Zettelkasten Forum

Proactive vs Reactive Information Management (from Cal Newport podcast)

I'm a fan of Cal Newport's work. He also seems to frequently produce high quality work (multiple best-selling books, consistent blog posts, articles for good publications, and a large number of academic papers).

In a recent podcast episode, Cal Newport made a distinction between proactive and reactive methods of information management.

Proactive information management attempts to takes information when first encountered and put it into some sort of knowledge management system (such as a Zettelkasten), maybe even before there is a specific "need" for it. This information can then be retrieved at a later date, and new potentially novel connections can form between the information in the system.

He states his method of working is more reactive and project based, citing the overhead of inputting information to and maintaining such systems.

Reactive information management seems to be more on-demand and project based. When you are working on a particular project, you go out and find sources relevant to that article.

He also mentioned that over time (if you write enough) you will have been exposed to a lot of interesting ideas, and often when working on a project, a few potential starting points will come to mind which then you can follow to more relevant citations.


One question when using a reactive project based method is what projects to work on? This is where I can see the value of novel connections in a Zetellkasten in generating ideas.

I'm curious what peoples' thoughts on this are?


  • edited January 8

    Thanks for sharing the episode, I'll check that out on my next long walk!

    Cannot say much about Cal's position until then :)

    Yet I am confused by the reactive-vs-proactive distinction: I'd probably have used the names in the exact opposite way. Proactive, as in going out and hunting stuff, planning research, etc., and reactive as in: whatever I encounter and find interesting, I do keep, but who knows what I'll encounter. (I do both, of course. At least I find it's obvious that you cannot just live in one camp once you want to get a project done.)

    Am I missing something that makes more sense the way Cal uses the terms as @Jon summarizes his point?

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

  • edited January 8

    @Jon here's a short piece I wrote for the Building a Second Brain people that talks about project-forward (ie Tiago Forte's PARA / progressive summarization methodology) vs area-forward (ie zettelkasten).


    I was writing specifically for the PARA audience which talks about Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives, but you could substitute area-forward for zettelkasten in this instance.

    The tldr is this:

    Project-forward approaches have a project in mind first and query their resources second. An Area-forward (zettelkasten-forward) approach will often involve querying their zettelkasten first and defining a project second.

  • @ctietze The relevant part of the episode is just a few minutes at the end. You're right that the names make sense when used in the opposite way as well.

    @taurusnoises Thanks for sharing your post. It's a very nice comparison of two different methods.

    As far as I can understand from the podcast, Cal doesn't keep a general database of previously captured resources that he queries after defining a project.

    His writing approach seems to be: Define project, then go out and find information relevant to this particular project.

    Relevant information is found as needed, rather than drawing from a personal knowledge management system.

  • I've searched the archive of the "Deep Questions" podcast and found an episode where he directly addresses the question of using a "second brain" (starts at 28:35)


    "When it comes to my writing I use Evernote. There's a notebook in Evernote for all of the different writing projects I've ever worked on. There's a notebook for book ideas, there's a notebook for blog post ideas, there's a notebook for every major article I've written, there's a notebook for every book I've written, there's a notebook for a lot of books I didn't end up writing but I started thinking about.

    ...I must have thousands of notes in Evernote, broken up by Notebooks, sometimes by stacks and topics.

    ...For my academic work I use Overleaf. For every major idea I have or paper I'm working on I create a project in Overleaf. ...that document will now grow and expand until either it peters off and we move on, or it will eventually be transformed into a paper.

    You should have electronic second brains. I tend to use very simple low friction things. But if there is some big win Notion (question asks about Notion specifically) would give me in terms of being a second brain, that had really major functionalities I needed, I would learn it. I haven't seen that yet.

  • Your article is honed and polished. I like what you describe as the project-forward and area-forward approaches to writing. Both can feed the other and are helpful in different situations. Progressive summarization keeps any PKM up-to-date and relevant otherwise, it withers and stales. A zettelkasten is a PKM of interconnected atoms in a living network.

    Usually, I have a writing project in mind before approaching my PKM. This workflow seems like a project-forward use of my zettelkasten.

    I'd like to think the same thing could happen in the "second brain" world. A person could read and review their note and say, "Dearest, Second Brain. What should I write about today?", thereby creating an area-forward use of their "second brain."

    It seems that project-forward and area-forward can be applied to both progressive summarization and the zettelkasten approach. This "project-forward, progressive summarization, area-forward, zettelkasten" notion sets up a dualism which is great to explore and to consider the implication of but in the end, when you put the nickel in the slot, it is the expressions of the work that matter.

    Maybe I don't understand what you refer to as an area-forward?

    Will Simpson
    I'm a futzing, second-guessing, backtracking, compulsive oversharing, ZK-maniac, in other words, your typical zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing, Cognitive Workload, Python, Data Science

  • I think Cal Newport is a great example to keep in mind. Over the course of his writing and podcast, he has revealed a bit about his process. He has also had on several guests that talk about their process as well. David Epstein (Range) is one that comes to mind.

    In the field of popular non-fiction, even other writers seem to be impressed with the amount of research David Epstein puts into his work. When he was writing his book, he had a single word document. He would go through each paper and add notes to the document. When he came across a paper he wanted to read, he would make a note in the document. This giant document turned into source material for his book. Cal has talked about something similar for some of his projects, though he also uses Evernote like you mention.

    When Cal reads a book, he marks pages that catch his interest. On the last page of the book, he might write a few comments about the book. The book then just goes back on the shelf. He says that if he is working on a project and wants to add information from some book, he just remembers the book has something relevant. Then he flips through looking for marks to find the relevant bit.

    Ryan Holiday has a more meticulous process for note taking. He marks pages as he reads the book, but then extracts everything back out on index cards that are broadly categorized. When interviewed by Cal, he encouraged Cal to extract notes from his readings. It was clear he thought Cal's approach was insufficient.

    All three of these people process information differently and, to me at least, seem to do it in ways that are inefficient in some way. However, they are all very successful in their area despite these perceived deficiencies. I think it has been talked about many times before on this forum, but even with the best knowledge capture framework, you still have to do the hard work of actually producing a product. Maybe part of the reason they are successful is that they have chosen an approach and use it to produce instead of constantly trying to improve that part of the process.

  • @Will I think a ZK functions really well in a project-forward capacity. It's certainly a reserve of thoughts, ideas, and knowledge that can be pulled from or called upon when the need arises. I just think a ZK allows for the other, "emergent" approach (as the kids call it), as well. And, at least according to Ahrens, is particularly suited for it (I'd agree).

    Glad you liked the essay! I quickly wrote it while in the BASB course where I somehow became the resident "zettelkasten guy." I drew it up as a response to Tiago's opinion that the ZK was an outmoded pkm methodology with too much front-end labor required. (he and I kindly disagree on this). I wanted to show that it was A. Not at all outmoded, and B. Very much complimentary to the PARA / prog-sum approach.

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