# Measure What You Want to Achieve with Your Zettelkasten

edited April 2021

Measure What You Want to Achieve with Your Zettelkasten

Don't just work blindly. Figure out how you can measure your definition of success and then track your progress, and if there is any at all.

• edited April 2021

Thank you for this excellent article! Has anyone an opinion on measurement spread over several places due to multiple tools? How important is a global dashboard?

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• How important is a global dashboard?

E.g. if you need to bill a client by the time spent and word written, then it's better to have both values together.

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

• @zk_1000 said:
Thank you for this excellent article! Has anyone an opinion on measurement spread over several places due to multiple tools? How important is a global dashboard?

Depends on what you want to accomplish. I track my training in a written dairy. If I want to correlate my training with my zettel productivity I'd need to have one place for both. But I don't, so don't have one place.

I am a Zettler

• @ctietze said:

First i thought: if only it were so easy. But wait, why does it have to be complicated?

I think a major contributor to a lot of deception – self-deception, and deception of others are opinions that decide for you what to measure and what to achieve.

Tools are only distracting me and preventing me from doing the real work myself (like S.M.A.R.T). Instead, i am needlessly spinning my head around which tool to use for what. Another trap is that photo of a fitness model, which also provides an opinion for me without doing any effort.

tl;dr: keep your distance from tracking tools that are not data agnostic

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• I get the point of this article. I think "measuring success" is very dependent on the person and his or her objectives in creating and maintaining a Zettelkasten.

I have specific objectives for my ZK, which I've expressed previously in forum posts. However, I don't feel compelled to measure words written per day or zettels created or maintained per week or month, (and I love collecting statistics about the world around me). Why don't I obsess about my ZK? Because I just enjoy the act of writing and editing zettels, creating links, creating higher level structure, etc. My pace may be slow or fast but it is determined by the time and energy I have available each day. The pace at which my ZK "takes shape" or "fills up" is irrelevant. I simply enjoy doing it; the pace will look after itself; the ZK will progress as it choses.

You might think at my age (I don't have that many years left) that I'd be more focused on progress. However, that's not the case. I expect to leave some things unfinished when I die , so I'm less worried about pace and more interested in enjoyment.

• This is an interesting article, thank you for sharing. I have a few initial thoughts.

Measurement is a useful tool, but only as useful as you make it. Certainly, forcing yourself to pick a metric to evaluate your performance often leads to picking a metric that is easy to measure rather than worth measuring.

Tracking the number of written words per day would be, for me at least, an invaluable metric. I would prefer to write 10 high quality words, on an important topic, rather than 1000s of words of nonsense, or on a topic that offers no value.

One good way to overcome this issue is to assign a counter metric: a measurement of the side-effect your primary metric has. If your goal is to write 3000 words per day, and you fear this might lead to a lot of worthless words, you should also track the number of words you are forced to delete, rewrite or refactor. A correlation between these two metrics would suggest that the primary metric is causing wasted time.

Returning to my initial point, there is much that is worth doing that can't be measured, easily anyway. I spend plenty of time thinking while working with my notes. The output might be just a few words or notes, but that thinking time is still very valuable to me. Equally, the quality of notes cannot be measured with ease. The danger with measurement is that it relegates the value of unquantifiable tasks.

I do use metrics, but I try to be cautious that the metrics I select are actually important to me, and not just chosen because they are easy to measure.

• I think this is the most common objection:

There is a disconnect of quantity and quality in ones work. Measuring or improving quantity

• does not improve quality.
• can or actually does decrease quality.
• etc.

In practice, improving quantity improves quality generally. In some cases, if one is trying to trick the system, quality decreases when quantity is improved. It is not the case that if you write a lot somehow you write more nonsense.

Seth Godin comes from a slightly different angle:

If you generate enough bad ideas, a few good ones tend to show up.
People who have trouble coming up with good ideas, if they're telling the truth, will tell you they don't have very many bad ideas. But people who have plenty of good ideas, if they're telling you the truth, will say they have even more bad ideas. So the goal isn't to get good ideas; the goals is to get bad ideas. because once you get enough bad ideas, then some good ones have to show up. -- Seth Godin[#ferriss2016]

But in spirit, it is the same. If you write more you will improve more. Improving quantity helps because it increases probability of quality.

I am not going deep into how tracking is individualised. But here is an example: You can go progressively from more general metrics to specific metrics. You start for example with time sitting in front of the computer. Then you progress to time actually spend writing. After that you progress to words per day. Then you add the produced notes per day. And even the number of break-through moments could be measured.

I am a Zettler

• For work, I switch between metrics in your example @sfast .

Deliver the 120 page draft on deadline. To achieve that, write 3-5 good pages a day for 24-30 work days. Rewrite is 7-10 pages a day for about 2 weeks. Don't. Miss. The. Deadline.

Sidenote: While I can write far more than 5 pages a day, they are almost never good pages.

