When people ask me, “Christian, what’s the best Zettelkasten Method-compatible app on iPads and iPhones?”, I always tell them about 1Writer. Its search is good. It syncs files with a ton of services. It handles #hashtags.
And now it also supports [[Wiki Links]].
That makes it an even better companion to our very own macOS app, The Archive, and the plain text productivity techniques we encourage people to use.
In the nearby town of Paderborn, there’s a community-organized meetup called “MacMittwoch” (literal translation: “MacWednesday” – guess when they meet :)). These fine folks produce a podcast, too, and their Farid Mésbahi and Gordon Möller visited Sascha and me in Bielefeld for a very nice chat. The result is Episode 15: Der Zettelkasten.
We talked about The Archive, but even more did we talk about the Zettelkasten Method in general, about emerging structure versus folder management, and why we value software agnosticism above all. Farid and Gordon are very welcoming and curious hosts, and Sascha and I are pleasant to the ear as always, of course, so you will want to listen to this episode (1h 8min; German only).
When I search in my archive for the tag #diet I get really annoying results. I don’t only get notes on diet. I get notes on carbohydrates, insulin sensitivity and many other. “Why is that a problem?”, you might ask. “All the above topics are relevant for diet, aren’t they?” No, and here is why.
Topic Tags vs Object Tags
There are two different types of tags:
Tags for topics. You use tags to group notes under a topic.
Tags for objects. You use tags to group notes around an object, real or conceptual.
The difference between these types of tags is very easily understood. If I use tags for topics I would tag everything that is relevant for the topic of diet with #diet. A note about carbohydrate intake and insulin sensitivity would definitely fulfill this criterion. If I use tags for objects, I would only tag notes with #diet when these notes are specifically on the concept of dieting. I would not tag the note on insulin sensitivity with #diet. But I’d use the tag for a note on metabolic flexibility as overarching concept that connects diet and fasting.1
Using These Tags in Your Archive
When I work on the topic “diet”, I work on a plethora of concepts: post-workout nutrition, blood sugar stability, metabolic flexibility, hormonal changes and so on and so forth.
Let’s say I write a note on insulin sensitivity and carbohydrate intake. Then I want to connect it to other notes for integration into the web-like structure of my archive. First, I go to existing structure notes. They are notes about notes, and therefore they map structures in my archive. After that I want to ask myself and my archive how this integrates into the concept of diet. I search for #diet and get a buttload of notes. Some don’t even contain the word “diet” apart from the tag. I have a note on the paleo-historical consumption of grains but it is tagged with #diet. The search for tags gets really messy really fast.
One could argue that I shouldn’t limit my search to #diet but include tags as additional qualifiers. Like #diet #insulin if I want to search for the interconnection between those topics.
This also, after a while, gets complicated and annoying to use. The issue is that these searches are not enabling what I really want to do. I already integrated the note on insulin sensitivity and carbohydrate intake into my structure notes and put it into my outlines for my books. I don’t want broad general connections because they are not very useful in the long run. The connection in itself should be a piece of knowledge that adds to the value of my archive. A precise, lucid, and insightful connection should be placed. For that I need precise search options. Not this broad topic stuff.
Only tags that are specific to the objects I use and mention in a note are worthy: To take precise actions over a long distance I need a sniper rifle and not a shotgun.
Searching on a topic in your archive is like firing a shotgun into the woods and hoping that there will be food on the table somehow. I need a sniper rifle, night vision goggles, and infrared satellite pictures as if I have cheated the hell out of Counter-Strike. (I never did by the way.) There is some sneaky, precious game out there.
The tags for objects are much more precise and reveal real connections. They narrow down the search way more which is hugely important if your archive grows. They only give you what you want, and not the topic which also contains what you want.
Christian’s Comment: This distinction is one of the gems I first heard of in Sascha’s draft for the 2nd edition of the Zettelkasten Method book. Honestly, I never thought about a difference like this before and ended up with tags around topics surprisingly often. The problem is that once you start topic-tagging, you cannot get back to the notes that have an “object tag” relation. They all get lost in the same mess. That’s a bummer. So better start changing your tagging habits today and prevent more chaos from ensuing. I can tell you that cleaning things up along the way is not much fun.
