# Do you create question notes?

edited April 2020

The title says everything but here goes an example. I was reading [1] and I remembered a note about sustainable behavior change that I wrote sometime ago:

#+TITLE: Sustainable behavior change
#+FILETAGS: #self-control #self-motivation

According to Segar (cite:segar_right_2015), an effective goal for retaining
behavior changes is

- a measurable goal with short feedback loop,
- a realistic goal, and
- based on emotions.
...


then I though "Is the use of internal cues effective to create sustainable behavior changes?"

I would create a task in my todo list for this question since I don't have time to expand it right. Do you guys create tasks in situations like this or do you create zettles for questions?

• I do use question notes whenever I come across a point I am not sure about and want to collect my thoughts and possibly contrast them with an author's point of view. However, I don't consider these questions tasks to be done in the future. I usually collect my thoughts right away. I store my tasks for the future in my task management system.

• edited April 2020

Do you include these question notes in your Zettelkasten?

• @wanderley said:
The title says everything but here goes an example. I was reading [1] and I remembered a note about sustainable behavior change that I wrote sometime ago:

#+TITLE: Sustainable behavior change
#+FILETAGS: #self-control #self-motivation

According to Segar (cite:segar_right_2015), an effective goal for retaining
behavior changes is

- a measurable goal with short feedback loop,
- a realistic goal, and
- based on emotions.
...


then I though "Is the use of internal cues effective to create sustainable behavior changes?"

I would create a task in my todo list for this question since I don't have time to expand it right. Do you guys create tasks in situations like this or do you create zettles for questions?

I find that they're useful tools for continuing a trail of thought. Instead of having a note as a dead-end and only creating a link when you've read something related to it, you can guide the process by adding questions.

By the way, I'm curious, what have you been reading on behavior change? I'm working on my Persuasive Technology thesis and that might be of big help

• @wanderley said:
Do you include these question notes in your Zettelkasten?

Yes, I keep them in my ZK as documentation of my thinking process. Sometimes, when I come across them later, I update my argument within the note, appending to it or even revise it completely in a new note.

• A nice side effect the plain text approach used in The Archive is that plenty of command line tools work flawlessly with your Zettelkasten.

I've just been dropping TODOs in to notes. I either do them when I happen upon a note and have time/motivation to complete the TODO, or I can use ripgrep to search them all if I'm looking to do some tidying up:

\$ rg TODO notes

notes/202004101654.md
57:TODO: Where _did_ it come from?

…

notes/202004101251.md

…

• edited April 2020

I have specified syntactic marks for all "meta" tasks with my note - curly brackets. Anything in curly brackets with > means my todo or what I would like to do with note, what to improve, where to continue (when editing longer text and I need to stop). e.g. {>check citations} or {>find original article and move to my archive} {>continue from here ===>} {>think if this hypotheses has any major flaws} etc. In case of your question I would create similar metanote in the text of the note.

It is easy to find all metanotes by searching for {> as it will never occur in normal text.

• Thanks for all replies and suggestions! I liked the idea of having TODO and {>.

I decided to persist /question notes/ in my archive with title "Question: XXXX?" and linking it with other notes.

• @wanderley: In my case, almost all the zettels in my zettelkasten are question notes (and structure notes). I regularly think about the "opposite" question: whether to include notes on individual facts in my ZK...

• I, too, use questions all the time.
Whenever I do, I add the tag #2DO-Question to my tags and such a note always comes up whenever I use the saved searches sidebar. I have a dedicated one for Open Questions.
There is some hidden power in using tags and saves searches together for dividing up ways you work with your Zettelkasten.

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

• I ask questions in my notes regularly. Many of the questions are rhetorical to further clarify my understanding.

I agree with @John that there is hidden power in combining tags with saved searches. I hadn't thought about adding a tag like @John's #2DO-Question tag but this seems like it could be helpful. I'm stealing this idea.

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

• edited April 2020

I do that: I comment in my Zettel.

#### Example 1

There is quite some evidence for that claim according to XY <--TODO find hat evidence. Search under topic "term" -->

#### Example 2

<-- Divide this Zettel into three parts. First is about X, second about Y, third about Z -->

#### Example 3

<-- This was a message from a forum user and my reply on that. Expand the point X -->

I am a Zettler

• edited August 31

@Vinho said:
@wanderley: In my case, almost all the zettels in my zettelkasten are question notes (and structure notes). I regularly think about the "opposite" question: whether to include notes on individual facts in my ZK...

Thanks for sharing this! This gives me a little bit of confidence. I recently switched to question notes as well but I am still a bit insecure about it.

