# Paper-Based Zettelkasten Processes for Problem Solving

Here are several ideas on a paper-based, Zettelkasten-inspired process for tackling problems.
(I've tried to keep the post self-contained, my apologies if some things seem a bit too obvious to readers of this forum.)

We suggest the following materials:

• An index card box in A5 landscape format.
A paper size of A6 seems too small for diagrams, A4 is certainly OK and for diagrams (or for math with bulky terms) arguably better than A5, but it is about twice as clunky.
Landscape format fits better with the sheet layout we describe below.

• Matching paper in A5.
Paper sheets are thinner than index cards, so the box capacity is much larger.

• Matching tabs for the box.
These are often sold together with the box. They are needed for setting up sections and are useful as place markers.

• Pencil, eraser etc.
Writing material is a matter of taste, but with diagrams and a constant need for modifications, pencil and eraser are a natural choice.

These simple elements can support our attempts to solve a problem.

• We can use the sheets for all types of notes - in words and phrases, formulas, diagrams, tables, lists or mind maps.
• If we divide the sheets by a vertical line, we get a layout with space for side remarks, questions etc. This is an important building block for doing "more metacognition": We can start to think about weird points in the left column using the right column.
• We can number the sheets (for example in the upper right corner) in a decimal notation, like 12, 12.1, 12.1.1, 13.
• With this notation, we can reference between sheets: where did an idea come from, where is an idea examined in more detail, where do we find related ideas?
• We can order the sheets in the index card box according to their number.
Having the highest number at the front is convenient.

• Finding sheets works via the numbers. (See the index idea below for an additional access to the material.)

• Using the index card box tabs, we can set up several sections - one for the main part with notes on problems we try to solve, one for spontaneous ideas (perhaps with sheet numbers I1, I2) or a section for open topics we want to examine later.
• The index card box may contain an organically growing section on thinking tools for problem solving: general questions, collections of creativity techniques, tricks for special problem domains (e.g. in science).
This tool collection may contain references to other sections of the index card box.

• When we take sheets from the box, a tab can help us to put them back later.

How to do the thinking about the problem itself?

• One approach is "thinking on paper" - a close interplay between thinking and writing:
We can write down questions, even half-formed ones. We can note that we are confused, and find out in writing why. We can collect ideas, or produce ideas with creativity tools, collect even hazy ones, and make them more precise, or we can play around with diagrams and terms on the paper.

• Arguably one of the most important processes is reflection:
We can ask on a new sheet what happened on the previous one. Where are the main obstacles? What can we do now? What variations are possible? What problem solving tools (perhaps from the tool collection) may be useful?

• The notes are a "work in progress".
They should not be written in the spirit of a polished solution - such a document can be written later, when the search for a solution was successful.
A polished version can become part of the index card box.

• If necessary, we can install an index to find material for a given topic.

How to stay on track?

• It's easy to get lost while looking for a solution. Here's a practice that may help.
The basic idea is to use "control tower sheets" - a name inspired by David N Perkins' lecture "40 Years of Teaching Thinking: Revolution, Evolution, and What Next?", available on YouTube.

• We start with a new control tower sheet and name it "CT 123", if 123 is the next free sheet number.

• On sheet CT 123, we write down the topic (like "Problem XY") and then a reference like "Questions (123.1)".
• We start a new sheet 123.1 and collect questions. We choose the most promising question and examine it on a sheet 123.2, and reference 123.2 in the control tower sheet.
• Each new sheet is referenced in the control tower sheet, with graphical links to its predecessors, forming a kind of mind map.
• If a topic deserves a control tower of its own, we can start a new control tower sheet CT 124 and so on.
• With this practice, we produce little "dossiers" of 10-20 sheets for each topic of a control tower sheet.
• It's convenient to treat the sheets of a dossier as a group and arrange them on the desk while working on them.

Here are several remarks.

• The process outlined above can be modified in countless ways.
Feel free to adapt the process to find your own "personal problem solving method".

• At the core of the method is a small number of principles:
Externalize: Find a lasting representation of your thoughts. Write them down.
Organize these documents.
Use reflection and metacognition: Find out where the obstacles are.
Use tools.
These principles could be used in isolation, but I find them much more powerful when they form an "integrated problem solving environment" - in analogy to the "integrated development environments" in computer programming, like Eclipse or Visual Studio.