Deadline is it's own narcotic, a comfort offered by its sharp point, its unforgiving definition.

I've found self-generated time-based metrics to be more of a challenge. My best success comes using two methods.

The foundation is tracking (almost) everything do through the Timing app (which is an incredible piece of software). First time I looked back to see how I actually used my time the preceding month brought a brutal clarity. I waste a LOT of time.

The second is to focus on project for a given number of hours per day, usually 3. Do this 6 days per week until I'm confident I 'broke' the story and have a working architecture.

Once I start drafting, the metric shifts to page count. Its me and the deadline, straining against its squat dead weight.

This thread inspires me to experiment with applying metrics to the zettelkasten and see where they lead. I think it's possible to provide myself direction without being proscriptive. It's time.

Thank you for sharing the article and provoking these thoughts. Perhaps my ramblings prove useful to someone out there in these vast faceless interwebs.

• @sfast said:
In practice, improving quantity improves quality generally. In some cases, if one is trying to trick the system, quality decreases when quantity is improved. It is not the case that if you write a lot somehow you write more nonsense.

I largely agree that quantity does drive quality. The book 'Originals' by Adam Grant conducts a very compelling analysis on this correlation. Yet doing lots of the wrong thing is not worthy time even if we get good at that thing. Hence my concern, that the metric we pick be carefully selected, and to some extent mistrusted.

I have never used measurement for my Zettelkasten practice. So on a separate note, I would be very interested to know whether having quantitative measurements changed your relationship with it at all? Sometimes measurement can make things feel like a chore, a slog even. Did you experience that, or did you still feel joy while working on your notes?

• Thanks for writing this article, it is a topic which interests me, despite the fact that I don't really do much concretely in terms of "measuring".

An interesting distinction I have learned is the difference between a lead and a lag measure. A lag measure are good for measuring achievement and competition, but they don't measure the actual work involved and the progress. That is the role of lead measures, which are something like "words written" or "hours working on some task".

A detail I haven't seen discussed much is that these are measures and not goals. My own interpretation of this is that there is a usefulness in understanding what causes us to work or progress on something. This then ties nicely into the point about lead/lag measures, since lead measures allow for a much nicer feedback between trying a different approach and seeing progress.

• @kohled do you have a link to the Timing app? There are several by that name on the iOS App Store, I’m curious which one you like.

• Hey @pat. Here's a link: Timing App

Heads up it's a subscription model. I strongly avoid subscription apps in general - think I have two others and they're industry standard and thus unavoidable. I can sincerely say it's been worth the money, for me at least. The developer is personable and responsive. He quickly built some iOS shortcuts code so I can save a few steps timing specific projects from my iPhone. Not trying to be a shill or a salesman, just an appreciative user.

Tangential thought: I also mess around with the Mr Terpstra's doing. While I love using and tinkering with it, it's a different animal. Totally fun animal though.

Anyway, perhaps this proves useful. If not, wishing you well finding a tool that works for your needs.

• @henrikenggaard said:
An interesting distinction I have learned is the difference between a lead and a lag measure. A lag measure is good for measuring achievement and competition, but they don't measure the actual work involved and the progress. That is the role of lead measures, something like "words written" or "hours working on some task."

The distinction between lead and lag is important to watch. A lead measure will stimulate us to further action, where a lag measure will provide a simple vanity measure. But in one case, a lead measure might turn into a vanity play and vice versa. For example, I track the total number of words in my zettelkasten. Most days, it is some nebulous number without much meaning—a lag measure. Then I'll reach some milestone, and it becomes for a day or two a lead measure, simulating me to add to my zettelkasten and set my sights on a new goal or milestone. (Maybe this is a poor example.)

I do track the number of new notes created per day. Some might consider this a lag measure, and maybe sometimes it is, but notes are proxies for ideas, and ideas are captured in words, so in a roundabout way, I guess, I measure words.

A detail I haven't seen discussed much is that these are measures and not goals. My own interpretation of this is that there is a usefulness in understanding what causes us to work or progress on something. This ties nicely into the point about lead/lag measures since lead measures allow for much nicer feedback between trying a different approach and seeing progress.

And I think lag measures have importance because they establish a baseline from which I can compare a lead measure's impact.

The measures, stats, and numbers are not what is important. It's the ideas they represent that are where the value is. They are a report card on the health of the zettelkasten—an objective reconciling of successes or failures of capturing ideas and connecting them. Any measure that objectively tells me how my zettelkasting is going is a measure to seek out and love.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• edited April 2021

@samxsmith said:

@sfast said:
In practice, improving quantity improves quality generally. In some cases, if one is trying to trick the system, quality decreases when quantity is improved. It is not the case that if you write a lot somehow you write more nonsense.

I largely agree that quantity does drive quality. The book 'Originals' by Adam Grant conducts a very compelling analysis on this correlation. Yet doing lots of the wrong thing is not worthy time even if we get good at that thing.

