Zettelkasten

Posts from 2019

Beginnings of Bryan Kam's Zettelkasten Journey

Bryan Kam wrote two posts about his embarking on a Zettelkasten journey in recent months. Especially if you’re getting started, posts like his can be a nice place to get inspiration and a feel for the early days. In his first post, he talks about his understanding of the method as a “methodology for thinking in writing.” Which is a pretty apt summary of one of its benefits already. He also draws connections to Getting Things Done, which I’d argue the Zettelkasten Method is not an alternative, but an extension of for personal productivity. Either way, Bryan lists a few core principles and their immediate, actionable results. For example this:

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"Thinking Outside Experience" - David Epstein: "Range" - Book Processing Ep 06

This chapter’s outline started out was pretty short – and most of the stuff that I did add was anecdotes and stories. Interesting stories, sure, but nevertheless not much to brag about in front of your friends who study humanities. The actual sources will be interesting, but I didn’t get to them this time.

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"Learning, Fast and Slow" - David Epstein: "Range" - Book Processing Ep 05

By accident, I started this episode with an outline that was surprisingly long and lended itself well to my favorite Zettel refactoring, called “Extract Zettel”, where I take part of an existing note and put it into a new one, leaving a link in place of the cutout. Took me 3 weeks to get into the groove, and since last time things flow quite smoothly as I hunt for precious information in this journalist’s take on a complex topic.

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David Epstein: "Range" - Book Processing Ep 04

This episode is shorter, because I didn’t find many useful ideas in Chapter 3. And the ideas I did find interesting were not citable, so I had to look the originals up. That took most of the time, but did ultimately not produce many new notes.

I did add a couple, though, and in the last 5 minutes extracted a few notes from a comment I left behind that also affected the previous chapter’s outline.

It’s interesting that after a couple of session I already begin to form an opinion of the quality of Epstein’s research. There’s lots of endnotes, but the quality is … well, enjoy this episode to find out more!

Web of notes after episode 4

David Epstein: "Range" - Book Processing Ep 02

Here’s episode 2 for y’all!

Everything was a ton easier this time. In the previous episode, I processed the classic study by Ericsson et al on deliberate practice1. That was by far the hardest nut to crack, and on top everything was recorded. That took a noticeable amount of cognitive capacity, too. And the studies I wanted to have a closer look at were either not available in full-text or irrelevant in detail, so I could focus more on the actual connection-making and writing. (The part I actually like, heh.)

Part of Sascha’s feedback last time was that I should decide for myself what I want from a study: Do I want to acquire expertise in the fields of cognition, learning, or sports? Certainly not right now. So I limited what I was looking for in the papers tremendously in this episode, aiming for a very superficial understanding.

Looking at the footage, I also notice I added more commentary on top of the paraphrases. You could say there’s more of my voice in the notes this time.

Update 2019-10-02: Here’s a visualization of the notes before I recorded Episode 3.

Web of notes after episode 2
  1. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993): The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Psychological Review 3, 1993, Vol. 100, S. 363–406. 

David Epstein: "Range" - Book Processing Ep 03

Please enjoy episode 3, hitting early this week because I’ll be traveling for a couple of days – and cannot muster the strength to wait until Friday to hit the “publish” button.

This chapter was harder to process. There seemed to be parts missing in the story. Maybe I’m too sloppy and haven’t noticed the missing pieces? Either way, something’s amiss in Range land. I also notice that the topics from chapter 1 were connected to the topics here somehow, but it’s just a hunch how things will fit together eventually. I’m looking forward to the next episodes, because I hope it “clicks” and I know how to split the sequence of notes in the structure note up into new Zettel notes and then work with the more powerful web of notes instead of this monolithic book overview.

Anyway, here’s a picture of the work-in-progress web of notes, starting from the book overview.

