Zettelkasten Forum


How you use your Zettelkasten

Background for this post:

I've just started reading Guns Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, and after seeing a response from @ctietze on this forum discussion, he said that even though it was a super interesting read, he never made Zettel's about this book as a) there was so much stuff in it, and b) his work is in a different area...

This makes me wonder about how people actually use their Zettelkasten and what they use it for...
Do you make notes about pretty much everything? Any book you read? Your thoughts on those books? Insights gained from those books/articles/podcasts/etc? Any ideas you have, whether thats ideas for a mobile app, a subject you'd like to learn more about, etc?
Or do you usually use it only with a particular role in mind, picking and choosing what you make notes about and limiting it to specific subjects?
If you only use it for specific purposes, what made you choose to go this route? Why not everything? Just time? Or some other reason?

Would love to see how/what people use their ZK for...

Comments

  • edited August 25

    Great question @sepuku. I've been feeding my ZK since I started down this path, back in April 2018. Perhaps foolishly, I decided at the outset to try to convert 25 years-worth of paper and digital notes, amassed over an academic and teaching career in literary/culture studies--perhaps a dozen Mead notebooks and several hundred MBs of Word docs--into a ZK archive.

    Needless to say, I've barely made a dent in what was, in retrospect, a bit of a fool's errand. I made it through four complete notebooks and a couple of digital folders, but of course, that represents a fraction of the total. Still, I just clocked my 2000th note. This summer, I've decided to be a lot more judicious about my efforts (after all, I'm not getting any younger!), and I've decided to focus instead on those project areas that are of most importance to me.

    So in my case, my ZK is an omnivorous beast, swallowing multiple genres and kinds of knowledge work. My challenge moving forward is to make my structure notes a lot more robust and extensive, and mark the linked pathways between all the different domains of my archive with a few brighter lanterns.

    If I could give my 2018 self a bit of ZK advice, it would be to start with a few distinct structure notes and build outwards from those. I suspect if I'd done that, creating meaningful pathways would be a lot easier right from the outset than doing what I'm doing now, which is retroactively trying to hack routes through the overgrown wilderness.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • I have a very specific purpose in mind when I use my system. It serves as a memo bank, which is an important aspect of qualitative data analysis. I outlined this a little bit here.

    I also summarized my purpose here:

    I'm doing a qualitative data analysis project for my dissertation, and I'm currently reviewing the data while creating systematic memos that help me familiarize myself with the material, determine areas to focus on, and potentially inspire new ways to approach the data I've collected. I'm not really using ZK to review published work, but my use case entails a similar leap from the perspective of author/subject to my own understanding of the phenomena of interest. I'm identifying processes, activities, attitudes and figurations as elicted or enacted by subjects, and fitting those into my own theoretical perspective (which are first loosely organized as sensitizing concepts, and then grounded as more definitive or refined concepts through qualitative coding).

    I think that holding explicitly-stated purposes that serve specific projects is crucial, so I appreciate you creating this thread. This corresponds with my disagreement with the commonly-held notion that a zettelkasten is meant to be a second brain. This view parallels the flawed Cartesian notion that a disembodied 'brain in a vat' is capable of holding neutral or unbiased information. All recorded information is situated and collected with purpose, so in my view it's best to be clear and honest about your own biases and the underlying commitments that you make when doing any kind of information management.

    I also feel obliged to chime in about Guns, Germs and Steel. Despite having been awarded a Pullitzer and having been recommended by so many successful people, it is actually critically flawed. It has been widely panned by anthropologists as vague, deterministic nonsense that cherry picks data and fails to account for alternative views in any meaningful way. This relates to what I wrote above, in that creating a zettelkasten for the sake of creating a seemingly-neutral knowledge base may fail to recognize the alternative perspectives or critiques that you may not be aware of. In my view, zettelkasten is not good at tracking discourse without explicitly seeking out multiple angles and incorporating the zettelkasten into a broader project's scope.

