Zettelkasten Forum


Disillusioned with Zettelkasten method; am I doing something wrong?

Sorry to make my first post here a negative one. :smile:

Last year I read Sönke Ahrens' 'How To Take Smart Notes' and studied the information on this website. The productivity gains, easier writing, better thinking, and new idea generation seemed so great. That would really help me in my learning and blogging!

But now, around 10 months later, I'm disappointed with my Zettelkasten. Don't get me wrong, learning new things and taking notes is a quite pleasant experience. So it's a great tool for that. But for generating valuable output? Not so much in my case.

I don't know what I do wrong. I make atomic notes. Craft index notes that create an overview of the topic. Add links between notes. Connect new notes with old notes. Create higher level index notes to show an overview of topics. Add tags to notes so I can find interesting relationships. Made a 'home' note that lists all the topics. And work on my Zettelkasten daily.

And yet the productivity gains aren't there. For one topic in particular, quite an easy one in terms of complexity, I've time logged about 55 hours since December 15. I estimate around 15 hours was reading the material. All the other time went into note crafting. So far all that work has not produced a single blog post.

Ahrens discusses how Luhmann describes how working with the Zettelkasten was 'almost no effort at all'. That is not the case for me; I struggle tremendously with creating good index notes. They are either too small to give a good overview, or I get lost in all the fine details my notes present. The same problem applies to outlining potential blog posts.

Ahrens also mentions how Luhmann's roughly 90,000 notes helped him write 58 books and hundreds of articles. My Zettelkasten has close to 10,000 notes and over a million words. But helped me generate 0 blog posts and of course no book at all.

So I must be doing something very wrong. Because the productivity gains aren't there. And I 'waste' a lot of time working with the Zettelkasten without getting output.

Part of my problem in the past was the Collector's Fallacy, as discussed on this site. But now that I'm focused on that topic since December 15, and work with the information already in the Zettelkasten, there's still so much time spend interacting, merging, correcting, improving, and structuring note overviews that it's quite discouraging.

Any idea what I could try?

Thanks so much in advance for suggestions. :smile:

Comments

  • Luhmann is a good example of a person with a goal in mind: after all, he applied to the position of a Professor with the outlook to complete a theory of society within 30 years and no cost (meaning no funding needed, but salary is included ;)) -- With that goal in mind, you can be selective, and evaluate things you find in the light of the grand project.

    A thousand things could be going on in your note archive. E.g. you may want to become a medical doctor and have a blog about that, but spend all the time in your life collecting information about birds and butterflies -- unless you have really creative ideas about butterflies that can be applied to humans, the effort you put in is high, but the usefulness for your project just isn't there.

    Question is, where on the scale between these extremes does your practice fall?

    I have about 4000 notes less than you, accumulated since 2009, and with my sparing use of Zettelkasten stuff in my work as a programmer, I find something at least once a week that I can connect, or expand upon because I notice gaps, or write about. Sometimes it's just "oh this is how the code is supposed to look, how dumb", and I share the result on my blog so others can have a shortcut in the future. Nothing fancy. Depends on what you want to blog, of course.

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

  • Hi Christian,

    Thanks for your input! My Zettelkasten has two main goals:

    • Learn about programming.
    • Produce blogs (and ultimately ebooks) about programming.

    Like I mentioned, the first goal is something that goes really well with the Zettelkasten method. Creating small notes about things I learn and connecting that with other notes is helpful. Granted, it takes a little more time than normal reading but it's definitely worth it.

    So far I've failed considerably (in my mind) with the second goal. Getting the information out of my Zettelkasten is, somehow, quite difficult and takes me much more time and energy than I hoped for.

    Most of my notes are, however, ontopic. I don't collect information on birds and butterflies. :smile: Nearly all of my notes are about, or related to, programming (I guess 90%+). I don't have a strong focus on a single language though.

    I have collected notes on 42 areas so far (like for instance JavaScript, SQL, Python, general programming). Some areas are, of course, more developed than others.

    My challenge now is to find a way to extract value in a productive way from my Zettelkasten. And not spend hours and hours crafting index notes, rewriting index notes because they are so specific I lose the bigger picture, rewrite index notes because they are too general, restructure existing notes, and more.

