Zettelkasten Forum


Musings on the preceived complexity of Zettelkasten

The concept of Zettelkasten seems to be gaining more and more tractions (Just look at Google Trends).

An interesting theme repeats itself with newcomers to the method: they describe it as complex and involved, which surprises me. What drew my attention to ZK was how utterly simple and focused it was.

Is it just because ZK is "new" and different? Are the ways in which ZK described cumbersome?

Comments

  • I think, like anything, it depends on how your mind works and / or how closely it matches work that you've done before. I think it really suits the way some people think / work naturally, in which case it's simple, and then for some people it's totally new, in which case it's complex. I'm in the latter camp, I'll admit, although I'm getting there. I'm sticking with it because I think it will solve some problems I've faced organising my thinking, but it's not at all coming naturally to me.

  • Thanks for the reply @JKF . I hope that you'll find it useful :)

  • @henrikenggaard said:
    Thanks for the reply @JKF . I hope that you'll find it useful :)

    Thank you. I think I will. I'm definitely getting there... 😂

  • edited June 2020

    An interesting theme repeats itself with newcomers to the method: they describe it as complex and involved, which surprises me. What drew my attention to ZK was how utterly simple and focused it was.

    Is it just because ZK is "new" and different? Are the ways in which ZK described cumbersome?

    I think much of the available writing about the method is often long on describing perceived benefits and outcomes, along with mythologizing about its origins, and short on HOWTO-type material. Combine that with people's tendency to 1) assume there's a single correct way to do things and 2) make stuff vastly more complicated than it needs to be, and you wind up with a certain amount of fuzziness in the discourse.

    It probably doesn't help here that people are often told "you can do this on paper or in software, it doesn't really matter," and then get broad descriptions of the system. More in the way of extremely concrete (but concise!) descriptions of actual practice might help. It can be hard when you're working with a new technique to separate high-level concepts from implementation details.

    I also think there might be something specifically about the paper origins of this that makes it seem mysterious to contemporary audiences. I recently ran across someone expressing profound bafflement about how you'd ever find anything in a Zettelkasten. I tried to explain what an index is, in the general sense, and how it might work. Seemingly to no effect. I think there's a lot of context about once-standard information technologies from the analog era that I have been taking for granted.

  • @brennen said:
    It probably doesn't help here that people are often told "you can do this on paper or in software, it doesn't really matter," and then get broad descriptions of the system. More in the way of extremely concrete (but concise!) descriptions of actual practice might help. It can be hard when you're working with a new technique to separate high-level concepts from implementation details.

    That reminds me of the Dreyfus model of knowledge acquisition. In that context I remember experts having a hard time communicating with novices as they are too far away, mentally, from the novices' beginners minds. A novice needs rather prescriptive statements to get anything done. With experience they learn and rise through the ranks until they reach expert level where nothing matters anymore, because it's all the same but different. ;)

  • @brennen said:
    I also think there might be something specifically about the paper origins of this that makes it seem mysterious to contemporary audiences. I recently ran across someone expressing profound bafflement about how you'd ever find anything in a Zettelkasten. I tried to explain what an index is, in the general sense, and how it might work. Seemingly to no effect. I think there's a lot of context about once-standard information technologies from the analog era that I have been taking for granted.

    You see, I am a computer scientist, and eventually during my undergrad I realized
    that most of the algorithms I studied were invented before computers were
    common, which implied that people had to do the work manually for quite some time.
    Of course, there is nothing "conceptually" hard about this statement, quite the opposite,
    but it indeed is somewhat "funny" or "awkward".

    I agree with you that it is a real hurdle to understand that processes are more relevant
    than the actual tools you use. It seems that in this specific case, it is harder to be abstract.

  • From my perspective, there is very complex theory behind many steps. But the most important part, the practice, is very, very simple. In part, I am part of the problem by writing more about the complex theory and less about the simple practices.

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:
    From my perspective, there is very complex theory behind many steps. But the most important part, the practice, is very, very simple. In part, I am part of the problem by writing more about the complex theory and less about the simple practices.

    Is it not a little like the old Othello (game board) advert: it takes a minute to learn, but a lifetime to master.

    (I don't think this takes a lifetime to master, FWIW, but IME it's much easier to learn the principles than to get it really singing for you).

