“The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, memory, thought, and reasoning are all constrained. […] The real powers come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities.” Don Norman
NB: ‘The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone’ by Sloman and Fernbach- is a good book to read to understand how little you actually internally know, how reliant on the outside world you are.
[this is a rough draft, to be turned into a fuller post once I’ve experimented with the system]
Imagine if that image, times 100, was a map of your thoughts, of a lifetime of research. Not just separate facts, pieces of information, but how they relate. How you could dip into one part, and quickly find all the other connecting parts over decade. To me that’s a dream, and the topic of this experiment and blog post. That topic is known as a Zettelkasten.
This Christmas I finished reading a book I hope will hold part of a solution to a range of related research challenges I’ve been toying with since I was an undergraduate. Here I briefly explain what this is, why I am starting one myself, and, mostly importantly, provide an index of resources on the topic, both for myself and for others. I do not attempt to summarise the system myself as others have done it well. I will add my own experiences as I use it over the coming months,.
The book I finished is a book about Zettelkasten’s by Sonke Ahrens, and is called ‘How to take smart notes’. Whilst I cite a range of resources to explore, none come close to explaining what is so attractive about this system and the theory underlying it.
The need for a ‘second brain’
One of the keys to the small amount of academic success I had was to apply simple techniques to address innate cognitive deficiencies that most of us have. Without these I might have got a grade or two lower at University.
I wrote previously about Deep Work in my post giving advice about working in lockdown. I’ll write shortly about another – spaced active recall and memory palaces. Together these address focus and improving memory of isolated facts, and together they addressed key points I needed to be strong at but was not naturally good at.
But there was a major gap in this I’ve been trying to fill since I was undergraduate, and I think I may have found a simple system to address it, just as Deep Work and Spaced Active Recall addressed key points for me.
I always worked in fields where accumulating large amounts of data points, such as results and observations, and then weaving them together, was paramount. This was something I was relatively good at, unlike focus + recall of isolated facts.
If you adopt a strategy of having a broad canvas, of trying to understand disparate areas and weaving them together, you run into a problem over time. Your memory fails, and so does your external memory system such as notebooks.
This is not a problem over a period of a year, and especially not when following a curriculum. As an undergraduate I could keep word docs of key papers and observations, based loosely on the categories I was given by tutors. Likewise, for a narrow topic given at work, you can study for that and keep notes together.
But what about study over 5 or 10 years? You begin to forget where your earlier observations are. You forget they existed. Links you might make between disparate subjects are lost. This is not such an issue if you work serially on a series of topics. But it becomes a big wasted opportunity if you want to work in a much more integrative way.
Most note-taking methods separate knowledge from use of knowledge. A notebook, for example, might have notes on a wide range of things ordered by time. To get around this, you could order your notes by topic. But what if the topic isn’t clear at the time, and will only grow later? And what if an observation is of use to a wide range of topics? Linear writing is not good for developing webs of knowledge.
An intro the Zettelkasten:
This is what the Zettelkasten system addresses. I was attracted to it as it seemed to achieve a number of things I’d been trying to evolve a system to do by trial and error. Zettelkasten centres on the connections between notes, ie how knowledge fits together to form a greater whole. Its not really just a knowledge management system – it is a thinking system where the thinking itself is done in the knowledge system. This is explained well by Sonke Ahrens in his book.
Zettelkasten is German for slip box. It is also a phrase for a note-taking, writing, study, and research system that purports to be both extremely simple and extremely effective.
This is a physical Zettelkasten (image from Wikipedia). I will be using a paper one, as I try to avoid computers as much as I can as I find them impossibly distracting and difficult to think whilst using, and also bad for health as they seem to alter your breathing. I cannot be calm whilst using a computer.
A key reason I was attracted to it is it was developed by Luhmann, a highly productive and influential sociologist who had a ‘rag to riches’ story to which he credited this system he made.
Here is an intro:
Here is a selection of links to intros/deep dives – I recommend reading through before picking which one to follow. Again, none is a substitute for the brilliant book by Ahrens (itself written using Zettelkasten), which is a wonderful exploration of how we may wrongly think of research and writing (never plan!).
3 good intro pieces:
Here is a good written summary – https://kadavy.net/blog/posts/how-to-take-smart-notes-summary/ and that author’s own experiences using Zettelkasten – https://kadavy.net/blog/posts/zettelkasten-method-slip-box-digital-example/
And here is a more practical, example-based introduction to how the system should be used, including ‘writing your first Zettelkasten’: https://medium.com/@rebeccawilliams9941/the-zettelkasten-method-examples-to-help-you-get-started-8f8a44fa9ae6 Important suggestion of converting fleeting notes->literature notes on the same day they are made. This resonates with my own experiences. EDIT APRIL 2022: this is the guide most likely to be of use in my opinion, rereading it having experimented with the system for a little while.
Zettelkasten.de seems to be the best living blog on the topic of Zettelkasten, with explorations of particular points of detail:
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/overview/ < Very good online detail of the system.
