Zettelkasten Forum


Just not getting it — need help.

I can't say how many articles I've read, which maybe is the problem, but there's still a conceptual gap, or maybe a resistance from leaving traditional organizational systems, which might be keeping me from moving fwd.

Let's say I'm reading an online article on how to use the how to use Zettlekasten method. Ok, great, let me apply the system on the article. Normally, I clip this article into Notion or Obsidian and start marking it up: highlighting passages, bolding, taking a few notes in my own words. I assume this would now be a "Literature Note" (or is that not correct?).

Now for my Permanent Note, using one note per concept. So is this entire article one concept or does that break down into multiple notes? E.g. Note 1: The true purpose of note-taking. Note 2. Fleeting Notes 3. Literature Notes. 4. Permanent Notes, and so on.

Then somehow all those notes get linked to an index or broader topic note called The Zettlekasten Method in which all those above notes are linked, plus other notes? What if I read a 2nd article on the same topic that covers some of the same ground, but might provide a further insight? I might have two Fleeting Notes that are permanent notes with two different sources but the same or similar title. It seems like it all gets convoluted fast.

When reading literature or non-fiction, how many notes might a book have? Wouldn't each chapter or subchapter potentially be it's own idea? Is this how you do it? Or do you summarize the whole book into a few sentences and then link it to all the ideas it brings up?

Also, I have topics I want to study further, let's say, Politics, which might break down into "Politics, American", "Politics, German", "Politics, American, Legislation, Gun Control" etc. I often see peoples Zettlekasten notes as sentences, but that doesn't seem to work in trying to gather info on a topic, but on the other hand, my above example, is basically creating a folder structure in the title, which then seems to limit the free flow of ideas. Or are they used together somehow with topic notes?

Thanks in advance for helping me untangle all this and figure out why it's not yet clicking. I wish I could see more examples than what I've found on the web, but usually they only show one note per source.

Cheers,

R

Comments

  • @romebot said:
    I can't say how many articles I've read, which maybe is the problem, but there's still a conceptual gap, or maybe a resistance from leaving traditional organizational systems, which might be keeping me from moving fwd.

    Let's say I'm reading an online article on how to use the how to use Zettlekasten method. Ok, great, let me apply the system on the article. Normally, I clip this article into Notion or Obsidian and start marking it up: highlighting passages, bolding, taking a few notes in my own words. I assume this would now be a "Literature Note" (or is that not correct?).

    I'd just call what you describe above taking "Fleeting notes". As you then say, the next step would be to produce some actual zettels.

    Have you looked at @Will 's recent video (see below)? That might spark a few ideas on how to take your highlights and other fleeting notes, and create a zettel.

    https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/1725/video-example-of-essay-factoring-into-my-zettelkasten-the-archive

  • If you haven't stumbled across this article yet, I highly recommend it. I believe it will answer the majority of your questions.
    https://zettelkasten.de/posts/lattice-of-thoughts/

  • @romebot said:
    When reading literature or non-fiction, how many notes might a book have?

    Depending on the book, time pressures, interests, and weird cosmic spookiness - 1 to 63

    Wouldn't each chapter or subchapter potentially be it's own idea?

    Maybe but not likely. See this thread.

    Is this how you do it?

    Sometimes

    Or do you summarize the whole book into a few sentences and then link it to all the ideas it brings up?

    Sometimes, but this is not the most satisfying way to interact with ideas.
    I find when 'onboarding' a book into my zettelkasten, I get joy from creating my own preface to the book and my own index/table of contents (populating a structure note with ideas that capture my attention.)

    It all depends. There is no set formula. The object is to capture ideas as best you can. You get better with practice, and it doesn't always look the same.

    /Will steps on his soapbox/

    I can't help but think the reason it's "not yet clicking" is because you are "not yet writing."
    Just start. We all made mistakes in the beginning. We all have embarrassments in our attics. Make mistakes. Oh well, iterate and do it 1% better tomorrow. You'll still think your stuff is crap, but it won't get to smell any better till you start to move through the beginner phases. After six months, you'll wonder, "Who was that that was confused?" After a year, you'll look back at your pitiful start with fond nostalgia. Each day you hesitate to start will put off those milestones.