Some time ago I got frustrated with my ZK as I felt I was simply dumping notes from books that I read into it and lost track of what was actually written inside these 700 notes. Actually, I probably did simply dump notes based on literature into my ZK without proper thinking (error number one). Hence, after 6 or 8 months I stopped my ZK endeavour (error number two?).

Yet, as the preparation for my dissertation (humanities & social science) needed to be pushed forward, I felt the urge to give my ZK another chance by starting fresh and clean from scratch, ditching everything I wrote before with the plan to revisit the old notes in the future to see if I can reintegrate them into my new ZK. That was last week

Also recently, I read the 2007 book "How to become a straight-A student" by Cal Newport that was recommended in the community a while ago. As a study technique, Newport suggests reading texts in the Question-Evidence-Conclusion format: What implicit question does the text answer? I thought to myself: If knowledge (in social sciences, at least) most of the time is an answer to a question, why not using this approach for my ZK as well? Also, I thought that by creating question notes it might be easier to add context to the zettel?

The format/template I am trying to establish now is as follows (I am planning to simplify it in the future):

---
Title:        Question
Zettel id:    ›[[UID]]
Tags:        functional tags such as #inbox, #todo, #incomplete (I try to keep the tags as minimal as possible) and rather have no active tags at all
---

# Question

Answer to the question as atomic idea, ideally in one or maximum two sentences.

## Elaboration

Deeper elaboration to the answer to the question, maybe even with links to other question notes/zettel to provide context and understanding for my future self and references (see bibliography section below).

---

free space for additional information or questions, links to other questions/Zettel that need to be put here isolated from the elaboration above, #todo tags, footnotes, etc.

<!-- Bibliography -->

[#literature1]: literature I used

[#literature2]: literature I used


I know that there are some users (such as @Vinho who is quite happy with it and experienced) who follow the "question note approach". Even though a ZK is always a very personal thing, as I grew insecure after my experience with my "old" ZK, I was wondering if anyone of you who is more experienced than me, could point me to what you would think of as the pros and cons of such an approach. Where do you see benefits, where do you see problems, in what areas could the focus on questions fall short?

• @analogue_man

Just to clarify: Question notes are not the only kind of notes I have in my zettelkasten, they just make up the majority of it. Another very important category of notes for me are what I would call "object notes" that draw together all the questions (and thoughts) on a particular object. I would for example have an object note on "basil" that links to several different question notes like "How to grow basil?", "What to cook with basil?", "How to store basil?" and maybe also contains some short facts about basil that I want to remember, e.g. "originates in tropical regions in Asia".

In general I would recommend using question notes whenever it feels fitting for the content you want to put into your ZK (and from my perspective it very often does), but not strictly limiting yourself to them – other kinds of notes might prove useful as well and it's good to stay open to that. Trying to force every note into the question format might sometimes feel unnatural and negatively affect your workflow.

• @wanderley @analogue_man @Vinho and others...

Somehow I missed this thread before; thanks for resurrecting it.

I think my practice is similar to what was described by @Will (above). And the idea of having a tag for "unanswered" questions, that can be used in a saved search, is an excellent one.

So, I don't have anything useful to add to the discussion; just wanted to express appreciation for those involved before.

• edited August 31

@analogue_man, @Vinho is wise, and every time he writes about his question notes, my ears perk up. I try and emulate one of the masters.

I only have 33 notes with a question as a title. I probably have more notes that ask and answer questions, but they are not easy to quantify.

Notes can take many different literary forms. Question and answer volleys are a powerful one because the answers need to focus on a specific question. Questions are usually asked before the answer is known, but this doesn't have to be exclusive.

Your template is okay. I'd add a section for my own conclusion.

I've been doing more refactoring old zettel than creating new notes lately. I notice that ~250 words is a good soft limit in zettel size. Your template already uses 120 words.

These notes still want to be made as atomic as possible, but no simpler than necessary. I can envision a question with many answers. A question zettel linked to multiple answers. I can recommend two books that use this literary tool;

1. Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. 2011.
• 20 answers to the question "how to live?"
2. Kagge, Erling. Silence in the Age of Noise. First American edition, 2016.
• 33 answers to the question "what is silence?"

I know you are on the right track, but don't ignore notes that might follow a different literary format than the question-answer format.

Post edited by Will on

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

• @Will said:
@analogue_man, @Vinho is wise, and every time he writes about his question notes, my ears perk up. I try and emulate one of the masters.

Don't know if I can accept that – I'm pretty sure I've learnt much more from you than the other way round

I meant to write an extensive article about the categories of zettels in my zettelkasten at the beginning of this year, but then ended up in different rabbit holes and eventually had to give up or at least pause it because the growing season started and I was too busy at work again. Maybe I'll pick it up again in late fall/winter.