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/collectors-fallacy/ < Collectors Fallacy. Gathering knowledge without processing and using it as a work pitfall we often fall into.
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/idea-index-journal-fiction/ < A piece on indexing your work + others.
https://zettelkasten.de/posts/use-real-notebook/ An argument for using real notebooks, not index cards, for the original pre-zettel note stage: This can work with the explanation the YouTube video has, in which the bibliography has a single index card that could ‘point’ to the relevant page in the notebook.
https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Zettelkasten ‘It’s an unusual system for developing ideas over long periods of time by slowly iterating on thousands of atomic slips of paper, all densely linked to each other. Over time, it evolved into what Luhmann considered to be an independent thought partner in his research, capable of carrying on a conversation with him and eliciting ideas which genuinely surprised him.’
Implementing a Zettelkasten using Roam Research – https://betterhumans.pub/the-complete-guide-for-building-a-zettelkasten-with-roamresearch-8b9b76598df0
LessWrong posts on it:
https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/T382CLwAjsy3fmecf/how-to-take-smart-notes-ahrens-2017 – an excellent LessWrong introduction to Zettelkasten
This is an hour long deep dive on the Zettelkasten method. “
Your first note doesn’t need to be anything important — it isn’t as if every idea you put into your Zettelkasten has to be “underneath” it. Remember, you aren’t trying to invent a good category system. Not every card has to look like a core idea with bullet points which elaborate on that idea, like my example in the previous section. You can just start writing whatever. In fact, it might be good if you make your first cards messy and unimportant, just to make sure you don’t feel like everything has to be nicely organized and highly significant.”
One aspect of digital I will miss is the ability to make maps of your own knowledge like this below (from https://medium.com/@rebeccawilliams9941/the-zettelkasten-method-examples-to-help-you-get-started-8f8a44fa9ae6) – this uses obsidian, a promising looking digital implementation of the Zettelkasten – https://obsidian.md):
Updates – this isn’t readable – its a prompt for myself to add the next stage of this piece.
5th Feb 2022
I’ve begun this, and got around 100 cards. I’ve also found index cards are fantastic for keeping a notebook focussed on quality. Notebooks accumulate many wonderful/interesting thoughts/ideas/sections, but this can get cluttered out by the detritus of everyday reminders etc (another way to handle this is to put reminders in pencil, quality thoughts in pen).
Whats working/note working….
1) the index cards feel like a much better way of organising information than notebooks. Conversely, they are not as good for detailed thinking or writing drafts. They are complementary tools.
2) they promote a sense of flow somewhat better than working on a computer, for obvious reasons.
3) they are very easy to use.
1) I haven’t found a good way to transport index cards to work and back. Most boxes I can find are too big to carry in a box. I briefly thought of using digital, but this means I have to have my laptop open at times when I am trying to have it off……….
2) they are a little slower than digital, but I don’t think long-term that’s a problem as that slowness promotes quality of thought.
One key error has been to fall into converting it into an index, with title cards such as ‘politics’ or ‘Japanese cooking’. This is the role of a bibliography, not the Zettelkasten, and misses its key role- it is an organiser of ideas, identifying links between them. I won’t start from scratch, but will try to convert the existing slides I’ve got into that format.
Update April 2022
https://forums.getdrafts.com/t/zettelkasten-usage-analog-or-digital/10740/6 a useful back and forth on digital vs analog notes…. https://www.reddit.com/r/Zettelkasten/comments/fga4km/paper_or_software/
As in the 5th Feb update, my original sorting of my ZK into clear headings was a major mistake. It has got me trapped inside the index level approach. I’m weighing up the right way to fix this.
To add later: https://medium.com/@ethomasv/the-folgezettel-conundrum-20b14dc986ec, https://medium.com/@ethomasv/understanding-zettelkasten-d0ca5bb1f80e, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2hxygqjx2k, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSM0CZZEDYQ, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMJGKZ7n9hE&t=2s, ZK’s as an antidote to ageing, a wisdom machine, etc.
An example Zettel, from https://zettelkasten.de/introduction/#the-paper-based-zettelkasten:
Luhmann’s slip box notes: https://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes
To add later – video of Sonke Ahrens
“Many famous authors and artists used index cards in their work. The Russian-born American novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote his last novel The Original of Laura (subtitled A Novel in Fragments) on a set of 138 cards that were put together and published after his death. He also used index cards for his (in)famous Lolita. ” from – https://www.taskade.com/blog/zettelkasten-method-software-remote-work/ Note this is also how ‘Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance’ was written, as outlined in its sequel.
https://users.speakeasy.net/~lion/nb/book.pdf – This link was recommended by one of the LessWrong posts as an alternative system to this – I have yet to study but will try to look at it before I get too deep into Zettelkasten – (I have tried briefly reading but it is incredibly irritatingly written, as though the author was on cocaine at the time)