Zettelkasten Forum


Hello from yet another academic; some doubts about ZK system

edited February 4 in Introduce Yourselves!

Hello everyone! I am an assistant professor in the humanities. I heard about ZK from a fellow academic last week and I’ve been down the rabbit hole ever since. I’m also a little frustrated about an article rejection (gotta love conflicting reviews) and feeling the need to re-inspire myself.

Here is what appeals to me but also what confuses me:

  • The idea that ZK is a lifelong storage/connection system for knowledge. Even though my academic discipline is literature, I am interested in a whole bunch of other things like astronomy, physics, art history, etc., and I’m sort of curious (maybe mostly due to magical thinking after hearing people describe ZK) what connections I can make between the various bits of knowledge I pick up.
  • I currently have this problem where I have amassed a ton of disconnected knowledge through research about my area of expertise. I can produce well written short essays and articles about one idea, but I haven’t yet published a monograph and I don’t really know what my contribution could be or how I can say anything groundbreaking or useful. It seems like with ZK it will help you identify these things, but I’m not really sure how it works.

Here are my fears with respect to ZK:

  • I have a touch of OCD and I fear that when it comes to labeling the notes with connections, I will get stuck trying to "catch" every single connection there is. I already see that I have this problem with tagging in Zotero. I’ll finish reading an article and go to tag it with every single tag that I think applies. If I come up with a new tag, then I think "Oh no, I have to examine all my previously read articles to make sure that this tag doesn’t ALSO apply there." I’m really looking for ways to be more productive and prolific.
  • I also tend hop from system to system being somewhat maniacal about sorting and categorizing. I’ve read a couple of posts in this forum from people who seem similar to me. I am willing to admit that I probably do these things out of a tendency to procrastinate and avoid dealing with real issues, but I’m not sure how to quit. Maybe then ZK isn’t right for me after all. To that point, are there other types of organizational systems out there that are more suitable for deep/discursive thinking, but don’t lend themselves to over-thinking? (Or is that just my problem?) I have been searching around and have only found to-do list systems (like GTD and Bullet Journal) and tips for undergraduate note-taking.

I currently already use Zotero for bibliography management (with aforementioned tagging problem, and I also take WAY too many notes and I still can’t remember anything I’ve read), and Scrivener for writing.

(I hope I’m not posting in the wrong place, it seems that "Introduce Yourselves" is also the place for newbies to ask for help.)

Post edited by ctietze on

Comments

  • I've said this in other places, but I will say it again here: I tend to conceptualise a "system" that consists of worker+tools+work-to-be-done. All the elements of the system have to function together in harmony. What you seem to be saying above is that the element of the system that is causing problems at the moment is the worker (yourself), but that you are trying to solve the inefficient functioning of the system by changing the tools. (This is something that I do.) The Zettelkasten method is just that -- a method, and a tool. Like any other method or tool, it has advantages and disadvantages, and it will help solve some problems and not others. It seems to me that part of our work as academics includes developing methods and techniques for working with our material, and that they will often be highly personal. I have friends who had 35-year careers in academia using desks piled high with illegible hand-written papers, and others who existed in almost spartan efficiency. Neither of these approaches was "better", they just happened to work for the person using them. So I suppose I would say give the Zettelkasten method a trial for a few weeks or months and see if it helps you. But maybe also talk to someone and see if your obsessive activity is a way of dealing with fear and anxiety. There is nothing like ceaseless work for stopping us from doing things. I have a similar difficulty. :)

  • Welcome to the forums!

    @EmmaWK said:
    Hello everyone! I am an assistant professor in the humanities. I heard about ZK from a fellow academic last week and I’ve been down the rabbit hole ever since.

    Cuddle up with all us other rabbits searching for a way to nurture knowledge in this cold dark hole.

    Even though my academic discipline is literature, I am interested in a whole bunch of other things like astronomy, physics, art history, etc., and I’m sort of curious (maybe mostly due to magical thinking after hearing people describe ZK) about what connections I can make between the various bits of knowledge I pick up?

    Divergent interests connect in surprising ways. It's impossible to predict. For example, I have a side interest in knitting. Don't laugh. Just last week I came across Elisabetta Matsumoto, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who is a knitter and is applying what she knows about knitting to understanding how DNA folds and unfolds. I have notes on both knitting and DNA. Who'd have thought I'd make a connection?

    She can see the connections because she doesn't compartmentalize her interests letting them interbreed where they will.

    • I have a touch of OCD and I fear that when it comes to labeling the notes with connections, I will get stuck trying to "catch" every single connection there is.