• In my mind, a paper-based method has two major advantages over a computer-based one:
It causes much much less distractions.
It is much easier to combine text, diagrams and formulas while concentrating on content and not on technology.

• However, if a computer seems to be the best medium, something like wiki software may be a good choice.

• Searching for a solution to a problem often leads to tree-like structures - we start with a collection of seminal ideas, we pursue them to a certain point, from there, we can follow several different paths etc.
The control tower sheets mirror these structures.

• Thanks for sharing your current approach here, Thomas!

I like the term "meta-cognition"; separating these transient notes into the subject matter to the left and reflections/comments to the right makes total sense to work on problems.

Could you add more details about what happens when a problem seems to be solved (if that ever really is the case)? You stressed the point that the notes are not polished, but work-in-progress. Do polished results emerge as new notes inside this box, or does a polished result live outside it?

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

• This is excellent! I am struggling with how to let the zk spur more insights based on “random connections” and weak links in addition to the obvious sources based on the tags and this gives me a great starting point. I think i have to actually do it by hand to develop a more visceral understanding and muscle memory but this gives me a great starting point, thanks!

• Interesting! Glad to see another approach to a paper Zettelkasten. Mine is half paper and half digital. If you have not seen it, you can see it here: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/355/the-analog-digital-zettelkasten

It has a different aim than yours, but still, we are essentially aiming at the same: contribution.

• Thanks for the responses! Just been away from the keyboard; -)

@ctietze

To the present day, there are no polished results of mine inside the zettelkasten, or, alas, outside it. Still, I spend a lot of time with my ZK in an effort to strengthen it as a "PCA = personal cognitive assistant". The focus here has shifted from ZK organisation itself to the question of thinking tools that work for me.

@newzettelkid

For what it's worth: I like to view a central "module" of my zettelkasten as an "idea generation machine" that can be fed with existing ideas (from inside or outside the zettelkasten) and then churns out new ideas.

Here are some methods for idea generation that I find helpful.

Stimuli, random or systematic:

• How can I transfer a concept from another domain to my topic?
• How can I force a general concept to fit into my topic?
• Fairly general concepts like "segmentation" or "state transitions" seem to work better for me. (In part, the use of general principles is inspired by the TRIZ method.)

Modification methods:

• This is in the spirit of the SCAMPER tool - how can I Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Maximize/Minimize, Put to other uses, Eliminate or Rearrange elements in my topic?
• In particular, the construction of opposites and complete reversals sometimes leads to new ideas.

Perspective methods:

• What questions might an economist or a biologist ask, with their frameworks of markets and prices or evolution and ecology.

Morphological analysis:

• What are basic categories of your topic? (E.g. size, substance, basic mechanism,…) What else could be instances for this category?

Thinking in graphs:

• How do central features of your topic change with time? What are the crucial points? Are there changes from one state to another? What causes them?

Of course I have to ask how relevant these ideas are and what else I may have done in the time producing them. To prevent the idea generation from being too unfocused, I often start with the question "What is missing here?" and then use methods like the above to find hints to answers.

@StefanHansen

I found the images very instructive, thank you so much!

The next part is a bit tentative: At this time, I'm very much focused on the question how a zettelkasten could help to overcome "obstacles" in finding a solution to a problem. Does this obstacle concept (unelaborated as it is) make sense in your line of work? Are there practices that have shown to be helpful?

• @thomasteepe thanks for the detailed methods . They are very actionable. I now will make a zettel or two just out of your suggestions so as not to lose the value. Need to figure out how to cite the source . Thanks, this gives me a lot to work with. Please keep more thoughts and suggestions coming.

• Here's an update on my paper zettelkasten methods since the above posts from January and November 2018. Some bullet points deal with thinking tools rather than immediate zettelkasten practices - I hope their inclusion is OK.

• The goal of "making progress through a reliable process" has played a central role.
One approach is to start with a diagram / text summary of what I know about a certain aspect of a topic.
Then I look for points of unclarity, confusion, conflict, missing parts, obstacles etc., and I ask for possible next steps, improvements, alternative models etc. From these thoughts I work out a new diagram / text unit.
This process leads to a series or sometimes a tree of diagram / text units which I see as normally containing relevant new insights.
I have a collection of thinking tools like the ones mentioned prominently on my desk.

• Diagrams and formulas play a much bigger role than in the past.

