Zettelkasten Forum


On a failed Zettelkasten by Robert Minto

I had a very similar experience like Robert. The Method needs adaption. So, don't just take notes but create mental models and topics with dilligance if you actually want to produce texts.

The whole thing went swimmingly until the realities of grad school intervened. It came time for me to propose and write a dissertation. In the happy expectation that years of diligent reading and note-taking, filing and linking, had created a second brain that would essentially write my dissertation for me (as Luhmann said his zettelkasten had written his books for him) I selected a topic and sat down to browse my notes. It was a catastrophic revelation. True, following link trails revealed unexpected connections. But those connections proved useless for the goal of coming up with or systematically defending a thesis. Had I done something wrong? I decided to read one of Luhmann’s books to see what a zettelkasten-generated text ought to look like. To my horror, it turned out to be a chaotic mess that would never have passed muster under my own dissertation director. It read, in my opinion, like something written by a sentient library catalog, full of disordered and tangential insights, loosely related to one another — very interesting, but hardly a model for my own academic work. Rank and File by Robert Minto

I am a Zettler

Comments

  • I actually found that Sonke Ahrens book, How to Take Smart Notes, suffered from the same problem. Granted he wasn't writing a dissertation, but I didn't feel that narrative effect of the book strongly at all, it felt like a lot of anecdotes and knowledge bits cobbled together into something like the form of a book. Given that the book was about the method, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that he used the method to compose the book.

    I made a post a few days ago about Procrastinating with my Zettelkasten, and it's somewhat related to this problem. It can be very hard to make the leap from specific to general if you don't have some idea of what you're trying to generally express in the first place. I think you have to use the dialectical engine to go back and forth between specific to general many times, but starting generally for me appears to be the most productive.

    Lately I've been experimenting with creating a Structure Note or Outline first, then linking in the content in my Zettelkasten that supports or provides a counter to the Structure or Outline I already have in mind. Sometimes the Structure note is just a bunch of questions I think I need answers to, or the entire thing is just one big question I'm trying to answer. The outline can then change form as I query the zettelkasten and discover insights and connected information and anecdotes, and I can spot areas where I notice a knowledge gap or where I need to look for more information rather than procrastinating more and telling myself that "I just need to read and research more because I don't have enough specific knowledge to build an outline".

  • @sfast: Thanks for the link – interesting read!

    It confirms a doubt I've always had about the often recommended zettelkasten approach of collecting individual insights / idea notes and create structure bottom-up – never really understood how a well-structured, coherent text could come out of that with almost no work. And I've also asked myself a few times how good Luhmann's many texts actually are – quality is more important than quantity.

    Similar to what @TRumnell is experimenting with: One very important type of notes I use in my zettelkasten are "question notes", the purpose of which is to answer one specific question. If the question is complex, they will contain a lot of links to relevant other notes and insights.
    In my view, a good first step in writing an informative, well-structured text is to think about what question(s) it is supposed to answer. With that approach to writing, having a bunch of fitting question notes in a zettelkasten would indeed make the process a lot easier.

  • @Vinho I was literally planning on starting a topic related to "Question Zettel" in the near future. I've been hinting at it here and there, but a Zettel that poses a question, then seeks to answer it with knowledge in the box (that may or may not exist yet) has been a strategy I've tried and it seems to work for me.

  • @TRumnell I have been (and am still) writing on an article about types of notes in my zettelkasten, question notes are/will be a big part of it. I've used them since I started my zettelkasten two years ago and it does indeed work very well – more on that in the article. The main changes to my zettelkasten practice have been that I added additional kinds of notes to the question notes, but the latter have always been the main category. For almost a year or so I used only question notes ;)

  • The Zettelkasten is not a magical bullet to solve all knowledge management problems. It takes discipline to work with it. Robert Minto makes the point that one publication of Luhmann's reads as if it had been written by a sentient library catalog, which is a cute statement. But Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten are usually mentioned as the foremost example of unprecedented productivity evidenced by numerous books and papers. These many publications are quite an accomplishment and not a feat to be belittled. So, I am honestly wondering, what was Luhmann's impact in the field of sociology?

  • This is a most interesting thread. I guess one point is that we should have identified several purposes for our Zettelkasten, or saying it another way, have several questions in our mind that we are pursuing.

    One purpose that I have is to capture memories of experiences and learnings from my life. I want to get them down in black and white, in a concise and accurate (to my present day mind) form. Eventually that will lead to a personal history, but I'm not starting by writing the history, only by capturing the memories.