Web of notes starting at the book after episode 3

Some Q&A on the Zettelkasten Method and Student Life

@diogenes, a student of philosophy, psychology and history in Vienna, asked some questions on the forum. I’d like to elaborate a bit on that. There will be specific use cases for the Zettelkasten Method. The method itself is a meta method of knowledge work. It translates what we understand of knowledge acquisition into basic actions that can be incorporated into any (knowledge work) workflow. Here, I will show a couple of applications to a more specific case.

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The Archive (v1.4) Introduces Multi-Tabbing

We’d like to introduce to you the latest update to The Archive. It comes with multiple tabs and windows! You can now search for different things in different windows without losing the context of your previous work. Multiple windows were an oft-requested feature since the early beta. The benefit is obvious: you can write a note, then search for a note to link to in a new tab without losing the context of the note you were writing.

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The Archive (v1.3.0) Browser Navigation

We’re proud to announce the latest big update to The Archive! It adds browser-like navigation, so you can get back to the results of an old search quickly. This will be super useful in your workflow, especially when you often get lost in a rabbit hole. When you’re done following links, hit the back button to get to your starting point. No need to remember what exactly you did search for; no need to keep note IDs in the clipboard to get back to the start.

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Breadcrumbs in Your Archive

Here’s today’s fun story. Sascha asks me if I remember the connection between an author (Heinrich von Kleist) and a concept (Maieutics). I hesitate a bit but then agree: yes, it’s his concept. The association feels just so familiar. I look up the concept in my archive, searching for “midwifery” (“Hebammenkunst” is the German term Sascha suggested). I indeed stumble upon a note about a text by Heinrich von Kleist about the spontaneous and sequential creation of thoughts during conversation.

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Three Layers of Evidence

In a Zettelkasten – if done correctly – there will emerge layers of evidence. These layers represent the necessary processing steps from data to knowledge. It is very rare that raw data is put into the archive. You can do it. But normally, you will process the data outside your archive. So I will ignore this possibility. The three layers are:

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Zettelkasten and Personal Knowledge Management for Business Founders

André Chaperon got in touch and told us how much he loves The Archive and the Zettelkasten Method – and then went on to summarize the gist of the method and app usage for his fellowship of small business owners. His process includes paper-based notes, which are taken in a leisurely manner, meant to be thrown away later manner, and ends with Tinderbox-based visualizations to get an overview. With all the “Getting Started” links and helpful details, this is a great resource to get started. Read “How to create Idea Babies: A Knowledge Processing System for Marketers, Creators, and Knowledge Workers”.

Sascha’s Comment: Use cases are very interesting. If you think about them they can give you great insights into the method of creative knowledge work, especially if the particular use case is not from your field of expertise. As a scientist you can learn a lot from a small business owner. The similarities allow you to extract general rules of creative knowledge work.

Christian’s Comment: André’s post could be the starting point you’ve been missing on this very website for so long. His summary of the Zettelkasten Method is spot-on. I really like that he presents a full slice of a piece of work, from summarization on paper to notes because that makes it so much more valuable. (I may be biased after André opened the conversation with a declaration of his love for The Archive. Full disclosure: I’m the developer of said app :))

Using The Archive to Teach Music

Screenshot of Dr. Foley's archive
An example note by Dr. Foley

Dr. Christopher Foley is a piano teacher based in Toronto, Canada. He set up The Archive to write, send, and curate lesson notes for his piano students. Read “How I Use The Archive and My Music Staff to Create Engaging Lesson Notes”.

Christian’s Comment: I’m familiar with programming and the humanities, but I always wondered how a Zettelkasten could work for fine arts – or music, for that matter. I’m looking forward to hear progress reports by Dr. Foley that go into detail!

Sascha’s Comment: I think that shows the power of a plain text approach. Basically, all you need to do is to manipulate text. That means that you should set up a system that makes your manipulation abilities so powerful that the bottleneck in your workflow is not determined by your fingers but by your thinking. Great work, Doc. :)

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!