    Building a zettelkasten highlights our obsessive behavior and some can settle into the routine and some resist and fight 'tooth and nail' to relax. There is a cure for OCD. It is called meditation. It takes time, and may not work for you, but it is worth a try. If you are clinically obsessive, which it doesn't sound like, see a doctor.

    • I also tend to hop from system to the system being somewhat maniacal about sorting and categorizing. I’ve read a couple of posts in this forum from people who seem similar to me. I am willing to admit that I probably do these things out of a tendency to procrastinate and avoid dealing with real issues, but I’m not sure how to quit. Maybe then ZK isn’t right for me after all. To that point, are there other types of organizational systems out there that are more suitable for deep/discursive thinking, but don’t lend themselves to over-thinking? (Or is that just my problem?) I have been searching around and have only found to-do list systems (like GTD and Bullet Journal) and tips for undergraduate note-taking.

    I currently already use Zotero for bibliography management (with the aforementioned tagging problem, and I also take WAY too many notes and I still can’t remember anything I’ve read), and Scrivener for writing.

    System hopping is something you will eventually become bored with. Be more interested in the notes which are just proxies for ideas. Collect and connect ideas and see what happens. Be curious.

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

  • edited February 4

    @EmmaWK said:
    Hello everyone! I am an assistant professor in the humanities. I heard about ZK from a fellow academic last week and I’ve been down the rabbit hole ever since. the place for newbies to ask for help.)

    HI Emma; I'm also an academic in the humanities disciplines (my training is in cultural studies but I've taught primarily in literature/literary theory). I too consider myself a bit of a polymath (maybe I'm just a generalist!).

    You are right that the ZK method is ideal for exploring the connections between lots of ideas and subject areas. But you also say you are very new to the ZK method. I started my ZK archive three years ago this April, and I am just now figuring out a workflow and structure for my archive that makes sense for my purposes. Lots of trial and error. I would stress the importance of structure notes and, despite the ZK method's suitability and reputation for strengthening the interrelations between different domains of knowledge, the importance of having a clear organizational structure for your different areas of interest. There's a hard to define tension in the ZK method between the flatness of a rhyzomatic web-based tangle of connected notes and a hierarchical system of inter-related structure notes. See here, here, and here. @Will has great advice on structure notes too. And if you haven't already, read @sfast's introduction.

    I too suffer from OCD, and the best advice I can give you is to just keep making notes, connecting them, keeping track of them with structure notes, and play the long game. Try not to overthink it at the start. Dig in and see where you get to in a year or so.

    Hope this helps.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @MartinBB said:
    What you seem to be saying above is that the element of the system that is causing problems at the moment is the worker (yourself), but that you are trying to solve the inefficient functioning of the system by changing the tools.

    You got me there! Well observed. When I found this website I was dazzled by its promises regarding what the system can do. I wanted to be like Luhmann. And thus I found myself very impatient about getting to that point and wanting to jump right in and MAKE it work for me. But thank you for the reminder.

    @Will said:
    Building a zettelkasten highlights our obsessive behavior and some can settle into the routine and some resist and fight 'tooth and nail' to relax. There is a cure for OCD. It is called meditation. It takes time, and may not work for you, but it is worth a try. If you are clinically obsessive, which it doesn't sound like, see a doctor.

    At the risk of going off topic, I will say that I have found meditation helpful and I'm not as obsessive about things compared to when I was an undergrad. I guess it does flare up from time to time especially when I'm in a difficult spot. But I have also never sought professional help -- the implicit message I seem to be getting is that I don't need it because I'm so high-functioning???

    @Phil said:
    HI Emma; I'm also an academic in the humanities disciplines (my training is in cultural studies but I've taught primarily in literature/literary theory). I too consider myself a bit of a polymath (maybe I'm just a generalist!).

    Hello @Phil, I think I remember some of your posts in the forum and I've appreciated reading the perspective of someone in the humanities. Thank you so much for your recommendations and your links (I'm still kind of hazy about what a structure note is supposed to look like but I'm sure I'll get there).

    I felt a little bad about what I later realized were questions that had been asked many times before, but thank you all for the affirmation that I really just need to relax, try it out, and see what happens. I was also too excited about this but once I settled down and forced myself to read the FIRST introductory blog post, I feel like I have a much better handle on how it all works. I've just never encountered anything like it before.

  • @EmmaWK said:

    I felt a little bad about what I later realized were questions that had been asked many times before, but thank you all for the affirmation that I really just need to relax, try it out, and see what happens. I was also too excited about this but once I settled down and forced myself to read the FIRST introductory blog post, I feel like I have a much better handle on how it all works. I've just never encountered anything like it before.

