Zettelkasten Forum

Zettelkasten as a coping mechanism (or: why I abdicate the zettelkasten method)

The zettelkasten method is supposed to help you structure knowledge in a meaningful way. 'Meaningful' in this context means that the insights you get from your notes are enmeshed in a network of other thoughts (notes). You create a somewhat natural system of thoughts analogous to how your brain works when it connects neurons (notes) with synapses (links).

Some on this site claim that the zettelkasten would be antifragile. This, in itself, is true in so far as you look at the zettelkasten as a standalone system.
However, having a world-view that is quite related to that of Nassim Taleb (the guy who wrote Antifragile), I came to realize over the past weeks that the zettelkasten actually does not make you, personally, more antifragile. If at all, it will keep you in a fragile state, and in the worst case it might just make you more prone to falling for the traps of modern fragilista life.

A lot of people seem to be drawn to the zettelkasten method because they want to handle the flood of information, as it were. While individual preferences and adaptions may exist, there generally seem to be two groups of people who use the zettelkasten (one can be in both groups or in either one of them).
One group are people in academia that need to write texts for professional purposes (in other words, those who unironically call themselves knowledge workers).
The other group are those that use the benefits of the zettelkasten to further develop their knowledge into their hobby horses, be it history (as was the case with me), literature or something else. At one point, we all came to the conclusion that even if you take notes, there is little order in them and there is no way you can remember everything forever. A zettelkasten will give you a sense of order, a 'second brain' that you can communicate with.

However, this order is clearly just a pseudo-order and it only exists within the realm of whatever tool you are using for your zettelkasten management. The pseudo-order might even transfer into a coherent text, like an article that you will write based on your zettelkasten notes.

The zettelkasten does not help you in becoming a more self-reliant person though. What seemed particularly promising to me was the dialogue-style interaction I would have with my zettelkasten, and don't get me wrong, I often did have exactly that dialogue. It was better than what I had before (which was e.g. spaced repetition). But it did not help me in becoming less dependent on the overwhelming monolith that we call the "information age" or whatever fancy word you prefer for what we all struggle with.

I really do believe that the overwhelming amount of books, videos, websites (again: information) does need to be reduced somehow, and I do agree that if you for some reason see yourself forced to deal with all that (as a 'knowledge worker'), the zettelkasten is probably the best method there is.
But in the end, for me it comes down to this: I want to live a life that is truly antifragile, in the sense that I am less dependent on 'the system', for lack of a better word. For me this has meant no internet at home for the past 1.5 years and little exposure to the news cycle, less dependence on city infrastructure and large-scale technology overall. Modernity causes fragilistas, as Taleb calls them, to rule the world. Whoever has recognized this and wants to live a life based on not becoming a fragilista may find himself in a Catch 22 using the zettelkasten, having to spend potentially hours every day micro-managing his thoughts in interaction with a machine. After the initial excitement was over, it just made me feel like a wanna-be craftsman telling myself that I am actually doing something creative or meaningful like carving a statue or building a house, while in reality I was just using a coping mechanism for the problems of modern life.

In a sane world, you would only be reading books that are likely to be meaningful to you. The amount of books whose content you can somewhat coherently memorize over a longer period of time would be relatively high, maybe between 50-100 books depending on your age and brains. You might also take some notes or write a short summary about its most important ideas, just to be on the safe side if you quickly want to recap its contents after a while.
In general though, your brain itself would be a perfectly good filter for what wisdom gained by a book is worth preserving. If you act upon the insights gained from the book, that would be a natural case of antifragility in action, too, because antifragility is based on doing instead of thinking.

However, many potential zettelkasten users are probably trapped in exactly the opposite kind of lifestyle, working in the generally toxic environment of academia or other 'intellectual' or 'scientific' professions that require you to be deeply involved with the ever mind-numbing forces of modernity. You have to come up with deeply elaborate schemes of training your mind in order to make it in an ever more complex system that bit by bit shapes you psychologically into becoming a cog in a wheel, albeit a highly qualified one. This deprives you of your autonomy, both psychologically and physically, even if you can minimize the physical effects through exercise (which again is just a cope mechanism).

The actual solution to dealing with modern life/information overload/knowledge work/whatever you want to call it, is not to structure your information intake into specific parts, or to take smart notes. Nor is it to use a zettelkasten. The actual solution is to take in less information. Just don't read books. Don't consume news or article or anything. For a while. Don't be in places where you are surrounded by screens and billboards.
Finally, after you have been able to detox your brain from all the surrounding information noise (which might take a while), pick up some book and just read it.
With a clear mind that is not scattered by distractions or notions about having to somehow process what you are reading, you are going to get so much more out of it than with any kind of external knowledge management tool.
Just like you probably still remember many of the earliest children stories that were read to you by your parents when your mind was still fresh, you should aim for this freshness. Sure, our minds are not a blank slate at any point in time, but looking at the obvious decreasing attention spans and psychologic impacts of desensitization (both emotionally and cognitively) on people these days, your primary goal should not be to process your thoughts through some filter like the zettelkasten in order to get a presentable, sellable result. Your aim should be innate clarity of mind.


  • I think you are misunderstanding the zettelkasten and methods surrounding it.

    I'm currently reading a book on information management before the modern age and people have been complaining about too many books and frailty of human resources (memory and time) since the ancient times.

