# reference management for project notes?

Ahrens book "How to take smart notes" describes a workflow for "project notes".

what are "project notes"

"project notes" are created outside of a Zettelkasten. They are stored in a project specific context, discarded or archived1 and used in a project specific environment.

reference system for project notes

References are managed in a project specific environment. It is a subset of reference collection of your Zettelkasten system, may contain additional references or replacements for specific references to fit in the goal of the project.

question

Is anyone keeping a separate reference collection for projects? What is the idea behind this? How much control do we need? I see no benefits for this. One thing that comes to mind is when the project is in a different language. Then each reference must be replaced with a source in the respective language.

1. not to be confused with The Archive. I am referring to archiving in the sense of archivation. ↩︎

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• No. As long it is knowledge, I keep it in my Zettelkasten. One of the main benefits of the Zettelkasten Method is to ignore project boundaries and always benefit from all of your knowledge work for every project.

If you separate project notes and whatever other notes you are thinking on a more superficial level. Technically, I don't try to manage notes but to manage knowledge. It seems to be a play of words but it is not. The different concepts reflect the different levels of thinking about the issue: Notes are the means, knowledge is the end. So, the goal is not to do anything with notes but with knowledge.

I am a Zettler

• @zk_1000 said:
Is anyone keeping a separate reference collection for projects? What is the idea behind this? How much control do we need? I see no benefits for this. One thing that comes to mind is when the project is in a different language. Then each reference must be replaced with a source in the respective language.

Project Notes are just another form of structure—a Structure Note on a project rather than a book or article. The only difference I make is giving the note title's special signifiers, so I can easily distinguish them in the note list and the tag #project for "saved search" capabilities. 202011250546 ★ Jekyll Static Website

@sfast said:
Technically, I don't try to manage notes but to manage knowledge. It seems to be a play of words but it is not. The different concepts reflect the different levels of thinking about the issue: Notes are the means, knowledge is the end. So, the goal is not to do anything with notes but with knowledge.

I stand and bow to the east. Sascha, this is helpful and something I what to pay more attention to. I spend way too much time futzing with note format and template format at the expense of "futzing" with knowledge. Too much focus on the means is not helping me reach the potential of the ends. It comes down to opportunity costs.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• I second what @sfast said. The richness comes from finding connections where you don't expect them.

For an anecdotal example, when I was working on a long forum post for my university classes (a common occurrence), my ZK searches brought me to a my notes on a short story. My program is not related to literature, but I nevertheless included something about the story in my notes. Turns out, a lot of people knew the story and the cross-pollination of disciplines for that project was very well-received.

• edited December 2020

@zk_1000 said:
Ahrens book "How to take smart notes" describes a workflow for "project notes".

what are "project notes"

"project notes" are created outside of a Zettelkasten. They are stored in a project specific context, discarded or archived[^1] and used in a project specific environment.

Is anyone keeping a separate reference collection for projects? What is the idea behind this? How much control do we need? I see no benefits for this. One thing that comes to mind is when the project is in a different language. Then each reference must be replaced with a source in the respective language.

Hmmm...let me give you a perspective from the semi-retired stage of life.

I have no issue with having separate project notes which contain information and ideas that are not in my ZK. For one, the system for doing so is set up and prescribed by the way the company for whom I work functions. They want project folders to exist, in a certain form and place. Everyone working for the company knows how to do that and how to access the information. And the information stored in those project folders is voluminous and, for me, largely unrelated to the main purposes for my ZK. So I chose not to include them in my ZK.

I am a proponent of putting all of the ideas that are important to me in my ZK. But there are so many ideas that I deal with that are not important and/or useful to me, that there is no way I am going to waste time putting them into my ZK.

So this is a very legitimate question that you ask, which requires careful thought. Perhaps someone who is young (I think of anyone under 40 as being young ) or someone who is focussed largely on one task (such as carrying out research for an M.Sc. or Ph.D. thesis) will want to keep most of their ideas in their ZK. That is because they want to use their ZK to help with the accumulation and processing of knowledge in their field of interest.

