Zettelkasten Forum

Getting Started: what to write on a Zettel?

Hello. Just discovered the concept a few days ago, and I'm still fuzzy about what I should write on a Zettel. I'm quite natural at systems thinking and am a firm believer of the power of emergence: allow/foster sufficient diversity into something, and you'll be sure to discover something else to emerge someday.

Let's say I read a lot of stuff regarding Permaculture (well, I do, not a supposition), Transition (ecologic, energetic, economic), Management (I already draw interesting parallels between permaculture and management), Efficiency (permaculture is about efficient and sustainable agriculture), Organizational Change (like strength-based change, for which Permaculture is like strength-based agriculture), etc.

Here are my questions (don't tell me to read the german books, I don't know that language anymore :smile: )

If a Zettel has to contain 1 idea only, how do I enter, for instance, the fact that, most of the time, Permaculture is about 3 ethics (Care for Nature, Care for Humans, Care for the Future), and 12 principles ?

  • one zettel with all that information (3 + 12 items), and new zettels if I want to expand on some of them? Looks like a Wiki to me
  • one zettel for permaculture, one for each ethic and each principle, with a backlink to Permaculture (possibly one for "permaculture ethics" and another for "permaculture principles", and back links to the the empty shell zettels "ethics" and "principles"?
  • should I forward link as well (ie, on "ethics" I make a link toward each of the 3 ethic zettels)?

More general question: what kind of content do I add ?

  • extracts of books I find interesting (examples above on permaculture, for instance)
  • my own ideas (with link to other zettels)
  • do I need to be able later to say which is which (original stuff vs my own fantasies)? how would I do that?

Last important question for me: how do you ask questions to your kasten?

  • when you need to find a way to link a new zettel to previous stuff for instance: just through searching and linking to the most interesting zettels found ? (as such, I feel Luhmann's way of doing UIDs (12/1ab3 etc.) was interesting, because you could go down predefined paths and follow routes down/deep the kasten - I have quite a good memory for numbers and could easily remember top level categories, and maybe top subcategories for some of them - a nice way of reducing a search, for instance)
  • when you're wondering about a general question like: Oh great Kasten, tell me about Permaculture and Energetic Transition, what do you know about one in relation to the other?

On a final comment, my IT situation is: Windows 10/Linux/Android, currently trying to find a way to synchronize notes (using Dropbox or my personal Nextcloud instance), possibly using Emacs/zetteldeft on Windows and linux. Also started using Zettlr to test.


  • Welcome on board!

    Regarding your questions, well -- it depends :)

    Mapping a known space and keeping an overview

    If a Zettel has to contain 1 idea only, how do I enter, for instance, the fact that, most of the time, Permaculture is about 3 ethics (Care for Nature, Care for Humans, Care for the Future), and 12 principles ?

    It is perfectly sensible to start with a monolithic "Permaculture" Zettel, make a list of all the 3 ethics and a list of all the 12 principles, and that's it. If that's your very first note, why not. If you want to add details about "Care for the Future", your place to go would now be the 3rd list item in the first list in this note. That becomes a bit unwieldy fast. To keep the overview, you will probably want to extract the details for "Care for the Future" into its own Zettel and keep a link in your list of ethics, like

    # 20191105225 Permaculture
    1. Care for Nature
    2. Care for Humans
    3. Care for the Future [[202004211220]]

    To me, this says: there's detail for the last item, but not for the first two; I might want to research the other two ethics as well and then add link to the detail notes. (That might be a structure Zettel.)

    "Permaculture" is still an overview of the topic in your own terms, and the details are extracted in their own notes. This "refactoring" strategy of expanding, then extracting, can work on the detail notes as well. It's like digging into ever more details in a well-known, hierarchical space of knowledge. It's a bit like top-down planning, and that can work quite well to map this space.

    Example: organically growing a sub-space of ideas

    Of course if you didn't know the principles or ethics but read about "Care for the Future" only, that might be your first note, and once you eventually assemble a note about the concept of permaculture, your Zettelkasten might inform you to create a different structure. The overview would then come later, not first, to help you navigate that space.

    After years, say your best buddy is a historian, you may create a note "Care for the Past"; then you notice the similarities to the title "Care for the Future" and maybe think:

    why not make a time-based hierarchy of caring? Maybe there's something interesting hidden when I think about care that way? Like, what about the present?

    # 20300042007 Care for time and eternity
    1. Care for the Past [[203112240847]], a principle of historians
    2. Care for the Present
    3. Care for the Future [[202004211220]], a principle of Permaculture [[202004211220]]

    And thus you organically created a unique idea on the basis of the stuff you already knew. Then you meditate over the role of the present that you have disregarded until then, and e.g. end up with a couple of notes on the topic "The Present", with Buddhist notion of being-present and maybe stumble upon Husserl's notion of at-tention and pre-tention etc.

    Asking your Zettelkasten questions, in my mind, revolves around search queries. Like, search for the structure note on Permaculture, follow a couple of links and thus let the Zettelkasten tell you a bit about what it knows on the topic. In the context of your inquiry, you might already find a trail there. On the way of getting to your structure note/overview on "Permaculture", you may already find something different that's equally stimulating.

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

  • @nicolasstampf hello.
    If permaculture is a topic of ongoing interest and research I'd consider a starting a "Hub Note" - essentially a TOC of other notes. I envision eventually that many of these notes would turn out to be "Structure Notes" diving deeply in different aspects of permaculture. One structure note for each of the 3 ethics and deeper maybe one each for the 12 principles. Dividing them up like this will quickly so gaps in understanding and areas for further exploration. I'd keep the hub note handy and update it often.

    I wouldn't worry too much about what I thought I'd like the note structure to look like. Instead, I'd just start and let my zettelkasten birth emerging headfirst into life. (I like me some metaphor.)

    Yes, what @ctietze said about asking your zettelkasten questions. I do that with search and serendipitous emergence and discovery. Magic when it happens.

    Will Simpson
    I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

  • edited April 2020

    Thanks for the thorough responses. I've started to write since 3 days (zettlr on Windows and Linux, I just lack a proper Android tool to read links formed of IDs and files named "ID some title.md".

  • Coming a few years later: I started to dump off my mind regarding all I had in it at the time. Then structure and links made me think... and then I had to stop using my zettelkasten (now on Obsidian) because of the urge to write about what I've discovered through (or because of) it: that all that I learned these recent years would be of a great help for people wanting to make society transition (you know: low carbon, more inclusive, etc.)

    So a zettelkasten is indeed a very VERY powerful thinking partner. Which can derails your life for the better, yes :wink:

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