  • The primary use that I started my ZK to tackle was for my job as a materials scientist. It has a clear purpose there, in that I can keep track of hard science topics with varying degrees of granularity--from simple conceptual ideas to rigorous proofs--as well as bits of information with different amounts of certainty. I can note down the conclusion of a paper, and then link it to a description of their experimental set up, as well as a list of questions that I have about their methods that might undermine the generality of their conclusion.

    This purpose has a clear output in the form of my scientific publications and presentations. I also can immediately see its benefit in my ability to search out previous notes and to quickly share bits of my notes with others without having to search for the reference that I originally learned that bit of information from.

    As I work in a very interdisciplinary space, I basically try to add everything scientific that I read into my ZK. I never know when something will be useful. If I feel like I have a good handle on what I'm reading, I turn it into notes.

    I've recently begun trying to migrate my lab notebook into my ZK. As a system, it allows me to separate experiment descriptions from analysis, and tie that analysis in with my readings. My only concern on this front is my ability to share this lab notebook with others, as I have to leave my lab notebook behind whenever I move to a new lab.

    Outside of this, I tend to take notes on anything that catches my eye and my interest. I have always wanted to read more widely outside of the reading I do for science and the reading I do for pure entertainment (i.e. speculative fiction), but whenever I previously have tried to read serious works on history or critical theory or philosophy, I find myself struggling to remember or to process what I'm reading. I hated the feeling of the knowledge falling out of my head as soon as I put the book away or closed the article. This kept me from reading these works because I didn't see the point. It was harder to read, and lead to little retention without an outlet or place to put the reading into some sort of practice.

    So, that's also what I use my ZK for. Anything I read that I want to remember in the future goes into my ZK. The process of adding the note helps me to think through the reading in its own context, and then put it into practice by connecting it to other readings and recontextualize it based on those other readings. It gives me a structure or a framework in which I can think without fear that I'm going to lose or forget those thoughts. Similarly to my science notes, I basically add anything that I find interesting enough that I might want to think about it later, or delve deeper into it, or be able to talk about it. If I want it to be part of my brain and not just a part of the experience of reading the book, I add it to my ZK.

    This use has a less clear output. I've only been at this a few months, but I'm hoping that as I read more broadly and add more varied notes to my ZK I will see an improvement in how I am able to read and engage with these concepts. I guess the output in that case would probably be adding more personal thoughts into the ZK, synthesizing ideas from multiple readings into my own unique conclusion. I haven't thought too far ahead about what I might do with those thoughts, other than just enjoy being able to think them.

    I've also recently begun tinkering with adding my own fiction ideas into my ZK. I have many many pages of brainstorming and random ideas that I've jotted down and forgotten. The ZK seems like it could be able to collect these random scraps in a format that would make them easier to string together into a larger work. This is a very new addition to my ZK, so I can't say how well it will work for me in the long run.

    With each new addition to the role of my ZK, I move slowly at first, only adding new notes as they become obvious. The main thing I look for before committing to a new type of addition is how much friction the ZK adds to my current workflow in that area, whether the ZK seems a natural fit for that area, and whether the ZK will give me enough benefit in that area to be worth abandoning my current system. I don't want my ZK to lead to me not taking notes on something or writing something down because it's too much work to add those notes into my ZK. I also don't want to muddy the waters or dilute my ZK down with notes that I've added just for the sake of feeling productive (collector's fallacy). I want everything I add to be well connected within my ZK, and to feel like a natural addition.

  • @sepuku, your question is simulating interesting discussion. This discussion has made me consider what I use my ZK for in a serious deeper way. Thanks. More meta analysis which for some reason is 'scratching an itch.'

    I use my ZK to work with ideas that expand my knowledge. This is nebulous. Easier to say what it is not. I keep Evernote as the repository for the detritus of life; recipes, journal, appliance manuals, web clippings, fitness trackers, medical, business and banking stuff. I feel that all those things are too messy to make much sense out of. When I started my ZK I decided to leave all my history in Evernote and start fresh. Easier without all the baggage.

