Zettelkasten Forum

Zettelkasten boundaries

I am debating with myself what should be the boundaries of my zettelkasten. I agree with the overall claim in this forum that one ZK rules them all, and that everything should live within one system. And yet, what is "everything"?

I am using the ZK for developing my professional knowledge. Recently I picked up a book about parenting, and suddenly it felt weird not to take notes. But if I do take them, where will they go? Something holds me back from mixing completely separate topics of knowledge, with different motivations behind them. I acknowledge the limitations of my current poi, but truly I can't see any meaningful links rising from putting together these notes in my current ZK. Note that this is less a question about having a zk for "life" separate from "work", since I think similar situations might rise within "work".

When we say everything in one ZK, do we actually mean EVERY thing? Or are there reasonable boundaries that might give birth to multiple ZK?


  • I use my ZK for everything related to knowledge work:

    • The Zettelkasten Method
    • Research for fictional writing
    • Working on aphorisms and aphoristic text
    • Analytical philosophy
    • My work as a coach (workout plans etc.)
    • My research on nutrition, training etc.
    • My work on self-development
    • My strategies for investment
    • Analysis of religious texts

    It all works out fine. And: You will be suprised which connections will be found in your Zettelkasten. Examples:

    • How social hierarchy is imprinted in hormonal patterns.
    • How dog training is a model for child education.
    • Why self-love is never and should be never unconditional.
    • Why investing in infrastructure is superior in day trading for long-term perspectives.
    • etc.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited April 2020

    I am just starting out, so this is my beginners view. I like the idea of having a Zettelkasten for everything. I even plan to slowly move all my personal files/directories in it, to use it instead of my regular file system organization. As you mention, one of the benefits that Zettelkasten gives you, is that can notice new connections between things you thought unrelated or come up with new insights because holistic viewpoint Zettelkasten gives you. To work around the issue of separating topics, I think this is mostly a matter of organization and producing different views on your Zettelkasten, and I believe these to be ever changing, making fixed boundaries through different Zettelkasten is generally a bad idea. For example, what once was work might become hobby or vice versa. A situation where it does make sense to me to have separate Zettelkasten, is when you want to experiment with a completely different approach to Zettelkasten, but those are separations based on tooling / structuring, not separations based on semantics (e.g. topics).

    Without clear boundaries it would be hard to produce these views. Ideally I would want to be able to define some root Zettel and get everything related to it, so I get everything about my current work or a particular topic like parenting. However with just direct links, I don't see how you could produce this, that would only work if all Zettels of a particular topic would never link to something outside their topic. You could still link to them, but only through an indirect Zettel, meaning backlinks (ingoing links) are allowed, but outgoing links to Zettels that do not belong to the topic are not. However that would require you to always organize your Zettels as such, which might be easy to forget. And I think this is bad thinking, following along the lines of categories, breaking the messy connectivity between Zettels that Zettelkasten allows for and considers a feature. So this is still an open question for me too.

    Somewhat related is what to include in your Zettelkasten. Do you only include self-contained notes as Zettels, or does anything goes, like messy drafts? I know the value of those messy drafts and I hate to have fragmented system (fixed boundaries), so I do plan to include of this as well. The solution to topic boundaries will probably also apply to separating self-contained notes and messy drafts. Unfortunately I do not have a clear answer to this, so I am very much interested in this topic!

    I think the most straight forward solution would be to have a index Zettel listing all topic related Zettels or use links to the topic Zettel in all related Zettels (i.e. the same thing, but links point the other way around), or use tags (although I disagree with that use of tags). In other words, by being explicit about related Zettels, rather than some inferred implicit relation.

  • I am a proponent of "roughly everything that is reference material".

    For this, I think in terms of the Getting Things Done workflow chart.

    By SageGreenRider - Own work, Public Domain, Link

    So anything that comes in goes through a filter. Here's a TL;DR of my reasoning.

    • Tasks/actionable items, project management. Provides clarity.

      • I can write project outlines and nest arbitrary sub-outlines of conent beneath: musings, tasks, email context, code snippets, diary-like reflections so keep them close; ephemeral information only.
      • Emacs org-mode: has the flexibility of an outliner without breaking when you add lots of content. If you write to-do's on e.g. paper index cards, you cannot do this and need to file this away somewhere else.
    • Zettelkasten; long term storage; reference material. Provides knowledge.

      • Knowledge pieces I want to keep.
      • Stuff to recombine into new ideas later.
      • Material for books and basis of my writing.
    • Project filing. Also reference material, but temporary. Provides a workbench.

      • Folders for ongoing projects, with contents like ~/Pending/2020-amazing-app/2020-04-16-promotional-email-draft.txt
      • Contains outlines and drafts and other by-products or intermediary versions.
      • Can also be paper-based; the stuff you put in manila folders until the project is over.
        • Will be archived or tossed away eventually.

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

  • Thank you, these comments are all great.

    Following @Sascha, I went ahead and added a couple of "parenting" zettels to my zk. This actually had several benefits beyond possible future links. Since I am new to zk, this gave me some practice on writing zettels in an "easy" context. I actually realize now that this is good advice for starting a zk - write on a topic that is light and easily relatable as a way to develop the skills needed for more advanced and technical zk writing. Also, truth is I would not have started another zk for personal topics, and probably would have just read these materials without processing them. By accepting them into the zk, I commit myself to deeper learning.

    I am realizing that a zk mental state means that one has to work hard to relax past conceptions of what knowledge is. The ordinary view of compartmentalized knowledge is deeply rooted in us (especially in academics). Removing these boundaries is an explicit process of opening up and expanding what I view as "important" knowledge.

    Possibly: if I take the effort to read it, I should write about it. Is that a feasible requirement?

    Having said that, I think that the boundaries of my zk are also set by the available tools. Currently there is no single tool that fits all my needs and allows me to document all types of knowledge. I build my zk using Notable.md, and use it for the second type of knowledge @ctietze refers to, i.e. long term knowledge for ideation and writing. To @grayen's question, I have an #inbox tag that I use for drafts of zettels that are in the works. For other stuff, such as project management, journaling and GTD I currently use Dynalist. This is more of a personal preference and ease of use, but it does affect the boundaries of the ZK through fit.

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