What I can quickly do here and now – since @analogue_man brought it up – is to give an idea of what my question zettels look like by providing a list of the common sections that I use on them (the sections are all optional, I hardly ever use all of them on a zettel), including some explanatory remarks:

1. What made me ask that question / context in which it came up?
• This helps me clarify what I actually want to know to determine the scope of my enquiry – it often leads to a more precise reformulation of the question.)
2. My current best answer to the question
• Here I initially capture first thoughts, then it's constantly updated/changed whenever I have new insights.
3. To look into
• This section contains links to resources that are relevant to the question and that I haven't properly looked into yet.
• Here I collect different answers to the question from other people (experts).
• If an answer is too long, I will create a new zettel for it (zettels like this I call "opinion question zettels") and link to it here. E.g. I have a zettel on Sascha Fast's opinion on how to use tags in a zettelkasten or on Jean-Martin Fortier's method of growing carrots.

I have tried incorporating atomic question zettels before, but personally it have only caused friction. My notion is that it depends on your personal way of working within your zettelkasten.

For my part I have found it works best for me to seperate different kind of work. Meaning I don´t do my writing, drafting or todos inside my zettelkasten. This takes place outside of it.

I want my zettelkasten to be a place I solely come to read and connect. Where I bring my questions instead of being met by them. In other words, I don´t write my thinking inside my zettlkasten, but rather think about my thoughts i have placed inside it.

What I do write inside my zettelkasten works as comments seperated from the main content of the zettel when I read them. Which may be written as a question or a todo. But I treat them as placeholders for potential future linking if I didn´t have any zettels to link to. As a way to support connecting zettels in the future, which is then replaced with the zettel link.

Of what I have gathered from other peoples workflows is that question zettels works well if you manage to both read and write inside your zettelkasten.

• @Skriveleif - in your self-introduction, you wrote

I don´t agree with the notion of a "second brain", but lean more towards the notion of a "extended mind".

From the comment above I get the picture that your development of your own thoughts does not happen inside the zettelkasten, but in a separate system.
Is the notion of an extended mind focused on the ZK itself, or on the entire ecosystem of ZK plus its surrounding systems?

As an additional idea - would it make sense to you to have a "proper ZK" for finalized results and a "feeder ZK" for ideas in the making, where only zettels that have reached a certain degree of maturity are transferred to the proper ZK?
This would enable the user to use all the ZK benefits of note flexibility in the feeder ZK without clogging the proper ZK with loads of auxiliary notes. (Personally, I find the idea of a single ZK more convincing, but a separation is arguably an alternative.)

Finally, you asked for disagreement. I cannot say anything definite, given my very incomplete picture of your practices, but my personal perspectives are the following:

• I use the ZK to develop ideas about things I care about - more here.
• I use the ZK for problem-driven rather than literature-driven work - more here.
• @Skriveleif said:
Of what I have gathered from other peoples workflows is that question zettels works well if you manage to both read and write inside your zettelkasten.

How does a zettelkasten manage to get created other than by writing inside it?

I have tried incorporating atomic question zettels before, but personally it have only caused friction. My notion is that it depends on your personal way of working within your zettelkasten.

I don't think personality has anything to do with rather a question zettel work for you or not. You just haven't come up against a use-case that ignites your imagination. Keep looking, and don't close this option. A zettel formatted as a question is another tool in your quiver.

I want my zettelkasten to be a place I solely come to read and connect. Where I bring my questions instead of being met by them. In other words, I don´t write my thinking inside my zettlkasten, but rather think about my thoughts i have placed inside it.

• I bring my questions, AND met them when I come to write in my zettelkasten.
• Writing is thinking and there is no better place to write than in my zettelkasten.
• All the writing I do is the evidence of my thinking. Especially the writing I do inside my zettelkasten.

The notion as I understand your post is confusing. I probably have misunderstood your positition.

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

• Because of my eagerness to post about this topic I jumped in with both my feets. Rereading what I wrote it is evident that I tried to express too much at the same time. Trying to give examples of my own system without enough context of said system, insufficient thoughts about the what I think about the concept of writing is thinking, convoluting my main point about using question notes, etc. This goes to show that for the most part I´ve been a reader not a writer on forums. So I hope you can bear with me.

To avoid couping/going off-topic in this thread about question notes I think it may be better to answer you fully, @thomasteepe and @Will in future discussion threads I´m working on.

