Zettelkasten Forum

How to start

I am new to this, and I have started creating notes following the suggestions of 'Read the Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method'. But with just 13 notes I already feel that I don't have an overview, which makes it already a little bit harder to create the relevant links (because then I should go over all the notes I have). What if you have 2000 notes? How does one keep knowing what notes one have so that they don't just sit there?
So am I missing anything? Is there a suggestion about how to go about it?
Should I create from the start possible structure notes? (And how does one find these structure notes in the growing mass of notes?)


  • Hmm ,tips for general problems have to be general, too, which means you would need to figure out how (and if) to apply them to your case. It's so hard to guess where opportunities to create structures or overviews in your notes lie without knowing them intimately. And even then, the way I would create organization with the interests I have would probably differ from yours!

    That's the beauty of structure notes, though. They represent and encapsulate hierarchies that don't conflict with one another. You can organize all your recipes in a recipe collection; and you can create an overview of banana-based recipes, like banana pancakes and banana bread and banana muffins, with the agenda to show how versatile bananas are, and even though the same recipes are linked from both structures, it just works. I'd like to stretch this example to show different viewpoints: the recipe collection is just trying to provide an overview of all recipes, and the other note, "Bananas are the most versatile cooking ingredient ever", makes an assertion and provides evidence in the form of many banana-based recipes. The recipe overview is a catalogue while the other note is making an actual claim you can use.

    So -- maybe you've started with 13 notes around a particular topic, and there's opportunity to take note of your motivation to think about this. Maybe there's comparisons you have in your head but that you can put into new notes that thus provide smaller structures (here, e.g. the structure of opposition and similarity). Maybe you need a catalogue of things. And depending on your OCD you may currently want to have 1 single master overview note, the main entry point into everything there is, that lists all the useful entry points (e.g. links to the recipe catalogue and the banana-is-the-best claim).

    When you find you lack something, in the beginning, try to create it and see if that helps finding your way around. You'll eventually find your earlier notes to be less refined, less useful, but as @Will so famously said -- all notes are malleable :) You can revise later. And if you find that in the confusion that's inherent to all beginnings, you would like to have a note that says "I wonder why I always think of bananas", create it, go with it, and see if it proves to be useful in the long run.

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

  • I think this is going to be helpful, ctietze. Thank you

  • edited November 2020

    There is a concept that gets mentioned in the Tinderbox forums that I find very useful: incremental formalisation. Stated a bit simply, the idea is that as you work with your notes you begin to understand them (and the subject you are working on), and you slowly add pieces of information (tags, keywords, symbols, more text, other notes, links, references, saved searches) which build meaning and structure into your collection of notes. The point, I believe, is that the structure and connections are allowed to emerge from the data while working with it, rather than the researcher trying to impose an arbitrary structure on the data from the outset, and then attempting to fit items into that structure. The latter is a recipe for frustration.

    And on a practical note, I distinguish my structure notes by putting a number of symbols into the name -- such as §§, or some such. The number of symbols can denote the position in a hierarchy.

  • @skoeba The advice you've been given already is pretty good and I particularly like the idea stated by @MartinBB, which I think is correct and which I practise. One hint might be this - do a good job on defining tags with each zettel. I usually have 5 or more tags in a zettel, in an attempt to capture the various aspects of the zettel that make it important. Some of my tags show up on 40 or 50 zettels, but most are on 1 to 10 zettels. But that doesn't really matter, you can have "general" tags (one of mine is #Spiritual_principles) that show up on a lot of zettels and other tags are more specific (a couple of mine are #Agency, showing up at present on 3 zettels, and #Friendship, showing up at present on 10 zettels).

    So how do I find other zettels to which I want to link the one I am working now? I click on each of the tags I've added to the current zettel, to see what other zettels show up - it might be relevant to connect to a couple of them. I also just run a search on whatever other terms I think might be relevant. Those two steps give me some candidates. I don't connect to all of them and I may have to do some deeper "browsing" to find others.

    For that reason, I use the tag #Unlinked if the zettel on which I am working now is connected to 2 or less other zettels. Then I have a saved search for that tag and occasionally I use that search to see what zettels could use more connections.

    As an extra hint, I also have a tag #Unfinished which I use if the current zettel is incomplete or if I think it needs significantly more polishing. Again I have a saved search on that term. So if I want to spend some time on ZK maintenance, I click on that saved search and spend some time upgrading a few zettels. No zettel is truly "finished", by the way. You will find yourself tweaking zettels on into infinity (which is not a bad thing), so I only use the tag #Unfinished until I feel that a zettel is in reasonable shape. It doesn't have to be perfect, because it never is.

  • I find each of these suggestions very helpful as they also open up ways of thinking and approaching.

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