Zettelkasten

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Measure What You Want to Achieve with Your Zettelkasten

The user @wanderley opened a thread in the forum. He basically wrote that whenever he creates a Zettel, he goes into a research frenzy to make the Zettel “worthy” of his Zettelkasten. In his example, he transformed a report based on experience into a claim supported by quite some evidence.

But one statement stood out to me:

I will never finish processing my notes at this pace. [On] the other hand, it feels wrong to add a permanent note without backing it up.

I asked him if his true objective was to finish to process his notes. I asked the question instinctively, because as a coach I often encounter difficulties with proper goal setting:

Let’s say a female client asks me for training advice to improve her looks. I then ask her to specify her goal. As a reply, she sends a photo of a fitness model. My objection could be that her bone structure would not allow her to reach such a goal, but let’s assume the goal is achievable.

I then need to S.M.A.R.T-ify the goal. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. I need to transform something vague into something concrete. My method is to create strength and endurance based goals that correlate with aesthetics. One of the subgoals is to have a nice butt. But what does it mean? For my female client, it means to squat with a barbell on her back with 1.5 times her bodyweight for six repetitions. Then we would re-assess her butt and re-adjust the strategy.

Picture byarielrobin on Pixabay

This process of transforming unclear yearnings into tangible goals is one of the key elements of being productive. If a field permits avoiding to measure success, you can be certain that 90% of the people are not productive. There will be a lot of deception – self-deception, and deception of others.

Do avoid this problem we need to make our efforts and their results measurable. I for example have tested:

  1. General productivity vs time I had invested. (Zettel per day or session.) Refinement of Structure Zettel in 2017 resulted in an increase of 10.04% of overall Zettel production. The initial introduction of Structure Zettel increased my production manifold – no previous throughput was measured, but I doubled my productivity at least according to my total Zettel count within one year, from 3000 to 6000.
  2. My Zettelkasten is too young to produce large amounts of books. The articles of my German blog are not taken into account. But the amount of research possible per time window has increased, demonstrated by the amount of carefully researched evidence (superficial commentary work does not count).
  3. The amount of written words per deep work session increased from 2000–3000 words to 4000–10000 per day by some refinement in 2017.
  4. Subjective increase in break-through moments in that time period – confirmed by Christian.
Word count statistics per day. Notice the increase of productivy after I refined how I use Structure Notes

I do not quantify my work often. Therefore I only have a few key data points. However, I do track temporarily how different changes impact my productivity. At the time of this writing, the claim that the Zettelkasten Method is a productive way to work is not demonstrated in public. Take statements about its awesomeness with the proper grain of salt. I personally know that this claim is true but there is a big difference between personal knowledge about something and solid evidence.

I will close this gap. I criticise the lack of real world demonstrations. It seems that the experts in this field produce material mainly inside this field. The situation is similar to those of success coaches who are just successful at being success coaches but at nothing else. Naturally, I feel obliged to create some of my work under the public eye.

My recommendation to you is: Figure out how you can measure your definition of success and then track your progress, and if there is any at all. For example:

  1. Track the number of thoughts you write down in a well-formulated way.
  2. Track the number of blog posts you publish if you are a blogger.
  3. Track the number of daily written words. (Disclaimer: that’s Christian’s app)
  4. Track your behaviour via apps like Timing.

Then you will see where others remain blind.


Christian’s Comment: Measurement is a controversial topic, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that the same number can be an indicator of productivity for someone, and a vanity metric for someone else. I think that it’s important to measure things that are important to you if you want to get clarity. It sure helps to conquer doubt, and can give perspective to small improvement that add up in the long run but feel insignificant on their own. Since every Zettel you write equals time you never get back, its creation has opportunity cost. Is the Zettel and the Zettelkasten Method worth your time? You can only find an answer to this question when you know where you want to go, and then figure out if you really get there.

Alternative The Archive App Icon Fan Art

@lucaschultz on the forums shared an alternative icon for The Archive for free for everyone to use. This came out of nowhere and was a pleasant surprise: It’s really cool that Luca poured in the time and work to create “fan art” for our app!

Luca’s Big Sur icon in action

Luca even published the .sketch source files, so you can generate and tweak the icon further! The icon set is published under a CC-BY-4.0 license, so you can do what you want with it, provided you mention the original author.


Sascha’s Comment: Looks very nice!

Use Case: Investing with the Zettelkasten Method

Picture by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

I am not an investment professional. I do invest in stock and some other assets to create passive income through dividends and to build a safety net. I don’t make the time-commitment for in-depth research. I merely want to avoid dumb decisions.