But I´ll include some quick replies:

@Thomasteepe - Your picture of my practices are suprisingly on point despite so little context. The notion of an extended mind is for the entire ecosystem of ZK plus its surrounding systems. I´m very much inspired of your idea of an ITDE 1 so I hope to hear your thoughts when I post an example of my workflow.

@Will said:
How does a zettelkasten manage to get created other than by writing inside it?

My thinking goes:

• With a paper zettelkasten you write zettels outside of the box. Then you place them inside the box.
• Often with digital systems both the writing and linking happens inside the "box". Both unfinished and finished zettels co-exist. And it is also possible to combine it with other kind of notetaking, drafting and productivity systems if one wish.
• The mere act of writing then, happens either inside the box or outside the box.

I´m working on a problematization on the concept of writing is thinking and would love to hear your thoughts about it when I´m ready to post it.

• @analogue_man said:

Also recently, I read the 2007 book "How to become a straight-A student" by Cal Newport that was recommended in the community a while ago. As a study technique, Newport suggests reading texts in the Question-Evidence-Conclusion format: What implicit question does the text answer? I thought to myself: If knowledge (in social sciences, at least) most of the time is an answer to a question, why not using this approach for my ZK as well? Also, I thought that by creating question notes it might be easier to add context to the zettel?

Cal Newport's questionevidenceconclusion format, mentioned by @analogue_man, reminds me of a research taxonomy that I've mentioned elsewhere in this forum, from the classic book The Craft of Research: topics, questions, problems, claims, reasons (and their warrants), evidence, objections, and responses to objections. A similar but simpler taxonomy can be found in IBIS or issue mapping (also called dialogue mapping): issues (questions), positions (answers), and arguments (pro or contra). Here is a diagram of the IBIS node types from Wikipedia.

There is a large literature on the importance of questions for knowledge. A few months ago we discussed the importance of questions, and writing as a kind of thinking through dialogue, in Book Recommendation: They Say/I Say.

Like others above, I use question notes and question-relevant tags such as "unanswered" and "needs more answers". I can imagine (but haven't yet used) similar tags for all the other research taxa that I mentioned above: "needs more questions", "needs more supporting arguments", "needs more warrants", "needs more evidence", "needs more objecting arguments", etc.

• @thomasteepe said:
@Skriveleif - in your self-introduction, you wrote

I don´t agree with the notion of a "second brain", but lean more towards the notion of a "extended mind".

From the comment above I get the picture that your development of your own thoughts does not happen inside the zettelkasten, but in a separate system.

I can't speak for @Skriveleif, but I definitely vibe with their disagreement with building a "second brain." I'm not looking for a place to store thoughts so I can find them again. I don't want to have to open up my ZK to remember what I think on a particular subject or what I've learned about a subject in the past. When I work in my ZK, I'm wanting to do a particular type of thinking, with the ultimate goal being that I come away having learned something and/or made some new concrete connections. That learning is done in my meat-brain. Yes, the ZK aids in that process--in part--by allowing me to re-encounter old thoughts and connections that have fallen out of my meat-brain, but the goal of building my ZK isn't to store and remember these things. The goal is to build an environment where I can do a certain type of thinking, with the most important gains of that type of thinking happening in the brain that I use when I'm out and about.

In other words, I plug into my ZK to extend my mind and create a particular type of thinking environment, not to offload or store thoughts.

Is the notion of an extended mind focused on the ZK itself, or on the entire ecosystem of ZK plus its surrounding systems?

I like the framing of ZK as part of an ecosystem. Different tools for different modes of thinking, with everything coming together to create an environment for personal learning and idea development. ZK pushes me to break up learning into atomic parts and to find a personal context for those parts. I use my daily journal as a place to jot down thoughts as they occur to me, a way of developing my thinking over time by noting whatever is on the forefront of my noggin. I also have a space for developing more concrete, subject-oriented thoughts--like writing an essay that no one but me will see. And then, of course, I have my space for taking notes on things that I'm reading. There are variations on my approach to each of these spaces for whether I'm thinking about work-based research or personal-interest learning.

Certainly, a lot of these things can be done in ZK. I know that daily notes are popular, and I could definitely incorporate links into the more longform, essay-like writing, using them as a kind of structure note. I used to store my reading notes in my ZK with links to the zettel that were created from that reading. Storing all of these things separately and approaching them as different modes of thinking gives me more flexibility. My goal is to build my meat-brain, not necessarily to build my ZK (though, ideally, both happen at the same time).

• @prometheanhindsight, how do questions relate to your use of notes?

• @Andy said:
@prometheanhindsight, how do questions relate to your use of notes?

I guess I didn't relate my post back to the original thread topic! Whoops!

