The Zettelkasten in Action: My Book on Habit

I’d like to address the legitimate criticism of the Zettelkasten Method that there is little real world demonstration of its might and power. For this reason, I’d like you to present you my current project. I decided to attack a book on habit, because this book can hit two birds with one stone:

  1. The habit book is an essential part of my “What is a good live?”-series.1 It is one of the central supplementary instalments to the 5 volumes of the main series.
  2. With the habit book I can demonstrate the power of the Zettelkasten Method. The book “How To Factory-Farm People” is a difficult book which relies a lot on deep thinking at the limit of my capabilities. But it isn’t complex regarding the scope. That means that I spend a lot of time on each note and a lot of notes to come to the respective conclusions, but there won’t be a lot of sources, notes, lines of arguments etc. to deal with. The look behind the curtain wouldn’t be that sexy from the perspective of the Zettelkasten Method.

The habit book on the other side has a massive scope. Currently, I have more than 800 subprojects and individual tasks open before I can conclude the research phase. A task might be a simple “process article X”, medium-sized like “harvest the sources from the wikipedia article on Y”, or complex like “process book Z”.

Currently, as stated in the log, which you can use to ask me any question about the project or on how to tackle big projects, I have zero friction costs to get on top of the complexity of the project. Anytime I start a session on this project, I know exactly what to do. During the session, there are no uncertainties on where to save an unprocessed source, no confusion about which folders to use, or anything like that. There are no systematic uncertainties, how to incorporate a note into my Zettelkasten other than as a necessary learning challenge. Incorporation is an act of learning, not an act of organization.

Another Book on Habit Like No Other

“Aren’t there enough books about habits?”, you may ask. My answer is: there are enough books that present on a model of habits and then explain it in many anecdotes and examples. These are books like Atomic Habits, The Power of Habit or Tiny Habits. They are all worth reading if you haven’t read one. However, they lack the scientific rigor that I expect from a book on that topic. An example for this is wrong understanding on how dopamine works. Dopamine doesn’t code for reward, which is the base assumption. It codes reward prediction errors.2 This changes the picture on habits completely.

Books like Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood delivers this rigor. No wonder: she is one of the leading researchers on the subject. But it lacks the pragmatic value offered by the books above, especially Atomic Habits and Tiny Habits.

There are also lesser-known works such as those by William James (Principles of Psychology and Habit) and Felix Ravaisson On Habit. They are written in the wonderfully free and broad style of books from a few centuries ago.

The big gap out there is a grand synopsis, a great fusion of all the different approaches. That’s what I’m going to do with my book.

Annotated Synopsis of the Chapters

Disclaimer: This is still provisional and subject to change. Some chapters are already relatively fixed in terms of their structure. Other chapters are still more or less loose collections of ideas that I am gathering under a heading.


In this section it is important for me to put the book into the correct context. After all, I don’t want to write just another book on habits.

There are three types of sources that deal with the topic of habits:

  1. Scientific sources. They are characterized by their high empirical reliability. But they either ignore practice (in the case of empirical studies) or are overly theory-driven (typical scientist’s disease).
  2. Self-help. They are characterized by their pragmatic approach. At the same time, their empirical reliability is often not very high.
  3. Classical literature They are almost the only sources that still dare to interpret the role and significance of habits for us humans.


  1. Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood is a scientific source. Of all the books I’ve read so far, this book provides the best empirical evidence. This is no wonder because Wendy Wood is one of the leading researchers on the subject. However, her book lacks the qualities that the other two sources provide, even though it is a popular science book. But it lacks the great clarity and direct applicability of Tiny Habits by Fogg and Atomic Habits by Clear. Also, the interwoven remarks that categorize the importance of habits to the human condition and their role in life as humans are ill-conceived asides that rather disturbed me.3
  2. Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg is a self-help book. The book is geared towards immediate application. Fogg gives us a clear and extremely easy to understand model of habits (although he overgeneralizes and claims his model is a universal model of human behavior). However, the bibliographical references are hidden in a Google spreadsheet and also in a bulky format. Likewise, the role of habits for the human condition is an unreflective hedonistic one.
  3. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle belongs to the classical literature. Aristotle, for example, describes two states: Enkrateia and Akrasia. Enkrateia is the state in which our impulses are subordinate to our will. Akrasia, on the other hand, is the state in which our will is subject to our impulses. Typical of Aristotle is the great depth and precise interpretation. But of course there is no trace of empiricism and the instructions are rather vague compared to crystal clear books like Tiny Habits.

My aim is for my book to merge all three strengths of the various source types, a kind of grand tour de force of habits.