    /Will steps off his soapbox/

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

  • It's great to have Will say it in such a nice way, because my replies usually boil down to: don't worry about format and types of notes. You need to write about things that interest you for a while and play with them and find points of friction unless you git good.


    Some of my oldest notes are roughly translated "Goals and plans" with an overview of things I wanted to do at age 21, like learning to swim so I can go X meters, or to meditate daily, or to become a 'round character'. It's a list with links to details. -- I wanted to write about this to sort out my life a bit, but these notes didn't age well. I don't need them for anything anymore. I keep them for nostalgia and as a warning :) Others are quotes I found inspiring and wanted to keep. Quite a few are book summaries for Hermann Hesse's books, journal/diary style. The order I found to actually produce anything from these emerged only much later. If the Hesse book summaries popped up today and I wanted to invest a couple minutes to refactor the notes into more useful pieces, I'd extract the quotes and ideas into shorter notes and leave links to them in the old summary note, which then turns into an overview. That proved to be more useful

    Of course back in 2008/9 there was virtually nothing on the web to read about how to feed your Zettelkasten. That's why some of the experiments turned out so ugly.

    The upside of my own experience and the iterations I went through is: even the 13 year old note about a book by Hermann Hesse can be salvaged in 2021 by changing bits and pieces to improve the wording, and to extract more atomic notes.

    So don't worry about getting it wrong, because you will be getting it wrong, but that's okay, because on a computer, you can edit your notes later once you figure out what works best.

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

  • I have a background in psychology, and I'm fascinated by how often people seem to interpret the Zettelkasten method as a rigid set of rules that must be followed, otherwise it won't "work". Added to this, there seems to be a perception that there are rigid categories of notes, and rigid ways of formatting the information on those notes. None of this is true, in my experience. Some people may want to work in a more structured way than others, but I have found the method is very flexible, it doesn't matter if you categorise notes or not, and it doesn't matter how you format each individual note. I just make notes, and as long as each one has a UID and some text in it, I don't really care about anything else. The whole thing is in a constant state of flux, and I just add thoughts, ideas, and links as they occur to me. It is a kind of organic, natural growth process, rather than being like engineering, in which a lot has to be laid out and decided in advance.

    As to ideas -- I have read some dense material in which just about every sentence was a separate idea. There are no rules about that, either, it seems to me. And it can take a very long time to process dense material.

    So go with the flow! :)

  • Others have given very good advice. And I agree with Will and Martin that the number of notes from a given source can vary greatly depending on the density of the ideas.

    I will add the reason for phrases as note titles since I do that. (whenever possible, which isn't always) The reason I use them is because I like to distill the actual idea in the title as much as possible, so it tightly focuses the note. Your Note 1 title is good to me. For the others I would probably state what each type is in the main note for the source and then title the individual notes things like "Use fleeting notes to capture rough ideas for later review" and "Permanent notes are permanently useful not unchanging" (actual title of one of my notes BTW). But that's me and my style. (also Andy Matuschak's) I do it because the links become part of the transition sentence from one note to another and with positive phrasing you can chain different note titles together in different outlines to form narrative arguments for theories and ideas, with each link taking you to the focused supporting material for the idea.

    The important thing to understand about your use of the zk is this: You are having difficulty because you are being exposed to a method of deeper thinking than you may be used to, a structured approach that may be foreign to you, but is very much the method used by deep thinkers throughout history. (The mechanism by which they took notes differed, but the approach to thinking and building ideas is generally the same) The ZK method has a remarkable ability to encourage you to think more deeply because of its principles and philosophy (which are often mistaken as rigid structure and process).

    Of course, if you aren't used to thinking like this then everything about this is an uphill battle. That's totally fine, it was the same for me as well. It gets easier. You just have to learn the pieces a small bit at a time rather than all at once.

    Also it is difficult to understand the principles when you are starting out because you don't have a body of notes to review and evolve.