    In terms of workflow, I currently have the following:

    Zettel → index note → topic note → blog outline note → published blog post

    So I group individual notes on an index note. Then later build a topic note that combines information from different index notes. That topic note then becomes the input to create blog posts outlines, which then hopefully results in a published blog post.

  • Welcome to the forums.

    @Juram3 said:
    I don't know what I do wrong. I make atomic notes. Craft index notes that create an overview of the topic. Add links between notes. Connect new notes with old notes. Create higher level index notes to show an overview of topics. Add tags to notes so I can find interesting relationships. Made a 'home' note that lists all the topics. And work on my Zettelkasten daily.

    This is a solid practice. So I think you are doing it right, but as @ctietze says, maybe with the confused goals. We've all been there, confused, having lost a clear vision.

    I've time logged about 55 hours since December 15. I estimate around 15 hours was reading the material. All the other time went into note crafting. So far, all that work has not produced a single blog post.
    My Zettelkasten has close to 10,000 notes and over a million words. But it helped me generate 0 blog posts and, of course, no book at all.

    How do I say this gently? Your zettelkasten is still in its infancy. It sounds like you have just become serious in 20201215. Expecting results so quickly is... I wonder how many of the 'over a million' words are yours and not cut and paste, including code. How many of the code samples are in your writing? Maybe you are talking about a historical note archive like mine. I sometimes refer to my 12000 notes that started in 2007, mostly but not exclusively web captures. I've only been zettelkasting for a short while, and my skills are improving, and output is slow but coming.

    So I must be doing something very wrong. Because the productivity gains aren't there. And I 'waste' a lot of time working with the Zettelkasten without getting the output.

    I need to sharpen my focus.

    I had to lower my standards of what I thought was a "good" blog post to get the output. I also found that when I did this, I could use a note almost as-is for a blog post. Composing the blog post became a time to edit a particular note, and I just published the results.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Personally, I think this is one of the potential problems with holding Luhmann up as the ideal of what the zettelkasten can produce. I think that focusing so much on output as the sole purpose of ZK is a mistake. Certainly, it worked for Luhmann, but how much of that was the ZK and how much was specific to Luhmann? Just following the ZK recipe is never going to be enough to magically increase your output.

    When I write an article I look at the ZK with the article in mind, I don't look at my ZK and wait for it to give me and article. I would think about ZK as a way of building your own thinking environment. When you enter your ZK, you have at your disposal all of your notes that you've taken, stored in their own personal contexts and pointing back to the context in which you originally found them (their reference). Determining which notes you should link to is a creative process. The first connections may be obvious, but you should also be thinking about less obvious connections. This is where I might have a spark of an idea--"I should look into how these two things relate! It seems like they should relate somehow..." This isn't me suddenly realizing that the ZK has delivered a new topic to me whole-cloth. The act of adding notes to my ZK gets me in the mental space to start thinking about connections between things. The ideas are still coming from me, the article ideas are still coming from me.


    As for your specific issues with the ZK, the number of notes you've made in 10 months sounds a bit excessive to me. How are you determining what to put into your ZK? With that many notes, you may be trying too hard to catalogue all of the knowledge you're coming across rather than crafting notes that are very specific to your interests. Determining which notes to take and which ones to skip is also part of the creative process.

    Personally, I maybe have a hypothesis in mind that I'm wanting to test in lab, or a question that I'm wanting to answer about a particular topic. As I'm reading on this topic, I'm trying to answer that question and taking notes related to that. Certainly, I'll stumble across information not directly tied to my question, but the majority of the notes I take are pretty focused. Taking notes like this builds up a node inter-related zettel. When I'm working in my ZK, sometimes I realize that one of these nodes actually connects to another node. This is the serendipity of being surprised by my ZK. I don't think that would be possible, though, if I was just cataloguing every idea that I came across. I have to take notes with a goal in order to get returns from my ZK.

  • @prometheanhindsight said:

    The first connections may be obvious, but you should also be thinking about less obvious connections. This is where I might have a spark of an idea--"I should look into how these two things relate! It seems like they should relate somehow..."

