How Value is Created in a Zettelkasten (and Any System of Knowledge Work)

Image by Ray Shrewsberry on Pixabay

The first question we need to ask ourselves is: What is value?

I propose a simple answer to this question: Valuable is what is useful to us.

Let’s look into knowledge on nutrition as an example: Knowing how to eat healthy is not very useful to a lot of people because this knowledge is not put into practice. Most of the time this knowledge is not what is needed. Eating healthy is rather about building habits. Then again, knowledge on healthy nutrition becomes useful when those healthy habits are built.

So the value of knowledge on nutrition depends on our ability to put it into practice. But imagine those healthy habits have already been built. How should we process the knowledge to create something valuable to us?

The first option is a collection of receipes. Whenever we cook we can browse the collection to find inspiration. And when we plan the meals for the week, we can use this collection to create a list for grocery shopping.

The second option would entail more depth of processing. What about dividing the receipes into High Carb/Low Fat and Low Carb/High Fat categories? Then you’d have two distinct lists. But at the same time your collection of receipes could serve more purposes. You could use your collection to plan meals according to your training and your rest days: On you training days you plan higher carb meals. On your off days you go for Low Carb. (This is actually beneficial!) The collection of receipes is now a more powerful tool for meal planing and grocery shoping.

The third option would create a tool to chose the appropriate receipe to use based on the available groceries in your storage. Just assign a tag for each ingredient used in the receipe. If a receipe needs bananas, you’d assign the tag #banana, and if needs beef, you’d assign #beef. Now you can filter your receipes by your available groceries to chose one that you could actually prepare.

This is how you create tools instead of merely collecting knowledge. If you aim to create knowledge tools within your Zettelkasten you will increase the value production of your Zettelkasten quite a bit!

What Are You Creating When You Process Knowledge?

Reading. Nothing is being produced. Your brain is marginally changed. Reading makes very little difference. You don’t read a book on nutrition to become a lean, mean sex machine. Building habits like daily cooking and buying groceries based on a prepared list will make the difference. Information is abundant these days and rarely the bottleneck.

Collecting quotes. At least you produce a note collection. This can be in various forms. You can collect all quotes in just one file or dedicate a file to each quote. This changes the operability of you quote collection but in the end you will have just created a quote collection. The question is what do you want in the future? Which value should be created for you by yourself? Quote collections are not completely devoid of value. I could imagine myself using a quote collection as a creativity tool for fictional writing for example. Another value would be brevity: then you at least invest the labor of selecting important or useful parts from texts. If you trust in your judgement, you’d spare your future self to go to the original text.

Creating excerpts. Excerpts could be seen as a commented quote and idea collection of a specific text. The ideal of an excerpt is that you never need to touch the original text again. We learned how to write excerpts at University in history classes: The goal was to have a collection of exerpts as a tool to write our own material. So what value do you create if you write an exerpt? You condense the information of a long text into a short text, hopefully with very little loss of information. If something is lost, it should be relatively unimportant. By creating a lot of exerpts you will get dense information at hand that is tied to the structure of the individual texts you read. You can take this processing a step further and enrich your excerpt with ideas of knowledge development tasks. You can interlace the content with questions and research tasks.

Creating Atomic Notes. If you create atomic notes, you isolate each thought and idea. The value you create derives from the boundaries you are now able to draw. You can point to an individual idea and say: This is X. You wouldn’t be able to do this with either of the processing steps mentioned above: If you merely read, you have nothing to point at. It is all in your head. If you create a quote collection, you always need to process the quote to be able to point to what you think the actual idea and thought is. With a quote collection you can just point to one incarnation of the idea. If you have an excerpt collection, you need to pre-filter this collection to find the idea. And even then you could have chosen a different incarnation of the idea if two or more authors have written about this idea. But by creating atomic notes that cover one idea per note you now have created your incarnation of the idea which is hopefully the best you can get.1 True knowledge work starts from here. You divorced yourself from the thoughts of other people and there line of thinking and developed something that is truly your own.

Creating Connection. This is often misunderstood: Value is not created by connecting notes, but by connecting ideas. Connecting notes is the boring technical aspect of this processing step. The How of connecting notes is a result of your understanding of how pieces of knowledge can connect. If you haven’t put in the labor of transforming information into knowledge, your Zettelasten (or whatever system you are using) contains just information you cannot connect. You can place a link from one note to another. But the result is connected information. Many people feel the issue. They feel that something is off, that they don’t know where to put a link, or they do place links but experience little value is being added. The value added by creating connections is that you develop relationships between the units you chose for your systems. Even for quote collections and excerpt collections, connections are valuable. One possible benefit is that you develop a broader understanding because you think about similarities and differences of the connected items.

