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A Tale of Complexity – Structural Layers in Note Taking

A Zettelkasten is neither a neatly structured filing system for notes easy to access nor a turmoil deep sea generating ideas out of the ununderstandable chaos. There are three layers in my archive which emerged from the years of working with the Zettelkasten Method. I didn’t plan them in advance. It rather was a organic process.

oak tree

Bottom Layer: Content

The first layer of course consists of content notes. I write, I research, I get ideas. All of that goes into my archive. The full text search and the search for tags are sufficient enough to handle a smaller archive. At this stage it is only natural to stress the importance of tags. You are using them frequently and they serve as important entrances into your archive.

But after a while, you won’t be able to keep up. When I search for tags I get a couple hundred of notes. I have to review them to connect a note to some of them, or get a grasp of what I wrote and thought about a specific topic.

Naturally, a need to organize the archive arises at this point. I can’t remember how many notes I had when I experienced this. I introduced hub-like notes when I had between 500 and 700 notes.1 I gave myself an overview of the most important notes on that topic.

It must have been between 1000 and 1500 notes when this became too much to handle. I needed more structure. With every additional note I continued to lose my grip on the archive. I wasn’t very concerned because Luhmann, the godfather of the Zettelkasten Method, never had a grip in the first place. But I thought: I have a big technical advantage over him. I need a grip.

Then structure notes emerged.

Middle Layer: Structure Notes

My archive became opaque like the sea: You can see a couple inches into the deep but you know there is much more that you can’t access. You can dive deep, but still you just see a couple of inches at any time. Therefore, I thought of it in terms of unexplored territory for which I need mapping methods and such.

I started with structured lists to have tools to get a precise idea quickly how a certain space in my archive is structured. (similar to what Luhmann had with his hub notes, by the way).

Now, I am at a point where my structure notes embed the structure itself. Take a look at one of my structure notes:

screenshot of a structure note
A real-world structure note.

They look much like a table of contents. It’s because they are tables of contents. A table of contents is a structured set of chapters of a book, a set with hierarchy and order. Of course, a book’s page sequence is ordered according to the table of contents for the reader’s convenience. A structure note doesn’t need to adhere to any didactic needs or any needs other than yours.

In the Zettelkasten there are at this point two layers:

  1. The content. Tiny, tiny bits of content.
  2. Structure notes. Tables of contents.

Structure notes share a similarity to tags: Both point to sets of notes. Structure notes just add another element. They are sets with added structure. This added structure provides a better overview and adds to the utility of the archive.

Top Layer: Main Structure Notes and Double Hashes

After a while, I did not only have structure notes that structure content notes, I also had structure notes that mainly structured sets of structure notes. They became my top level structure notes because they began to float on the top of my archive, so to say.

My structure note on human movement is a perfect example of it. First, I wrote a lot about training. The training structure note linked to strength training, endurance training, sprint training, strongman training, mobility training, and more. But after a while a couple of topics didn’t fit into this space. What about physical work like wood chopping or the whole space of non-movement (like chronic sitting)? The topic broadened and I found a new umbrella: Human Movement. This structure note just keeps on floating on top. It is like the tip of an iceberg. No matter how much water freezes and is added to its body, the top stays on top.

Another type of top-level structure notes are the one I design in this manner right away. I worked a lot on the topic of self-worth from various perspectives (even from the perspective of cardinal sins; the perspective is broad!). The structure note is tagged with a special tag: ##self-worth. If I search for #self-worth (note the single hash!) I get all the notes that deal with this concept but with a double hash I go directly where the money is in my archive: The top-level structure note.

The difference between these two kinds of top level structure notes is in how they turn out to become top level: Human Development emerges because of the structural changes in my archive, while the one with ##self-worth is marked as a top-level structure note because I designed it to be a top-level note right away. (I mark the human development note with a double-hash, too).

Why Bother Telling This Story

There are emergent structures that underly every self-organizing body of knowledge. Software that helps you deal with these structures needs to fulfill a couple of criteria for its ability to handle complex structures. One criterion is: Does the software provide access to those different structural layers? If it doesn’t offer the means to deal with those structures, it won’t help you in your work once your archive becomes more complex.