But I can assure you that as time goes on, you will encounter an avalanche of ideas that are of little interest to you. It is not that they lack value or don't represent "real knowledge"; it is just that they lack value to you. As I have pointed out elsewhere, you will also start to think carefully about how you prioritize your time and one of those will be in how you use your ZK and thus what you put into it.

To be ridiculous for the sake of making a point, if we all had unlimited time and energy, we could attempt to include all the world's knowledge in our ZK. Theoretically, it would be possible but practically speaking we would spend a huge amount of time and effort on activities of little value to us.

I thus believe we need to be quite discerning about what goes into our ZK, and to do that, we need to be very clear about the purposes of our ZK, i.e., for what purposes are we going to use it? Now, in some instances, it might be difficult to decide whether a concept or idea should be included, i.e., whether it now does or at some time in the future will serve our purpose for creating and maintaining a ZK. In that case, don't dither or agonize, just include it. But I submit to you that there will be many cases where we can immediately see there will be no value in including an idea or concept in our ZK. We may still desire to access that information at some point or it may still be valuable for historical or legal purposes; in that case, store it in a "project file". That is one way that I use Bear.

I submit to you that most of us already make this distinction between "ideas of interest or useful to me" and "ideas not of interest or useful to me", and we act accordingly in relation to our ZK. We do it almost unconsciously. So the real question is: how do your store, organize and later access information that doesn't belong in your ZK?

• edited December 2020

@GeoEng51 said:
So the real question is: how do your store, organize and later access information that doesn't belong in your ZK?

Ahren's answer to that question is to either archive it or delete it. To me, that makes completely sense.

Unfortunately the author does not provide any insight into why he proposes a separate reference management. The concept is completely obscure to me

Somehow i cannot associate project notes with knowledge work. Sometimes, Ahren's book is a bit confusing to read, the book lacks on overview for certain aspects to be comprehensible.

The author makes it clear that, to make his concept work, it is important to separate projects from the slip-box. To me, a project contains no knowledge. Although it can be confusingly similar sometimes, the structure of a project is also different from the structure of knowledge.

@GeoEng51 brings in another interesting perspective: to him a project contains no personal value as knowledge. I think we are on the same page, only explaining it differently.

I acknowledge that many of us are working inside of a Zettelkasten, for writing a book, a project report, a task list, diary, etc. I don't understand what it means to have a project inside a Zettelkasten and tag it with #project. So, are we still talking about the same concepts or something different? I am managing knowledge AND i am managing notes. If you have a look at the Zettelkasten method, only The Archive contains knowledge. A project is the world i am building around it. Despite of that all of my projects i am currently working on still benefit from all of my knowledge work because i am treating both as a closed system.

@Sociopoetic said:
Turns out, a lot of people knew the story and the cross-pollination of disciplines for that project was very well-received.

This is a very helpful advice. An anecdote is even better if the story is well-known. Thank you

Post edited by zk_1000 on

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• @sfast you seem to work in another direction, "killing" the inbox and other elements.

One of the main benefits of the Zettelkasten Method is to ignore project boundaries and always benefit from all of your knowledge work for every project.

i am not sure if i am following this advice or not. I think i do. With knowledge work i know how to do the project, with the project i do the project.

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• edited December 2020

@zk_1000 A P.S. to my comment, spurred by your recent post. As often happens on this forum, people have different meanings in their head for what ostensibly is common terminology. To actually communicate, everyone needs to agree on a common set of definitions. This isn't a criticism, just a statement of how things normally work between humans from different backgrounds and with different skill sets.

For example, what is a "project"? To some, it is a very informal box that they draw around a loose assemblage of information that is somehow related, and which they want to keep associated. For others, it is a very formal distinction of associated information that is organized for a specific purpose, often to answer a question or accomplish a task (or both). If you used the first definition, I suppose you could have a project within your ZK, if that helped the way you accessed and thought about your information. If you used the second definition, which I was doing in my earlier comments, then a project might contain a lot of information you didn't want in your ZK and it wouldn't make sense to try to incorporate the entire project within your ZK.