How Habits Work

What are habits and what role do they play in life? Here, I will give an empirically based description of how habits work according to the latest research. But I also want to acknowledge the knowledge from the self-help literature. I will explain this using the example of nutrition:

When it comes to nutrition research, we have a big problem: control. For example, if we want to answer whether a diet high or low in carbohydrates is better for weight loss, we (as proper scientists) would have to control the total energy intake. A study by Hall et al.4 made big waves for a while because the test subjects were locked in a chamber. This study stood out with its very high control.

What makes scientific sense, however, makes studies more difficult to use for the actual design of the diet. After all, we are not in a controlled chamber, we are in the real world, when we eat. The uncontrolled studies examine exactly what you actually do as a trainer or even as someone who wants to change their diet: you give instructions for an uncontrolled environment. Many nutrition studies work by giving the participants nutritional instructions, perhaps giving them a method for logging their diet, and then they are left to their own devices for a few weeks. Sometimes they are invited to weekly meetings for encouragement or something similar while the study is running. That’s exactly what you do as a trainer and also as a person who is changing their diet.

The problem is that some then make attempts to infer to specific mechanisms, from badly controlled studies. This is scientifically unsound. To read those studies properly, you must reject the assumption that such diet research is about the diet itself. Rather, the object of research are diet instructions.

In the self-help literature and experience reports, there is knowledge that does not meet strict quality criteria, but is formed exactly where it is needed later: in practice. It is therefore important to me, particularly with regard to the initial question of what habits actually are, to recognize those knowledge processes that take place outside the ivory tower of academic research.

Furthermore, it is important to me to consult classical sources, such as:

  1. The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.
  2. Habit by William James
  3. On the Habit by Felix Ravaisson

The classical thinkers still dared to apply their thinking to existential questions of life. That has been lost. Modern hedonism underlies both psychological research and the books of self-help literature. In short: the misconception that the good life can be measured in terms of well-being and satisfaction.

What is the difference between good and bad habits? In my opinion, this question is not sufficiently clarified, because the answer to the question is usually implied without deeper inquiry: in science, bad habits are detrimental to well-being, some more directly (like addictive behavior) and some more indirectly (like procrastination). In self-help literature, it is enough for someone to want to break a habit themselves for it to be considered bad.

This demonstrates the lack of classical thinking in this area. I want to build this bridge here. Here is a small preview of a model I use:

The principal-agent-model of the future self

We constantly find ourselves in a trilemma between the past self, the present self, and the future self. Bad habits fail to solve this trilemma. The above model opens up the psychological field of thinking to tools of social sciences, game theory and ethics to work on this truly deep question on what actually makes a habit bad.

The relationship between habits and the will. Here I will use a mixture of scientific and philosophical work. As described above, a weakness of Tiny Habits is that Fogg assumes that his model is a universal model of human behavior. In fact, his model excludes free will and the ability to make choices.

This seems to me to be a general weakness of all sources: Researchers generalize from their domain to other domains. Wood and Fogg, as habitual dogmatists, belittle the freedom of the will and the ability to make decisions. Jocko Willink positions himself on the other side of the spectrum and assumes that the will is the infinite resource of human decision-making ability.

I am not aiming for a middle ground because I will not try to find a compromise. Rather, I see each resource as substance for individual components of an overarching system.

What is the relationship of habits and identity? There is a huge gap here that can only be filled with classical literature. So far into my research, only James Clear has devoted a section to the question.5

But answering the question plays a central role in understanding how to categorize habitual work. For example, there are people who reject the importance of habits because of their beliefs. Partly without reflection, partly with reason. So far, I haven’t heard any good reasons. Of course, we have individual differences. However, the formation of habits is an extremely important and inescapable part of the way our brains work. Rejecting habits and everyday structure is a bit like refusing to take care of your health. You can do it, but the price is high.

A System for Shaping Your Lifestyle

In this chapter, I look at what working on habits consists of. For example, it involves consciously shaping the world we live in. There are plenty of simple examples of life-world design. For example, you can hang a pull-up bar in the bathroom door to make it a habit to do pull-ups in the morning.

I will also provide inventory methods to give you an overview over your own habit structure.

The main part of this chapter, however, are the methods and techniques for working on our habitual behavior.


Phase 1: Behavior Training; Phase 2: Habit Establishing

When building habits, we improve the quality of behavior in phase 1. In animals, for example, this is measured by the reliability of the reaction to a certain stimulus. However, for a habit to really become established, it has to be trained far beyond this (in the literature, this is called “over-training”). This is one reason why some people fail to build habits: They pay attention until the new habit feels fluid. But in reality, it’s only the start of the phase in which a habit consolidates.


In this chapter I provide an inventory of good routines. This will distinguish the book from other books on habits:

It will offer very specific routines to achieve a specific effect. This will bridge the gap from thinking about habits to actual implementation.