    (By the way, the only people I think might be interested in this personal history are my children and grand-children. That is enough of an incentive to do it).

    I can see how that purpose drives some of the content of my ZK, how it is organized, and to some extent how zettels are connected.

    But in writing the zettels to meet this purpose, all sorts of other thought trains are generated and captured in my ZK. So the process of creating the ZK also in part inspires the content.

  • @sfast, thanks for sharing.

    As someone who recently finished his thesis prospectus, I had a related experience. Not only did I find that my ZK was not as ready as I had hoped, but I found that there were some severe limits in my ZK: (1) certain topics were in my realm of knowledge but did not have significant notes, prompting me to make a list of texts to reread or re-examine with the goal of building my ZK (i.e., books read before I encountered The Archive); and (2) some topics had robust notes but a dearth of links, which prompted the reading of a book over my winter break to fill in gaps of knowledge (i.e., I had notes on topic X and topic Y, but no Zettel that expressed their relationship nor a link from X to Y).

    On the other hand, I stopped thinking of my ZK as my writing environment. The goal of my ZK is not to produce writing but to produce knowledge. Even though I love the interface of The Archive and I hunger for a text editor that I enjoy as much as I enjoy The Archive, I've started writing my papers elsewhere, even as my ZK is open for reference. The burden of the thinking still falls to me when going from the knowledge in my ZK to whatever manuscript I am creating.

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @Sociopoetic said:
    @sfast, thanks for sharing.
    ... I've started writing my papers elsewhere, even as my ZK is open for reference.

    Having my Zk open in a second window is becoming essential. It is so helpful in writing anything, even this reply!

    The burden of the thinking still falls to me when going from the knowledge in my ZK to whatever manuscript I am creating.

    Burden? Maybe, I know what you mean, but I think of this as a blessing. We are lucky to be able to have this burden, and I, for one, won't give this up till I'm dead, cold, and a distant memory.

    Writing is where all the training meets the contest. I look at my ZK as a training ground for ideas. When I create a text, I look to my ZK for where I've explored the idea I'm writing about in the past. Sometimes my exploration is fruitful, and sometimes not. Sometimes gaps are exposed and sometimes not.

    It is up to me to be the best I can be. My ZK helps.

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

  • @Will said:
    Burden? Maybe, I know what you mean, but I think of this as a blessing. We are lucky to be able to have this burden, and I, for one, won't give this up till I'm dead, cold, and a distant memory.

    Will, I agree -- "burden" is an unclear word for what I meant. I was going for something like, "the work is still mine to do." While I do love a ZK as an "external brain" of sorts, it is also still my mind, where whatever connections made or knowledge there is in some sense related to my thinking. The ZK is there to organize and stimulate my thinking, but I've been learning that I can't just lift things out of my notes as-is and consider a paper done. Perhaps "labor" is a better word?

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @Sociopoetic said:
    The ZK is there to organize and stimulate my thinking, but I've been learning that I can't just lift things out of my notes as-is and consider a paper done. Perhaps "labor" is a better word?

    I was trying to find a way of saying "Me Too!" without just upvoting your post. Most of the time, I can't airlift stuff right out of my ZK either, and I celebrate the rare times I can.

    Labor is a better term. A labor of love. Sometimes it feels like a trudge. But either way, like Sisyphus, this is my boulder, and I want to do my best. Any more, having my ZK open, filling half of my screen stimulates better writing.

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

  • @sfast An excellent read. Thanks for posting. Equally, Mr Minto is a very good writer who's future work will now be on my radar.

  • It confirms a doubt I've always had about the often recommended zettelkasten approach of collecting individual insights / idea notes and create structure bottom-up – never really understood how a well-structured, coherent text could come out of that with almost no work.

    @Vinho I don't think the idea is necessarily that you'll have a coherent text. I believe the idea behind it is that it allows you to more efficiently map out a subject matter. In these sense that when you read a book you aren't just pulling out information relevant to your current research but also pulling out ideas that might contribute to later research you haven't started yet. The problem with that is it can also be a waste of time if you never end up using those ideas in later research.

    What we really need in a sense is a public zettelkasten, in the same way that books have allowed us to learn from our forbearers and build upon their knowledge work. I secretly wish university departments created and maintained public wikis or zettelkastens for their students.

    I could even see a program that allows students to see a map of a zettelkasten (all the nodes and the names of the nodes) whereby the student has to fill out each node as a sort of essay question, than afterwards they can see what the official node looks like (professors version).