Sascha’s Comment on Christian’s Comment: This topic will be covered in the upcoming English online course.
Christian’s Comment on Sascha’s Comment on Christian’s Comment: I’m looking forward to it in my most favorite language!
Diet and fasting are two of six categories in my work on lifestyle. These are not topics but principles and therefore abstract entities in my work. ↩
Our reading habit is one of the corner stones of our knowledge work habits. Reading is the most efficient way to create an influx of information that can transform into knowledge. Therefore, we should devote some thought and energy in the optimization of our reading habits.
One decision we have to make is whether to read fast or thorough. Yes, this is a decision. There are a couple of techniques that could enhance your reading speed and don’t decrease comprehension. But most of the so-called “speed reading” techniques either decrease comprehension for the sake of speed or even involve skipping large parts of the text.
Another problem of those attempts to increase reading speed is their emphasis on the sheer amount of text you ingest. An important and mostly neglected part of reading is the processing of what you have read. You should think about what you have read, draw connections to other readings, and truly make it your own.
Not all books are worth large efforts. Sometimes, a book is somewhat interesting but there is neither much relevant information nor is it inspiring and interesting. We don’t want to waste time and energy on these books. Rather, we want to concentrate our energy and attention on the really important and dense books that give us a lot.
This means that we have to serve two demands:
We want to read a lot. We want to have a high influx of information.
We want to direct our efforts at the best books (and articles) and invest only a necessary minimum of attention into the low quality content.
There are at least two traps we can fall for:
We increase our reading speed. We read several books per week and have a great influx of information. But this means that we don’t process any book thoroughly. No book has any true value to us because none of the information is transformed into knowledge or skill.
We read everything carefully and waste a lot of time and energy on bad books.
The Barbell Method of Reading
The Barbell Method is a phrase coined by Nassim Taleb. It means that you make sure that the majority of your investment is safe while you make small but very risky bets. You combine safety with the possibility of high revenue. The trick is that you floor the possible loss while leaving the possible revenue unlimited.
Now let’s explore what loss and revenue means when we think about our reading habits:
We invest time and effort. But most important is our time. We can always push harder. Effort mostly comes free of cost. I don’t consider being a bit more tired in the evening to be noteworthy. That leaves us with time invested as our main metric for cost of investment.
We want to gain useful information. We want great insights, mind-blowing surprises, opportunities to develop our mental teeth when we chew on a difficult to understand piece of knowledge.
Information is just an opportunity. Information means nothing if you don’t use it.
If you are a fiction writer, reading a striking paper on false memory means nothing if you don’t exploit it, think about it, and make a thrilling story out of it.
If you are an athlete and read about the Art of Learning and don’t re-engineer your training routine, there is nothing gained.
If you are a journalist and read the story of Martin Strel and don’t connect it to research on meditation, other extreme athletes, or post-traumatic growth, you’ll only write a shallow story about him.
This reveals the problem we face if we just apply speed reading techniques. We increase opportunities but fail to make use of them. Books fade by like people in the masses in a crowded city we walk by. The Barbell Method takes this into account by integrating your reading habit into your knowledge work with two steps:
Read the book. Read swiftly but don’t skip any parts unless they make you vomit or put you to sleep. Mark all the passages that stand out and contain useful, interesting or inspiring information.
Read the book a second time. But now you read the marked parts only. This time you make notes, connect them to past notes (Zettelkasten Method!) and think about what you’ve read. Make mindmaps, drawings, bullet points – everything that helps you to think more clearly.
The quality of the book will now determine how much time you invest in it. Sometimes, a book is not that important and only provides a few shallow pieces of information. The second step could only take a very short period of time. But a good book is dense. I remember that the second step for Antifragile by Nassim Taleb took me more that twelve full deep work days (spread over six weeks) to work my way through. Other books took only half an hour for processing, though.
Getting Deeper Into the Mechanics of the Barbell Method
The first step of the Barbell Method of Reading is just reading. That is a shallow kind of processing that suffices to understand what is easy to understand. You are probing the text and can later decide what you should do with it. You decide on a part-by-part basis.
A text consists of four different types of parts:
Useful and difficult to understand. You want to process these parts heavily for understanding and exploitation. Mark these for later.
Useful and easy to understand. You want to process these parts heavily for exploitation. Mark these for later.