    Emma - another "welcome to the forum", but also to the Zettelkasten method. I don't have much new to offer, except to say that it takes self-education (lots of good information on this website and in this forum), patience (with yourself) and practice. If you pursue all three, I think you will get to a point of understanding and comfort. Maybe it will be 6 months or a year down the road (thus the need for persistence and patience).

  • Thank you, @GeoEng51 , for the welcome and the reminder!

  • edited February 6

    @EmmaWK
    Many of your feelings resonate with me. Maybe some of my experiences of the past 10 months help you:
    "From now on, i will make use of all the things i write down and consume! No more overwhelming disasters" I guess this was my hope when i started to search for a new tool, my first tool to be honest. Since then, I have tried out about every so called GTD approach you can find. The first two weeks are working perfectly, until novelty fades and organizational challenges arise. I will try to just put more effort into it, because it works for
    others and i am smart, right? I do this until i am exhausted. Then I procrastinate some days and find a new approach: Next cycle.
    Even in a Zettelkasten, i have to force myself to use the same layout for my notes and look for the reference again, decide if the content should be divided into two notes etc. Another problem with knowledge work in general is that I cannot lay out a plan in my head like "this belongs to project x which i take care of at week x of this
    quarter because project y is due in three days and i will need z hours....". If I do not investigate now, I feel like the world might collapse!
    If you feel like you are going in a similar direction, i can tell you: these systems will never work in a sense of freeing you from these urges. A Zettelkasten is a great approach for me, yet i still tend to avoid the hard work due to many distractions. When i manage to zone into it, it is beautiful.
    One important aspect for me is to go analog as much as possible, even if it means to type a third of it into my keyboard again. Another one is to not take care of too many categories during my thinking. I have a notepad which is ALWAYS with me (being at home, office, even at a party). I will not categorize, just use symbols and look what i want to use or rethink two times a week. It is also my todo list btw (except appointments, which i use notifications for). I have a A4 book where i simply go crazy from time to time. What goes in there does not need to be used efficiently..it can of course!
    Sum up: I see it as essential to make the challenge to start as small as possible: A Zettelkasten will merge many things and will make you keep going. Long term it will prevent frustration. But it cannot solve the emotional aspect (energy management can be more important than time management). As I see you, i would say you do not have a problem to quickly scan through long texts, various tabs etc. So why not use a folder for ALL your pdfs for example? Or all your paper notes with an index in front?

  • @EmmaWK

    Welcome to the forums!

    My advice for you is to make an effort to distinguish issues that arise from your temperament, habits and work environment on the one side and the tools and processes you use on the other side. No tool can solve problems of temperament or habits.

    Take myself for example. I am a person high in conscientiousness (85th percentile) and moderately low in openess ("The closest synonym for openness (rather than openness to experience, which encompasses openness and intellect) is creativity."). Not the worst case scenario but pretty bad temperament to be creative. Yet, I do not find any difficulty to engage in creative activities (wrote songs, writing novels and short stories, create ideas in various fields). The reason is that I work with my temperament and not against it.

    Example: When I was part of a band (bass guitar) I mostly argued very technical for or against various creative decisions. I was more of a reducer of possibilities than a producer. The singer and the guitar player were the producer of possibilities. We complemented each other because we both accepted our roles. I didn't beat myself because I was not this "free spirit" but rather took a stance which could be described as "being humourusly indifferent". And because of this we could make music together inspite of our very different temperaments.

    These considerations are mostly independent (not totally, of course) from the systems and techniques you choose. The same is for habits:

    • A rather inorderly person can benefit from a habit of cleaning up the desk before work.
    • A rather orderly person can benefit from regular exposure to disorder to create more resilience against disorder and less dependence on order.

    The system you are using to organise knowledge work comes last. Healthy habits and harmony with oneself will always be more important. There are no external solutions for internal problems.

    Having said that, the Zettelkasten Method offers you an opportunity to concentrate on the local and therefore reducing the burdon of always looking at the global (e.g. "fear of missing anything"). But at the same time it cannot shield you from the urge to act out in an OCD-esque behavioral pattern.

    I am a Zettler

  • Hi @amunicapunica, thank you for sharing your experience. You are right that I probably need energy management more so than time management. Thus far I've already set up a few notes for myself in my ZK to remind myself not to go overboard. I also have some structure in mind so it feels less overwhelming. I don't think I want to take as many paper notes as you are doing, though, because when I do that I tend to stuff my notes everywhere and not pay attention to them... but hopefully I'll find a way to manage!

    And @sfast as well, "No tool can solve problems of temperament or habits." So well said!

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