The other term I believe is used a bit loosely on the forum is "knowledge". By "loosely" I don't mean "incorrectly" but just "used in different ways by different people". Some people who work in the knowledge management field might feel they are the only ones who understand the term but clearly, it is going to mean different things to different people.

Another example - in my world (engineering), I deal with:

• Information (data and facts, usually about the world around me)
• Specifications (how something should be built and how it should function)
• Problems (basically, a definition of something that isn't working the way I expect or want it to)
• Ideas (associations and relationships between bits of information, models of how the world around us "works", possible solutions to problems)
• Consequences (what might happen if what I build doesn't function properly or outright fails)
• Risks (a combination of consequences and probability of occurrence)

and probably a few others that I could list if I spent more time thinking about it.

How much of that is "knowledge"? I would argue that with the exception of the first bullet, most of it is knowledge. Why? Because an engineer can't just dish it out well cooked and tasty, fresh out of school. He or she needs to gain experience, under the guidance of a mentor, over time. They first learn, then they seek to understand and finally they integrate what they understand into something they call knowledge. And then after they have had a few successes and more importantly failures, they might start to develop judgement and wisdom. Some of that would be quite worthy of inclusion in a ZK.

Obviously, I use all these terms from my own perspective.

I have started to build some of the above knowledge into my ZK - not because I want to capture the way I think and operate as an engineer (that could be a purpose for a ZK, but it's not for me right now), but because the concepts that I am introducing into my ZK have some application to how I live my life and why and how I make decisions, which is what I want to communicate to my children and grandchildren.

Haha! I went far afield from your original question. Oops!

• @GeoEng51 , @zk_1000 very interesting comments.

@zk_1000, how do you define knowledge and tell it from not knowledge?

It seems to me, there are no distinct categories to classify what belongs and doesn't belong in ZK. There is a multi-dimensional continuum of relevance in time and scope. Some notes are relevant for a lifetime. Some notes are relevant for one's career. Some notes are relevant as long as I work for my current employer, but will become irrelevant if I change the workplace, although within the same field. Some notes are relevant for a specific project. Some notes are relevant only for a few days - meeting dates, shipment tracking numbers, product lot names and delivery dates.

This information can be interlinked. E.g. what if I have a meeting to discuss a new technology qualification at work? Technology is knowledge relevant while I work for the company. Qualification test methodologies may remain relevant throughout my career. We may discuss lot sizes which are project-specific and sample delivery dates relevant only temporarily. When I write the meeting notes, I want the ability to cross-reference all of this information. And I may want to retain the meeting notes as a source reference.

I hear that one of the principles of Zettelkasten is to put information into the system, link it to other elements, and not to worry much about what belongs where. The patterns will emerge. Some notes will be referenced and accessed a lot more than others. But I also hear a lot of questions about "does it belong in my ZK" and advice to discern between knowledge and information. There we go imposing structure, hierarchy, and categories onto the system explicitly designed to avoid it.

Perhaps, the task here is not to create rigid criteria for what belongs and what does not belong where, but rather to come up with a sensible policy for system clean-up to purge notes that have become irrelevant. E.g. when I expect a package, the tracking number and estimated delivery dates are very important and relevant, but have no relevance after the package is received. This also applies to larger things and topics. E.g. if I kept Zettelkasten system for my thesis back in college most of it would be collecting dust and cluttering my mental space now.

• edited February 8

@sfast said:
No. As long it is knowledge, I keep it in my Zettelkasten. One of the main benefits of the Zettelkasten Method is to ignore project boundaries and always benefit from all of your knowledge work for every project.

First: let a thousand flowers bloom (a cliche is all I have at the moment).

