Zettelkasten

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PhD Student Reporting What It’s Like to Use a Zettelkasten for Classes

This is a recent highlight from the forums: @jeannelking reported how the Zettelkasten Method and preparing for a PhD at university work together.


This is the first semester where I’m using my Zettelkasten for my courses (PhD program in humanistic psychology, creativity studies specialization). Now that I’ve got some reps under my belt, here’s how it’s working so far:

Feeding My Zettelkasten

  • I typically read in the mornings before the day starts. I take fleet notes as I read. (Oh my, do I now love taking fleet notes!!!)
  • Then I let those fleet notes sit while I work on other stuff throughout the day.
  • In the evening, I’ll review my fleet notes with Archive open and a stack of physical note cards. (I use both physical cards and Archive.)
  • With a bit of distance from when they were taken (hours), I’ll look for the things that speak to me or that I want to share with ZK on a Dear ZK card.
  • I’ll write up my physical cards as if they were postcards to my ZK (introducing the subject from my reading, then expounding on it with my own thoughts).
  • I use my Archive and physical ZK to find where these new cards build upon existing ideas for where to add them into my ZK brain.
  • The completed card goes into Archive (this system REALLY works for me).

Being Fed By My Zettelkasten

  • I’ll look at my writing topics and needs for the week in my courses.
  • I’ll open Archive and search for tags related to the topic (plus a few random searches just to see what novel ideas want to show up)
  • I’ll pull the physical cards that seem relevant and physically play with them, laying out possible ideas for my paper/discussion on my desk.
  • I’ll land on an order with the physical cards and pull the digital content - included my references which I already listed on my zettels - into a draft Word document.
  • I let it sit for a bit and come back to it for more edits. If other ideas want to pop up from my Zettelkasten, back to the Archive I go.
  • When it’s ready, I submit it as appropriate and thank my Zettelkasten for making it SO. MUCH. EASIER OH MY GOODNESS!!!!

Seriously. It’s like Ahrens said in How To Take Smart Notes: with a Zettelkasten your paper is basically written as you read. All you have to do is pull it forth when it’s time.

If you are a student and are wondering if it’s worth starting a Zettelkasten - it is!

Don’t Dehorsify the Horse

The Zettelkasten Method seems to get more and more popular. With popularity of methods there always comes a problem: Overzealous Orthodoxy. Some people, for various reasons, try to state what a Zettelkasten is and what not.

A good example is the use of categories: Do you have a Zettelkasten if you use a Zettelkasten? Some people argue that you wouldn’t have a Zettelkasten if you use a Zettelkasten and the very point of a Zettelkasten is to ditch the categories.

I personally agree, that your Zettelkasten will benefit a lot from ditching categories. But there is a technical problem with stating that X is not Y if some trait is missing.

We will dip our toes in the cold water of what I call concept work. The goal is not to find the true and only definition of a Zettelkasten but to become more competent with the usage of concepts. After all, how can you process concepts which are one of the main knowledge structures you find in texts when you don’t know anything about their nature?

The difference between the dead and the living concepts

In contrast to other approaches, Luhmann decided against making his Zettelkasten stiff and opted for an organic approach. There’s a reason his own manual is titled “Communicating with Slip Boxes”, and not something like “A slip box as a writing and thinking tool”.

Our starting point to understand the nature of the Zettelkasten Method is that it is an organic and non-linear, – even alive ,– approach on note-taking. This is not a clear-cut definition, because, in real life, there cannot be clear-cut definitions.

Take a look at the following way to define a horse: A huge animal with a head shaped like this and that, with four legs and so on and so forth.

Even if we expand this definition to a point we all would agree on it, what if we amputate a horse’s leg? Do we de-horsify this poor animal? No.

Even concepts need a life of their own. We can use the concept of horse without ever encountering a clear-cut – but lifeless – definition. Lively concepts work by the concept of sufficient familiarity. The horse with the amputated leg, which has fully recovered from the operation and goes by the name Eagle’s Wing, if you worry, is accepted as a horse because it is sufficiently familiar to our general concept of horses. But if you alter too much of its traits, you will not be able to call the result a horse and keep a good conscience. Then it might be a griffon.

Bye-bye leg, but not bye-bye horse!