Example from nutrition: a glass of water with lime juice and salt in the morning. I’ll spare myself the explanation here, but let Andrew Huberman have his say: Using Salt to Optimize Mental & Physical Performance

Example from Training: If you exercise early in the morning, you should consider the circumstances. The fact that you didn’t move for a long time beforehand (because you slept), that you may be tired and that it is often not wise to exercise at high intensity early in the morning. However, if you want to shift your strength training to the early morning, you can do this, and you can do it cleverly. For example, you should train minimally to normally:

Example from training: If you work in a sitting position, you are bringing a pretty big risk factor for your health into your life. A good habit to get into is establishing a “buy in” for sitting. This is a term I borrowed from Crossfitters. It simply means that you do one thing first so that you have permission to do the other. My current buy in is 2 minutes of swings with the kettlebell. I always do this before I sit down at my desk in the morning.

Example from self-organization: One of the most important habits for me is the weekly organization as part of a so-called Weekly Review.6 I tidy up everything that has gotten messed up in my system during the week and prepare for the next week. For example, I schedule the writing blocks for specific projects a week in advance.

Example from self-organization: I also present a minimal system for self-organization. Not everyone needs a complex system, because not everyone has a complex everyday life.

Example from energy management: The sleep routine and the organization of the early evening, usually the time between dinner and bedtime, have a significant impact on the quality of sleep and thus the quality of life. One surprising realization for me is that I can’t listen to audiobooks in the evening. They have a considerable negative impact on my quality of sleep (a German post by me on the topic).

Example from self-development: Thinking carefully about yourself and your role in life is incredibly useful. The clarity you can gain protects you from mood swings (you have them, but they become less important), gives you insight into the path you should take in life and so on. For example, it is worth to do certain thinking exercises regularly and to update the answers to key questions in life.

Negative Routines

There are a number of negative habits that occur all the time. One example is filling every moment of our lives with an influx of information these days. Music during training, cell phone at the bus stop, watching a series while cooking and so on. This leads to increased anxiety, poorer working memory and many other negative effects.

I’m not yet sure how I want to tackle this chapter and whether I can collect enough bad habits. If I don’t find enough bad habits, I’ll work the ones I do find into the rest of the book instead.

Habit Building Programs

This is where I draw the most inspiration from the Tiny Habits method. The chapter is still very much in flux. So far, I have planned:

  • Building a morning routine
  • Building an evening routine
  • Building a training program
  • Building the diet
  • Building digital hygiene
  • Building inner work
  • Building flow in everyday life

Tools for Trainers and Teachers

How to use the book for your work as a coach and teacher. I am not sure how to tackle this section.

Concluding words

This is a massive piece of work. But fortunately, I have my Zettelkasten to back me up.

If you want, to read irregular updates or ask questions about the process and the book, check out the thread in the forum.

  1. Sadly, there is not good translation for the German word Lebenswandel. The Lebenswandel is the way how you structure your everyday life. It is a deep term that encompasses your habits, your beliefs that guide your actions and the meaning structure. 

  2. Wolfram Schultz (2016): Dopamine reward prediction error coding, Dialogues Clin Neurosci 1, 2016, Vol. 18, S. 23-32. Pubmed 

  3. A comment from the perspective of the Zettelkasten method: You can choose to work through these points of disagreement. I haven’t, because Wood commits a typical fallacy: she infers an outcome from a mechanism. From the undeniable fact that habitual behaviour is a major force in our lives, she infers reduced responsibility for our actions, with the idea that we shouldn’t take our failures to heart. This is wrong, because responsibility doesn’t work that way. It is based on a personal choice. You can take responsibility for events and actions that you didn’t cause or that don’t fall within your already accepted areas of responsibility. So if something is a problem, you can either refuse responsibility because the problem doesn’t fall within the areas you have already accepted responsibility for, or you can respond to it by expanding your areas of responsibility. This is a free will choice. Just think of the things you do unconsciously. You can externalise the blame by using it as an excuse (e.g. “I’ve had bad experiences”), or you can take responsibility for what is lurking in your unconscious at the moment you realise something is there. So technically you can even take responsibility for childhood trauma. 

  4. Kevin D. Hall, Thomas Bemis, Robert Brychta, Kong Y. Chen, Amber Courville, Emma J. Crayner, Stephanie Goodwin, Juen Guo, Lilian Howard, Nicolas D. Knuth, Bernard V. Miller III, Carla M. Prado, Mario Siervo, Monica C. Skarulis, Mary Walter, Peter J. Walter, and Laura Yannai (2015): Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss than Carbohydrate Restriction in People with Obesity, Cell Metab, 2015. 

  5. James Clear (2018): Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, USA: Avery, pp 29–41. 

  6. David Allen (2015): Getting Things Done. The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Elcograf: Piatkus, pp 50–51.