Zettelkasten Forum


Folder vs Summary / Atomicity vs Complete Source of Truth

Hello!

I have been experimenting with my Zettelkasten and two somewhat related questions surfaced. I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

Question 1

Instead of creating summary notes why not put related notes in a folder? Doesn't a summary note essentially group notes together very much like a folder? In my opinion, a folder has some unique benefits worthy of consideration:

  • A folder is much easier to drag files into / out from. It doesn't require creating a summary note and creating links to related notes manually;
  • It groups all notes related to a particular subject in one specific location. I recall reading an article by Tiago Forte in which he argues that we humans have very good spatial memory, so it is easier for us to recall things by their location. A folder would provide such a location;
  • If a mix of notes across different subjects is required, then of course a summary note can be created in the folder or any other suitable location;
  • In a folder notes can still preserve their atomicity (see Question 2);
  • Notes can still be linked to from anywhere in the Zettelkasten by using relative paths;
  • A folder provides a nice central hub for a particular topic. If you want to visit your notes about UX, then you are very likely to get a good start into your archive by visiting the "User Experience Design" folder, instead of trying to remember the name of the summary note, for example.

Question 2

This question is about note atomicity. Let's say that I am organizing knowledge about heuristic analysis in UX and I have determined that there are several parts to this topic:

  • Definition of heuristics
  • What is understood by heuristic analysis in UX
  • Heuristic analysis vs user testing
  • Heuristic analysis best practices
  • How to perform heuristic analysis
  • Links to resources about heuristic analysis

At this point I could (1) create a separate note for each bullet point, or (2) create one big note containing all bullet points. The Zettelkasten approach suggests that I do (1). Personally, however, I feel like doing (2) because then the note would organize all the key parts related to the subject in a sequence that makes sense (like a book), would be easier to maintain since I would not have to create links and summary notes, and I wouldn't have to wonder if some interesting thought is stranded somewhere in the Zettelkasten. Realistically, how likely am I to need to link to one specific bullet point? In this case, perhaps not very likely.

So do you think it is a matter of figuring out the balance between atomicity/note length/completeness of thought?

Sorry for this ridiculously long post and I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

There is no method to my madness. My madness is my method.

Comments

  • I'll try to explain how I approach your second question.

    1. Definition of heuristics
    2. What is understood by heuristic analysis in UX
    3. Heuristic analysis vs user testing
    4. Heuristic analysis best practices
    5. How to perform heuristic analysis
    6. Links to resources about heuristic analysis

    I will argue that these are not actually atomic ideas, at least not all of them. If were to structure it I would do like this (without known much about heuristic analysis in UX). Something like a comparison between two concepts isn't an idea. It is a collection of comparisons between the two concepts.

    So a comparison might be: Heuristics are faster to apply than user testing. This note or idea can then link to all sorts of reasons. But the real benefit is that you can reuse this idea in other places, maybe you create your own best practices for user testing etc.

    1. Heuristic analysis in UX
      1. Aspect no. 1 of HA in UX
      2. Aspect no. 2 of HA in UX
      3. Best practices for heuristic analysis in UX
        1. Best practice 1 (perhaps this is linked to [[1.2]])
        2. Best practice 2
      4. Comparison of HA in UX and user testing in UX [[2]]
        1. Aspect no. 2 [[1.2]] is much faster than [[2.1]]
    2. User testing in UX
      1. Aspect no. 1 of user testing
      2. Best practices for user testing
      3. ...
      4. ...

    Hopefully, I've communicated somewhat clearly :smile:

  • Question 2

    This question is about note atomicity. Let's say that I am organizing knowledge about heuristic analysis in UX and I have determined that there are several parts to this topic:

    >

    • Definition of heuristics
    • What is understood by heuristic analysis in UX
    • Heuristic analysis vs user testing
    • Heuristic analysis best practices
    • How to perform heuristic analysis
    • Links to resources about heuristic analysis

    I would probably end up with atomic notes for each bullet point and then some (see @henrikenggaard's approach) plus a structure note that links to, orders, and comments on all these for an overview, and to prepare a potential article/book outline.