Hard definitions are dead concepts. If you change one part of it you change the whole thing. But most concepts are alive. Nobody with the right mind would think that the poor three-legged animal is dehorsified.

Nassim Taleb calls the this fallacy “platonification”: you are of making platonic what is not platonic by nature. Or in layman’s terms: To mistake some dead abstract theory about reality for reality itself. (One could argue that the main message of his Incerto is: Do not platonify, live in the real world.) This abstract thought can be illustrated by a quite funny example: Never cross a river that is 50cm deep on average. Why? It might be mostly shallow creek of 10cm depth, followed by a nice deep hole for you to fall into.

The Zettelkasten Method lives

The Zettelkasten Method is a living concept. Although there are traits that are more important than others, the Zettelkasten Method is more a set of useful principles and a spirit that came to being in Luhmann’s wooden demon he called his communication partner.

If someone tells you that your Zettelkasten is not a Zettelkasten, just refer him to the late Wittgenstein and send him a three-legged horse. It might not solve the issue but bring some peace to your mind.

Video Demo: TextMate as a Zettelkasten App

TextMate is a free, open-source macOS text editor that we mention on this site since forever. It is also damn good at navigating files in a big folder. So it’s a good alternative to dedicated Zettelkasten software.

In this video, I demonstrate the basic interaction patterns for TextMate to get a plain text Zettelkasten working: how to navigate around, make use of the folder-relative “Open Quickly” command, and create new notes. You know, everything you really need to be productive.


Sascha’s Comment: Why do we publish an app that is obviously not designed to handle your Zettelkasten and therefore rather clumsy compared to more dedicated text editors?

The reason is to abstract from software and really experience that the Zettelkasten syntax is designed to work with any text editor to give you maximum freedom.

If you think it is slow, then compare it with a physical Zettelkasten. Even TextMate lets you handle your Zettelkasten way more quickly than a physical Zettelkasten.

Your Zettelkasten is not the software you use.

Tying Blogging and the Zettelkasten Method Together for Fast Feedback

If you have a blog, you can use it within a fast feedback workflow:

  1. Create a Zettel and decide if it is a candidate of a short blog post. The criteria depend on the nature of you blog, of course.
  2. Tag this Zettel with ##publish.
  3. Edit the content of the Zettel so that it can be published.
  4. Publish it on your blog and change the meta-tag from ##publish to ##public.
  5. React to comments by editing and improving the blogpost. If someone hints at a typo or any improvements on the content, create a footnote with a hat tip or something similar.
  6. Always feed back the changes to the original Zettelkasten.

If you have an active community, you can rely on this fast feedback and have many editing iterations for your text. This improves many Zettel in your Zettelkasten, which is especially nice if you plan to craft a book out of them.

Baker and Me – Joe Pairman Uncovers Universal Principles

I’d like to highlight this article by Joe Pairman: Take notes as online help for your creative future self.

The rare feature of this article is that Joe is extracting universal principles by comparing one of my articles with ideas of Mark Baker from Every Page is Page One. (Affiliate link.)

I lean heavy towards the position that there are universal features of text. In fact, I have a Zettel that is named “Zettels as blogposts” in which I use the very same approach Joe used: Taking notes is creating text. What can we learn from others who create text?

Yes, some of you will learn a thing or two from this article. But my reason to share it with you is that I want to encourage you to think more broadly. There is a great quote in one of the greatest movies of all time: Schindler’s List.

He who saves the life of one man saves the entire world.

This quote directs us to a general principle: Specifics always hint at general principles.

Shout out to Joe Pairman.

Zettelkasten Chatrooms

Ever wanted to quickly bounce off ideas, get to know the people from the Zettelkasten community better, and hang out with knowledge nerds? There’s now chat rooms for that!

Folks from the forums have created places to hang around and chat about all things Zettelkasten, knowledge management principles, and life and stuff.

So if you’re into chatting, check out the two new options here:

Understanding Hierarchy by Translating Folgezettel and Structure Zettel

Please note: This is a post that requires a bit of prior knowledge. There are links for some of the terms. If you are interested in taking knowledge work to the next level, join the forum and become part of the community. This post is directly inspired by the great discussions by the folks over there.

ducklings following mama duck
Picture by 272447 on Pixabay

I think one difficulty in understanding the nature of Folgezettel and Structure Zettel stems from the fact that one does not detach oneself from the technical implementation of principles. That sounds quite complicated, but it isn’t.