So I created a table of conditions that a company needs to meet before I buy stock. This is a snapshot in time. It is a work in progress of course:

| Metric            | Good  | Super | Dumb     | No      | Reference        |
| --------------    | ----- | ----  | -----    | ------- | ---------------- |
| PEG-Ratio         | <1    | <1,3  | >1       |         |                  |
| Payout-Ratio      | <100% | <55%  | >100%    |         |                  |
| Divid.yield       | >0%   | >4%   | 0        |         |                  |
| Conseq. Divid.    | >10   | >25   | 0        |         | [[202007291035]] |
| Free Cash Flow    |       |       |          |         | [[202008281429]] |
| P/E ratio         |       |       |          |         |                  |
| Price-Share-Ratio |       |       |          |         |                  |
| Total Price       |       |       |          |         | [[202008281434]] |
| Revenue           | +     | ++    | ± o. +/- | - o. -- | [[202010240857]] |

The corresponding Structure Note is divided up into three parts:

  1. The first subsection is the explanation of this table. It’s just a paragraph that roughly translates to: “The knockout method of investing means that every investing decision should be guided by knockout criteria. If a stock does not meet even one of those criteria then it is not worth the investment.”
  2. The second subsection has this table in it.
  3. The third subsection is my thinking canvas on this method of investing.
Rough structure of the note

The table is the central element that has a strong pull on all the notes on investing stock criteria, metaphorically speaking. I link to them in the “references”-column. Whenever I learn something new on investing in stock I go to this structure note and try to improve the metrics in question. So, there is a strong tag ##stocks (in German, though) placed to enforce this habit.

Take-away

Many specific questions on the Zettelkasten Method shouldn’t be asked assuming that the Zettelkasten Method has a specific solution for that problem. You should rather figure out what you want to achieve, and then use the Zettelkasten Method to guide your steps and actions within your body of notes.

This three-part note for example is not something the Zettelkasten Method instructed me to do. Instead, I developed a practical tool that functions as a prism to focus my knowledge on stock evaluation. It happens to be a structure note.

It is very easy to get caught up in the details of features that the software you use offers, and even in the good practices of the Zettelkasten Method itself. The way out of this confusion is to take a step back and ask yourself: What do you need to craft to accomplish your task? What tool do you need? Then the Zettelkasten Method comes into play to guide your actions in organising the notes to support your task.


Christian’s Comment: When I read this for the first time, I thought this would be super useful for newcomers to the method. When we talk about Structure Notes, we usually talk about lists, table of contents style, and this could give a falsely strict impression. But we can create overviews in a lot of ways – images, graphs, or tables. If nothing else, this is a gentle reminder to not worry about the one true correct form of a Structure Note. Structures can take many forms.

The Archive: 3rd Anniversary

This week marks 3rd year of The Archive being available in public. In March 2018 we published the final release. To celebrate this anniversary, we have a special treat for you to share the joy with friends!

We asked ourselves what there is that we could give back to show our appreciation of the community. What is even better than receiving a gift from someone? Well, giving a gift!

So here’s this year’s surprise:

Everyone who bought The Archive in the past 3 years up to March 16th gets a free license for the app to give away.

Head to our Anniversay License Claim-O-Matic and – in perfectly accurate German fashion – fill out the exciting form there. The thing runs until end of March.

This means that every customer can give away 1 free license to someone else. And in case you have trouble with the form because your cat swallowed your old email account, just get in touch with us.

Happy app anniversary everyone!

Use Image Capturing to Couple Your Desk and Your Zettelkasten

In this video, Sascha demonstrates how you can get stuff from the physical world into the digital: by capturing images of sketches on paper with The Archive, and turning on our shiny new inline image preview function to see the sketches inside his notes.

Drawing on a computer sucks with a mouse, so getting a pen and paper sketch into your notes to add visualizations is a pretty big deal when you work with knowledge.

How to Use Wiki Links for Saved Searches in The Archive

You can use [[wiki links]] in The Archive as a clickable shortcut to searches, which support complex logical operators to form very specific expressions.

People on the forums seem to enjoy the discovery of clickable complex search expressions in The Archive, so here’s a short explanation of how you can use links like [[#Gardening soil NOT fertilizer]] to create a stored search.

Stuff like this is not going to replace your structures and individually connected notes in your day-to-day work, but you could play around with this to quickly save search expressions for later. Here’s an intro to get up to speed with this accidental feature, what the important boolean logic operators are, and how this relates to finding and excluding notes.