    What that leaves is books. Reading equals learning. Closer reading equals higher levels of learning. I find this is a spectrum from a casual read (little learning, maybe entertainment) to full on linking and forging new and novel ideas out of active synthesis with a broad and deep history of ongoing relational ideation. I'm working on moving the needle indicating the skills of my workflow higher around the act of reading.

    I use my ZK for:
    1. Processing my reading
    - books
    - journal articles
    - some web clippings
    2. Class notes
    3. First draft of blog entries
    4. Book writing
    - current still working on a commentary to a 12th century Tibetan text called Lojong
    5. Skill building in creative non-fiction writing and writing in general
    6. Philosophy
    - I have enough notes that now I'm seeing interlinking in various philosophic traditions
    7. Meta study of the Zettelkasten Method.

    I am always looking for ideas to feed my ZK and I try and resist the pure collection of stuff which I still do. All this collection crap goes into Evernote and I find I'm doing this less and less.

    @mtl_zack said:
    I also feel obliged to chime in about Guns, Germs and Steel. Despite having been awarded a Pulitzer and having been recommended by so many successful people, it is actually critically flawed. It has been widely panned by anthropologists as vague, deterministic nonsense that cherry picks data and fails to account for alternative views in any meaningful way. This relates to what I wrote above, in that creating a zettelkasten for the sake of creating a seemingly-neutral knowledge base may fail to recognize the alternative perspectives or critiques that you may not be aware of. In my view, zettelkasten is not good at tracking discourse without explicitly seeking out multiple angles and incorporating the zettelkasten into a broader project's scope.

    To get a flavor of just how wrong Jared Diamond portrayed history I can recommend Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History (2020).

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited August 25

    @sepuku Good question; thanks for starting this thread.

    I'm not that purposeful in what I put in my ZK. I started fresh from where I was about 6 months ago, without trying to add to my ZK notes and ideas accumulated over the past 50 years and stored in other ways. I just add what is of interest to me - random thoughts, observations of people and the natural world, ideas from what I am reading, ideas that come up in conversations with friends, etc. So my ZK is highly focused on what is going on in my brain from day to day. Being semi-retired has its advantages, in that regard.

    I guess one exception to that statement is that I am trying to capture memories of events during my life, with the intent of eventually putting together a personal history. But it will grow organically, following the process described in the previous paragraph.

    If I manage to stick around for a while, perhaps my ZK will accumulate a reasonable amount of information, but it will still be highly individualized. @mtl_zack It will certainly not be "neutral or unbiased", but that wasn't my intent. What I was really hoping is that my ZK would help me to think more critically about ideas and, over time, have a few more of those "aha" moments.

  • @GeoEng51 I supposed I was a bit too harsh above. Externalizing one's thoughts can be a great means of obtaining clarity and developing new insights. This seems to be at the heart of Luhmann's original intent. In some ways, zettelkasten can simply be interpreted as a glorified annotated bibliography engine, but what makes it glorious is that it helps the user understand the connections between not only the ideas presented by and among original authors, and the user's own interpretations as well.

    Still, I feel it is important to push back against the notion that zettelkastens are like second brains because it perpetuates a view -- held especially among young and inexperienced software engineers, based on my interactions -- that does away with any sort of nuanced discussed about how we know things to be true, in favour of problematic just-so theories that would not hold up to scrutiny by experts who are more aware of the discursive aspects of knowledge production.1 This is especially common on the Hacker News forums, where zettelkasten and new note taking apps have been featured almost every week lately, and which is probably responsible for recent surges in zettelkasten's popular use.

    @Will Recent work by David Graeber and David Wengrow is also worth checking out if you're interested in that kinda thing!


    1. I notice that many examples given in novice enquiries about technical aspects of zettelkasten method include 'iconic' renaissance authors, whose ideas aren't really taken that seriously any more by people who actually care to contextualize and critically appraise their work, yet who are now frequently cited by right wing nationalists to promote and justify intolerant beliefs and acts of violence (a lot of the stuff published by quillette are emblematic of this, as per this recent article, which also frequently appear on Hacker News). ↩︎

  • edited August 25

    Right now i use my zettelkasten to connect old and new thoughts on society, politics, philosophy and psychology. But sometimes also throw some diary-like entries in where i connect my personal experience and the topics above. In the future, i'd like to use it for a Dissertation in law, too.