If you use the Folgezettel technique, you achieve two things:

  1. You assign each Zettel a place in a hierarchy.
  2. You automatically create a connection to the Zettel you create.

Those two achievements refer to specific principles that are part of the Zettelkasten: Hierarchy and hyper-textuality. But it is very obvious that both principles can be realized with different techniques.

  1. Structure Zettel are hierarchies that are made explicit on dedicated Zettels.
  2. Direct links are … well, direct links. If you always create a link to your new Zettel, you also get hyper-textuality, just as if you used Folgezettel.

Let’s put aside the second aspect and concentrate on hierarchy. Luhmann implemented the Folgezettel technique by making use of a certain method to assign unique identifiers (IDs). This results in a hierarchy that consists of the entirety of his Zettelkasten. If we want a hierarchy that covers all of our Zettelkasten we’d just create a Master Structure Zettel. By implementing Luhmann’s Folgezettel technique, you create an enumerated, nested list. Nothing more and nothing less. It can be done by assigning each Zettel the Luhmann Identifier, and it can be done by creating a master Structure Zettel.

Luhmann said the following, emphasis mine:

Given this technique, it is less important where we place a new note. If there are several possibilities, we can solve the problem as we wish and just record the connection by a link [or reference].

There are some difficulties when translating the German original’s “weniger wichtig”: It does not simply mean “less important”, but in many cases is used as an understatement. If you read his article with that interpretation, you’d rather translate this phrase as “not important” instead of “less important”. The open question is: How important is the position really?

If you use Structure Zettel, the answer is: it is of minimal importance. You can create as much Structure Zettel as you want and let each Zettel have any position in any hierarchy you want. If you use the Luhmann-ID, the answer is the same: the position is of minimal importance. The whole point of the Folgezettel technique was to rob hierarchy from its meaning. Al, who is @improveism on the forum, got this aspect right (emphasis mine):

But just to be clear, let me tell you that Folgezettel does not mean hierarchy. When I saw argonsnorts post about it, I thought a Digital implementation of Folgezettel was a hierarchical method of creating notes and combined the decentralized characteristic of UID-systems. I even commented on it; but I’d be wrong.

After seeing that, I reviewed how the Folgezettel worked, and then finally understood that it actually meant a direct, obvious connection between notes.

To make it clear: Both Folgezettel and Structure Zettel are means to remove meaning from position in a hierarchy. The advantage is that you don’t have to think about position a lot: It is not very important where you place the Zettel.

Let’s take a step back and see where we are:

  1. The Folgezettel technique realizes two things: Hierarchy and direct linking. This hierarchy, however, is meaningless. It is a hierarchy on paper only because you don’t file one Zettel as a true child under a true parent but just placing it at a place that seems fair enough because it is somehow related to his parent.
  2. The Structure Zettel technique creates hierarchies. Direct linking is possible via unique identifiers.
  3. You can replicate the Folgezettel technique with no loss of functionality with the Structure Zettel technique.
  4. By using the Folgezettel technique, you create a single general hierarchy (enumerated, nested list) for your Zettelkasten. The same would be true if you create a Master Structure Zettel that entails all your Zettel.

Therefore: Folgezettel and Structure Zettel are manifestations of introducing a general principle to your note taking. They realize the principles of hierarchy to the Zettelkasten.

But there are several important differences:

Folgezettel provide unique identifiers. Structure Zettel don’t. That’s the reason why time-based identifiers came first in the history in the creation of the Zettelkasten Method. If the single purpose of the Folgezettel, as stated by Luhmann, was to provide Zettel with an address, the time-based ID is not just good enough, it even is an improvement because it doesn’t need to introduce (meaningless) hierarchy and can be easily automated.

Structure Zettel and Folgezettel rob hierarchy of its meaning by different means. Folgezettel create one single hierarchy. Its meaning is minimized by the arbitrariness of the position: You can put a Zettel in one position or another. It is not important as long as you link from the other position to the Zettel. Structure Zettel on the other hand do not introduce one single hierarchy but the possibility of indefinite hierarchies. If there are indefinite hierarchies, the position of each hierarchy has zero importance to the individual Zettel. You can make it part of one hierarchy, or another, or both. You can even create new hierarchies.