Not useful but difficult to understand. You actually don’t want to process these parts but you don’t know if they are useful. Sharpen your mental theeth with them and then ignore them after you found out that they are not useful.
Not useful and difficult to understand. Ignore these.
Difficult to understand
Easy to understand
Read twice Process heavily
Read once Process heavily
Read twice Don’t process or sparingly
Read once Mostly ignore
The second time you read the book you concentrate on what you have marked as useful or difficult to understand. During this second step you already sorted out a lot that has no use to you. Now you can concentrate on the two most important habits of reading (good) texts:
First, get inspired by useful yet easy to understand texts. A very good example is Deep Work by Cal Newport. For me, it was not a book that gave me much new information. But Cal presented it in a inspiring way. This is the reason I recommend it. Not because of some arcane knowledge but because of its performative nature. I developed quite a few ideas in reference to this book. When something is useful yet easy to understand it is an opportunity to produce and go with the flow. Write a lot!
Second, sharpen you mental teeth on texts that are difficult to understand. This difficulty can stem from different sources.
I never rely on any author’s own interpretation of his work. For example, I am now processing 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. He wrote a bit on the role of serotonin in dominance hierarchies. I could just refer to his book. But this would be pretty shallow processing. Good processing is to go to the primary sources and read them. In this particular example, I constructed a continuity from the lobster to us humans in a more detailed manner than presented by Jordan Peterson. In the course of my processing I developed a theory of conflict, interlinked it with my previous work on depression, self development, history of nobility and more. This is a product of deep processing and never happens with shallow processing.
True reading is not a passive process in which you just create an influx of information. It consists of deep processing, thinking and writing on what you have read and interconnecting it with you already know.
Only the three parts combined, reading, thinking, and writing, produce a true change in your brain and make you a better thinker. To write about what you read is important even if you don’t aim to write books on something. Still, you have to write if you want to think properly. Still, you have to write to process information properly.
Some people are impressed if someone reads three or four books a week. They think “Wow, he surely knows a lot.” I don’t share this opinion. To me, it is just a testimony of their shallowness in processing. This is fine if you don’t care. If you read for fun, go ahead and do it. But don’t try to impress anyone with things you don’t have invested energy into.
At last, you are what you practice regularly. You are your habits. If your habits don’t include to really gnaw on ideas and concepts, you won’t sharpen your mental teeth. So if you want to be able to think deeply and properly, practice it. It is a sad misconception that you can procrastinate this mental work until you actually need it. But this only means that you practice procrastination and miss out the chance on train your brain.
The Zettelkasten Method is designed to serve several different purposes:
Optimize the amount of information you process. You should read a lot.
Produce an archive which consists of true knowledge, not just a collection of half-understood bits of random points.
Learn to think deeply and thoroughly by making it a habit to practice it.
Luhmann didn’t only write a lot and developed the most complex of all theoretical bodies in the social sciences. He was known for his vast knowledge and deep thinking. He didn’t run to his Zettelkasten when you asked him something. This is because he practiced thinking through writing and processing in the context of the Zettelkasten.
If you set up your reading habit, the quality of the books dictate how much time you invest in them. Make good use of your time and digest your information to make it your own. Then you’ll have knowledge.
Don’t practice shallow processing. But process deeply and practice deep thinking.
Christian’s Comment: Oh boy, this hits home, and it hits hard: when I postponed my University degree, I transitioned from reading texts and producing text to writing code full-time. Most of the information I absorb are programming-related and come from articles on the web. Since I don’t have any non-programming related writing projects, reading stuff for knowledge becomes a mere past-time activity. Without chipping away some time to process what I read, my understanding will remain shallow until I’ll eventually forget what I read at all. What an outlook! I still have hope: establishing a weekly routine to further my study some is better than not working on knowledge acquisition at all. We’ll see how that’ll go.
We were invited to join Patrick Welker of rocketink.net and Andreas Zeitler aka Zettt of the German Podcast Der Ubercast to introduce our Zettelkasten Method to their audience and talk a bit about The Archive. Sascha explains a lot of the thinking behind IDs, structure, and why plain text is just the best. Thanks for having us, folks!
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.
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:
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:
The content. Tiny, tiny bits of content.
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:
The reading mode.
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.