  • @brennen said:
    I think much of the available writing about the method is often long on describing perceived benefits and outcomes, along with mythologizing about its origins, and short on HOWTO-type material. Combine that with people's tendency to 1) assume there's a single correct way to do things and 2) make stuff vastly more complicated than it needs to be, and you wind up with a certain amount of fuzziness in the discourse.

    I agree with all of what you say here.

    In particular, so much of the discussion is so vague and abstract that it's no wonder that newcomers are confused. Ahrens' book is terrible in this regard, and perhaps set a bad example for many other advocates.

    I'd hold up Andy Matuschak's evergreen notes pages as a great example of how to teach a very similar technique. The best thing is that the pages that teach it are themselves examples of the technques.

  • I've derived a great deal of value and understanding from the Discord discussing that Christian recently linked to. The questions arising occurrence echo my own. Interestingly, I increasingly find myself in a position to offer, if not advice, at least my thoughts and perspective on things.

  • @henrikenggaard said:
    An interesting theme repeats itself with newcomers to the method: they describe it as complex and involved, which surprises me. What drew my attention to ZK was how utterly simple and focused it was.

    For me, it seems very complex and involved because I am trying to use the ZK for a large set of things. If I was just implementing simple notetaking with some internote links, no problem. But I also want other things: easy linking to files and websites, outlining within notes with folding headers, integrations to writing articles, citations, and output to essay formats. Other people are trying to integrate their ZK with learning systems, task management, etc. I think this varied scope of new users is what accounts for some differences.

  • I had a discussion with someone on r/Zettlr who was very confused about how to proceed. He couldn't wrap his head around how to even write his first note, what to include, why, etc. I just walked him through creating two notes using Zettlr commands for each step, creating a note, how the note file name embodied the note ID, how to create the second note and how the note IDs were used in linking them together.

    Once he saw the mechanics of it in the program he was using and understood what each thing did in the system he had no problems. A lot of people do think it's more complex than it is and perhaps picture a huge pile of notes with thousands of links and feel overwhelmed. They fail to see that you aren't ever really dealing with the whole thing at once and that there are only a few items that are used to build the system.

    :wq

  • edited June 2020

    From experience, every time I teach the method live, people have assumed that the Zettelkasten Method is something you learn and not something you practice. To the theoretician a skill looks incredible complex. To the practitioner skill is just there.

    The secret is to just do it and see where you are wrong and what to keep.

    I second the experience of @sbicknel .

    I am a Zettler

  • edited June 2020

    @sfast

    Yes, and for whatever reason that first note is the hardest. Maybe the best advice for doing the first one is to write it like any note they have written before but from the second note on to try to create links between them.

    :wq

  • I'm new to the Zettelkasten Method. I learned about it last week from David B. Clear's summary on Medium https://writingcooperative.com/zettelkasten-how-one-german-scholar-was-so-freakishly-productive-997e4e0ca125. What made it complicated at first for me was twofold. First, it's a new way of processing and organizing information, but once I started the process, it was more intuitive than I initially thought. The second, and probably the main reason it was complicated to work through, was that I overcomplicated it. I downloaded The Archive and then went down a rabbit hole of technical information about running scripts and stuff that I didn't really understand (still don't) and wasn't sure how to make it work.

    For now, I'm just focusing on the principles:

    • atomicity
    • autonomy
    • using my own words
    • link notes & explain why I'm linking them

    I figured the rest will come later with time and practice.

  • edited July 2020

    @ldomingues said:
    … probably the main reason it was complicated to work through, was that I overcomplicated it. I downloaded The Archive and then went down a rabbit hole of technical information about running scripts and stuff that I didn't really understand …

    I think this is spot on. All the script and automation stuff is of course really great, but nothing you need to have before you even get started.

    Also, I guess that there are quite a number of “computer-freaks” here in the forum who procrastinate on doing real zettel-work by writing automation-scripts for potential problems that they might perhaps encounter once they actually create a significant number of zettels – which they haven't yet. I might be guilty of that myself ;-)

  • @rhubarb said:
    Also, I guess that there are quite a number of “computer-freaks” here in the forum who procrastinate on doing real zettel-work by writing automation-scripts for potential problems that they ... encounter ...

    Guilty as charged. The Archive, unencumbered, does a fabulous job of hosting your zettelkasten.

    Warning - cliche minefield ahead.

    My advice - Have fun, do interesting stuff, be curious, ask questions, use your notes to really think about how the stuff you read integrates into your thinking. See what happens. And what works keep doing and what doesn't work, abandon. Sail your own ship.