In this second difference lies the advantage in power of Structure Zettel over Folgezettel. Let’s explore this by thinking about why one wants to introduce hierarchy in the first place.

Meaningless hierarchies

Why do we introduce hierarchy in the first place? The short answer is: Order.

Without at least some order we could not interact with our Zettelkasten. A Zettelkasten without any order would be just a box with slips in it. We would create some order by memorizing what we put inside until we’d reach our mental limits. Then the box of slips would descend into total chaos.

Luhmann created order with his Folgezettel to force each Zettel into an unchanging position: Once it is placed, it could not be moved. He externalized the memorization of each position of the Zettel to the system: If each Zettel has an unchanging position, you can refer to it. But you would not have to recall the individual number. You combine entry points (that’s what his register is for) with associations within the Zettelkasten. Instead of remembering individual Zettels, you would enter the Zettelkasten at a point that seems associated with the topic your are thinking about, then you’d follow the links. This is exactly how our own memory works: Mostly you don’t just recall what you memorized but surf through the associations until you are satisfied with what you loaded into your working memory.

As you can see, at no point is there a meaningful use of the hierarchy that was created by the Folgezettel technique. There is no meaning in the Folgezettel hierarchy on purpose. It is just another connection.

We adhered to this by dividing the ID from the title of the note. The ID represents the eternal position of each Zettel. Its eternity is granted by the nature of time, which our IDs are based on. No moment in time repeats itself.

But there seems to be something achieved by the Folgezettel technique. After a period of silence on this topic, it re-emerged in the forums driven by the Keyboard Maestro macro by argonsnorts. It is a clever way to combine both IDs.

I view it as a need for more order. Many of the troubles seem to revolve around the issue of making sense what is in the Zettelkasten. This need for order manifests itself through various questions:

  • How do I find related Zettels to place meaningful links?
  • If new ideas, topics and thoughts emerge, how can I access them?
  • How can I get an overview on topic X in my Zettelkasten?
  • How can I make sure that I integrated my Zettel well enough by linking to the right places?

The Folgezettel seems to give a feeling of order. Thought trains become tangible by making them explicit. You have the feeling that you placed each Zettel somewhere at least with some purpose.

Let’s recap:

  1. Structure Zettel (combined with an ID) and Folgezettel realize the same principles: Hierarchy and direct linking (made possible by the unchanging place via unchanging IDs).
  2. They both make the individual hierarchy meaningless by different means. Folgezettel minimize the meaning of the position of each Zettel by creating a single but ultimately meaningless hierarchy. Structure Zettel on the other hand create the possibility of infinite hierarchies and therefore there is no meaning in the decision where to put each Zettel if it could be placed in any hierarchy (in theory).
  3. But there is more to techniques than adherence to principles. They need to deliver a certain feeling.

The last point is the last straw the Folgezettel seems to cling on. Next, let’s cut that straw, too, to finally free us from this outdated technique.

Meaningful hierarchies

I think Luhmann was already dealing with the problem that he needed more order. He created hubs. For example, he created a Zettel on ideologies that linked to other departments that each dealt with the topic “ideology”. I have Zettel like those, too: I have a Structure Zettel on the Zettelkasten Method that links to other departments (in my case realized via Structure Zettel) of the Zettelkasten Method. These departments/Structure Zettel would be “linking”, “complexity”, “developing ideas”, and more.

Those hubs can be seen as the ancestors of Structure Zettel. I really believe that both Luhmann and I had the same reason for coming up with such a solution. When I came up with the first version of what I call now Structure Zettel I named it “Overview Note”. I felt the need of order. It would surprise me if Luhmann’s reason was different. After a couple of years with this technique, it evolved quite naturally as I realized what I was actually doing. I gradually enriched those “overview notes” with meaning. I wrote my intentions and goals on top. I added structure to what were merely lists, separated by headings. I wrote texts on them and refactored them into separate Zettel, leaving breadcrumbs to the extracted Zettel where they originated from. After years of tinkering, the concept of structure and its relationships to the Zettelkasten unraveled itself.

This development was only possible for me because my Zettelkasten was digital. Luhmann would have used a lot of pencil and rubber to do the same. This is not something you do on paper.