    The other point of generating all the notes (even if you don't use them) is I believe it increases the likelihood that you'll generate a good idea because it is like increasing the amount of particles bouncing around in a box. The only problem I see, is if you add too many particles (or notes) that they get too crowded and you get overwhelmed. Where notes don't interact with each other in a meaningful way because you just have too many.

  • Very interesting discussion, which touches on the great potential of questions, too (Vinho, TRumnell). Questions often play an underrated role. I thought I was the only one here working systematically with questions and I am happy (confirmation bias?) to see others doing or considering the same.

    Having been a man of answers (as a conventional archetype of leadership) throughout my career I changed a few years ago – after some epiphanies – “into questions”. I organize my entire ZK (in a smart outliner, “Dynalist”) by and around questions and write a daily Question-Journal addressing all kinds of questions on my mind not covered somewhere else in my ZK. Each of my project-folders and areas of responsibilities starts with a list of currently open questions, updated and revised each time I work on them, to give me a fast re-entry for the next time I deal with them. If I have to learn something new, solve a challenging problem, write an essay or prepare a talk or a complex discussion I start with a brainstormed collection of questions, which I then revise and organize in my ZK and add subsets of granular questions, ideas or draft answers/hypotheses before doing any research (i.a. books, internet, discussions, ZK). My research thereby has become much more focussed and streamlined/time saving (important since I am not in science). All my questions are interlinked, if helpful.

    I organize my routines as standard question lists (goals, behaviour, finance, other standard situations/processes), which I consult and revise as works in progress regularly (some of them daily, like Ignacio de Loyola). Last year I even started to organize my daily Agenda mainly in form of questions (added to my appointments or tasks or even being a thinking task themselves).

    Maybe that looks – or is indeed - a little obsessive. But as an overall result I feel now much more thoughtful, multidimensional, broad-ranged on problem-solving, comprehensively and profoundly aware of the issues I am working on and developed more openness, curiosity and empathy in my professional and private relations. I acquired a playful, creative attitude to problems and situations I am dealing with. I ascribe these effects to the big impact that questions (and repeated questioning) have on our subconsciousness and motivation.

    Conclusion: Questions are the essence of thinking – and in the end this is what we are dealing with here, aren’t we? ZK and its realization on paper or in the computer are just instruments or methods. Though extremely helpful we should never overrate their servant’s role or even make them the centre of our think work. Was this the trap Minto found himself fallen into?

  • @Will said:

    Labor is a better term. A labor of love. Sometimes it feels like a trudge. But either way, like Sisyphus, this is my boulder, and I want to do my best. Any more, having my ZK open, filling half of my screen stimulates better writing.

    Agreed, Will. It's part of the reason why Eco's How to Write a Thesis is such a useful companion as well. His methods are very compatible with a ZK, and it serves as a blazed trail for my own way finding from Zetteln to drafts.

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @Nick

    I believe the idea behind it is that it allows you to more efficiently map out a subject matter. In these sense that when you read a book you aren't just pulling out information relevant to your current research but also pulling out ideas that might contribute to later research you haven't started yet. The problem with that is it can also be a waste of time if you never end up using those ideas in later research.

    I've had to internalize this picture:

    Path to Project

    and the strategies from the Introduction Post by @sfast to satisfy me that I need to get back on task, or alternately that it is ok to waste time, depending on what I'm working on:

    If you are working on your bachelor’s thesis and are pressed for time, allow very little deviation and do focus on the source material relevant to your thesis.

    If you are a retired mechanical engineer who spends your well earned free Sundays in a forest barn with your Zettelkasten to work on a novel, allow as much deviation from the project as you wish. Enjoy your time!

    If you are a nurse who wants to publish a small book on how to deal with the healthcare system, don’t stress so much to get focused work done. You are doing so much for all of us already, you should enjoy the writing process and satisfy your intellectual curiosity, even if this slows down your progress.

    If you are an ambitious type-A personality, allow room for deviation as much as you can endure. Your personality will ensure that you come back quite fast to the source material that is relevant for your project anyway.

  • edited January 7

    I think you all need to read more psychology :) If you don't, you will never know what is going on!!

    A taster -- https://goodreads.com/book/show/35011639-before-you-know-it
    https://goodreads.com/book/show/11104933-willpower?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=DcLXUXDMTK&rank=1

    But just remember there is more to it than this!

    Cheers,
    Martin.

  • @De_rerum_naturis
    I very much enjoyed reading your post, particularly about the profound changes you made in your life and in your interactions with others. Thank you for sharing those personal insights.