A sign of not dealing with structural layers are project folders, and folders in general. If you can’t cope with potentially infinite complexity you have to compensate. One way of compensation is lowering the demands on the system. If a system encapsulates single projects or topics, chances are that it can’t cope with complexity. This is okay if you want to just work on one project. But if you want to use a system as an aid to writing and as a thinking tool you should opt for a system that is powerful enough for a lifetime of thoughts. So, watch out for folders and projects. They are the means for dealing with encapsulating and limiting complexity. In addition, they hinder the most productive way of knowledge production: the interdisciplinary part.

Even more important is that all this isn’t about the software. It is about the system you set up. Some software nudges you, sometimes even pushes you, towards system design decisions. Take Wikis as an example. Most of them have two different modes:

  1. The reading mode.
  2. The editing mode.

The reading mode is the default. But most of the time you should create, edit and re-edit the content. This default, this separation of reading and editing, is a small but significant barrier on producing content. You will behave differently. This is one reason I don’t like wikis for knowledge work. They are clumsy and work better for different purposes.

The issue of the different layers is similar. If you chose software that doesn’t deal with those layers in a sophisticated way, you will not reap the benefits in the long term. Your archive will note work as a whole. I think that this is one of the reasons why many retreat to project-centered solutions, curating one set of notes for each book, for example. The problems that come with big and organic (= dynamic and living) systems is avoided. But so is the opportunity to create something that is greater than you.

  1. Luhmann used this concept himself. 

What are Buffer Notes?

photo of St Petersburg
Buffer notes are … the golden statues in your sprinkling well of ideas, or something? I cannot come up with a sensible caption for this, sorry folks. —Christian (Source)

A buffer note is a note that is like a specific container of notes that you will use later. They buffer the gap between note production and assignment of notes to projects. I came up with these kind of notes when I had written a couple of books but still wrote more about the same topic and was sure that I would be making a second edition.

The second edition of the Zettelkasten Method Book is a perfect example. After I was done with the draft of the first edition of the book, I continued to add notes on this topic to my archive regularly. If I incorporate all the new notes into the book while editing it, I would never be able to finish. Or: If I just incorporate the new notes in the structure note on the Zettelkasten Method, I would never be able to find all the new notes that are not already used in the book. It would be a mess.

Therefore, I made a note in which I copied the title (+ID) of the new notes I have written that were not used in the book. I used a simple convention: ID + title + some context. The context made sure that I would know later on why I thought that the particular note could be used for the book. This is a (translated) example:

[[201708051151 False feedback for men in modern world]] What are the feedback problems of the Zettelkasten Method? Is there a real danger that people would write notes only for the sake of it?

The note is about problems like midlife-crisis, boyhood crisis, and similar stuff that emerges because of false feedback (e.g. thinking that a career serves as the pinnacle of meaning in life). I intended to use some of the thoughts to illustrate how you can get lost in knowledge work. Other examples are: Over-crafting the tools, over-digitalization (not reading real books) etc.

The same can be applied to new writing projects. I have a couple dozens of books that I am writing. New notes can be linked very fast to multiple books notes (either outlines or buffer notes) and with every note more than one book is growing. Like this, you can effectively write draft quite a lot books at the same time without losing the overview.

The buffer notes’s role for the Zettelkasten Method is really a means to store notes relevant to a project in a rather unstructured manner.

Update 2018-03-06: The term “buffer note” appears to be a weird choice, native English website readers tell us in the forums. We consider changing the term in the future. Chime in if you have something you want to add.

Another Win for the Zettelkasten Method

Hello dear knowledge workers,

I just want to announce another win for the Zettelkasten Method. I successfully published a new book, called Lebenswandel: Reflexion und Analyse. In English, it should be translated to “Way of Living: Reflection and Analysis”. It is a very comprehensive overview on designing and thinking properly about one’s lifestyle. Here is a rough translation of the blurb:

The way you live is a bridge between the self we currently are and the self we want to be. Search for the good life – daily.

And Christian made it look pretty, too:

Book cover
Find the book on amazon.com or amazon.de

I learned a lot, again, about the interconnection of the realm of writing and the realm of knowledge work. One of the main lessons I learned is to really separate knowledge work and the actual writing and editing. It is quite funny because knowledge work is done in written form: You think in the form through writing.