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

  • @na2th said:

    You see, I am a computer scientist, and eventually during my undergrad I realized
    that most of the algorithms I studied were invented before computers were
    common, which implied that people had to do the work manually for quite some time.
    Of course, there is nothing "conceptually" hard about this statement, quite the opposite,
    but it indeed is somewhat "funny" or "awkward".

    I've made the same observation in regards to engineering works throughout history. A cruise around the Mediterranean will provide multiple examples. Even thousands of years BC, early engineers were designing and constructing buildings and infrastructure that still exist and are very impressive, and would be challenging to undertake even today, never mind back then.

    In regards to computer stories, my grad school supervisor, about 85 years old now, tells a good one from his grad school days. His supervisor was one of the pioneers in my area of engineering and for his Ph.D. thesis, he calculated, by hand, the stresses that would exist in a dam and its foundation. It took him 2 years of continuous work - something that an undergrad student could do today in about 1/2 hour. How times change!

  • I'm JUST a couple weeks in. And I constantly waffle back and forth between a paper-based system much like Luhmann's (using half-sheets of paper) and The Archive. Both have benefits, and I sure do love to obsess about these things.

    I'm not using Zettelkasten to write a book or do research. I'm not using it to gather and process information I've read, at least not much. All the examples seem to point in that direction.

    For me, it's exciting to use a Zettelkasten as a more sophisticated journal. I've got bookshelves full of journals, filled with GREAT ideas that have never seen the light of day. There's never been a bigger-picture system to capture those ideas and connect them to others and feed them back to me. Journalling is therapeutic, and that alone makes it valuable, but I want to get more lasting value out of my thoughts and reflections, capturing the best ideas as notes in my Zettelkasten and connecting them over time to grow this network of awesomeness.

  • @joegilder said:

    For me, it's exciting to use a Zettelkasten as a more sophisticated journal. I've got bookshelves full of journals, filled with GREAT ideas that have never seen the light of day. There's never been a bigger-picture system to capture those ideas and connect them to others and feed them back to me. Journalling is therapeutic, and that alone makes it valuable, but I want to get more lasting value out of my thoughts and reflections, capturing the best ideas as notes in my Zettelkasten and connecting them over time to grow this network of awesomeness.

    Great idea! I can see how it would be very useful to do as you describe above. I hope you occasionally share your progress, as I'm quite interested in your experience with this.

    One idea I have is to use my ZK as a way of capturing memories and experiences, with the intent of building a better life history - perhaps a non-linear one that needs to be read through the ZK itself. I think that has some overlap with what you are creating.

  • edited July 2020

    I like to keep my journaling separate from my Zettelkasten - knowledge work. Journal in Evernote and Zettelkasten in The Archive.

    I see them as separate domains with different requirements. I do link between the two where appropriate. But not very often. My journal is polluted with musings about the weather, dreams, todo lists, photo of the puppy, and other detritus. My Zettelkasten is where I water the garden of knowledge as best I can through reading and integration of what I can find of value into my worldview.

    These are two very different projects.

    This is just me and how I think. Your mileage may vary.

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

  • @Will said:
    I like to keep my journaling separate from my Zettelkasten - knowledge work. Journal in Evernote and Zettelkasten in The Archive.

    I see them as separate domains with different requirements. I do link between the two where appropriate. But not very often. My journal is polluted with musings about the weather, dreams, todo lists, photo of the puppy, and other detritus. My Zettelkasten is where I water the garden of knowledge as best I can through reading and integration of what I can find of value into my worldview.

    These are two very different projects.

    This is just me and how I think. Your mileage may vary.

    That makes sense. I keep a lot of things in my Archive -- My GTD system, some reference filing, daily logs/journal, and my Zettelkasten notes themselves. To keep it from getting too noisy, all my Zettelkasten note filenames begin with "Z-", and I use Luhmann's file naming structure (Z-1A, Z-1A1, Z-1B, etc.)

    All my journal entries happen on my daily logs, which are tagged #DailyLogs. If I journal something particularly interesting, I'll create a Z- note for it. Otherwise, I can easily exclude my daily logs from any Zk searches I want to do. OR I can just make sure to include "Z-" in my search query to only pull of Zettelkasten material and none of the other things in my Archive.

    Kinda like the way @sfast thinks about his Zettelkasten, as a place for almost everything. I like that.

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