    From my understanding Luhmann only read what he enjoyed and liked working with the zettelkasten. On average he created 6 notes per day, that isn't some crazy information overload scenario. Be more selective in what you choose to read and incorporate into the zettelkasten.

  • @lunario often discussions fall into the right way, the wrong way, right thing, wrong thing, better or worst, etc. It becomes a matter of sides. I am hoping that isn't your intent.

    I am more interested in your journey and the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that you gain for making and taking the choices you described. Please quantify those things as they applied to your experiences.

    Please share those thoughts. Obviously this is important to you. I think what you have to say is important and valuable. I very am interested in how an approach like this helped you.

    Give us your success story!

  • The difference is between knowledge and wisdom. What are those things that you wish to dwell upon, understand deeply and incorporate vs bits of knowledge that you are hoarding for the sake of coping.

    Christian wrote an excellent article on the collector's fallacy which illustrates this point.

    For me Zettelkasten is not just the technique, but the reasoning. I want to explore certain themes and thoughts. I am not collecting other people's opinions, rather I am collecting my reactions and thoughts to those opinions or facts. It is my interpretation rather that the absolute facts that I am interested in.

    As an aside - the hard facts and observations I need for my job are kept in Devonthink and accessed using tags and folders. There is very little linked and my analysis for technical details is rather shallow. The information is there for my future reference in case I run into the same problems again. However, I do make my own notes and not just collect data. Hopefully this means I am not just blindly falling into the Collector's Fallacy.

    With a clear mind that is not scattered by distractions or notions about having to somehow process what you are reading, you are going to get so much more out of it than with any kind of external knowledge management tool.

    I will have to agree and disagree with your statement. The knowledge/wisdom you choose to follow hopefully is a reflection of your true desire to understand better rather than a blind grab in the hopes of capturing something useful but never truly incorporating it(coping mechanism). Get what you need or want out of a reading - you are never going to capture everything, because your perspective is different every time you view the "same" information.

    The one delight I have with this Zettelkasten system is that I am having a conversation with myself. Luhmann had a similar observation

    Luhmann claimed that his file was something of a collaborator in his work, a largely independent partner in his research and writing. It might have started out as a mere apprentice when Luhmann was still studying himself (in 1951), but after thirty years of having been fed information by the human collaborator it had acquired the ability of surprising him again an again

    This is the power of an external brain full of connected thoughts. It reminds us of the thoughts and connections we had and connections always make new connections and insights.

    Well that was a lot of words:

    • Zettelkasten (for me) is a collection of interconnected thoughts
    • More importantly it is a collection of my thoughts
    • Every thought has to be connected to something else (well okay - structure notes, tags - maybe not everything)
    • The things that I put into the system are well thought out. I do not want an information grab. I need to give them consideration. That means I may construct a note elsewhere, get my thinking clear and then include it in the system.
  • edited April 27

    This summary of Sönke Ahrens' book, How to take Smart Notes says it better:

    Ultimately, learning should not be about hoarding stockpiles of knowledge like gold coins. It is about becoming a different kind of person with a different way of thinking. The beauty of this approach is that we co-evolve with our slip-boxes: We build the same connections in our heads as we deliberately develop them in our slip-box. Writing then is best seen not only as a tool for thinking but as a tool for personal growth.

    Thank you lunario. I think what often gets lost in the discussion of tools and techniques of Zettelkasten is the why of it. Without this reasoning, it gets relegated to one more note taking technique.

  • I sympathize with @lunario's sketch of a Good Life™️, and I think growing your own food, having a couple of chickens, and space surrounding your home, that's a good step to make one's life less fragile, less dependent upon existing infrastructure, and less dependent upon the internet. Permaculture is an interesting topic surrounding all this.

    However, I do not see the relevance of all this for less fragile knowledge work, though. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is one way to solve the problem, but is it an end state everybody would be happy with?

    If you want to go full peasant, you may truly escape the information overload, but then we wouldn't have anything interesting to share about knowledge work. I'd be interested in your tips to grow edible plants, though :) When you really, really want to be a writer, or even hobby scholar, and thu participate in all the information stuff in general to bring forth new knowledge, then we can continue talking about tools (e.g. Zettelkasten).

    With my own cultural upbringing, I can life a Good Life™️ working the fields and then reading the Bible, some Aristotle and Seneca over and over again, and try to be a generally good person, and that's it. Time well spent. That's not material for a discourse on learning more things, thinking new thoughts, it's a discourse about what's essential, what's enough, and how one wants to conduct his/her life. It's a different conversation altogether, and I think that's why "Zettelkasten" has no room in it; it's not a defect of the topic, it's just a different topic.

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

  • I found this post quite interesting. I agree that if your life is not optimal due to information overload, the ZK will not solve your problems. However, removing oneself from the world by shutting off external information has advantages and disadvantages as well. You can become a completely disengaged Zen monk if you want to. Perhaps you will be happier. But you cannot retain an ongoing relationship with other people in a way that aims to have positive impact on the world if you shut yourself off from it. And maybe you don't want to do that, which is fine also.

  • I think you are right in principle but wrong in scale. The Zettelkasten Method is never meant to clean up your information diet. You need a healthy information diet (e.g. limit news to zero, limit email checking, install information filter,...) and a healthy life in the first place. What gets in can be processed by the Zettelkasten Method.

    I am a Zettler

Sign In or Register to comment.