Creating Tools and Products. This is where the money is. This processing step could be called a meta step. Each step mentioned thus far can result in the creation of a tool: Memories, quote collections, excerpt collections, hypertextual versions of them (via connections), for example. But if you understand each step as tool in your toolbox to create more complex and powerful tools and products, you will reap vastly more benefits than by just acting as if all you do is taking notes. This how you can actually realise the full potential of the Zettelkasten Method. Or: This is how you can fall in love with your past self, and feel the love of your past self anytime you engage with your Zettelkasten.

To give you more inspiration, here are some tools and entities that are in my Zettelkasten and how I use them:

  • A toolbox for story analysis. It is a structure note that orders the tools by story aspect (e.g. plot, character, etc.). When I analyse a story I chose the relevant tools from this tool box and use them as frames for analysation, for example. See a whole article on this toolbox: Create a Toolbox to Analyse Stories that Live in Your Zettelkasten.
  • A list of creative techniques. It is a structure note (surprise…) that lists all kind of creative techniques ordered by kind, e.g. production techniques, collection techniques, techniques to invoke perceptional frame shifts, etc. When I am blunting my teeth on a problem I (sometimes even mindlessly) chose a creative technique, execute it and see where it leads.
  • A table of all my criteria to invest in stock, with thresholds. Whenever I learn something on how to invest in stock, I go to this table and ask myself: How can I transform what I learned into a criterion for stock selection? Then I modify my this table to improve my future investment choices. See a whole article on this tool: Use Case: Investing with the Zettelkasten Method

Value Is Created by Improving Your Future Position

A very short summary of the above would be:

Don’t create tasks but resources for your future self.

To me, the best demonstration of this paradigm is my investment tool. I don’t mindlessly fill my Zettelkasten with learnings about investing, nor do I try to connect notes and hope for the best. Anything I learn about investing in stock is just as important as it improves my capability to make good choices (or rather: avoid bad choices). This ability is represented by my table I introduced in the article on investing with the Zettelkasten Method. So, by proxy, I improve my ability by improving this one table.

If you don’t have any clue why you are doing knowledge work, you’ll be subject to anxiety. This psychological entropy is what you get when you allow yourself to be clueless. The Zettelkasten Method itself doesn’t give you any goal. It can’t, because it’s a tool. You don’t buy yourself a hammer and then ask what you can do with it.

So let me give you concrete steps to improve your way of knowledge work (including your use of the Zettelkasten):

  1. Identify the structures you want to build within your system. What would be a resource for your future self? Be deliberate and avoid all vagueness.
  2. Ask yourself how your input sources can be used to improve those structures. Then use your inputs to improve those structures.
  3. Repeat. You need practice. When I teach the Zettelkasten Method, it is a recurring pattern that highly intelligent people who are experts in their fields struggle with those steps within their own field. To even write a single proper note can be a struggle if you aren’t deliberate on what will be a resource to your future self.

Bonus task: Present your individual note in the forums to get feedback. There is way too much talk on theoretical aspects of the Zettelkasten Method compared to the actual practice.

Christian’s Comment: PSA: To create things of value is a bit of work :) Conversely, don’t be fooled by Zettel numbers; 10,000 notes hastily collected aren’t worth 100 carefully created pieces of knowledge. (Making up some numbers for dramatic effect here, obviously.) I’m as lazy as the next person, but laziness never paid off in my Zettelkasten. Stopping at the reading and collecting phase never produced notes with long-lasting value for. That’s part of the story why “everything buckets” from the 2000s didn’t survive the hype: the approach to merely collect doesn’t work for sense-making, and the buckets eventually clog up. Where they become less useful with intended use, a home-grown Zettelkasten gets better when you put in the work to create something useful and advance on the ladder from reading to collecting to connecting to “tool-making”.

  1. That is the reason why a collected quote can be more useful than your own words. Sometimes, another person did it just better than you could. But still, only the invested labor of re-writing it makes it truly your own. So a quote should be commented on and re-written before you add it to your Zettelkasten. Only then you have gained the necessary competency to deal with the knowledge.