Zettelkasten Forum


Questions that arise after a month of ZettelKasten

Hey there, I'm new to the ZettelKasten method.
I've about 100 permanent notes after a month and a half, as result of reading the last half of a book, and a half of two other books (one of them is 'How to take smart notes' :) ).
I ended up having notes with 20 words in them and notes with 110 words. My first question is what should be the limits of permanent notes' size?

Also, I spend a lot of time writing those notes, around half an hour per note, sometimes for two hours a day. I have a lot of spare time for the last month, but it is going to change. How much time do you spend on each note? How much time it takes you to decide to where to put the note in the ZettelKasten?

Last question, I have 13 index notes out 100. That sounds okay?

Comments

  • There aren't really any "rules". The basic idea of the Zettelkasten method is that you create short notes, each of which is the statement of a single idea, give each note a unique ID so that you can refer to it, and make links between the ideas as and when necessary. Anything else is extra, and may come out of your individual needs. The method is very flexible, I find, and very simple. My experience is that adding elements to the basics doesn't usually benefit me much, if at all.

  • edited September 18

    @Pitale

    I echo @MartinBB 's comment. It sounds like you are off to a good start - just keep going! Don't worry about the length of your notes too much (mine vary from 100 to 500 and + occasionally) and don't worry about the time it is taking you to write them - you will become more efficient as you gain experience, but it will still take some time.

    You might want to have a mechanism for if you are interrupted during the middle of your work. I add tags of "#unfinished" and "#unlinked" to my zettels when I create them. So if I have to "pause" and do other things for a while, any notes that aren't finished or aren't linked to other zettels are marked. I can do a search on either of those tags to find the zettels that match. When I "finish" (at least to some level of satisfaction) a zettel, I remove the "#unfinished" tag and when I've added a few links to a zettel, I remove the other tag.

    An occasional search on those tags will remind me what zettels still need a bit of work.

  • I only mean to help.

    @Pitale said:
    Hey there, I'm new to the ZettelKasten method.
    I've about 100 permanent notes after a month and a half, as a result of reading the last half of a book, and a half of two other books (one of them is 'How to take smart notes' :) ).

    That is about 40 notes per book. Don't limit your notes to those based on a book. Ideas, for which notes are proxies, come from everywhere. I have three or four books out of the 76 I've processed that might have 40 associated/linked notes, but most have less, some a lot less, and some only fostered one or two notes. It all depends on the book and how much I'm stimulated by it, it was in my areas of research, or rather it was required reading for class.

    One hundred notes in a month (3 notes per day) is an enthusiastic commitment of time and attention. Whatever you are doing the help make this work a habit, keep it up.

    I ended up having notes with 20 words in them and notes with 110 words. My first question is, what should be the limits of permanent notes' size?

    Note size is not the measure you want. Some will be small, and some will grow. I wouldn't be afraid to let a note grow more prominent than 200 words or even much more extensive. Mainly but not limited to "index notes." It is easier to refactor an obese note than add to a note discovered to be anorexic. (I get the feeling you are using notecards? Size and refactoring are complex issues to deal with in a Notecard World.)

    The key measure for note length should be whether or not you have captured the idea in a way that you feel is nourishing, now and for your future self.

    Also, I spend a lot of time writing those notes, around half an hour per note, sometimes for two hours a day. I have had a lot of spare time for the last month, but it will change. How much time do you spend on each note?

    I'll try not to be snarky. It helps if you are complete and honest with yourself. If that means your speed slows to maintain quality, so be it; you go slow. Don't measure yourself against everyone; measure yourself against your best self.

    Time spent on each note is not the measure you want to track. The time commitment to building knowledge will ebb and flow. Life will get in the way of even well-established plans. If you can establish even a micro habit, your time spent will compound. Create a habit of reviewing yesterday's work, if only for 10 mins, maybe as part of a journaling practice. Then when finding more time in the day, dive in, having already reviewed with fresh attention towards capturing ideas. This review, then daily activity, has the benefit of recruiting the subconscious to help with ideation.