    I began because i am very unorganized with my handwritten notes, audio bits, google notes, webclippers, mozilla Bookmarks...you name it. Furthermore, i would always think and reflect very much about the same stuff over and over again - which feels like a burden sometimes. i hope to get something out of it with a zettelkasten-system (not even a book, just a kind of serendepity instead of feeling lost in thought. kind of like having a place for ideas so i can chill :D). This was all due to the corona crisis beginning around march, giving me more than 2 weeks of after 7 years without holidays. i used it for nothing else but clearing my mind as much as i can. and it overwhelmed me that there are so many other people who elaborate on concepts in their freetime just for the sake of it. which is not something i can say about my social environment so i am happy i dont seem to be that crazy after all :) .

  • Absolutely LOVING the responses... Apologies for the lengthy response, just taking the time to read and take in what everyones said :smile:

    @Phil said:
    Perhaps foolishly, I decided at the outset to try to convert 25 years-worth of paper and digital notes, amassed over an academic and teaching career in literary/culture studies--perhaps a dozen Mead notebooks and several hundred MBs of Word docs--into a ZK archive.

    Haha :smiley: I wonder how many people have tried and failed at doing exactly this... I considered moving all my notes over from Evernote when I started using Roam, but quickly decided that I'd just keep the Evernote account active, and search there for something I'm missing if I think I've saved it, and I can't find it in Roam...
    W.r.t. the Omnivorous comment, thats what I use Roam for, whilst trying to keep my ZK as a more atomic note store.

    @prometheanhindsight said:
    As I work in a very interdisciplinary space, I basically try to add everything scientific that I read into my ZK. I never know when something will be useful. If I feel like I have a good handle on what I'm reading, I turn it into notes.

    This is the way I'm working with it currently. Get a decent handle on something, and build it out, along with ideas generated from those newly added concepts/connections.

    @prometheanhindsight said:
    I've also recently begun tinkering with adding my own fiction ideas into my ZK. I have many many pages of brainstorming and random ideas that I've jotted down and forgotten. The ZK seems like it could be able to collect these random scraps in a format that would make them easier to string together into a larger work. This is a very new addition to my ZK, so I can't say how well it will work for me in the long run.

    Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday both use a notecard system for their writing that seems similar to a ZK. The articles I read about their writing process don't specifically state that its based off the ZK system, but they are renowned for doing so. It does mean they can lay out chapters, move ideas around and into a certain order to make things make sense before "putting pen to paper". I heard an interview with Greene where he was talking about how he decided on content for his latest book (The Laws of Human Nature) and he said that he read Neitzsche (it may have been someone else - my memory is a bit rusty... if only there was a decent personal knowledge management tool that I could look up these references :smirk:), where the content was so all over the place, he was actually able to explain it better to people than the original author was after writing it all out on index cards and rearranging into a cohesive "plot".

    @Will said:
    I am always looking for ideas to feed my ZK and I try and resist the pure collection of stuff which I still do. All this collection crap goes into Evernote and I find I'm doing this less and less.

    @Will I dont really think that the pure collection of stuff is a bad thing... Just because something isn't useful now, doesn't mean it won't be within the next 5 years, and being able to connect the ideas to something that you figured out years beforehand, will pay dividends when you reach that "aha" moment that could well come from that.
    I work in a data team at the company I work for, and we are rolling out a new system to stream events/logs from everyones laptops (~120k employees) to a central repository where we can perform analysis on them and maybe predict issues that are happening live in the environment. The issue is management want to know what we are going to get out of the data, but we are in a situation of if we don't capture all the data, we'll never know whats there.
    I see your comment as the same type of thought process. I think we just have to be a bit more picky about the "stuff" we are going to keep. Do we just create entry points, and expand from there if it comes up, or the interest is piqued enough? I like to think thats the way I'll be using my ZK...