For me, the purpose of the Zettelkasten is writing. I do not think of it as a "knowledge management" system--I don't know that I can manage knowledge. It could be unmanageable, if it could be defined--some philosophers don't think so; others do.

To short-circuit such considerations, I prefer to think in material terms. For me, the system is designed to produce a material product: writing. If the output isn't writing, if it is bogged down with ephemera and clutter, with scheduling details (unless my interest is to write about scheduling), and it no longer functions as a workshop for potential literature, then the system is broken.

The ZK as workshop for potential literature, as in OULIPO, is an analogy I or @taurusnoises might write about. It's probably a better analogy than Ahrens' shipping container analogy, which is somewhat strained.

Writing projects that draw on the ZK may feed back into it, as in the Three Dicta of @Sociopoetic. It can make sense to keep the scaffolding of a project separate, as Ahrens suggests. Here I am in agreement with @GeoEng51.

@GeoEng51
But I can assure you that as time goes on, you will encounter an avalanche of ideas that are of little interest to you. It is not that they lack value or don't represent "real knowledge"; it is just that they lack value to you. As I have pointed out elsewhere, you will also start to think carefully about how you prioritize your time and one of those will be in how you use your ZK and thus what you put into it.

Preach it, @GeoEng51. I agree completely. I would only shovel all the details of a writing project into my Zettelkasten if I were convinced that each stood alone as a literature reference or as a Zettel, and that their addition would lead to more writing. Otherwise we're back to the Collector's Fallacy.

A reference manager like Zotero can have separate collections of references. It might be useful to keep collections of references that are only relevant to a specific project apart from the collection of ZK references.

There is another reason for maintaining project details in a separate folder, outside your Zettelkasten. Suppose you depart from tradition and, unlike Luhmann and Ahrens, you work with an editor. Your editor observes that your manuscript reads as like a block of transcluded Zettels (in so many works). You could keep the correspondence archived with your project or delete it. Since you submitted a block of transcluded Zettels to your editor (a human, not emacs, vi or sublime), maybe some of the correspondence will be fed back into the ZK, if it leads to more writing.

But others have their own approaches.

Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

• edited February 8

@ZettelDistraction said:
You could keep the correspondence archived with your project or delete it.

This is the perfect example for me. An email is not what came to mind when collecting literature, but the emphasis is on collecting. I do use Zotero for my emails and i can see how difficult it could become finding the correspondence to a certain project in a single list without further organization. Thank you very much!

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• edited February 8

I'm with @ZettelDistraction in that my ZK is solely a tool for writing. My projects associated with the ZK are my writing projects, which are laid out outside the ZK. (Tho, I can see some use in keeping them in the ZK as @sfast was maybe suggesting above. I don't use structure notes, but could see how these might be useful for starting writing projects within the ZK proper). But, because I use Obsidian for both my ZK and my writing, linking is easy breezy.

Important distinction for me is that I don't consider my ZK my second brain. It is an aspect (or to use Forte's term, and Area) of my second brain, but not the brain itself. Thinking of it this way allows me to keep non-writing projects (paint this, build that, etc) far away from my ZK.

To someone's question above (sorry I can't find it) as to what a project is. I define a project as anything that has an end date (Forte), requires two or more tasks to complete (Allen) and requires repeated check-ins (me).

• @ZettelDistraction said:
A reference manager like Zotero can have separate collections of references. It might be useful to keep collections of references that are only relevant to a specific project apart from the collection of ZK references.

This is an often-understated point.

I'll add, I don't keep notes for specific references in Zotero itself (though it has this feature), as I kept realizing I was forgetting to look there. But I do have separate folders in Zotero for different projects -- and this is also useful because exporting a .bib file for a writing project makes the citation process smoother.