• I find something like "proto-math" surprisingly useful. I try to express something in a math form, like
W = p * T,
where
W is the output (in the form of new insights, ideas, concepts) from a zettelkasten work session,
p is the "power" of the practices and tools I use (at this stage, I do not yet need a precise understanding what that means) and
T is the duration of the zettelkasten session.
This is, of course, painfully simplistic and wrong - but in trying to make it less wrong and more precise, I sometimes hit on new ideas - for example the question, how I should allocate the total time of zettelkasten work between "epistemic" work on the topic itself and "heuristic" work on improving tools and practices, or about the co-evolution of a person and their "cognitive assistance systems".

• I use self-made tabs from index cards and blank address stickers. (I find prefab register cards with tabs fairly expensive.)
These tabs contain the number and the main subjects covered in a dossier, which works well as an index.
The index card itself sometimes has a short list of key words for the dossier.

• The control tower sheets mentioned above play a much more important role in guiding my work on one dossier and in encouraging me to work on yet another approach to a topic.

• I use a small document holder on my desk for sheets that are work in progress, for the current sheet for spontaneous non-topic ideas I want to record, or for additional tool sheets.
• Several people on this forum use paper mind maps in their idea processing - see this example from @Phil.
Over the last few weeks I've done some experiments with arrays of small paper-based mind maps combined with thinking tools.
It's in an early stage, and feedback is very welcome.

Here comes a short description and some obersevations.
(As in my earlier ideas along these lines, these methods of "thinking on paper" are primarily intended for creating thoughts, not necessarily for storing them or for communicating them to others.)

Here's the description.

• I use a blank A4 sheet in landscape format.
• I divide the sheet in 4 x 4 cells of equal size.
• An important technical remark: I use a mechanical pencil (0.5mm) and tiny handwriting, so I fit about 10 lines in one cell. Alternatively, I could use 3 x 3 or another number of cells, or use A3 paper to get a convenient "cell capacity" in terms of words per cell.
• For the layout of single cells, I can choose between small mind maps or ordinary text or diagrams.
Mind maps are my default choice, but diagrams appear time and again.

• I can now fill the cells row by row and colum by column.

• To start a new cell, I often use small "thinking tools". A present favourite is "F/P", which stands for "focus and progress" - first I look for an aspect of my topic I want to examine closer, and then I try to make progress on this aspect - usually by asking questions, or by collecting ideas, or by applying creativity tools.
• At my desk, I have a "tool collection" in the form of about two dozens of sticky notes. They contain basic thinking operators like F/P, collections of idea generation stimuli (like the TRIZ principles, or verbs of modification), basic diagram types (like timelines, pie diagrams or decision trees), or basic "lenses" with which I can look at my topic ("look at points of transitions, look at points with special properties, look at quantiles..."). With many of these tools, I try to transfer a useful and sometimes even sophisticated general concept to my topic.

Here are some observations I've made during my experiments.

• First, the crucial point: The capacity of one cell is very limited. In my experience, this leads without extra efforts to a much higher frequency of refocusing, of asking questions and of doing useful forms of metacognition, in comparison with my ordinary mind mapping habits. For me, this is the main strength of the method.
• The threshold for writing down first thoughts is very low. It feels like I do not have to fill an entire sheet, but just one cell. And if I mess up with one cell, I can restart better in the next.
• Finding a convenient cell capacity may require some experiments. However, having a fixed cell size rather than a variable one seems to work better for me at the moment.
• If I have an idea overflow for one cell, I simply start the next on the same topic or on the particular branch I want to expand. This is of course a compromise, but in my present delight with the method I see it as outweighed by its advantages.
• I find it convenient to use flexible default tools like the above F/P that lead to insights in a broad range of situations.
• The method seems to work especially well with idea generation using stimuli.
• It's easy to assemble a personalized "thinking on paper" method - by combining sheet organisation (in a ZK) and sheet layout and cell layout and tool collections with their architecture and their elements.
• Here's a fairly realistic example of how notes from the method outlined above may look like.

• Thanks for sharing this example. Seeing a real-world example makes your ideas clearer and shows the intricacies of your work.

@thomasteepe said:
Here are some observations I've made during my experiments.

• First, the crucial point: The capacity of one cell is very limited. In my experience, this leads without extra efforts to a much higher frequency of refocusing, of asking questions and of doing useful forms of metacognition, in comparison with my ordinary mind mapping habits. For me, this is the main strength of the method.

