Zettelkasten

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.