Zettelkasten Forum

Capturing Zettel - Onboarding Workflow

I'm onboarding Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Harvard University Press, 1960.
I'm following this workflow and thought about sharing it to discuss how we incorporate ideas into our zettelkasten.

The goal is to make them "useful/worthy/durable/resiliant." This is done by moving the "seedling" zettel through repeated steps, conditioning it for the "garden."

  1. it is most important to capture them
  2. vomit them onto the page, not worrying about spelling, grammar, appropriateness, titling, format, or anything that might slow and blunt the capture phase
  3. add a tag putting the note in a group that is visited at every editing session. In this example, I'll use "greenhouse" as the metaphor. This will be the tag for all the zettel I'm developing, not yet ready for deployment into the main garden.
  4. after it is roughly planted on the page, letting it germinate is important. During this phase, the subconscious works with the idea, and you get to go to a party. The time here is variable but shouldn't be more than two days.
  5. editing the note is where the exciting action happens. The next morning, spend time editing the note. Clean up spelling and grammar. Massage the notes formatting. Re-read and re-word where you see further explanation will be needed by someone else reading the note. (Think about the questions your future self might ask.) Connect it by using key terms and phrases in the note.
    1. this is fun if you don't push things. Stop while it is still exciting and you still have energy. Leave something that will drive you to return with energy and excitement. Don't let your energy peter out and get bored. What's boring doesn't get attention.
    2. put the note back in the greenhouse and forget about it until tomorrow, then repeat. Sessions will be a mix of short caretaker sessions where a few grammar errors will be corrected, and because of low energy, the session should be kept short. The next session, with higher energy, will see the idea blossom and vine its way though-out your zettelkasten.
  6. repeat this process until you have a couple of sessions in a row where you can't find anything to add or subtract.
  7. free the zettel into your zettelkasten, removing the inbox/greenhouse tag, planting it out in the garden amongst the other crops.

All this time, the idea is a zettel. At first, it is a seed zettel, then it matures. A zettelkasten is a garden of zettel on the spectrum of maturity. Embrace each zettel as a proxy for the idea it contains, all without favoritism. The zettel that is slow to germinate today may one day have a sudden growth spurt and become a mighty oak. We can't predict.

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


  • edited June 2021

    Nice imagery! And of course the process is totally sensible.

  • edited June 2021

    Great stuff, as always, Will. I am preparing to do an archive dive of this forum to read about other people's workflows. Yours is a a great place to start.

  • Thanks for the impetus to describe the desired and actual flow of work using such a vivid image as a greenhouse, seedling and garden.

    As a guide I have now placed the photo of a small Victorian greenhouse on a page and in the text below I try to give a brief description of the necessary gardening work.

    For the page with my actual workflow, pictures of the jungle and a machete would fit well.

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