I love this idea. The idea of incrementally creeping upon an idea. Using the many moments of "refocusing, asking questions and doing useful forms of metacognition" rather than waiting for some grand epiphany.

• The threshold for writing down first thoughts is very low. It feels like I do not have to fill an entire sheet, but just one cell. And if I mess up with one cell, I can restart better in the next.
• Finding a convenient cell capacity may require some experiments. However, having a fixed cell size rather than a variable one seems to work better for me at the moment.
• If I have an idea overflow for one cell, I simply start the next on the same topic or on the particular branch I want to expand. This is of course a compromise, but in my present delight with the method I see it as outweighed by its advantages.

Have a low threshold of fussiness is a helpful key. This is a tool, a stepping stone used to help advance knowledge. It doesn't have to look as pretty as yours. Drawing, handwriting, spelling, grammar can be atrocious, and it will still work. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. It synergizes well with @Phil's "Idea Index."

• I find it convenient to use flexible default tools like the above F/P that lead to insights in a broad range of situations.
• The method seems to work especially well with idea generation using stimuli.
• It's easy to assemble a personalized "thinking on paper" method - by combining sheet organisation (in a ZK) and sheet layout and cell layout and tool collections with their architecture and their elements.

You've inspired me to explore!

Will Simpson
My zettelkasten is for my ideas, not the ideas of others. I will try to remember this. 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.
kestrelcreek.com

• After my posting from January 5, here are some observations from the past three months.

• I do most of the cell content in mind map layout. So while practically still "mind mapping" during the entire session, the dynamics of the thinking process has changed considerably in comparison to working on much fewer, much larger mind maps in the same session time.
• My thinking has become more "dialogical" and reflective - I can develop seminal ideas in one cell and challenge them in the next, I can ask questions in one cell and find ideas for answers in the next etc.
• There was a quick emergence of new practices like the following:
I can make a sequence of maps to drill into a problem, e.g. by simply iterating the map topic "Describe what's problematic". Or I can make a list of key ingredients of a topic in one or two cells, and then apply one ideation tool after the other on these ingredients. Or I can collect points of criticism in one cell, and for each point create ideas in subsequent cells. Or I can use one tool / one stimulus as a map topic, and simply add a second one if the first does not yield enough useful response.

• I'm currently experimenting with the idea of a "thinking engine". My idea is to have one default operator I can use anytime as the topic of a new cell - an operator in the spirit of "So?" or "And now?". This operator should guide me to chosing from a very small group of general operators like "What do you want?" or "Describe your problems" or "What can you do?" to make meaningful next steps.

• With a view to my personal ZK work, where do I stand now?
(This is a summary along my previous lines of thoughts - nothing fundamentally new.)

• I can use a paper-based system with the following four modular building blocks.
They can be used in practically any combination.

• I can use two basic types of A4 sheet layouts, namely a layout with 4 columns, well suited for concatenating chains of reasoning and for more analytical work, and a layout with 4 x 4 boxes, well suited for parallel, idea-generating work (examples here). I can use variants of these layouts with different numbers of boxes.
• I can use several flexible options for filling the boxes in these layouts - with linear text, indented text in an "outline style", mind maps and concept maps, diagrams, mathematical terms or more exotic options like doodles.
• I can use a physical zettelkasten to organize the sheets, with a basic distinction between work-in-progress notes and summary notes for the more salient results. The zettelkasten method supports coherent work on topics over short, middle and long time intervals.
• I can use a collection of thinking tools that correspond to a wide variety of thinking processes, with elements in the tool collection like a) following heuristic stage models, b) dissecting problems into smaller parts, c) following analytical concepts based on asking questions and finding answers, d) generating ideas with the help of a wide variety of stimuli, or e) less conventional practices like freewriting.
A strong emphasis on reflection and metacognition can be implemented with ease. Whenever I'm stuck with a problem, I can tackle it from two sides - from the domain side, by finding out more information about it, or from the tool side, by finding new tools to apply to the problem.
I can use an adaptable collection of problem solving and thinking tools on smallish sticky notes which is accessible from my working desk with one glance.
• I can apply this framework of four building blocks to a multitude of possible purposes, and I can use a multitude of processes to follow a purpose.

• The system is cheap, easy and flexible, shields me from distractions, protects my privacy, integrates and trains a number of different complementary mental skills, and can be explained and taught with ease.
• Mainly by being paper-based instead of digital, it has a number of shortcomings I will not cover at this moment.

What are possible next steps?

