewed my reading process. This is a summary where I put together some of the topics I already wrote about
In the last post, I detailed that collecting texts may become a tempting replacement for obtaining real knowledge, but also that collecting in itself doesn’t get us anywhere. I called this the “Collector’s Fallacy”. I think we need to conquer this lazy, stuff-hoarding part of ourselves with good knowledge management habits.
There’s a tendency in all of us to gather useful stuff and feel good about it. To collect is a reward in itself. As knowledge workers, we’re inclined to look for the next groundbreaking thought, for intellectual stimulation: we pile up promising books and articles, and we store half the internet as bookmarks, just so we get the feeling of being on the cutting edge.
Today, we’ll talk about tools for a change. Managing a reference file is part of the collection phase of maintaining a Zettelkasten. It’s of special importance if you’re writing a research paper or a book because without proper citation management things are going to be a mess for you, soon. I’ll show you how I do it and tell you about possible alternatives briefly.
As I said in my last post, my reading workflow consists of GTD-like phases: collect, process and write. While I wrote about collecting before, this post is about the three phases of processing notes. In the last section you’ll find a few example Zettels I wrote.
My reading workflow consists of phases similar to the phases in GTD: collect, process, write. This post is about collecting. To collect, it doesn’t help to paint your text in all colors of the rainbow. No matter how much you like to use highlighter pens: think about what you want to learn from the text first, and then decide whether marks are really the best tool for the job.