I compare this distinction to the dichotomy of writing and editing. These are two steps that are best kept separate: First you write and don’t care about anything but creating. You dig deep in the right hemisphere of your brain. It is called the creative side of your brain. Then you turn on your left-brained, conscious inner critic who has an eye for the craftsmanship of writing. First you produce, then you hone your text. Knowledge work is writing that precedes writing the first draft. So, at this moment, I have a three step process:

  1. Writing notes in my archive, doing knowledge work to give my projects the necessary depth and foundation in thinking and evidence.
  2. Write the first draft on basis of this foundation. My archive is my prompter that gives me directions and holds me accountable to the foundation I built earlier.
  3. Edit the draft until it’s fine.

You can skip the second step and do a copy-pasta-festival to mush all the notes to a first draft. To me, that turned out to be inferior in a similar manner like mushing together writing and editing.

The fun thing is: The next manuscript was already finished when I published Lebenswandel. It is a short to medium book on designing a morning routine from a holistic point of view. It will contain everything from a mobility practice to meditation and cold adaption. Since the manuscript is ready, I have to postpone using my revised workflow for the next writing project. The Zettelkasten Method works. I can see how the output of my creative endeavors with a solid foundation steadily (and not even slowly!) increases.

Role of the Zettelkasten Method

The book was originally planned as a chapter in a book on nutrition. It would have integrated nutrition into all the other areas of life like movement, fasting, meditation, sleeping, stress management etc. But integration was such a big topic that the chapter grew into a book in itself. I needed to encapsulate it as a book on its own. Now it became an overview and the first part of a four book series.

So, how did the Zettelkasten Method come into play? Let’s start with the numbers. It is based on roughly 200 notes and 15 longer articles I published on another blog. I put them together into a rough draft and filled the gaps with just writing. The Zettelkasten Method provided me with a lot of reference material with that, too.

Now, I have a buffer note that collects all the notes that could have gone into the first draft but didn’t make it till my self-set deadline. At this moment, I have 153 notes that will be integrated in the second edition of the book.

The first draft had 113.000 words or roughly 376 pages (180 pages in DIN A4). For the book, I cut it back to about 100.000 words or 340 book pages. It took about eight weeks to finish. I wrote four days a week, 3–4 hours a day. I didn’t use any deep work days for writing (Wednesdays and Saturdays) because they are reserved for knowledge work so far.

Christian’s Comment: Zettelkasten stats porn galore! I love stories like these because they reinforce my beliefs about diligence and showing up for work every day. You don’t need a lot of time to sit down and write a manuscript proper when you’ve already prepared dozens of notes on the subject matter. Unless your fields of interest make 180-degree-turns every now and then, one day you’ll always be prepared to write about a topic to some degree. I’m very happy that Sascha’s book is out in the public – and that he learned more interesting things about the Zettelkasten Method in the process. Things that already have been integrated in the 2nd edition for the German book and the upcoming video course.

The Next Edition of the Zettelkasten Method Book

Hi folks,

I just want to announce that the first rough draft of the second edition of the book is ready. I wrote it completely from scratch and added a lot of learned lessons by myself and through the communication with other knowledge workers.

It is still in German but fear not: Its content will be the basis for an online course which takes you step by step through all the content. And … it will be in English! (And polished, too, so you don’t have to suffer from my pathetic English.)

Big advancements are coming you way.

Reference Manager JabRef 4 Released

I just noticed that the developers of JabRef released version 4 in October.

JabRef is still our go-to recommendation when it comes to cross-platform reference management. The BibTeX support is great, and with BibTeX + MultiMarkdown you have an open source publishing toolchain at your fingertips. (On macOS, BibDesk is still our favorite, but JabRef is a close second even there.) Note that JabRef requires Java 1.8+ to run.

The integration with paper recommendation service “Mr.DLib” sounds interesting. I have no clue if this is any good in practice; since I don’t do any research at all at the moment, I cannot evaluate that feature. You’re welcome to share your experience with the rest of us in the forum comments!

Sublime Text 3 Zettelkasten Plugin

Rene from the forums did publish a Sublime Text 3 Zettelkasten plugin for better note-taking with Sublime. (See the discussion there.)

The plugin features:

  • Clickable Wiki-style links like [[this one]], creating notes that do not yet exists
  • Auto-completion of note titles when you begin typing [[
  • Shortcuts to create new notes including a generated ID
  • The ID format is the trusted and true data-based YYYYMMDDHHMM, for example: 201710282111
  • Highlighting of note links, #tags, and footnote references [^like this one]

Huge shout-out to Rene 🙌