    You :: Half-hour per note X 100 notes / 30 days = 1hr. 40min. Per day.
    Me :: 50 notes since August 18 / guessing about 30 min. Per day = a nonsensical breakdown because the content of each note varies, and some will continue to be worked on through refactored, and some 20-word pithy gems only took 3mins 28 sec. To capture and will live into infamy in their current form.

    To give a quantitative answer, I'd have to guess. As I said above, some take only a few mins, and one currently sits proofing now for 54 days, worked a few mins each day and still not ready. Many have taken 65 years to write! I'm an old man.

    How much time it takes you to decide where to put the note in the ZettelKasten?

    Zero time. Each note gets put after the last. (This is one of the advantages of The Archive & The Digital World.)

    Last question, I have 13 index notes out of 100. That sounds okay?

    Maybe, I don't understand what you mean by an "index" note. The way you described you zettelkasten so far, I'd have 3 "index" notes, one for each book. Help me understand what you mean by the "index" note. Maybe you are spending too much time categorizing/indexing your notes. (This is another problematic issue in a Notecard World.)

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

  • Sounds indeed like a great start.

    As a suggestion regarding length, I have no limits on length. However as a personal sanity-check on keeping notes atomic: if a note, including header, starts to require scrolling then I ask myself: "is this really one idea?"

    I do this for a few reasons.

    1. Firstly, when writing we all make mental connections as we go -- intraparagraph, intrasentence etc... and we tend to think of our writing task as only finished when the chain of connections gets a bit dry. This, of course, is counterproductive as each of those connections are ideas in themselves.

    2. Having long notes which you wish to refactor into shorter notes (after the fact) is time intensive: there is likely no perfect divide between the two atoms: long notes are an amalgamation of ideas and so splitting requires too much decision overhead.

    3. Lastly, while I had a hard time articulating it, I struggled with wishing for a way to annotate links as a there could be multiple context paths through a shared edge. (See here for the discussion). While in some contexts I still feel that a workaround to tag links would be nice, I found that the simplest suggestion made was ultimately the ideal one: by truly keeping notes atomic, the likelyhood of a multi-context link becomes small: thus the notes/nodes are able to elaborate most of what I wished for in the annotation/tagging of links.

    Tl;dr : it sounds like you're off to a great start. Just be sure to keep your notes atomic and don't worry too much about length. If you find yourself scrolling, consider maybe you've got multiple ideas there.

  • @Will, thank you very much for your detailed and kind response.

    Help me understand what you mean by the "index" note. Maybe you are spending too much time categorizing/indexing your notes

    They are my structure notes, they contain list of links to notes, for eventually connecting all notes to my ROOT INDEX. For example, I have a note "Processes", Contains links to "Learning", "Thinking" and "Self feeding circular processes". "Thinking" is also an index.

    get the feeling you are using notecards?

    I'm using ObsidianMD. I like it very much after. I've started with Notion but some missing features I wanted made me to switch apps.

    Also, after exploring showcases of other people slip-boxes and discussing in different platforms, I understood that many permanent notes writing approaches are valid, as long they are useful, discoverable, and clear. For example, I saw large notes with a clear structure of a topic, with 15 lines and many links (currently not my style, but I think it was a good example)

  • @Pitale said:

    Help me understand what you mean by the "index" note. Maybe you are spending too much time categorizing/indexing your notes.

    They are my structure notes, they contain list of links to notes, for eventually connecting all notes to my ROOT INDEX. For example, I have a note "Processes", Contains links to "Learning", "Thinking" and "Self feeding circular processes". "Thinking" is also an index.

    @Pitale, what is your area of study? What phase of the study are you involved in; learning the fundamentals or advanced research and writing.

    My first note was on 20181108, and my first structure note was on 20191126. It was 383 days until my first structure note. I had 553 notes before I had my first structure note. It seems a bit odd looking back on it. But I was not in any hurry. I let the idea of adding any structure to my zettelkasten evolve naturally unforced.

    It sounds like you are spending more time trying to impose structure, categorization, and creating "indexes" than is necessary. Structure and categorization are cognitively intense. They distract from the flow of ideation, with the constant background thought of "How does this fit in to such and such index/category?"

    I'm on the fence about structure notes. I have some, but I question the structure note's value with full-text search and "bracket tags" (ad-hoc structure).