    I concur with you. Being able to go back to a snapshot and starting from there to create a new perspective is a huge "diffuse mode" for me to think of the world from a new perspective.

  • jimjim
    edited February 5

    I agree with others in this thread; your slip box is young, and perhaps too accepting. (Mine is also both of those things, but I have different expectations of mine!)

    I have 2 questions here:

    First. One of the useful parts of writing notes for a Zettelkasten is that you are forced to think quite hard and develop deep understanding of the things you write about. Are you developing that understanding? If so, your effort has not been wasted. If not, you have more practice to do.

    Second. How much thought have you put into the purpose of the content you aspire to publish? What should the reader get out of it? If you can't answer this question quite thoroughly, perhaps it's time to think and write and think-by-writing about that. For example, if you want to educate with your content, think and write about the times in your career -- in your whole life! -- when you could have used a better teacher. Think about what makes a good educational book. Think about what makes a good topic for a book. See if you can draft outlines! They will not be complete, but their incompletenesses will be instructive and can direct your thinking.

    The slip box can scaffold your ideas and understanding, and in doing so help you incrementally work on large knowledge work projects. But you won't accidentally find an ebook in it, at least not before using it for a years. Think about what it your goals are for your content, and let those goals guide your note-making.

  • Thanks everyone for the input! It's heart warming that you take time out of your day to help a stranger over the internet. :smile:

    @Will said:
    How do I say this gently? Your zettelkasten is still in its infancy. It sounds like you have just become serious in 20201215. Expecting results so quickly is... I wonder how many of the 'over a million' words are yours and not cut and paste, including code. How many of the code samples are in your writing?

    I had the 'fortune' that most of 2020 I was unemployed and, without much else going on, I could work on my Zettelkasten 7 days in the week. That's where the big growth in my Zettelkasten came from. (I now have a full-time job and much less time for note taking.)

    @Will said
    I had to lower my standards of what I thought was a "good" blog post to get the output. I also found that when I did this, I could use a note almost as-is for a blog post. Composing the blog post became a time to edit a particular note, and I just published the results.

    This is a good point, thanks for making it. My standards aren't very relaxed, even for a blog post, let alone something bigger. Since I have notes with good quality already, I probably shouldn't complicate things too much.

    @prometheanhindsight said:
    Personally, I think this is one of the potential problems with holding Luhmann up as the ideal of what the zettelkasten can produce. I think that focusing so much on output as the sole purpose of ZK is a mistake. Certainly, it worked for Luhmann, but how much of that was the ZK and how much was specific to Luhmann?

    While it's true of course that every person and his or her circumstances are different, Sönke Ahrens literally says that 'his [Luhmann's] productivity could only be explained by his unique working technique' (p 15).

    My reasoning is therefore, that if I don't experience a significant increase in output (compared with not note taking), or if I don't 'magically' arrive at the outline for a blog post, I must be doing something wrong.

    @prometheanhindsight said:
    This isn't me suddenly realizing that the ZK has delivered a new topic to me whole-cloth. The act of adding notes to my ZK gets me in the mental space to start thinking about connections between things. The ideas are still coming from me, the article ideas are still coming from me.

    I understand and I also make connections between notes. But even then, when I want to create a blog post, I alternate between missing an overview and getting lost in details.

    When you are on this 'connection making journey' (for lack of a better phrase), how do you ensure you get a end result suitable for the first draft?

    @jim said:
    First. One of the useful parts of writing notes for a Zettelkasten is that you are forced to think quite hard and develop deep understanding of the things you write about. Are you developing that understanding? If so, your effort has not been wasted. If not, you have more practice to do.

    I think that I develop an understanding. But that opinion might be a cognitive bias since I have no way of measuring my understanding.

    I have made useful notes and almost each day can search in my Zettelkasten for a topic I'm working with (rather than Googling). So that is a positive sign I think.

    But on the other hand getting a series of blog posts out of my Zettelkasten has proven quite difficult. So that would suggest an insufficient understanding? Or 'just' poor working method?

    @jim said:
    Second. How much thought have you put into the purpose of the content you aspire to publish? What should the reader get out of it? If you can't answer this question quite thoroughly, perhaps it's time to think and write and think-by-writing about that. For example, if you want to educate with your content, think and write about the times in your career -- in your whole life! -- when you could have used a better teacher.

