What made the Zettelkasten Method stick for you?
In another thread, we have Robert Minto telling his story of how a Zettelkasten ultimately didn't help with his PhD.
For those of us around here that kept their Zettelkasten for a project or two, I wonder what you think makes the difference.
So I'm programming every day. Before that, I was at Uni and, well, did stuff there. Here's a couple things that would've kept my Zettelkasten from growing, and maybe the method from growing to me:
- I spend all day in front of a computer. I can switch to my Zettelkasten app (The Archive) in no time (tab to it or use the "bring to front" shortcut). The app is never closed. So there's no friction to browsing notes and taking notes.
- I can type rather quickly.
- I like to play around with text. If I was bored, I'd play around with my ZK. I could process browser tabs to notes to clean up.
- I like to fiddle around with software. Before Markdown, my notes were RTF. Figuring out how to transform plain text Markdown notes to a PDF that I can hand in for University seminars took some time, but I'm glad I invested that.
- I found a format to store small pieces of program code for reuse (and discussion) so even when I'm not writing, I'm using my ZK.
If I wouldn't have my Zettelkasten with me most of the day, it wouldn't be part of my trusted system (in GTD parlance). And if I don't trust it, I don't feed it, and if I don't feed it, I don't benefit from it in the long run. Closing the app is akin to "not having it with me". Then I cannot work properly.
What do you think was crucial to make the habit of using a Zettelkasten stick?
Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/
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It is really strange because its so simple. The only thing that I needed to make it a habit is the frustration I experienced from having to reread an old book because I couldn't find the notes I took on the book. The zettelkasten solved that problem by having all my notes in a central location.
The zettelkasten also was encouraging to me because it created a map of the content that I could then hook further reading of the subject (years later) onto, which helped me with overall comprehension of the subject matter.
When you do that: Do you take the logical structure of the paper/book you read and create a new structure zettel for that topic? For example, in social science one author contradicts the other or develops a theory further. I then find it difficult to develop my structure zettels and content zettels under these conditions to "create a mental model/map for my knowledge" – escpecially without losing the overview.
@analogue_man you didn't ask me but I will tell you that what I do is create a "structure note" for the book that mimics the author's structure, and I may have another set of "structure notes" that generalizes the topic or topics that the author was talking about.
For instance, I read Atomic Habits sometime last year, and I have a note "Atomic Habits - James Clear". It follows his general chapter structure with links to notes I took from it. I have another "structure note" called "Building Habits" that links to some of the same material from Atomic Habits, as well as material from other sources I've processed.
Precisely this. I'm an analogue junkie in some ways. I use paper notebooks, I have a few fountain pens, I've even tinkered some with book-making. But, discovering the ZKM roughly corresponded with when I was looking into returning to grad school. I finally sprang for a new laptop (and immediately after, The Archive) when I started a program in May (ironically, not the program I had hoped for, nor even the discipline. I digress...). In short, I found myself forced to be on my computer much of the day because of the pandemic, finding my paper notes were not as organized as I had hoped, and I was entering a new academic field. So The Archive became my home base.
The ZKM also very easily encouraged other best practices: getting a reference manager, learning LaTeX, creating more future-proof versions of older documents (converting to Markdown, etc). When other aspects of my system -- analogue or digital -- have run into friction, the question is not only how that particular part should adapt, but how it can best work with my Zettelkasten and companion systems.
Two particular events also helped the method stick:
1. In the first semester of my program, I had an exam with a grueling short-answer section, albeit open-note. The ZKM here was a boon to me, scoring me perfect marks. Such an early success made a strong impression that the method was actionable.
2. In addition to my university studies, I am an avid autodidact. My self-study here resulted in a ZK that was about much more than just my university studies, and I saw many rich interconnections form. During one lengthy forum post for a class, I mentioned something in another discipline, guided by my ZK. This ended up being a high point in the discussion of those posts and my professor's feedback to me. This proved to me that the benefits of the method grow as my ZK is fed new ideas.
As I'm now about to enter my third semester (of five) in this MS degree, I can't imagine ever going back. Sure, I want things like LaTeX math in my ZK, or image preview. I also wish that Christian would make a text editor with an nice interface like The Archive. But even as my trusted system needs a few things smoothed over, the ZKM made me have better habits of thought and clearer goals for my knowledge work. Like the notebook in my pocket, my ZK is the bedrock of whatever else I'm doing.
@ctietze Well, I've only been at it for 6 months; I'm not sure that qualifies as "sticking". But I am still passionate about it. Several past efforts at journal writing floundered because the data management requirements were too high for the perceived benefit. I find the creation and connection of zettels to be similarly time-consuming but they are enjoyable activities (as opposed to work that just has to be done before one reaps a reward). And several early successes in writing short articles have also helped.
I guess my simple answer is that so far, it has been interesting, enjoyable and rewarding. And I have been continually learning things, which has been a life long passion. This forum also helps to stay interested and focussed - it's like AA for compulsive note-takers.
That seems sensible. I omitted writing literature notes on Papers/books but I think I will try out your "double" strategy. Thanks!
@ctietze Thanks for starting the thread.
Not to be a sycophant, but to state actual experience, the turning point with building and nurturing a zettelkasten was The Archive, this forum, and the articles you and @Sascha have written. Pure fact.
The accelerant was @pryley's fantastic Alfred workflow.
I've also gotten a whole lot less precious about it all. Stopped trying to get it right and instead focused on writing and linking notes. Thinking of it more like a playful experiment than some special thing I'm doing. The reality is no one is ever gonna read this stuff but me. I might as well have fun. I don't even try to be all that 'productive' about it or get anything concrete out.
One of my favorite poets, Gary Snyder said something to the effect of 'I need 16 hours of puttering around my ranch to write one poem.' That's how I use the zettelkasten.
I keep The Archive open all day and interact with it. If I'm not on deadline, I putter. The result is that I've had the most output in my chosen medium in the last four years than in all previous years combined.
A concrete example: my current job is writing a near future sci fi film. Notes I wrote about emergent technologies from reading articles about DARPA prize winners just gave me an idea for a pivotal story structure solution. The idea came 'spontaneously' during the writing process and it's only in hindsight upon reflecting right now that casually puttering in an sea of unstructured notes about this and other technologies months ago led to this solution. That's about as causal as it gets. That's all the motivation I need.
Plus... it's fun as hell!
This is what makes it worth it for me, too. I've never been a big note taker. I've taken notes for meetings and courses, but I never really had an approach that could scale up beyond that. "That" being to take notes for something with a well-defined scope and that is just not how my work is structured anymore.
Reading papers and taking notes is so much more motivating, when the knowledge actually has a chance of being used in the long term.
But, I also think that there is some person-tool match in it. I really dig the non-linear nature of it; I think it is fun; I think there is something playful to it.
Raise your hands and sway to the music, sing praises - "AMEN!"
Getting less precious, not trying to be so productive and relaxing, somehow makes notetaking more meaningful and fun. I have recently found myself taking the process too seriously and thinking that I could improve by tweaking my notes in certain ways, but part of what I got out of "On a failed Zettelkasten by Robert Minto — Zettelkasten Forum" was, note maintenance leaches idea creation. At a certain stage, note namespaces and annotations imposed on my notes to organize and ensure that they tie into past structures become onerous and a point of friction. You spend more time in the structure quagmire than in feeding or conversing with said ZK.
Let's have more fun!
The quality of our thinking is directly proportional to the quality of our reading. To think better, we must read better. - Rohan