    So the answer is JUST START. Start simple. Don't worry about the specific mechanics. Do what seems to make sense at the moment. Evolve to be better by learning the principles and applying them in small steps to the notes you've built.

    As the runner said to Bojack Horseman, it gets easier, but you gotta do it every day, that's the trick.

  • All great comments, thank you... It'll take some time to read all the references and process all this, but it's becoming more clear. I do have one other confusion... What are all the different types of notes you have? Curretnly, I have many more than I see talked about, but probably I can rethink this as well...

    Index/Structure/MOC Notes - Maps and Links to connected info on a topic.
    Fleeting Notes - My own musings
    Markup Notes - Markup (bold, highlight, linking) of articles, w/o commentary or summary. E.g. Newspaper Articles that I do not yet want to comment on, but I it helps me to highlight and bold for comprehension, and I can start to created linkages--I know I'll want these for talking points in later research/writing.
    Literature Notes - Notes on Books & Media (highlights, summary and notes in my own words.)
    Permanent Notes - Atomized Notes based on Literature Notes (many notes can come from 1 Literature Note from what I'm understanding here.)
    Project Notes - Notes Related to Specific Projects
    Info Notes - Notes related to lists and misc. info I need to store (this list might be an info note)
    Technical Notes - Notes related to technical info such as keyboard shortcuts, or product manuals, tidbits of info I need to recall, like color hex info, etc.
    Topic Notes - Notes on an area of interest that for now might just hold information, but later want to study up on... Like: Politics, American, Legislation, Gun Control (the marked-up newspaper articles above might be linked here, or permanent notes)
    Unprocessed/Archive - Notes that I have not read/processed but want to store (I could also do this via bookmarks, but I've found that I can discover unlinked mentions which would lead me back to reading the article).

    There might even be more types..

    Also, in response to some of the comments, I already have a ton of notes, but struggling to wrangle them into a system that works for me.

    Cheers,

    R

  • Also what would you call these notes? Let's say I've read 10 articles on Zettlekasten, a book, as well as tid-bits I got from blogs, comments, forums, etc. When I'm done, I'll have a definitive document on How to Write Notes based on all the info I've gleaned... It's a distillation of everything and the documentation for my system that works for me, with reference links back to all the sources, literature and permanent notes I've written. This is where I go to if I want to revisit my final conclusions and see all the documentation. In theory this could be a written piece that is published—it is my final paper or thesis if you will. It's not a permanent note as it's more than one idea, it's not a Literature note on someone else's book, so what is it and where does it go? Also for topics I'm studying, they will grow and change as I get more info, but they contain info from many sources. I dont see it as a structure note or a MOC, but rather an kind of assimilation of research, both in my words and in others—an unpublished textbook of sorts.

  • edited March 26

    @romebot I think @MartinBB snuck in a very important point and I hope you "got it". In the end, it doesn't matter what you call your notes or how you organize them. Just do what works for you - that is, what you discover works for you as you work on your ZK over time.

    For me, any note inside my ZK I call a zettle, and it is just a note. I don't use all these different note names (except for "structure note"). My only rules - each zettel should contain one idea, be written concisely and be connected to two or more other zettels (if I can at all figure out how to do that).

    Other than that, to me, a note is just a note, is just a note.

    Other people do things differently and so likely will you - after you start writing zettels and figuring out what works for you. And keep reading in the forum - I've picked up all sorts of cool ideas from other people.

    "May the road rise up to meet you..." - which, I understand, in Gaelic more accurately means, "May you succeed on your road...".

    P.S. I do have what I call "fleeting notes", which are notes taken while I am reading or listening to or watching something. They don't go directly into my ZK; they are "outside" my zettel (in iA Writer or 1Writer or in a book or written in a margin somewhere). They are basically shorthand so that I can review what impressed me and from which I can later create zettels. They do not follow any of my rules given above.

  • No one thinks like you do. You're weird. Hard cheese. So is everyone else. Grin.

    I've found the above to be the foundation of how I approach thought capture, which of course aids thought connection and ah-ha moments.