Sounds to me, that you miss the point.

I have never used measurement for my Zettelkasten practice. So on a separate note, I would be very interested to know whether having quantitative measurements changed your relationship with it at all?

My personal answer is no. But to me, it is an unproductive way of thinking about such issues. One should not concern oneself with management of negative feelings but just do. To concern oneself with negative emotions and try to manage them is a reliable method to weaken ones character.

@henrikenggaard said:
Thanks for writing this article, it is a topic which interests me, despite the fact that I don't really do much concretely in terms of "measuring".

From my experience as a coach. You don't sound like a person who would benefit much from measuring.

An interesting distinction I have learned is the difference between a lead and a lag measure. A lag measure are good for measuring achievement and competition, but they don't measure the actual work involved and the progress. That is the role of lead measures, which are something like "words written" or "hours working on some task".

I never got the need to distinguish between those measurements. To me, measuring is always about improving what you can control. That is the reason I am careful with SMART goals.

To often, such goals lead to what is called lag measures. For example: There cannot be a sane goal of weight loss since it is not actionable. You are not losing weight but eating healthy a percentage of your meals, train a certain number per week etc. The actual goal is to be the person who achieves what you admire.

Occasionally, bad goals can create pressure needed to force some outcomes which is a crass tool in the toolbox.

A detail I haven't seen discussed much is that these are measures and not goals. My own interpretation of this is that there is a usefulness in understanding what causes us to work or progress on something. This then ties nicely into the point about lead/lag measures, since lead measures allow for a much nicer feedback between trying a different approach and seeing progress.

I agree 100%.

Post edited by sfast on

I am a Zettler

• edited April 2021
I find this topic interesting and I would like to push myself a
little bit further.

In the world of endurance sport, people tracking their data. It is
a very interesting psychological effect that people care more
done a 2 hours hard work of training without proper documentation,
I feel less encouraged to do the hard work again. In endurance
sport, people track how much time they spent on a different type
of sports, the power ratio to their threshold, their weight, heart
rate beats, etc. The tracking itself makes those boring endurance
sports very attractive. The sport does not change because of the
tracking. It is the change in our minds.

Because of the nature of the cognitive work, the factor to trigger
such a similar psychological effect is way less explored than that
in endurance sports. But I would like to explore by myself.
Although I tracked the number of the ideas generated every day for
last year, I did not see a similar psychological effect compared
to my physical training.

I would like to set the time I spend in writing ZK notes. 3 hours
and 45 minutes per day inside of Emacs is the first-week target. I
will try to do a 4 weeks block that targeting the topic of
psychology. The improvement, i.e., the millage in running or
cycling, is just the total number of the nodes that I write.

The objective outcome (lag measures) would be:

- the graph that shows the daily progress
- the shared ZK notes with a tag SSB12021PSY

This is my data 4 weeks before today. And I will evaluate my
progress on weekly basis. If I can succeed at the end of this
journey I would like to share the experience.


• @learning_ran FYI, I think the "total ideas" line is missing in the graph

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

• This reminded me of the book "This strange life" (1974) by D. Granin. (Unfortunately, it seems like the book has never been translated from Russian.)

Granin writes about Lyubishchev A.A. — a Russian scientist who was tracking almost every minute of his life since 1916 and until his death in 1972.

Lyubishchev was tracking time he'd spent on multiple work and hobby projects, and almost all other activities in his life. (Granin finds records of his 2 meetings with Lyubishchev.) He'd regularly compile various statistics. And once a year he'd make annual results and mail copies to friends and family.

Interestingly, Granin feels sad for himself while working with Lyubishchev's archives. As it seems to him, that Lyubishchev not only worked more and accomplished more than Granin, but also enjoyed his life more — watched more movies, read more books, listened to many musical albums. "How have I spent my time?" - Granin ponders.

According to Lyubishchev's wiki page he was quite productive: he wrote about 70 scientific papers and over 12k pages of various articles.
It is said that Lyubishchev knew 4 foreign languages: English, German, Italian and French. Of which first 2 he learned during his commute.

Lyubishchev writes about his own time-tracking system in "A voluntary hard labor" (also in Russian).

• @sigod said:

Lyubishchev A.A. — a Russian scientist who was tracking almost every minute of his life since 1916 and until his death in 1972.

Lyubishchev was tracking time he'd spent on multiple work and hobby projects, and almost all other activities in his life. (Granin finds records of his 2 meetings with Lyubishchev.) He'd regularly compile various statistics. And once a year he'd make annual results and mail copies to friends and family.

Reminds me of the practice of Stephen Wolfram, who has tracked his life for many years and has written about it on his blog in 2012 (including very interesting graphical depiction of his findings):

https://writings.stephenwolfram.com/2012/03/the-personal-analytics-of-my-life/

When I read that post back in 2012 I found it really mind-blowing as I had never thought about something like that (it was pre-Apple Watch).