Little Machines in Your Zettelkasten

A basic description of a Zettelkasten could be that it is just a hypertext of your notes. But this definition falls short of the intended goal to create a tool that assists your thinking.

Technically, an interconnected quote collection could be a tool to assist your thinking and it would meet the above definition of a Zettelkasten: It is a hypertext of your notes (which consists of just quotes in this example). But it violates the spirit of what a Zettelkasten is. An interconnected quote collection does not express the full potential of the Zettelkasten Method since your past self could have created vastly more value for your current self. It is up to you how much you want to invest in your future self.

Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay

When I engage with my Zettelkasten, I find interconnected quote collections, excerpts, half-finished manuscripts, atomic notes, vast networks that explore ideas in depth and much more.

In the article Use Case: Investing with the Zettelkasten Method, I demonstrated that a Structure Note does not follow the form of a table of contents. It could be just an ordinary table. My goal was to break up some dogmatic thinking. Structure Notes seem to be imagined as if a table of contents (TOC) is the only structure that governs the Structure Notes. But any structure that has parts and connections between items of knowledge can be used to give form to a Structure Note. A TOC is just the most common way to give some hierarchical structure to content. But a Structure Note can make use of a TOC form, a normal table, a mind map, a flow diagram, a straight list, or even a picture.

Choosing a good form as Structure Note is just another tool in the toolbox. Everything I discussed up to this point is about means to achieve a goal. So what is the goal, you might ask. But this is a question I cannot answer.

Sometimes, there are common goals. If you are a fiction writer, a template for a character sheet can be shared between writers (and should be adapted individually) since the goal is pretty straight-forward: Create a virtual representation (paper-based or digital) of a fictional, semi-fictional, or real person.

But even in that case there is a vast variety of approaches to creating characters. Some writers like to be very meticulous with each trait of their characters. They write complete fictional biographies and study their characters like a forensic psychologist would. Other like a more informal approach and would feel their creativity is suppressed by formality like that. So the tools need to be highly individualised. Sometimes. Sometimes, the writer should change and adapt to the better tool. Some writers become better by rejecting their natural inclinations.

I am a perfect example for that: If you read my Big Five personality trait profile, you’d be surprised that I really like to write fiction and engage in imaginative and creative processes. I am quite orderly (71st percentile) which can hinder creativity because it requires a degree of chaos and disorder. I am very industrious (88th percentile) which makes me rather prone to methodological approaches. I am very high in intellect (96th percentile) but low in openness (32nd percentile) which indicates a mind that engages naturally with natural sciences and less with prose. That is reflected in the way I create fiction. To some artists it can be even off-putting, because when I talk about how I write fairy tales, it sounds too much like engineering to them.

That’s why I purposefully engage in more chaotic and less orderly methods to counter-balance my natural tendencies and enrich my writing. I force myself to be less of a blacksmith who forges mythologems together, and more of a painter who lets loose in the moment.

Why is this relevant for the Zettelkasten Method, you might ask? I created tools in my Zettelkasten as punching bags to train myself to be able to navigate more chaotically (“creatively”). One of the tools I created is a collection of semi-fictional characters which connects my engineering-type approach to writing to my tiny amount of chaotic creativity: When I see an interesting person, I write a character description in free form, using metaphorical language. I try to engage more with a feeling way of observing than with my usual analytical way. I collect these character descriptions in a dedicated Structure Note called “casuistic of character descriptions”. I keep one character description per note. But I connect them with other notes.

For example: I once was backstage in an opera (a friend of mine plays the clarinet in a big orchestra) and observed the conductor. He had a condition of a name I cannot remember. But during a piece he really let himself loose and used conducting as a form of self-therapy. So I gave in to the urge of just writing freely about the experience.

Later on, I connected this character description in prose with my systematic work the metaphors I used. I connected it to the metaphor of satanic possession, the metaphor of a war chariot, and my notes on how to use descriptions of gesture to illustrate different character traits.

With this setup, this little exercise resulted in several tools:

  1. A note that contains the short character description turned from being just that into a detailed example of various techniques in character description and metaphors.
  2. A note that is part of a toolbox. The toolbox itself is a tool for giving options (Inception-esque, I know).
  3. By thinking about the different parts, I generated metaphors as tools to draw on in later writing.

Examples of Tools in My Zettelkasten

  • A collection of mythologems that serve as a toolbox to create meaning for my fiction writing.
  • A tool to automate decision for investing in stock.
  • A complex character sheet that helps me to design characters and to incorporate the new ideas I generate while I am free-writing fiction.
  • A helper to plan my personal training and to design workout programs.

Understanding the Difference Between Knowledge Management and the Zettelkasten Method

To really drive home this key difference, let me reiterate:

There is a superficial layer in dealing with knowledge and your tools to engage with it: Any time you think about connecting notes, placing tags and similar stuff, you are engaging with the superficial layer of knowledge. This layer is superficial because it is not even about the specific traits that distinguish information from knowledge, or even data. The same issues would pop up if you would try to create a sophisticated storage for quotes or pictures. This indicates a level or generality of those issues that can be explained by their superficial nature. Not that those issues aren’t important, but they should be solved quickly. Perhaps you could compare it to the very basic actions you take in your life to function. When you get up in the morning, you brush your teeth, take a shower, eat breakfast (or deliberately skip it to practice intermittent fasting), do some exercise etc. not as the pinnacle of your daily achievement, but as the foundation to be a functioning human being. The same is true for knowledge work. You don’t connect notes as the pinnacle achievement in dealing with knowledge (or at least should not, because it is an insult to your potential). You should go way deeper.

To make sure that you go as deep as you can, you should try to actually create something. Create (knowledge) tools you want to use. If you process a book, an article or whatever, ask yourself what tools you (or perhaps your clients) need. Then you marry the two concepts, Depth of Processing and Value Creation, properly. The depth is the necessary condition to create something valuable. You notice if you hit the threshold of proper depth of processing when you have created something of value.

From my experience, this is one of the most obvious, yet most difficult to explain and hard to learn principles of the Zettelkasten Method. Think of the “old” (hopefully considered to be outdated as soon as possible) methods of knowledge management or note-taking. They follow a system for years, then find themselves with these big piles information or knowledge. It should not be a surprise that by merely creating piles, one does not create much value. Some value, of course. But in the real world nobody would consider this step in chain of value production as enough.

Christian’s Comment: It’s a real struggle to find tools that just work, to adapt tools to one’s needs, and to counter-balance natural inclinations. I struggle against entombing myself in rigid structures, and I need to invite some chaos and life. It’s never pleasant in the process, but always a relief in hindsight. For example, this starts when I leave my comfort zone as a programmer and try a totally foreign programming language paradigm to solve the annual Advent of Code puzzles and thus, as Covey put it, “sharpen the saw”.