    Parallel to this is the reality that we can't learn to swim by reading about swimming or ever how others swim or even someone trying to teach us how to swim through the written word or even video. You have to get wet. If someone is teaching you, they have to get wet also, in the same pool of water, and watch you nearly drown. Sardonic grin.

    Be stupidly bold. Dive into the deep end. Think. Write. Respond. Whether it's only between your lugs, or you pour it out into an article with highlighting and notes and then process that into a permanent note, really depends on what works for you.

    There is a personal level of benefit to a certain amount of work with ideas and concepts, past which more work doesn't yield more benefit, but before which yields little to no benefit. We each have to learn where that cost-benefit line is for us.

    Play. Learn. Read. Forget. Think. Connect. Write. Mix and repeat.

    With abandon,
    Patrick

  • @romebot It may be helpful to you to make a distinction between your ZK and the rest of your notes. This of course depends on the tool you are using for your notes. For example, I use Obsidian which supports both folders and tags so that makes it possible to combine different types of notes in one vault so they can link to each other while still keeping the ZK and non-ZK notes separate. I'm sure there are plenty of other apps that provide various ways of making the distinction, possibly even just using tags.

    It may help you to see how mine is structured, but only to show you an example that differs from the norm but still functions well – this is not a recommendation to use this approach at all, you should do what works for you.

    My vault looks something like this:

    /vault root
        |-/ Meta
        |-/ Daily Notes
        |-/ Reading Inbox
        |-/ ZK
            |-/ Source & Lit Notes
            |-/ Permanent Notes
        |-/ Areas
        |-/ Projects
        |-/ People
        |-/ Resources
            |-/ Cheatsheets
    

    (at the end I make an important point about structure though, be sure to read it)

    Meta contains notes about my process. Reading Inbox contains sources I need to process – some are partly read with rough notes, some have mostly complete notes and a solid idea-focused outline, others are not read at all. Once a source is processed it is moved into the ZK source folder along with any lit notes that I created from it. (To me a lit note is a note capturing a single important idea from a single source – this differs a bit from the terminology of others but it works for me, because it was easier to find another name for the note representing the source than for a note representing an idea from a single source, distinct from the permanent notes. If that makes sense...)

    Permanent notes are exactly what you expect, the core notes in my ZK capturing my ideas synthesized from 1..N sources, in varying stages of maturity.

    MOCs/hubs/whateverwearecallingthemduringthisphaseofthemoon are in the ZK root.

    The other non-ZK folders are: Areas and Projects which are sort-of similar to the same idea from PARA but I did not start out planning it that way, it just became convenient to track both in the same vault and this was a reasonable organization scheme. (I don't "do PARA" or any other system – even my ZK is different from the more common approach) The People project contains notes on individual people with things like email, phone, maybe links to important meetings I had with them, important tidbits or discussions, etc. The Resources folder is vague and mostly only contains the cheatsheets right now. And I've been considering merging those back in as permanent notes, I go back and forth on that decision. (they were permanent notes very early in my evolution)

    Merging your terminology and mine:

    • index/structure/moc - same
    • fleeting notes - meh, I don't use this much, maybe in my daily notes? I don't really use them much except for work-related stuff though, but perhaps I will with this more evolved approach now
    • markup/literature notes – these are what I call source notes (again my lit notes are different, and more like some of your permanent notes)
    • permanent notes - same
    • project notes - same
    • info/technical notes - my resource/cheatsheet stuff
    • topic notes - these are still permanent notes in my archive, but may be MOCs/hubs/whatever depending on the topic
    • unprocessed/archive - I have unprocessed stuff in the reading inbox, and the source notes in my ZK is sort of an "archive" I guess, but no dedicated archive

    Now to the IMPORTANT POINT I mentioned earlier...

    My structure evolved over many months, and months from now may look different again. I started with no folders and no tags, tried a bunch of different "methods" and "structures" and kept returning to the "keep it simple stupid" approach. I'm glad I did, because the "structure" you see here emerged gradually over time in response to my actual needs based on my actual notes.

