Zettelkasten Forum


Trying to get this to work for me

First of all, if it sounds like I’m overthinking this, I almost certainly am. I REALLY struggle to get my brain to grasp concepts and I tend to have to think through principles very, very carefully in way too much depth before I grasp them. And this is also a difficulty with studying itself, as you’ll see. Once I get something, I do really well. Getting it seems to be a very specific struggle for me. I’m separately seeking an assessment about whether my brain is ‘meant’ to work like this and to see if there’s anything that I can do to work with it differently; in the meantime this technique is my attempt to work with it.

Okay, so I’m studying philosophy at undergraduate level in my own time without any previous experience of it, on a course with no tuition and very little structured material. We get a fairly brief overview of the key topics that we need to know, a reading list (that tends to be quite advanced rather than a ‘noddy’s guide to…’, access to past exam papers and the examiner’s comments, and that’s pretty much it. So I have to find my own ‘introductory’ level texts, and because it’s philosophy, everything is really a point of view or argument rather than a ‘fact’, so everything has to be read with that in mind.

Let’s say I’m studying Aristotle’s ethics, and let’s say there’s 5-8 key areas that regularly come in exams, and let’s say one of those is the Function Argument (FA). I find I’m simply not able to understand a topic (the FA here) until I have a broader view of the ethics in general and have read enough different texts to get a set of mental hooks.

Question 1: How to make this all work for me. I go into a loop – I read a paper / introduction, have no mental hooks so don’t quite get it, so it seems impossible to write something meaningful. So I read more widely, slowly getting enough mental hooks to write something meaningful, but by then I’m utterly overwhelmed. The alternative is that I try to write down whatever I understand after reading the first guide / introduction / paper, but I with no mental hooks that feels overwhelming in itself. At this stage I’m taking notes purely to understand the concepts but these are not well structured and can take weeks (literally) to click at a level that I feel I can summarise into a meaningful slip, which is unsustainable. Any tips?

Question 2: How to structure the slips. Let’s say I start with reading a general guide to the FA. I can see how I might make a slip about the FA. This seems okay. So then I read PaperX by Author1 that covers the FA amongst other topics. Those other topics may or may not be relevant to me later. Do I do a slip on ‘PaperX by Author1’ and refer briefly to all topics in there, so that I can use it as a reminder / signpost to read that paper again on other topics in the future? And what about the more detailed notes on Author1’s argument on the FA? Do I do a slip on ‘Author1’s view on FA’ as a separate slip, or do I add this account to my slip on the FA? Not sure if that makes sense. I guess the question is, given that any one paper might cover three or four topics- would you do a slip on each of these topics and link to them from a topic structure note, or keep them on one slip on ‘PaperX’, or something else?

Question 3: I find the zettel titles with the numeric coding hugely visually overwhelming. I simply can’t visually scan The Archive and pick out what I think might be useful, and this applies to reviewing search results. So I’m really reliant on structure notes. Is this normal? It seems to me that writing notes for one essay would mentally easier for me if the headings of the slips were purely the sub topics / arguments, but I can also see that this does not contribute to the long term usefulness of the technique.

PS, I have read the book on Smart Notes. I’m just reading it again. I understand the key principles, I’m just tripping up trying to put them into practice.

Comments

  • GBCGBC
    edited February 27

    I’ll see if I can describe in more detail my difficulty getting my brain around the structure.

    In terms of reading, it might be something like:

    Introductory guide(s) and the general information found in multiple separate papers:
    The main points of the FA (that have general consensus)

    Author1 in PaperX:
    An individual interpretation of the FA (that differs from the general consensus)
    An objection to the standard interpretation of the FA that he feels is compelling

    Author2 in PaperY:
    A response to the objection raised by Author1
    A different objection to the FA

    Author3 in PaperW:
    An argument against the views of both Author1 and Author 2
    His own argument in support of the FA
    An objection to the FA and a possible answer to that.

    How would you structure notes or slips around this, please?

  • I’ll see if I can describe my difficulty getting my brain around the structure.

    In terms of reading, it might be something like:

    Introductory guide(s) and the general information found in separate papers:
    The main points of the FA.

    Author1 in PaperX
    An individual interpretation of the FA
    An objection to the standard interpretation of the FA

    Author2 in PaperY:
    A response to the objection raised by Author1
    A different objection to the FA

    Author3 in PaperW:
    An argument against the views of both Author1 and Author 2
    His own argument in support of the FA
    An objection to the FA and a possible answer to that.

    How would you structure slips around this?

  • My answer to question one is - you are reading the wrong books/papers if you are not 'utterly overwhelmed" with mental hooks. No metal hooks = boring book that is a waste of time. Question two - take each mental hook and make it a note by writing your response to it as clearly as you can. Write so you can understand what you write a month from now. Question three - the UID is important and ultimately very helpful. You'll find this out after your first 1000 notes. In The Archive, it is always 12 digits, the same position on the screen, it is regular and it is easy to train the eye to not see it. After a short time, I found that I could visually ignore them while perusing a note list or a link list. I can ignore them but they are there and I can shift my focus to them if warranted.

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

  • @Will said:
    My answer to question one is - you are reading the wrong books/papers if you are not 'utterly overwhelmed" with mental hooks. No metal hooks = boring book that is a waste of time. Question two - take each mental hook and make it a note by writing your response to it as clearly as you can. Write so you can understand what you write a month from now. Question three - the UID is important and ultimately very helpful. You'll find this out after your first 1000 notes. In The Archive, it is always 12 digits, the same position on the screen, it is regular and it is easy to train the eye to not see it. After a short time, I found that I could visually ignore them while perusing a note list or a link list. I can ignore them but they are there and I can shift my focus to them if warranted.

