Zettelkasten Forum

Does Increasing your Knowledge through your Zettlekasten Spur you to Action?

I had an interesting conversation with a daughter yesterday, regarding how we each use our Zettelkasten. One of my main purposes is to capture life's learnings; one of hers is to prepare to take teacher training (she is an engineering physics graduate who, after some years of being a mother, wants to teach in high school). She has home-schooled her own children and mentored high school students in mathematics, chemistry and physics. She has teaching knowledge that she wants to write down and organize, and then add to - all great tasks for her ZK.

We talked about the practicality of our increased knowledge. It seems as we read, think and learn, we often have an "aha" moment when we recognize that we have learned something new and that it has value for our lives. That can be exhilarating and we can get quite excited about it. Some people might take note of the concept or they might write it down somewhere. Hopefully, because we are immersed in the Zettlekasten world, we are prompted to capture that new knowledge in our ZK.

My daughter observed, though, that we often do little more than capture the new idea. If it is captured in a Zettlekasten, then it may contribute to further thinking, connections, and ideas, but not go beyond that point. The question is - does all that learning spur us to take new action of value say to our family or friends or general community? And I don't mean, do we after 10 years of intense study get to the point where we can undertake some grand action (although that would be nice, like say inventing a non-polluting form of energy), but day by day, does our behaviour improve? Do we take action to improve the quality of the lives of those around us? Are we calmer and kinder? Are we more thoughtful and understanding of others? Are we more effective in building community or mentoring or encouraging?

In short, is our Zettlekasten just a cool place to hang out, to collect and organize knowledge, or is it a living, practical tool that prompts us to take action to improve ourselves and the lives of those around us?

What are your thoughts and experiences?


  • edited December 2020

    I'm certainly trying to make mine a practical tool. As Tiago Forte put it, we ought to "collect" so that we can "create". Your notes are only as useful as what you do with them.

  • I think Zettelkästen is a very special tool. It servers people's
    mental activities. Sometime, it is hard to differentiate between the
    actions in thoughts and the physical actions.

    For me, Zettelkästen is such tool:

    1. Focus tool. It is the process of forcing myself finding connection
      that makes myself reflect the previous thoughts. This process alone
      is huge motivation for me. I find myself more concentrated and less
      likely to be distracted by the external world if I try to jot down
      something in my mind.

    2. Research tool. This is the primary usage of Zettelkästen. Finding
      connection from my previous thoughts and from other people to
      create new ideas. Although most people are not researchers, the
      thing that we do not to be scientists to do research. The moment of
      finding things that you never know is not too much difference from
      an experienced scientist finding something big scientific

    3. Happiness tool. I feel more easily entering in the flow state in my

    4. Interaction tool. I am trying to build a team Zettelkästen, which
      has similar idea to Zettelkästen but adding other people's thoughts
      into one Zettelkästen.

    Taking action or not upon the same external simulate is different from
    people to people. Everybody is different. Karl Friston
    friston2010free proposed that for a system, "the better" is to
    choose the reaction that can minimize its free-energy. To achieve
    this, one has two options: (1) change sensory input by acting on world
    (2) change internal world.

    Changing sensory input by acting on world seems more easy, but it will
    bring physical pain in many cases. Changing internal world is hard.
    Basically, someone has to re-evaluate his/her attitude towards the
    external world. To some degree, it's like learning a new language.

    You are asking a good question. If taking action is defined by
    writing, then I would say yes. It helps and it helps a lot. The answer
    to the question becomes blurry when people take physical activities.
    For example, chances are low if someone want to do back flip by
    interacting with his/her Zettelkästen. But, I am opening to such
    claim. In some studies, people can do better job without really doing
    things but just mentally imaging something.

  • In short, is our Zettlekasten just a cool place to hang out, to collect and organize knowledge, or is it a living, practical tool that prompts us to take action to improve ourselves and the lives of those around us?

    The Zettelkasten itself is neither. The Zettelkasten Method is nothing more than what you use it for.

    I wrote an article some while ago on the difference between practical philosophy and practiced philosophy. Action doesn't have anything to do with philosophy. There might be a selection-bias for non-doers to pick up philosophy.

    Taking action is driven by will (to power), temperament and a proper goals. All three need constant grooming (maintenance), humility (ability to choose proper goals), unconditional truthfulness (integrity to work with oneselfs temperament) and acceptance of the nature of life (will to power).

    That is the reason why I don't like the line of thought that the Zettelkasten makes your life or parts of it more easy or fun. To aim at ease or fun is one step into the deadend from which I try to pull my clients out of (my non-Zettelkasten coaching).

    Ok, I digress. Ontopic: My Zettelkasten is indead a practical tool but it does not prompt me into action. I, myself, do things. I do research on physical training to apply this knowledge to my own training for example. I work on the Zettelkasten Method to increase the ability of other people to work on complex issues (hopefully to solve meaningful problems and don't improve ones ability to post cat memes.. :D ). I improve my ability to train my dog with my Zettelkasten etc. I don't get triggered by my Zettelkasten. There are urgent and important problems I need to solve and my Zettelkasten helps me.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited December 2020

    Interesting question: is the work with my ZK mostly for an idle hobby and to pass time, or does it produce ripples into our shared reality?