    Also what you see above is more structured than it was literally a week ago. I'm constantly fiddling and tweaking, but only in response to the pressure I feel periodically that arises from my notes – it is the notes themselves that put pressure on me to adjust, not me directing it. The structure and workflows I'm putting into place are there because they work for me in my style of reading and thinking and writing, allowing me to express my ideas more effectively. It's like my brain is building this external organism that is steadily growing and yelling FEED ME SEYMOUR and I comply.

    Focus on the principles not the mechanics. The principles are simple: write atomic notes and link them together. Beyond that its all details. "Atomic" means focused on one idea, not necessarily "very short" but it can be.

    Start simple and iterate, as Will says. Don't try to have the perfect approach.

    So you can take an approach similar to the above, or merge everything into your ZK. One tip I've seen advised by someone else that may work for you is to take all your old notes and toss them into a specially named inbox in your ZK, then process them in as if they were literature notes and build new permanent notes. That may be unrealistic, so do whatever works for you.

  • @davecan Thanks so much for that thorough explanation. I had just now posted something on Lit Notes that you touched on: specifically, you combine your Lit & Perm notes, where see others separate them, and you treat Lit Notes 1/idea. I'm a bit confused about this. Could you expound on this:

    "(To me a lit note is a note capturing a single important idea from a single source – this differs a bit from the terminology of others but it works for me, because it was easier to find another name for the note representing the source than for a note representing an idea from a single source, distinct from the permanent notes. If that makes sense...)"

    I took your point to heart and I'm totally on board and understanding that this will grow and change over time; I guess I just want to be sure I'm headed at least in the right direction it's so difficult to change the system once you start to create your templates and workflows. But I think I'm on the right track, just trying to iron out some cocneptual questions. Thanks again.

    R

  • @MartinBB thanks for the advice!

  • @ctietze, @Steve625, @Will thanks for the insights!

  • edited March 27

    @romebot

    you combine your Lit & Perm notes, where see others separate them, and you treat Lit Notes 1/idea

    This is slightly incorrect, sorry if I led you to this conclusion. I actually keep lit notes and permanent notes separate. It's important to understand also what I mean by "lit note" vs what others mean.

    Typical definition: a note representing a source (I actually call these "source notes")
    My definition: a note containing a single important idea from a single source

    So in my approach a lit note and a permanent note are the same in that they each capture a single idea, and where possible have a phrase-based title. The difference is that a lit note captures a single idea from a single source in the terms of that source, while a permanent note is my effort to synthesize the material from the source(s) into my own words so they become my own thoughts and ideas, building on the thoughts and ideas of others. Subtle but important (to me) distinction.

    The reason for my terminology difference is because it was easier for me to find another term for the first use ("source" note) rather than find another term for the second use (what do you call "a note capturing an idea from a single source" as opposed to a permanent note?)

    I'm also considering paring back this use of separate lit notes as well, so this may change in the future and I may eliminate the separation entirely. It's something I'm wrestling with but so far it provides value to me, in the context of my system so I'll continue to use it until it no longer provides value.

    I guess I just want to be sure I'm headed at least in the right direction it's so difficult to change the system once you start to create your templates and workflows

    Mine is not "right" nor is it "wrong" – there is no universal right or wrong, as long as the core principles are being applied. So don't adopt my system as your own, mine is unique to my needs and could be "controversial" to some. Plus, again, mine is ever-changing so what you see here is not necessarily what will be there three months from now. Apply the fundamental principles to build your own that meets your needs and allow it to evolve in the same way, as an organism seeking new resources.

    Core principles: Start simple. Write notes in your own words. One idea per note. Link the ideas together.

    Some useful but not strictly necessary principles: Write titles as phrases to sharpen claims (Matuschak); use outline notes (collecting links to other notes) to establish structure and order to these claims to build larger ideas and theories of your own; write your most polished notes as narrative mini-essays to yourself (not all deserve this polish, but for those that do see also Feynman Technique); don't just drop links in but actually add contextual description for why the link is there i.e. "transition sentences" (back to the essay bit); use your permanent notes build your mental schema of your ideas and allow that schema to guide your discovery and analysis of new sources as you actively seek to incorporate the new ideas into your growing schema.

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