I think that questions are a good example of why I like to split my thinking spaces like this. Depending on the mode of thinking that I'm in, questions lead to different outcomes, and each of these approaches can handle questions in different ways without muddying up the questions from the other thinking processes.

In my ZK, this is usually highlighting a possible connection that isn't concrete enough to make with certainty, i.e. "Do these notes relate in this way?" or "These notes seem to be contradictory. How can they be rectified?" It's a little like an IOU for a future note or set of notes. I write out the question as succinctly as possible, and then add links and clarification to establish the context of the question at the time that I pose it. Later, if I have an answer, I'll add a note with that answer and link it to the question.

Questions that come up when I'm writing my daily thoughts down aren't marked in any special way. Asking questions in this format is mostly meant to indicate that I'm mulling something over. I might have some answers to the question, or some clarifications to the question at a later time or day, but I don't always return to the question. Questions that come up over the course of writing longform thoughts are either used as prompts for another writing session, or are answered over the course of that essay. The purpose of that writing is for me to think something through until its conclusion. Even if that conclusion contains some uncertainty, I like for the thought-train to be closed by the end.

If there is a topic or question that occurs to me spontaneously or in a way that isn't tied to something I'm currently working on, I add it to my questions list. These are questions that don't currently have a strong contextual link to anything I'm doing, but have interested me. This is my way of brainstorming future projects.

• @prometheanhindsight said:
.... When I work in my ZK, I'm wanting to do a particular type of thinking, with the ultimate goal being that I come away having learned something and/or made some new concrete connections. That learning is done in my meat-brain.

Yeah! Tell me more about this "particular type of thinking." Writing is thinking. Speaking is thinking. Are you thinking of some other kind of thinking? Learning is done in my meat brain.

The goal is to build an environment where I can do a certain type of thinking, with the most important gains of that type of thinking happening in the brain that I use when I'm out and about.

Yeah! The goal is to nurture ideas, live a deeply fulfilling life, and not have the prettiest zettelkasten.

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

• @Will said:
Yeah! Tell me more about this "particular type of thinking." Writing is thinking. Speaking is thinking. Are you thinking of some other kind of thinking?

If writing is thinking, then different modes of writing can constitute different ways of thinking. Approaching the same problem in different ways can lead to different outcomes. If we think about drafting a manuscript for publication, that manuscript might look very different if we outline it using figures first, or a wireframe word outline first, or just dive in and write the actual prose from the beginning by the seat of our pants.

For some context, I started exploring ZK and related methods when the pandemic started. I started with The Archive, moved to Obsidian, then Roam, then emacs, then Obsidian... One thing that I noticed in switching between these tools is that my approach to writing and taking notes would change based on the tool that I was using. The Archive really works well for classic ZK. When using Obsidian, I found myself leaning more towards a wiki, trying to write comprehensive overviews of a topic rather than atomistic notes. Roam was the biggest change. The easy ability to link to individual bullet points lead to me writing long form dialogues and discussions, confident that any individual point could be easily referenced. The outliner organization scheme had me thinking about how best to structure my writing--whether a new sentence bolstered or branched off of an older sentence.

Ultimately I would move back to plaintext, but Roam really inspired me. One day, I would write 3000 words in response to some forum thread that I had read that morning. A week or two later, I would be taking notes or writing on a related subject, and I would remember that I had written out some related thoughts earlier. I could link to the specific branch of that 3k word thread, building upon and dialoguing with my past self. This is a sort of thinking that I have trouble replicating in a more purist ZK format. There wasn't a central thesis to the thread, and while I could definitely break it up into atomic notes I think that those notes would be reductive to the uncertain thought process that I was trying to capture. In that thread, I was working through an idea that was still in flux, however it was still vitally valuable to be able to link to parts of that personal dialogue and build on it in a way that would influence future iterations of that dialogue.

I'm sure that this has a more well known or canonical source (maybe Wittgenstein? I'm woefully under-read in philosophy), but in Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, she talks about the idea that nominative categorization--i.e categorizing something by naming it--restricts the ways that we can discuss that thing, and thus the ways that we can think about that thing. ZK is a place for me to name my thoughts and notes. Trying to distill ideas down to their atomic parts requires that they can be distilled down to some essential part. The note needs a title, and in naming it I have to figure out its thesis. This isn't to say that ZK requires certainty in the claims made; like many people have attested to in this thread, ZK is a great place to write down and build upon questions. It does, however, require a degree of distillation and clarity of thought, and I'm not always ready or willing to pin down my thoughts like that.

So I use these other "modes of thinking" for more tenuous or evolving thoughts, until something emerges from them that is worth pinning down with a title in my ZK.