• One can imagine lots of additional practices around this framework:

• relaxing to music or making music,
• responsible use of substances,
• a daily regimen focused on productive ZK work,
• mechanisms of spaced repetition to review and improve notes,
• mechanisms of structured combinations between notes and tools,
• a focus on visual thinking,
• an emphasis on communication and collaborative work,
• a design of ZK work sessions starting with exercises in self-motivation,
• and possibly more.
• From my present view however, the fine-tuning of the tool collection is the most promising approach - finding a fairly small set of general tools, and constructing mechanisms to build, adapt and use a much larger collection of more specific tools.

• Here is the current state of my tinkering with apps that allow the placement of cards on a canvas.
I've used the app Cardflow+ on an iPad Pro2020 (no affiliations whatsoever), but similar things can be done with other apps.

I will start with a sample screenshot and then explain some background, referencing the red circled numbers (1) to (7) in the screenshot.

• The example is for illustration only. It uses content-free "lorem ipsum" type placeholders, and to keep things legible in the screenshot the canvas is much smaller (roughly by a factor 4) than in the actual app.
• The canvas is divided into three vertical columns.
• The top box in the left column is for cards that give a summary of the relevant insights produced while working on the canvas. (See (1).)
• The box below is an optional "control tower section", where I can collect plans, open topics, to do lists etc. to help me organize my work. (2)
• At the bottom of the right column I can use a box for cards with miscellaneous ideas. (7)
• The main part of the actual thinking about a given topic happens in boxes (3) to (6) and beyond. By using these boxes, I can be "persistent in two dimensions" in tackling hard problems: "Vertically" persistent in starting new boxes with new approaches, and "horizontally" persistent in examining an approach by filling card after card.
• For both types of persistence, I can use specific actionable thinking tools - more "creative" tools for generating new approaches and more "analytical" tools for exploiting an approach.
• How to fill the single cards is not the focus of this post - just a quick reminder: I can use ordinary text, or mind maps, or 3x3 (or so) small boxes, or hybrid forms of all this to support my "writing for insight".
• By using the box numberings with 1A, 2B etc. I can reference between boxes.

• I can use all the benefits of hand-written notes and hand-drawn diagrams in the process of idea development.
As usual, I am in no way advocating that these notes are a good way for the long-term storage of insights.

• I find the workflow fairly seamless and focused.

• The canvas is large enough to support work over several multi-hour sessions of focused work on one topic. Resuming work later is easy with the help of the summary cards and the canvas structure.
• The canvas presents a rich structured view over the things I've tried so far.
• Flexibly changing between different approaches and different boxes is easy.
• The canvas sections can be adapted and personalized in many ways.
• I can use a rich combination of information given on the cards and information given on the canvas itself.
• The digital work poses no questions about wasting massive amounts of paper for half-filled cards etc. (I'm however afraid to think about the ecological footprint of producing and using an iPad Pro at all.)
• The main benefit lies in my view in the two dimensions of persistence - the method scaffolds in-depth thinking about a topic in a very accessible way.
• @thomasteepe said:

• The digital work poses no questions about wasting massive amounts of paper for half-filled cards etc. (I'm however afraid to think about the ecological footprint of producing and using an iPad Pro at all.)

Can you expand on this point? Why do you need to print it on paper?

I'm still looking for Software that works for me. Right now navigation is horrible and animations distracting. When i zoom in to work on (1) i want to add a summary for (4) and (6) but since it is a single document i can no longer look at what i am writing about.

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• @zk_1000 wrote:

Why do you need to print it on paper?

• That is not what I do. On the contrary, I wanted to point out that I can write two words on a digital card and then abandon it or delete it - something I would see as frivolously wasteful with real paper cards.

Right now navigation is horrible and animations distracting. When i zoom in to work on (1) i want to add a summary for (4) and (6) but since it is a single document i can no longer look at what i am writing about.

• Personally, I'm OK with navigation and animations in Cardflow+ - indeed, I find the pinching and tapping to change between cards and to add new cards fairly intuitive.
• Not having cards A and B visible while writing on card C is certainly an issue - the app doesn't allow that, and neither do the other apps I'm aware of.
For my current experiments however, it is not a crucial issue, since the things I want to summarize are of a qualitative nature where exact referencing of the original notes is not necessary. Sometimes I use copy and paste and subsequent editing and rewriting of entire cards or of parts of the handwritten notes as a workaround.