Latest Posts

iA Writer as a Zettelkasten Note Archive

Lorenzo wrote an article about how to use iA Writer for macOS as your Zettelkasten note archive. Apparently, iA Writer has a sufficiently quick search for large archives (10,000 notes big, in fact), which surprises me.

As a native macOS app, you can use iA Writer to sync with Dropbox, iCloud, and other folder-based sync services and either use their mobile or Windows counterparts, or whatever else you like. No boxing-in.

Have a look at Lorenzo’s review for all the juicy details. Great work!

Zettelkasten Method and Tinderbox (macOS)

Beck Tench recorded 45min worth of inspiring “Literature Review” video showing her current workflow with a Bullet Journal and the app Tinderbox for Mac to implement the Zettelkasten Method.

I’ve never used this hypertext writing environment called Tinderbox. In the end, I’m a proponent of the plain text approach and keeping your knowledge portable, so there wasn’t much appeal in trying out the app. But its community looks nice, the developer is a cool guy, and the app looks solid and makes people happy. Maybe it can make you happy, too.

Anyway, make sure to take a look at Beck’s blog. The posts’s illustrations are tasteful and I find the topics to be very interesting, too.

Update: Reader Russ pointed out that Tinderbox files are XML, which you could use in your own scripts or 3rd party tools. So you aren’t really locked in.

1Writer 2.9.1 Adds [[Wiki Links]]

1Writer version update notice
Version 2.9.1 adds Wiki Links for all of us! And a tip jar. Guess who’ll be tipping.

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.

Sascha and Christian Talk about Structure in a Zettelkasten on MacMittwoch (German Podcast)

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).

The Difference Between Good and Bad Tags

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:

  1. Tags for topics. You use tags to group notes under a topic.
  2. 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.

(The Chihuahua image is from Pixabay, licensed CC0 Public Domain.)

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!

  1. 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. 

The Barbell Method of Reading

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:

  1. We want to read a lot. We want to have a high influx of information.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. We read everything carefully and waste a lot of time and energy on bad books.

The Barbell Method of Reading

sketch of a barbell

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Useful and difficult to understand. You want to process these parts heavily for understanding and exploitation. Mark these for later.
  2. Useful and easy to understand. You want to process these parts heavily for exploitation. Mark these for later.
  3. 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.
  4. Not useful and difficult to understand. Ignore these.
Difficult to understand Easy to understand
Useful Read twice
Process heavily
Read once
Process heavily
Not useful 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:

  1. Optimize the amount of information you process. You should read a lot.
  2. Produce an archive which consists of true knowledge, not just a collection of half-understood bits of random points.
  3. 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Sascha and Christian talk about All Things Zettelkasten at Der Ubercast (German Podcast)

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!

Listen to the episode on derubercast.com (1h 30min; German only)