That said, I am also finding that if a quote from a reference makes it into my ZK, it becomes great fodder for other ideas and connections (which usually spawn into their own Zettel). When pulling from my ZK for a specific writing project, the Zettels I pull will often give an outline of the sources to include in the Zotero folder for the project. This includes Zettel where I have screenshots of figures, too.1

1. I'm thinking of a specific diagram here, actually. While I didn't quote the text of the book in my thesis, the diagram was so useful for explaining a difficult concept that I included the diagram in my chapter and cited the source accordingly. The diagram lives in my Zettel where I attempt to explain the concept in my own words. ↩︎

• edited February 8

@zk_1000 said:

@ZettelDistraction said:
You could keep the correspondence archived with your project or delete it.

This is the perfect example for me. An email is not what came to mind when collecting literature, but the emphasis is on collecting. I do use Zotero for my emails and i can see how difficult it could become finding the correspondence to a certain project in a single list without further organization. Thank you very much!

You're welcome.

I don't think I have a real disagreement with @sfast over the Aristotelian "final cause" of a Zettelkasten. Now I tend toward the opinion that the "Link Your Thinking" crowd has gotten carried away with the wildly ambitious, multi-tentacled goal of "knowledge management" through note-linking systems (e.g., Obsidian, Logseq, etc.). I'm not including The Archive in this.

This gets away from Luhmann's and Ahrens' intended use, which is an efficient system for writing of a certain complexity and depth. Writing is thinking, in that sense. In the terms of the German philosophers of the 19th Century, the "will to generalization" common among programmers impels them to say, "why not generalize the software ZK from writing to all thinking whatsoever?" At least this is how I imagine it (I also program).

Some of the endless discussions online over what to do with these ZK software tools comes from this, as well as from the lack of concrete examples and confusing terminology. Some resolution may have to wait until the work at Universität Bielefeld on Luhmann's workflow becomes more widely understood. Or read Getting Started on this site, etc.

Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

• edited February 9

@ZettelDistraction said:
the "Link Your Thinking" crowd has gotten carried away with the wildly ambitious, multi-tentacled goal of "knowledge management" through note-linking systems

True I guess, but here's the problem: suppose, beside writing with the aid of a ZK, you find another good reason to maintain a, ahem, "knowledge base" of some sorts, will you not want to combine the two into one?

At least the tought is always there, I guess. It takes just one cool screenshot on the web…

Post edited by Perikles on
• @Perikles said:

the "Link Your Thinking" crowd has gotten carried away with the wildly ambitious, multi-tentacled goal of "knowledge management" through note-linking systems

True I guess, but here's the problem: suppose, beside writing with the aid of a ZK, you find another good reason to maintain a, ahem, "knowledge base" of some sorts, will you not want to combine the two into one?

What is the probability that it will work?

I'm expressing an opinion, based on my own observations and biases. I don't have the benefit of peer-reviewed experimental studies. I could be sadly mistaken. Perhaps one day a Carl Sagan-like figure will intone on public television that, "we now know that that emptying the kitchen sink into Obsidian is the key to consistent high-quality publication in the most prestigious journals, the surest route to the Nobel Prize in literature, and paradoxically, a minimalist low-carbon, environmentally-friendly and sustainable lifestyle."

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

• @Perikles @ZettelDistraction As someone who's in the LYT course right now(!) I can speak to this a bit. I, like some others in here, don't see the zk as a second brain or knowledge management system, but rather as a writing tool, or to use Luhmann's words, a writing "partner." I'm sure there are other uses, and people do seem to employ it in ways I wouldn't but that's how it works for me.

As such, my zk nestles into my second brain (to the extent that I have one) as an Area (to use Forte's terminology), an aspect of my second brain without an end goal that is nurtured, maintained, and enhanced regularly.

So to your question, @Perikles, because I have these strong parameters by which I work with my zk, I don't have any impetus to merge other areas of my life or other knowledge bases into it. It's a tool comprised of atomic notes, connected ideas, both of which enhance my writing. Articles, books, manuals, images, and all that have a home somewhere else. If, however, I were to distill those things into atomic notes, then those notes would make it into my zk as zettels. But, until then they're just in folders (gasp) somewhere else.