For years, Sascha and I manually resolved links in nvALT by copy & pasting target IDs to the search bar. This wasn’t too bad in practice. This is also how you can navigate a Zettelkasten when all you have is a file system. Search always works when you’re at a computer. You don’t need a fancy app for that.

When we added [[wiki links]] to The Archive, we didn’t want to make them special in any way. We did not even tie them to file names. Coming from the simplicity of nvALT, we made links just a shortcut to what we did manually for years: to perform a search.

So whatever you put between [[ and ]] is clickable, and when you click on it, the app will perform a search. You can see how the Omnibar reflects the exact wording of the liked phrase. There is absolutely no difference between searching for “hello world” in the app by typing, and clicking a [[hello world]] link.

Usually, we’d use wiki links to point to specific notes by their ID. But if you deliberately not put an ID into the link but just any word, you essentially get a saved search.

A primer to Boolean Search Expressions

With support for complex search expressions, this becomes pretty powerful!

The Archive supports boolean search expressions. That means you can put logical operators into your search strings to affect the search results.

By default, two words in a search string are combined with the AND operator. So when you search for “hello world”, the equivalent, explicit boolean search string is hello AND world. That’s how the app interprets things by default. You add more words, and thus require that a note contains the first one and the second one and the third etc.

The other operator is the OR operator:

  • hello AND world or simply hello world looks for notes that contain both words;
  • hello OR world looks for notes that contain either “hello”, “world”, or both.

The last operator that The Archive recognizes is the NOT operator. You can use it to exclude words, like a blacklist. NOT hello will look for all notes that do not include the string “hello”.

Back to our introductory example, [[#Gardening soil NOT fertilizer]]. What this ends up meaning when you add the implicit AND operators is the following: [[#Gardening AND soil AND NOT fertilizer]].

So you will get notes that

  • do contain #Gardening,
  • and do contain soil,
  • but do not contain fertilizer.

Depending on your actual notes, this could produce gardening-related notes that pertain management of a healthy soil without fertilizer.

Usually, links are meant as one-to-one connections between notes. One Zettel points to another.

But when you create a note like Gardening tips overview and then put the wiki link [[#Gardening soil NOT fertilizer]] inside, you don’t just add a link to another note – you create a saved search shortcut instead!

Saved Searches Do not Replace Manually Created Order

In our day-to-day Zettelkasten practice, we often recommend usage of structure notes to, well, add structures to all the pieces of knowledge that you put inside your Zettelkasten. Structure notes use links to point to individual notes for details. Some structure notes look like a table of contents for the project you’re working on, and they use links to point you to the details. We recommend you use note IDs in these links to create long-lasting, direct connections.

Boolean search expressions are something totally different, and they are not suitable to be part of a structure note or create any other kind of order. They are conveniences to make finding specific notes in an ever-growing archive more likely. Please do not mistake clickable Boolean search expressions for the holy grail of productivity. As we established in the past, mere “groups” of notes are unordered and not useful, for example notes with a certain tag; and stored Boolean search expressions produce similar results and thus suffer from the same defects. Through creating order manually, you create meaningful hierarchies. Saved searches don’t help to create and manifest structures. They only produce an unsorted set of results.

They are useful hacks, though.

You could create a special note in your archive that becomes your daily dashboard (a forum discussion about home notes came up last December if you want inspiration on that topic). A dashboard/home note could contain a list of the projects you work on, questions you had left unanswered when you left your desk, and other “meta” information like that. It’s not meant to become part of the content of your Zettelkasten, but it’s a digital entry point to pick up trails you wanted to follow. Especially if you have a hard time figuring out a complex Boolean search expressions, saving them for later there could be helpful. It’s a research in your own archive that you didn’t finish.

Or take the example of gardening; you might have a couple of structure notes on gardening already. Some discuss management of the soil in detail, and the hierarchy that’s encapsulated in these structures contains pointers towards empirical studies on the effects of phosphor overdoses, arguments for different plant rotations, and such things. The clickable [[#Gardening soil NOT fertilizer]] search expression has no part in this. But you might still find some use in storing this search inside your Gardening tips note temporarily, that might eventually become a proper structure note once you finish your the process of compiling an overview on the topic of e.g. “Fertile soil without fertilizer”.

There you go: this is how you can use wiki links in applications like nvALT and The Archive, where the wiki link merely performs a simple search query. With boolean operators, search expressions can get pretty wild to express complex combination of criteria – but ultimately, your writing work will rely on manually curated structures, and this is only an interesting step to find new stuff in your ever-growing collection.