    My goal is to write educational content about programming. I did so in the past (without note taking) so this writing area is not entirely new to me.

    I do have strict opinions about what is 'good enough', 'useful enough', and 'original enough' to write about. So your example, of writing about things I could have learned in the past, is not something I find 'good enough' because it's too subjective.

    @jim said:
    Think about what makes a good educational book. Think about what makes a good topic for a book. See if you can draft outlines! They will not be complete, but their incompletenesses will be instructive and can direct your thinking.

    This is a great idea! My current approach is first study a topic quite thoroughly, and then after making all the associated notes, try to piece the notes together to (hopefully) get blog posts. Of course, then I get overwhelmed by all the notes and details. So speculative outlines seem like a good place to start.


    Thanks again everyone! :smile:

  • @Juram3 said:

    @prometheanhindsight said:
    Personally, I think this is one of the potential problems with holding Luhmann up as the ideal of what the zettelkasten can produce. I think that focusing so much on output as the sole purpose of ZK is a mistake. Certainly, it worked for Luhmann, but how much of that was the ZK and how much was specific to Luhmann?

    While it's true of course that every person and his or her circumstances are different, Sönke Ahrens literally says that 'his [Luhmann's] productivity could only be explained by his unique working technique' (p 15).

    My reasoning is therefore, that if I don't experience a significant increase in output (compared with not note taking), or if I don't 'magically' arrive at the outline for a blog post, I must be doing something wrong.

    I know that this is what was discussed in How to Take Smart Notes, but I stand by my statement that this is a mistake. I think that Sönke Ahrens was trying too hard to sell zettelkasten as a productivity technique, as if building a ZK is going to magically make you productive. That Luhmann's productivity was solely the product of ZK is impossible to know or prove. Even if we could prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Luhmann's productivity is entirely due to ZK, that certainly does not make his productivity gains generalizable. I think that it is better to focus on ZK as a tool for thinking and making useful notes rather than a tool for productivity--useful here referring to your ability to reference your notes and remember things that you have learned.

    @Juram3 said:

    @prometheanhindsight said:
    This isn't me suddenly realizing that the ZK has delivered a new topic to me whole-cloth. The act of adding notes to my ZK gets me in the mental space to start thinking about connections between things. The ideas are still coming from me, the article ideas are still coming from me.

    I understand and I also make connections between notes. But even then, when I want to create a blog post, I alternate between missing an overview and getting lost in details.

    When you are on this 'connection making journey' (for lack of a better phrase), how do you ensure you get a end result suitable for the first draft?

    My notes are my notes, and my draft writing is my draft writing. When I'm making notes, I'm not focusing on how specifically I'm going to use those notes in the future. I just try to make them generally understandable so that if I ever return to them, I'll understand them. When I'm ready to write an article, I usually come to my notes with a rough overview or outline already in mind and then use my notes to flesh out the details and look for any important pieces that I may have forgotten or missed.

    ZK is a way for me to think through writing. It gives me a place to write down knowledge that I encounter, connect that knowledge to other knowledge that I already possess, add my own thoughts and commentary and ideas to that knowledge-base, etc. ZK provides a richer thinking environment where I can continually build upon, add to, and adjust my past thinking. It is this process of thinking and continually writing down my thoughts that leads to more ideas for me. ZK makes thinking more pleasant and useful, and because my articles are a product of my thinking, they are also improved through my use of ZK.

    Which, not to beat a dead horse, is why I think that it is a mistake to use productivity as a measure of the success of your ZK. Productivity might be a byproduct, but it isn't the ultimate goal or necessarily the strength of the ZK method.

  • @prometheanhindsight Good comments and insight above. I like what you are saying.

  • When it comes to Luhmann, we all need to reminds ourselves that this wasn't just a past time of his: he worked and lived inside his Zettelkasten. For all we can know from personal reports, he didn't have a work-life balance in the way we use the word. One could even argue that he somewhat neglected his children, although IIRC that's stuff his primus told at University and which isn't recorded anywhere citeable. -- So it's never just the tool.

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

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