A great overview of the Zettelkasten method (with some personal observations)

So, that’s the buzzword that has been floating in productivity circles, and the authorities in the field (Zettelkasten.de) have (should I say finally) written a great and comprehensive overview of the method. If you’re interested and/or have been struggling with your notes, look no further:

Two words of observation after having used the method for almost a year:

Do not sweat the final product. Zettels look so pristine and well thought-out when you see the demos. There’s a natural tendency to want to write something as good and final from the get-go. Don’t. These systems have built themselves over time (years, maybe). A half-written note in your own words is not ideal, but it’s better than nothing and it already has linking value in the system. Zettling is a fluid process, where values accrues over time. Start working on things, do not strive for perfection, just do it for the process.

Do not sweat the references part. The Zettelkasten is originally an academic workflow and it shows. All initial practitioners of the method tend be academics, so they need to have a perfect citation system. But not everybody (and I would argue, far from everybody) needs that level of detail. If you’re a knowledge worker but don’t need to be perfectly accountable in minute detail for every last thing you quote, ditch the references manager and just make sure you jot down where things come from (“This author in that book” is enough in my experience).

I believe Nick Milo strikes the right balance of inspiration and fluidity for most of us:

Full disclosure – I am currently following his workshop, but it’s already proven hugely valuable – a hundred times more than Build a Second Brain, of which I have amply said negative things about on this forum :wink:

After reading a lot about all those things, asking questions, practicing, I think I am slowly finding my footing with the method itself (and I am awed by the results I’m getting). If somebody has any questions on it, I’d be happy to try and answer as I can.

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Really great summary @KillerWhale. Your findings are very similar to my own. I’ve found if I try to keep permanent notes as atomic as possible, write my own thoughts and not just copy quotes, and be okay going back and iterating over time that taking notes with this method in mind is much more palatable for me.

Also, Nick Milo’s stuff is great. Highly recommend it!

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Oooooh bad whale! I should have really mentioned your channel as well, your Obsidian demos are super helpful to see things as they are being made and help a lot lowering the barrier of entry to all this! Thank you for doing them :+1: and my apologies for the oversight!

And I’m glad we come to the same conclusions! Indeed, what really clicked for me is that it’s supposed to be an ever evolving and fluid process. :slight_smile:

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You’re too kind and you didn’t have to mention mine by any means!

This has been my conclusion about productivity systems in general to be honest.

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Which note taking app are you using?

Obsidian, which offers the best flow in my experience with a great feature set that keeps being added to weekly. I’m linking to my references in DEVONthink. So that’s not much of a mobile workflow yet but apps for Obsidian are coming, along with a DTTG redesign.

Perfect, thank you. I have been trying to get into the method recently.
I wish a programme did backlinks automatically.

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Obsidian does :slightly_smiling_face: Roam too to be fair, but I find the price crazy, the « cult » thing puts me off and I like to own my data in this case…

Ah no… here comes another app jump :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Thank you I will take a look.

Totally agree with the Roam comments.

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I’ve been using plain text files organized in Dropbox via Ulysses as my Zettel for about a year. I would however like the ability to embed pictures within the files. A series of RTF files may work, and these are somewhat non-proprietary / future proof. Sadly, there is no perfect solution.

Obsidian might be just the ticket for you. Markdown files instead of text but picture embeds supported and lovely in preview mode.

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Great post! I think you’re spot on with the “less worrying, more note-taking” approach, and to see how they’re evolving.

Though as an academic I vehemently disagree with not keeping references…:wink: though to be fair, not everyone needs a reference manager and you’re right, as long as you know somehow where you got your content from, everything’s should be fine. I think the whole idea of always reformulating texts into your own words (as opposed to using quotes) risks people eventually misrecognizing other people’s work as their own. If you just want to learn about a topic this kind of knowledge accumulation is great, if you want to write an original article, it’s not.

To be honest, while I love the general idea of the Zettelkasten, I wonder what would come back if we sent Luhmann’s work through an originality testing service such as Turnitin. The whole idea that you should write notes at publication level, and then just remix the cards for a new project makes me very uncomfortable. I think you need to have some sort of system of ‘burn notices’ on your own notes so that if you’ve used them you know not to use them verbatim again.

Paradoxically, block embeds (I.e. re-using your own words) is the one thing I miss most from Roam in Obsidian. Yes I know you can do block embeds now, but they are still a relatively poor cousin - only visible in Preview mode and no such thing ‘text and alias’ that allows me to slightly manipulate the text (eg bold something) without it affecting the original block. Makes the whole idea of using your atomic notes, and I include quotes from literature notes, in a new writing project more difficult.