Folgezettel cannot serve any of that. They don’t enrich certain link patterns with meaning. The only thing they could establish is a connection. That is the problem with the Folgezettel-Technique. If you think that you do something other than apply a technique that generates an ID for a Zettel you will be mislead.

As the discussion about Folgezettel re-emerges in the forums, an argument is coming up: Structure Zettel require some understanding about the nature of the connection between the Zettel. The Folgezettel-Technique enables you to postpone the connection. There is an assumption that there is a connection, and its meaning of it can be discovered later.

Didn’t we hear the same argument quite some time ago? Yes. It is basically: First collect, process later. You have what you have and it is better to have and not need than to need and not have. This is Collector’s Fallacy, which roots in a false sense of accomplishment.

Christian wrote his well-received article as a warning: Don’t collect content of other people. Don’t postpone processing, but make things your own. The earlier, the better. The use of the Folgezettel is to establish some connection early; its meaning would be revealed later, one might believe. That’s the fallacious assumption the Collector’s Fallacy points out as well. Folgezettel is to connection what the Collector’s Fallacy is to content.

So I will formulate stronger: Collector’s Fallacy means that you collect without processing, while making the assumption that it is fine to process later. The fallacious part is that you think you are productive by the mere act of collecting. We call it Collector’s Fallacy when someone is hoarding unprocessed content and sources for years. I say: If you collect connections (for example via Folgezettel) with the aim to uncover the nature of the connection later, you are doing the same. You are just collecting, succumbing to a fallacy by assuming you are doing something productive.

Structure Zettels on the other hand introduce the possibility of meaningful hierarchy without sacrificing the open design of the hypertext. You can link to any Zettel from anywhere. But at the same time you can create a view of the Zettelkasten that is ordered.

Example: I have a Structure Zettel that is named Self-Development. It links to a Zettel that is named The concept of the future-self. The Structure Zettel gives me an ordered view of my Zettelkasten as if it was only ordered for the purpose of developing a knowledge structure around the concept of self-development. The Zettel Concept of the future-self is linked because it is one of the core models that map the self in time and space.

At the same time, I have a Structure Zettel named Time. What it is about is self-evident. It puts every Zettel in a hierarchy as if my whole Zettelkasten is only designed to create a knowledge structure around the concept of time. The Zettel Concept of the future-self is linked because it is a model that maps the subjective nature of time.

If you use Structure Zettel, you introduce a quite limitless power to your Zettelkasten: You’ll have order without limiting yourself to one order.

Summary

  1. Folgezettel and Structure Zettel use the form of hierarchy.
  2. Folgezettel uses one single hierarchy to eliminate any meaning from hierarchy. Structure Zettel does the same by introducing infinite possible hierarchies.
  3. Folgezettel do provide an address via ID and therefore hypertextuality through linking. Structure Zettel don’t, and we rely on time-based IDs.
  4. Folgezettel do not establish meaningful connections because their position and therefore their relationship to parents or children of the one single hierarchy is meaningless – even by design. Structure Zettel establish meaningful connections. Hierarchy is meaningful for this one Structure Zettel. But because any Zettel can be part of any hierarchy the ultimate importance of its position is erased.
  5. Using the Folgezettel to capture some connections and hope that their nature will reveal themselves later on it just another form of Collector’s Fallacy.

Question for the community

  1. If you use the Folgezettel technique, what are your actual goals?
  2. How do you measure your progress towards those goals?

Christian’s Comment: So here we are again, after the epic Folgezettel wars of 2015, fighting the same fights? – Not really. A lot has changed in the meantime with regard to the role of manifest structures in the Zettelkasten. “Hubs” were a topic back then as well, but structure notes have been fleshed out in the past 5 years a lot more both in writing on this site, and in practice. The problem of creating order is a pertinent one in knowledge work and writing. Structure Zettel appear, to me, to be a very graceful and flexible addition to the practice of note-taking. I started to adopt them years after Sascha, and got all their benefits without any of the early birth pangs. They age quite well, they don’t impose any limitations to the overall set-up – they are not invasive at all and helpful when needed. To create them, you need to utilize a bit more brain power. But that’s true for everything related to connecting notes in the Zettelkasten. That’s the actual work that requires effort. Typing quotes from books is easy; making sense of them is hard. Putting notes next to each other is easy; making sense of their relation, again, is hard.