    @GeoEng51 said:
    So my ZK is highly focused on what is going on in my brain from day to day.

    I'm trying to teach my kids some meta-skills that will help them with school/life in general. Starting them young with things like journaling, memory palaces (just getting them to visualise things more when they want to remember them), mind-mapping for taking notes in class, etc. I've also always said to them that I'll never say no to buying them books - as long as they've finished their last one, and I always let them see me write and make notes in books as I really believe this helps synthesise the content more.
    I think (hope) this is another core skill that if they learn early enough, it'll become second nature and they'll just intuitively know how to use when they are older. Of course they may not want to, and thats fine too... But having somewhere to keep thoughts and ideas, and how they relate to the real world is so important. Even if its just for your own benefit of when you get older, so you can remember things that happened to you through your life. I think your example is a great use case!

    @mtl_zack said:
    I also feel obliged to chime in about Guns, Germs and Steel. Despite having been awarded a Pullitzer and having been recommended by so many successful people, it is actually critically flawed. It has been widely panned by anthropologists as vague, deterministic nonsense that cherry picks data and fails to account for alternative views in any meaningful way.

    @mtl_zack I feel like this is precisely what ZK's would help with, providing the reader does their due diligence and reads up multiple viewpoints on the subjects they are reading about. Taking a single source as gospel is always dangerous. But my view is people who are willing to stick at keeping a ZK for the long run (Caveat: I've only been at it for a short while myself, ~4 months), are also the types of people who wouldn't take a single book they've read on a subject, as gospel, and are likely people who would widely read on a subject they are interested in.
    This is completely my intention, and I feel like the ZK will help me along that way as when I eventually do find a contradicting argument to something thats already in my ZK, I can either add a note as a follow-up, correcting my previous note, or just pull the old one out along with any follow-ons that now are no longer relevant, and update it with the "correct" content. "Correct" as far as my own understanding goes that is...

  • @mtl_zack said:

    >

    Still, I feel it is important to push back against the notion that zettelkastens are like second brains because it perpetuates a view -- held especially among young and inexperienced software engineers, based on my interactions -- that does away with any sort of nuanced discussion about how we know things to be true, in favour of problematic just-so theories that would not hold up to scrutiny by experts who are more aware of the discursive aspects of knowledge production.[^1]

    Haha! You hit on one of the themes in my ZK - how we decide or know if something is true. I'm reading the book by Neel Burton, "Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking" right now. He has some interesting insights into the topic. But the topic is one that I'll be pursuing in my ZK for many years to come, in keeping with the following quote from Burton:

    For some thinkers, something can only be true or false if it is open to verification, at least in theory if not also in practice. The truth of something lies at the end of our inquiry into that thing. But as our inquiry can have no end, the truth of something can never be more than our best opinion of that thing...best opinion is only best because, at least on average, it is closest to the truth, which, as well as instrumental value, has deep intrinsic value.

    I'm not referring to or quoting Burton because I think he has the last word on the subject; he just happens to be the person whose writing on the subject I am reading at present.

  • I am a physician and neuroscience researcher. In both fields, I use my ZK to capture learnings from sources I read, which usually are books and journal articles.

    For medicine, when I learn different things about diseases, I enter them into my ZK, elaborating more and more on each disease with each ZK. Some zettels are my own thoughts, many are extracts of things others say.
    In terms of usage, anytime I am dealing with a particular disease or clinical problem, I search my ZK for relevant notes.

    In neuroscience work, when I read papers, I extract the findings and add my own commentary. Over time, I build up structure notes. I also put any new ideas I have in my ZK and link to them. Whenever I want to retrieve some information about a topic, I consult my ZK.

    A common use for my ZK is as a reference for 'recipes' when I do any kind of programming. I very frequently I pull up previous solutions to problems whenever I am in a situation that calls for a particular solution. This happens a lot and I often surprise myself that I've dealt with and recorded my previous solutions to a problem (that I forgot I had).