I actually started commenting because I wanted to ask what you thought of the LYT course? I was quite tempted but didn’t like the hierarchical organisation as much - what I liked about Roam and then Obsidian was that I didn’t have to think where I put stuff as through the linked notes they would never get lost…love Nick’s videos though! Best produced of all the Roam and Obsidian courses I’ve seen (call me shallow, but I value not having to stare just at someone else’s screen with a voice coming from nowhere, but a nicely lit room with a person that is not sitting in front of a laptop camera headshot style. Call it visual relief if you like).

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Thanks for your comments! Yeah, I absolutely agree with the “burn notice” thing. I’m a fiction writer, so I’m probably even more at danger of rehashing my own ideas and story patterns. I have resolved to identify “used” ideas in some way so as to know that, if I ever really want to revisit something, I absolutely need to find a really fresh perspective on it.

I love it! I’ve taken both BASB and LYT and the verdict is: I hate BASB, while LYT absolutely is the real deal. It builds on the Zettelkasten strengths (“write in order to think”, to sum things up) and takes it to the next level using very well thought out emergence mechanisms. The LYT workflows are honestly very simple (you can even access them through the LYT kit, which you must know of) but, in true GTD or martial arts fashion, will take years to master. And I absolutely love about them is how open ended and fluid they are (it’s the main theme of the course so far – my cohort is halfway through). So much that they adapt to any kind of work, but still represent an impressively robust framework you can rely on. It’s a very conscious kind of thing.

He does not spend a lot of time on reference management, since it’s actually a reasonably specific use case – but you certainly already have workflows for that – but a lot on idea emergence and accretion. He also puts very much forward that you have to put in the work in your system to build value, but that this can be a joyful process. As an experiment, I started building the book I’m working on with the LYT framework so as to put it to the test through the most complicated process I know – and I am literally amazed at how easy things are. It’s simply impossible not to have ideas.

On top of that, Nick is wonderful, extremely available and flexible, and really goes out of his way to make sure everybody is being listened to and at ease. Contrary to many online courses, you can see that it’s not an act, it’s a genuine concern, and he’s extremely active on the forums. He’s just a wonderful person.

I am 100% delighted with the workshop, it’s what I had been looking for for literally years of struggling with my very insane PKM use case (basically: everything can be story fodder if I’m interested). If it can handle that, I would venture it should handle anything.

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I’m not aware that Luhmann kept his slip boxes to “write notes at a publication level, and then just remix the cards for a new project”. That is a misunderstanding of his explanation of the slip boxes in Communicating with Slip Boxes.

I believe most of what is written about zettlekasten focuses on digitizing the Luhmann technique but misses the rationale for the technique entirely, and therefore misses the intellectual discipline.

(Present company excepted, of course, oh Great Whale.)

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Oh, but my thanks!
tips hat
had you ever seen a whale tip his hat? Now you have :grin:

On a more serious note, I completely agree that Luhmann’s productivity leads current productivity writers to look for the “secret sauce” that made the Zettelkasten work and replicate that. But that’s mistaking the tree for the forest (seriously, do we really need to care that badly about Folgezettel?). That’s exactly what I love with LYT – Nick Milo is decidedly not doing that, but getting to what I think is the spirit of the method (free form conscious thinking through links and patterns lending itself to emergence) rather than the letter.

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Here’s the secret: there’s no secret. Luhmann worked and thrived in an entirely analog world. He also writes that “the slip box needs a number of years to reach a critical mass”. And he repeatedly explains the value of links between slips. So what did he do? He “communicated” with the boxes – the slips. Repeatedly working with the material to discover linkages and record them meticulously.

He didn’t pound out a flood of notes into a computer, that automagically linked them. He used his focus over a very long horizon to “speak” with his notes and expand knowledge. It is the work that matters, not the technique.

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Thanks for your thoughts on the course in detail - that sounds really great! I can imagine how well this would work for fiction writing. And I have similar issues - everything is a potential venue for research, my problem is more keeping track of them and seeing where they converge to form more advanced ideas. Maybe I’ll join the next cohort…

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I may well be misremembering Luhmann (I read his German descriptions, but it’s been a while…), or my memories might be refracted through Soenke Ahrens and his version…I guess I should’ve taken better notes :wink:

Clearly his technique worked for him, so it did matter to him. But you are right, the point is not in the app or the technique but in the intellectual work with whatever kind of notes you are taking. If Obsidian or Roam or a Zettelkasten of some sort make it easier to do this, great.

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