    Since I learn things, the stuff I talk about (and topics I am interested in) change and so the work with my Zettelkasten changes conversations I'm having. But that's too trivial, isn't it :)

    I notice the following with technical topics a bit: I'm mildly interested in how some technology works, but until I bother to spend half an hour to produce a Zettel or two about the topic, the interest is very superficial. Once deepened a bit, I may find myself in a situation where I want to finally try the tech out for myself instead of just dreaming about it. -- Take for example my idealistic gripes with Dropbox and having your shared files hosted by a 3rd party, plus a tool that installs itself into the very kernel of your operating system (for no good reason in my opinion).

    Fast forward a year and a half to winter 2020, I've assembled some practical knowledge about how to connect a computer to the web as a cloud server from my home, and I'm just a step or two away from finishing my research on backups, drive availability, and secure storage of data that will then translate to setting up a small server to actually replace Dropbox for me and a couple of friends and increase our perceived internet freedom a tiny bit.

    I'm not spearheading a global revolution, but I can see that the depth of research and the long-term engagement with a topic that my ZK permits could help with that, too, if I wanted to :)

    Maybe this is a workable synopsis with way too much drama in it: my Zettelkasten is a catalyst to transform superficially interesting topics into deeply researched and practically relevant parts of my life.

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

  • Oh, thanks for such a profound question. I answer with the caveat that I only speak for my own experiences.

    First, my start of using a Zettelkasten coincided with beginning a course of study for a new graduate degree, itself the first step in a career change (previously I taught in the humanities -- poetry, drama, and folklore -- and now I study GIS). So one thrust of my ZK is to collect my knowledge from my previous career into The Archive so that it can inform my other work (GIS or otherwise). Another branch is to produce the knowledge I am building in my new field.

    Second, I for one am not particularly fond of the dualism between thought/action. As I see it, our thoughts form a part of our actions, and our actions shape our thinking. I spend a part of every day in my Zettelkasten -- but if you asked me, "Are you thinking or doing?" the point would seem moot to me. I'm studying, I'm synthesizing, I'm writing (or drafting, at least). The fact that I often pace around or go for walks in the middle of this shows that action and thoughts are related.

    Third, in terms of the kinds of "in the world" actions (I'm reminded of what Aristotle calls "practical wisdom," too), my ZK is a part of that, too, serving as my bank of reflections on a number of conversations, or travel experiences, etc. To be clear, my ZK isn't a diary, but what I mean is that I have notes in a form of "What do I want to reference later from X event?"

    Finally, along the lines of what others have said, I don't limit myself only to specific topics. During the pandemic I've played a lot of board games and puzzles, so now my ZK has entries on some of the mathematical concepts behind those games (like graph theory). Because the note is so connected to the game(s) where I explore the concept, are these notes "thoughts" or a record of "action"?

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • "My daughter observed, though, that we often do little more than capture the new idea. If it is captured in a Zettlekasten, then it may contribute to further thinking, connections, and ideas, but not go beyond that point. The question is - does all that learning spur us to take new action of value say to our family or friends or general community?"

    No, I don't believe all that learning needs to spur us to new actions. In some cases and obviously, depending on our reason for study, it will perhaps lead to action. But I don't believe action is the requisite end of learning. I'm reminded of a quote by Neal A. Maxwell after quoting a Christian Hymn regarding our journey through mortality and the experiences we will gain "some of the most glorious of which will be adventures of the mind and heart as we ponder and explore new truths - truths that both penetrate us and envelop us."
    No doubt many truths spur us to action, but personally, I take solace in the thought that some of our most "glorious" experiences in life can be "adventures of the mind."

    Maxwell, N. A. (2007). All these things shall give thee experience. Salt Lake City, UT, UT: Deseret Book. p.3.

  • @Steve625 What you describe is part of the journey, I believe, and a very pleasant and satisfying part.

    By the way, I did not mean (in the part you quoted) that all learning leads directly to action, in a sort of march-step fashion. The question I was asking was whether, with all that time we spend learning, if we are spurred to any action, (and in particular if our Zettelkasten was simply a tool with which to play or a tool which in part helped us to think in ways that leads to more effective action).

    It's a balance - we want to have and enjoy the experience of truly learning, of having these "adventures of the mind and heart", but we also want to take action to advance causes that are dear to us and to in some way help others.

    I read an interesting article this morning about Christopher Havens - someone incarcerated for 25 years for murder who has become a math genius while in solitary confinement (a long journey, by the way). He has experienced in a visceral way both the joys of these adventures of the mind and the joys of improving the world around him. The article was in Popular Mechanics, but I could only find this link:


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