    I discuss in more detail my use of my ZK here
    https://forum.toolsforthought.io/t/my-specific-use-cases-and-zettel-types/60/10

    I haven't used my ZK as much to build up and develop novel ideas. I hope that in time that comes. But even as just an external repository of my previous thoughts, it is already paying dividends.

  • Do you make notes about pretty much everything?

    Yes. Unless I forget about it.

    Any book you read?

    Yes.

    Your thoughts on those books?

    Yes.

    Insights gained from those books/articles/podcasts/etc?

    Yes.

    Any ideas you have, whether thats ideas for a mobile app, a subject you'd like to learn more about, etc?

    Yes.

    Or do you usually use it only with a particular role in mind, picking and choosing what you make notes about and limiting it to specific subjects?

    No. Everything.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited August 27

    @achamess said

    I haven't used my ZK as much to build up and develop novel ideas. I hope that in time that comes. But even as just an external repository of my previous thoughts, it is already paying dividends.

    Yes, you first have to build up a large foundation of notes to use as source material. You can't connect ideas that aren't written down or don't exist in your head. If you were diligent and created 6 notes per day, you'd end the year with 2190 notes. That I think would be a really great base from which to work with.

    But you also have to be diligent about probing for connections between ideas once the above base of notes is built because they won't naturally emerge. If you don't diligently probe than it just turns into a giant wiki, merely to be used for reference instead of idea generation.

  • @Nick said:
    @achamess said

    But you also have to be diligent about probing for connections between ideas once the above base of notes is built because they won't naturally emerge. If you don't diligently probe than it just turns into a giant wiki, merely to be used for reference instead of idea generation.

    So do you think it is the probing for connections that generates new ideas or is it the reading/thinking that goes on afterwards, once the note network becomes more complex? Maybe it's a combination of the two.

  • edited August 29

    @Nick said:
    @achamess said

    I haven't used my ZK as much to build up and develop novel ideas. I hope that in time that comes. But even as just an external repository of my previous thoughts, it is already paying dividends.

    Yes, you first have to build up a large foundation of notes to use as source material. You can't connect ideas that aren't written down or don't exist in your head. If you were diligent and created 6 notes per day, you'd end the year with 2190 notes. That I think would be a really great base from which to work with.

    But you also have to be diligent about probing for connections between ideas once the above base of notes is built because they won't naturally emerge. If you don't diligently probe than it just turns into a giant wiki, merely to be used for reference instead of idea generation.

    I agree. I am not intentional enough about having time where I don't try to put new notes into the ZK but rather interact with existing notes to build connections.

    I think Andy Matuschak describes such a practice well:

    https://notes.andymatuschak.org/About_these_notes?stackedNotes=zVFGpprS64TzmKGNzGxq9FiCDnAnCPwRU5T

    Every morning he develops his notes, focusing on idea development/generation rather than putting in new content from the outside.

    EDIT: I know the majority of this audience aims for the ZK as a thinking tool over just a repository of organized info from external sources (Wiki), but the latter does still provide a lot of benefit. Sometimes you really do need to just be able to find some information, and having extracted it and organized it in a way that makes it easier for you to retrieve and relate to associated information is still very useful.

  • I have two different use cases, and (now) two different ZKs (and currently two different tools).

    One ZK is much closer to the type of work that gets discussed on here - reading a broad range of material and documenting notes, ideas and connections arising from this. My area of interest is broadly socio-political and sociology, particularly how societies and individuals connect, engage and conversely disengage and form cliques.

    My second use is for undergraduate studies. I'm doing a totally untaught degree and I'm choosing to use a loose ZK approach to help me make the connections that I wouldn't have to make myself so much if there were lectures. I'm choosing to do this because my brain has difficulties structuring things and getting thoughts in order, so whilst I feel that ZK isn't entirely necessary (and indeed I often find the conversations here aren't a great fit for my endeavours) it has been useful.

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