    [...] Realistically, how likely am I to need to link to one specific bullet point? In this case, perhaps not very likely.

    That depends on what you're doing with your life!

    I'm developing software, so notes on UX will be relevant for a long time. The Definition of heuristics note I can imagine to link to the most, from various places -- e.g. whenever I come up with an idea that's based on heuristics! The best practices collection and the how-to guide, probably not so much.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • Thank you for your answers guys. So what would be the advantage of linking to an atomic note versus liking to a larger master note containing all the key information on, in this case, heuristics?

    I guess I am questioning whether atomicity fractures ideas into way too many pieces that end up floating around the archive connected by even more fragments like links and summary notes. Wouldn't it make sense to create longer notes (molecules, let's say) like short book chapters that function standalone and provide a more complete source of information on something?

    If they are well structured, with appropriate headings for each section/bullet point, then wouldn't they still be quite easy to extract key information from?

    Some part of me "gets" atomicity, while another one questions its efficiency and usefulness. But I want to hear from you since you all have more experience with the Zettelkasten method.

    There is no method to my madness. My madness is my method.

  • I'm going to preface by saying that advantages and disadvantages are somewhat irrelevant, unless you also understand your needs. There is no absolute perfect solution for everything, you have to look at what purpose your notes are for before we can really understand what is advantageous.*

    That intro might seem overly philosophical, but my point is that book style writing is good for its purposes. I'd much rather read a textbook than the author's notes. Book chapters are meant to be read (somewhat) linearly and self-contained and this puts certain demands on reading flow, storytelling, structure.

    But the point of Zettelkasten** is to explore relationships between ideas in order to discover/imagine/think up new observations and concepts. Because of this need, I need something which makes it easy to put existing concepts into a new context.

    I'll try illustrate it with an example from my notes. A lot of people use Zettelkasten for writing. We collect notes and then try to formulate drafts. Awesome. My work involves writing, but also many other things, such as experiment design and programming. I wonder, can I use Zettelkasten for this? Approaching this problem, book chapter style, would be difficult, because I see everything in the "Zettelkasten and writing" context, but my whole goal is to develop a new context.

    By having atomic or granular notes, I can approach directly through the reasoning process presented in the Zettelkasten. What are the arguments for why Zettelkasten is good for writing? Do they apply to experiment design too?

    And after a bit of poking and rewriting and editing and thinking, I discovered something new.*** Could I have done this with non-atomic notes. Probably, the content is there, right? But by having atomic notes you get many more options for exploring and re-contextualizing notes.


    Of course, this depends upon your need. Summary notes have their use.

    Depending on what software you use, it might be possible to link directly to headings in a manner which is quite compatible with the other ideas of a Zettelkasten. The Archive supports this.

    * I've adopted this mindset from colleagues working with medical devices, space tech.

    ** At least to me and probably many other on this forum.

    *** My conclusion is: Yes, kinda. Zettelkasten is a part of a workflow, but it is not the only piece.

  • I'm thinking of having a longer form of a Zettel, too, and then only breaking them down into atoms only when I need it that way. I guess I have to try, but if you've ever done the same, how was your experience? @glitchform

    I write about unconventional self-improvement advice at improveism.com

  • edited May 13

    @henrikenggaard I see what you are saying. Perhaps my Zettelkasten hasn't yet reached "critical mass" and my workflow is too uncertain for the usefulness of note atomicity to be clearly apparent at this time. I will definitely keep your suggestion in mind as I move forward, thank you.

    @improveism I haven't experimented with my Zettelkasten long enough to be able to tell how I feel about my experience so far. However, I do find that longer Zettels make sense to me because they immediately provide context around any given idea, and they do not require having to create complex networks that are hard to visualize at a glance. I acknowledge that this could be limiting—a paragraph is only connected to either the paragraph preceding or following it, while a note with incoming and outgoing connections has infinite potential relationships.

    I wonder whether me preferring the linear approach is not simply my comfort-zone state from having always been consuming information in this format. Perhaps in order to unlock the power of atomicity I need to embrace the conceptual leap into networked notes.

    What is the appeal of longer Zettels to you?

    There is no method to my madness. My madness is my method.

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