As far as whether or not the LYTers and the Second Brainers have "gotten carried away," it's not my place to say. Most everyone I've met in those communities are super excited about learning and connecting ideas, and I thin kthat's great. There are always going to be those who are more enamored with the shiny things and the idea of LYT and second brain than they are with actually leveraging either. But, everyone I've built with in conversations has been on the level, so to speak.

• @taurusnoises said:
So to your question, @Perikles, because I have these strong parameters by which I work with my zk, I don't have any impetus to merge other areas of my life or other knowledge bases into it. It's a tool comprised of atomic notes, connected ideas, both of which enhance my writing.

This got me thinking, would you say that writing is one "area of life" or is it rather that you support various such areas through producing writings pertaining to that area?

Should something go into the ZK "just" because it's writing? Should every major topic has it's own ZK? (Note: Luhmann's own ZK was monotopical in that way.)

Is the boundary writing <> not writing or is it a topical one?

• As far as the PARA system goes, I consider Writing and Zettelkasten two separate Areas as not all of my writing comes out of the Zettelkasten. I write thousands of words a week. When I'm really trying to draw strong, long-form connections, to the ZK I go. When I'm writing quick essays and my weekly newsletter/email, I'm usually writing in response to something from that week. So, there's no time to run it all thru the ZK.

As far as what goes into my ZK... I just feel it out these days. Anything I'm making a note or multiple notes out of will go in there. But, anything I'm taking a note on will 99.999% be in the spirit of maybe using it for writing.

I honestly don't care about capturing everything and becoming the smartest person on the planet. I'm just interested in writing, having some insights, etc. I don't need to intentionally expand my knowledge to be a super human. It expands as I write and read to whatever capacity it does. I'm not stressing bout it.

• @taurusnoises said:
I honestly don't care about capturing everything and becoming the smartest person on the planet. I'm just interested in writing, having some insights, etc. I don't need to intentionally expand my knowledge to be a super human. It expands as I write and read to whatever capacity it does. I'm not stressing bout it.

I enjoyed this point and I'm giving it some thought. What comes to mind for me is perhaps a different way to distinguish kinds of ZK users: those who use it to write on one thing (say, their academic discipline) and those who would write on many things. Note that this boundary is not mutually exclusive.

What I'm going to say next is drawn from my own work and may not be relevant for everyone. Hopefully the examples are useful.

From experience, most (~80%, I'd guess) of my ZK comprises notes related to my primary discipline (geography/cartography), but I also write on other subjects, and so other subjects enter my ZK. The degree to which I work in a discipline is pretty well reflected in the notes I have on a subject.

Much as Luhmann called it a "writing partner," thinking of a ZK as a "learning partner" can also be fruitful. When there are other subjects I need to learn, the ZK is a useful tool for doing so -- without it expanding into a "second brain" necessarily. The collaborative nature of my work in cartography often requires I know something about the topic I'm mapping, even if it isn't my primary topic of interest. In this way, the ZK also reflects my curiosity and my life of the mind. If something I read was interesting enough to urge saving or reflecting upon, it's in my ZK. But that's my life of the mind, not my entire life.

• I like your most recent comment. Like you, I don't restrict my ZK to any particular topic nor do I feel the need to follow a particular set of rules as to what goes in and what stays out. Entries in my ZK cover a wide range of topics and interests, and whether or not something goes into my ZK depends on how inspired I feel to put it there. In turn, that has something to do with my levels of interest and energy.

I find adding zettels and maintaining my ZK is a lot like other databases I've used (and discarded) over the years - they can be highly beneficial but they also take quite a bit of work. The ZK is the only one that I've stuck with for any period of time (see first point). So far, it continues to be engaging and fun. At my age, you need simple reasons to keep doing things.

• @Sociopoetic said:
Much as Luhmann called it a "writing partner," thinking of a ZK as a "learning partner" can also be fruitful.

I even think this the main benefit of the Zettelkasten.

I am a Zettler