    What is this thing you call a "ROOT INDEX"? Isn't this something the software presents as the contents of your zettelkasten, or is this something you are attempting to create and maintain?
    Maybe I don't understand how ObsidianMD presents your zettelkasten.

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

  • @Will said:
    what is your area of study? What phase of the study are you involved in; learning the fundamentals or advanced research and writing

    I don't have area of study, I'm not a student or in an academy. But I read a lot of books (I think I read 20 this year, mainly fiction but about 4 non-fiction) and I found myself not fully understanding and remembering what I read.
    I can say I kind of learning the fundamentals in many areas - reading about habits, philosophy, software business, diets, etc. My profession is software engineering.

    The "ROOT INDEX" is just a note that is top structure note, an entry point to my slip-box, containing links to the main structures. All notes must some how have a path to be found from the root.

    I understand how you feel about structure notes, I have experienced their complexity first hand. But after researching the internet I saw many similar ideas, and complex graphs that have an entry point.
    Quoting from "How to take smart notes" under the chapter "Everything you need to do":

    Making sure you will be able to find this [permanent] note later by either lining to it from your index or making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.

  • edited September 20

    I've never read "How to take smart notes" but as far as I can tell from what people have posted here, it contains a lot of things that are nothing to do with Zettelkasten as it was originally conceived (by Luhmann). So newcomers to these forums who have read the book sometimes refer to concepts that others here don't use or understand.

    If I have understood correctly, you seem to conceptualise your note archive as a sort of tree, with a main entry point (the trunk) from which branches lead off to main topic areas. From my understanding of the Zettelkasten, this is not how a Zettelkasten is supposed to be structured. Instead, it is supposed to be a network that you can enter from any point, which reveals interesting connections that you may not have thought of.

    I would suggest that you read some of the blog posts on this site, which will give you a better idea of how people on these forums think about the Zettelkasten method, and how they use it. (There is a substantial archive going back many years.) But when all is said and done, I believe the best method is the one we work out for ourselves. Books and blogs may be very useful in sparking some ideas, but the work of processing our material and finding what works for us is really essential.

    Edit: I think the first blog post is this one, from 2013: https://zettelkasten.de/posts/zettelkasten-improves-thinking-writing/

  • In the past days I thought a lot about index notes, as they create hierarchy of topics, and the fact they are like structure notes that impose structure to ZK shape. The problems I faced caused by such approach are:
    1. it is harder for me to add notes without thinking in what index to link it,
    2. and by imposing structure from the beginning I shape the ZK (especially its graph) how I think to shape it, and not letting it grow naturally.
    These two problems contradict the principles of the ZK and reduce its value.

    Current work on my ZK system consists of:
    1. moving all index notes to their own folder, so they are no longer considered as permanent notes but another concept within my ZK.
    2. Therefore, index notes can't contain any description excepts links, so I decoupled descriptions to new notes (read about it in Christian's post about index notes).
    3. From now on I don't care if a note is in an index from the beginning, and if I have hard time linking it, I don't to reduce decision-making.
    4. In order to not do a destructive change, and if I decide to undo this system change, I created UNCATEGORIZED index, and to it all new notes if I don't link them in an actual index.

    Also about my question of length, I feel much more confident about my Zettels length. Some are tiny, but (I think) they have enough context and content to be understandable in the future. Also, some are big, but I keep them atomic and smaller than my screen's height (no scrolling for a Zettel).

    Thanks to @Will, @MartinBB, @bradfordfournier for your answers, they helped me a lot. I'm gonna write about further work on my ZK system, especially structuring, linking and Zettels shape. I wish to publish it in a new discussion in the forum to share my work and get constructive feedback.

  • @Pitale it sounds as if you are going in a better direction.

    A further thought on hierarchies in note archives: if you use that system it is quite limiting because a note can only be in one place in a hierarchy. But if you use linking and tags, a note can appear in many collections. Moreover, moving a note from one place to another "destroys" the work that was done in choosing the initial placing. But linking and tagging is incremental and additive, so earlier work may be preserved if desired. In other words you build the network instead of remaking it.

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