  • @Nick said:
    I don't think the idea is necessarily that you'll have a coherent text. I believe the idea behind it is that it allows you to more efficiently map out a subject matter.

    This is exactly how I see the ZK working when writing a text of some sort.
    I liken it to storyboarding a movie. You get the outline, and a lot of the key elements that are needed, and the structure of the movie all laid out in front of you, but you still have to tie all these different parts together. The fact you’ve got the outline along with many of the details already in place, in my mind would make this process much easier.

    All that being said, I’ve never written a paper. Using a ZK or otherwise :) so I could be missing something major with the writing that I’m just not aware of...

  • @Nick said:

    It confirms a doubt I've always had about the often recommended zettelkasten approach of collecting individual insights / idea notes and create structure bottom-up – never really understood how a well-structured, coherent text could come out of that with almost no work.

    @Vinho I don't think the idea is necessarily that you'll have a coherent text. I believe the idea behind it is that it allows you to more efficiently map out a subject matter. In these sense that when you read a book you aren't just pulling out information relevant to your current research but also pulling out ideas that might contribute to later research you haven't started yet. The problem with that is it can also be a waste of time if you never end up using those ideas in later research.

    I think the idea that Sönke Ahrens promotes in his book is that if you follow the zettelkasten technique (creating one zettel per interesting idea you come across and "topic" notes with links to notes on that topic) and let what you write about emerge from your zettelkasten, then the writing process will be very easy – you just need to collect all the relevant notes, bring them in order, fill a few gaps, create a draft and do some editing (see Chapter 2 in his book)1. The main purpose of his book is to present Luhmann's zettelkasten technique as a convincing answer to the question "What can we do differently in the weeks, months or even years before we face the blank page that will get us into the best possible position to write a great paper easily?" (Ibid., p. 2).

    And what I meant to say: I'm not convinced that the writing of a coherent paper will be as easy as he suggests with the zettelkasten technique he describes.
    If your zettels are about questions and you decide to write a paper about one of those questions that you already have made extensive notes about, then that is different. But that's not what he is suggesting.

    What we really need in a sense is a public zettelkasten, in the same way that books have allowed us to learn from our forbearers and build upon their knowledge work. I secretly wish university departments created and maintained public wikis or zettelkastens for their students.

    I'm not sure that would be hugely beneficial. What I like about my zettelkasten is that it contains what I am interested in, my thoughts on things that I have put into words. A "public" zettelkasten wouldn't replace that at all – just perhaps sometimes make the creation of my own zettels a bit easier...


    1. Sönke Ahrens (2017): How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and Thinking -- for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. ↩︎

  • @MartinBB said:
    I think you all need to read more psychology :) If you don't, you will never know what is going on!!

    A taster -- https://goodreads.com/book/show/35011639-before-you-know-it
    https://goodreads.com/book/show/11104933-willpower?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=DcLXUXDMTK&rank=1

    But just remember there is more to it than this!

    Cheers,
    Martin.

    Please, don't tease but spoil instead. This is not a thriller.. :*

    I am a Zettler

  • For context, we were talking about how feeding assorted stuff to your ZK will result in an assorted mess from which you can only draw assorted things.

    It's weird to expect pulling out gold from what amounts to a heap of manure. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Sascha and I are the opposite of zealots of Luhmann's writing. Since Luhmann took note of the weirdest things from arts and history, it was no wonder that footnotes lead the reader towards such inspirational sources -- the emphasis is on inspirational. :)

    Try to get Love as Passion from a used books seller. It's short, comparatively poignant, and illustrates what can happen if you take associativity maybe a step too far :wink: https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674539235

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

  • @ctietze said:
    It's weird to expect pulling out gold from what amounts to a heap of manure. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Personally, I'm fascinated by those who put in gold and get out garbage ... :)

  • @sfast said:
    Please, don't tease but spoil instead. This is not a thriller.. :*

    Sorry, Sascha! Just part of my informal campaign to get people to read more psychology :)

    I'm always intrigued that people spend a lot of time investigating study methods and techniques, and never seem to spend much time investigating the functioning of the mind. Since the mind and its functioning is the "bottom layer" on which everything else is built, you would think that it would get more attention. But perhaps more of that in another place at another time ...

    Cheers!

  • edited January 9

    @MartinBB Sascha opened a dedicated discussion to collect interesting reads. I think psychology is an interesting topic for many of us.

    Btw @sfast i was unable to find the thread, can you pin it? It might have been a post by @System but i couldn't find it there, either.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

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