    Thank you. Unfortunately it is the process of 'getting' the mental hooks that overwhelms me - by the time I get them so I can take them and write them down, I've done weeks (literally) of reading. I'm wondering whether people can share how to take a topic of which they have no idea, start to read, and get those mental hooks more quickly than I'm doing. But, again, this may well be a brain wiring thing, so it might not be possible for people to explain if they don't find this such a challenge.

  • @JKF I feel your pain. Thinking about this stuff is overwhelming. The actual doing is the antidote. One method, probably the best :), is the Barbell Method. Create a method that becomes a habit.

    I find the shorter the time between getting an idea for a note and actually creating it prevents a backlog of ideas for notes which where it is so easy to become overwhelmed. I carry a paper note pad with me at all times. I have 3 audio recording apps on my phone (can't settle on one) and I usually have my laptop near.

    Don't let too much time pass between reading and processing. Of course, you are creating marginalia when read and making notes, so the process of copying/synthesizing /casting the text in your own voice/questioning is fun and enlightening. It becomes such a pleasurable process that you may find you want to spend time working with your Zettelkasten more than you want to read new material.

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

  • @Will said:
    @JKF I feel your pain. Thinking about this stuff is overwhelming. The actual doing is the antidote. One method, probably the best :), is the Barbell Method. Create a method that becomes a habit.

    I find the shorter the time between getting an idea for a note and actually creating it prevents a backlog of ideas for notes which where it is so easy to become overwhelmed. I carry a paper note pad with me at all times. I have 3 audio recording apps on my phone (can't settle on one) and I usually have my laptop near.

    Don't let too much time pass between reading and processing. Of course, you are creating marginalia when read and making notes, so the process of copying/synthesizing /casting the text in your own voice/questioning is fun and enlightening. It becomes such a pleasurable process that you may find you want to spend time working with your Zettelkasten more than you want to read new material.

    Thank you - I appreciate it. What you describe is very close to what I try to do. I'm a long way off from finding it pleasurable, due to the challenges of mentally processing the things I read: the margin note stage to writing in my own words is a painful process, and frustratingly so because I'm bright and intelligent; my brain just struggles with this bit. It's a mystery to me and to people, which as tutors, with whom I've worked. But at least I know I'm on the right track and will continue...

    I still totally trip up on how to structure my slips, though, and I've utterly not grasped how to find what I need afterwards, so that's something I still need to address.

  • @JKF I feel for you.
    I am a philosopher myself and my undergraduate time (more specifically a pre-master track) started out horrendously. My first course of philosophy ever was a close reading of Immanuel Kant’s third critique, The Critique of Judgment. Wow. I struggled to keep up with the reading tempo, with the intellectual level of discussion during classes. The course was actually a third year course of the undergraduate studies in philosophy.

    Part of what got me to the end of it was perseverance and reading easier explanatory secondary literature that put Kant’s third critique in a wider view of his whole philosophical project, and Kant’s philosophy as an attempt to solve the skeptic challenge laid down by Hume.

    I will answer all your separate questions under the heading of 1 & 2 later and more in-depth (also because it allows me to rethink some steps in my own development since that first engagement which can be useful to my own Zettelkasten process).

    As for question three, the UID is very useful in the connecting and searching of zettels. What you could experiment with is putting it at the end of the name of your Zettel.
    So instead of ‘202002271943 Aristotle Ethica - Function Argument’ you would have ‘Aristotle Ethica - Function Argument 202002271043’, which would still allow linking up notes and finding them again via The Archive’s Omnibar.

    I am a Zettler, ie 'one who zettles'
    research: pragmatism, 4e cognitive science, metaphor | you can't be neutral on a moving train

  • @John said:
    @JKF I feel for you.

    Wow, that was a HARD place to start! I'd really appreciate your insight, thank you. I just know I must be able to make it easier for myself (and I'm so not, at the moment, lol)

    That's a great tip about the placement of the IDs. I'll try that, thank you.

  • @JKF said:
    Question 3: I find the zettel titles with the numeric coding hugely visually overwhelming.

    I was right there with you on this. Funny thing, now any note that doesn't have the UID feels unofficial or raw to me.

  • @kevin said:

    @JKF said:
    Question 3: I find the zettel titles with the numeric coding hugely visually overwhelming.

    I was right there with you on this. Funny thing, now any note that doesn't have the UID feels unofficial or raw to me.

    That's really interesting. How long did it take you to get there?

  • It was pretty fast after I started actively using the system

  • @JKF I would just like to recommend an absolutely excellent book Learning how to Learn by Barbara Oakley. It may provide you some insight on your learning style. Also using the Feynman technique as a means to understanding anything you read. I hope this helps. Also when you feel your self overthinking try to put down what you are working on and go for a walk to clear your head. I know it sounds simplistic though many great thinkers utilized this in order to gain clarity and piece together information.

  • @VDL1516 said:
    @JKF I would just like to recommend an absolutely excellent book Learning how to Learn by Barbara Oakley. It may provide you some insight on your learning style. Also using the Feynman technique as a means to understanding anything you read. I hope this helps. Also when you feel your self overthinking try to put down what you are working on and go for a walk to clear your head. I know it sounds simplistic though many great thinkers utilized this in order to gain clarity and piece together information.

    Thank you. I'll give those suggestions a try.

  • @JKF I wanted to correct myself. The name of Barbara Oakley’s book is A Mind for Numbers, not learning how to learn.

  • @VDL1516 Learning How To Learn was the name of the Coursera MOOC where the book was based on. Comes recommended too if that is still up! If that is more your thing.

    @JKF I have not forgotten, just swamped this week!

    I am a Zettler, ie 'one who zettles'
    research: pragmatism, 4e cognitive science, metaphor | you can't be neutral on a moving train

  • @John yes that is correct.

Sign In or Register to comment.