Zettelkasten Forum

Hi. I'm Adam. How do you thumb through a computerized ZK?

Hi all. I'm new here. I'm a Zettelkasten enthusiast going on 6 months now. I have about 1200 zettels, mainly about note-taking itself, organic growth, psychology, risk, practice, and other things that interest me outside of work. I'm a software developer by trade.

I thought I might introduce myself with an open-ended question. I recently transitioned from writing paper notes to using Zettlr. (Zettlr + Git just works for me.) One thing I really miss about my old paper ZK is being able to thumb through notes and stumble on things that way. In my new computerized system, I have to explicitly write links and do searches. There is no rifling aspect, and that seems like a bummer to me. Anyone have any similar thoughts? Or recommendations? I'm still working on how to organize things to capture that inherent structure that my old paper ZK had by the mere fact of two slips being near each other. I can type in 1200 slips, but that structure is essentially gone now.


  • Welcome to the forums. You are a "Zettelkasten enthusiast." It took me just over a year to break 1000 zettel.

    Considering your open-ended question: One workflow that addresses the stumbling onto older notes is to call Zettlr's get random note function. It might be helpful to make this a micro habit, maybe tied to journaling or your regular zettelkasting sessions. I have a system that prompts me with links to the new notes created one year ago. The prompts are on my daily journaling template. This is essentially a random sample. I get to review, sometimes I have new insights and then update the zettel.

    Will Simpson
    I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

  • I aim to do about 6 per day, but I do at least try to focus on quality over quantity. Some days I spend an hour or two just curating the data that's already there.

    I went through a few iterations of bad note-taking before I decided that the rules really were there for a good reasons. For example, at first I did not include good citation on my notes. Somehow I thought it wouldn't matter or I'd remember where things came from. I quickly realized that (1) no, I did not remember which source things came from and (2) I had done a poor job of extracting the content out of its source so I could understand it without the book it came from. I learned a lot from Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes.

    One thing that may be unusual about me is that I don't definitely intend to do any kind of nonfiction writing based on my Zettelkasten. For me the learning and note-taking itself is interesting. That's possibly why note-taking, as a subject in its own right, is one of the main categories in my own ZK.

    I do write fiction, but I found that I could not make the ZK structure work well for fiction. The whole idea of writing permanent notes is contrary to the shifting nature of fiction as I understand and practice the art. So I think of my ZK as it relates to my writing only as background information that makes me someone with more interesting things to say because I have studied and learned interesting topics. And I hope that comes out in my fiction writing without me trying to shoehorn facts and ideas in there.

    I'm happy to meet other ZK enthusiasts and learn how they do things.

  • I went back and forth between paper and digital MANY times. The allure of "thumbing through" paper/index cards is attractive. But in reality I never did this. Not once.

    And on a digital system, it's easy enough to just scroll through filenames to stumble across something if you want.

  • My solution: thumb through blank index cards while scrolling through the Zettelkasten.

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0.

    Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by hitting back. -- Piet Hein.

  • Welcome to the forum!

    If you're missing the Folgezettel Technique, I'm pretty sure ZettelDistraction wrote quite a lot on using it digitally.

    Regarding fiction writing with the Zettelkasten, would it change your mind if you saw this? It's a series of post on fiction by Sascha. The latest post is about how to create stories with the Zettelkasten. You might find this series interesting.

  • I appreciate the comments. I really did just thumb through my cards---quite often actually. It's the main way I stumbled onto old ideas I hadn't seen in a while. I think I will need to make heavier use of #tags on my notes in the computerized version on Zettlr to help replace this functionality. See, usually I'd have notes on a certain topic clustered in a certain phsyical area, and I could thumb through cards in that area. Maybe now I'll spend some time adding tags to these cards so I can bring up a filtered list of the slips with those tags on them and click through those arbitrarily.

  • @Annabella Thanks for welcoming me. I am aware that there has been some discussion of using a ZK for writing fiction. I just haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Thank you for the link. I might read that material today. But today the main thing I'm studying is Joseph Campbell's Pathways to Bliss. :smile:

  • You wanna know how to thumb through digital notes, but maybe this workflow could work for you.

  • @andsil I skimmed over that thread. I think ultimately printing my notes would prove untenable. I like his idea, and clearly it works for him. I'd be re-printing quite often, because in my mind---just as in my previous paper-based zetttelkasten---zettels are written in pencil. I edit them constantly, not least of which is adding new links. It was Robert Pirsig in his semi-autobiographical novel Lila who inspired me that writing in pencil better supported what he and I call "organic growth". That's a big deal for me as it was for his character Phaedrus in that book.

    I observe that, as compared with this fellow you linked to, my notes are also shorter. When I started my ZK, I wrote by pencil on 3in x 5in slips of paper. Now I have switched to using Zettlr, so there is no logical upper bound, but I still plan to keep individual zettels both short and atomic as much as I can.

    That said, StefanHansen's method does not suffer from not suiting what I think a ZK is or should be. Clearly it works for him. If I could somehow have a physical system that was always in sync with a computer system, that would be ideal. Given e-ink, maybe technology for accomplishing exactly that objective isn't so far-fetched.

  • Seems like you got everything under control now. Good luck with your endeavors!

  • edited January 2022

    @Annabella I'm doing OK, but I thought a half-decent question would be a good starting point for me to get to know other people on the forum. That was my real goal here. Would you care to tell me anything about yourself and how you use your own Zettelkasten?

  • edited February 2022

    Huh, I wasn't expecting that. Well played, @adamcross, because you definitely grabbed my attention, haha. I'm not sure if to talk about me, but since you asked so kindly, I guess that I'll try.

    I'll begin with the easier question: How I use my Zettelkasten. It's nothing but a tool to me, a key to any door. Do I need to learn about the scientific method? Sure, let's go Zettelkasten. Figuring out how to keep my laptop from going into a black screen? You already know what I'm going to say, Zettelkasten. Skin care? Zettelkasten!

    And now the tougher one: Anything about me. Guess I'll tell you who I am. I'm a suicidal mess on an emotional roller coaster. I think of myself as a child of the stars: I represent the good and bad in the people, and I fight for the people to inspire them to fight alongside me or to fight for those that can't. My nemesis is bad parenting because I believe that it's the cause for all the wrong in the world.

    Was that good?

  • @Annabella I hope I didn't make you feel like I was asking for details about your personal life. I suppose I'm just curious what we Zettelkasten enthusiasts have in common. There must be something about us all wanting to sort of "nest" data and make it part of ourselves. On that note, I'm curious what you have to say also @Will.

    Using a Zettelkasten to help with learning about skin care and computers seems as good a reason as any.

    I think to a certain extent I fall for the the collector's trap of just wanting to add everything I come across. But I'm really interested to see how the ZK becomes a kind of second mind for me to communicate with in the future. I find that aspect of it intriguing, and I know that my ZK won't be like anyone else's. It'll only know what I teach it. So I teach it about note-taking and about Zettelkastens and about my other interests: psychology, mythology, etc.

    I look forward to reaching that "critical mass" I hear spoken of.

  • edited February 2022

    What brings us together is a mystery to me as well. But since I have other matters to attend, I don't think about it. I do look forward to whoever comes across the answer.

    And don't worry about picking my brain. I got nothing to hide or feel ashamed for.

  • I've had the same problem, so I decided to dump all my zettels to a text file and browse it on my iPad while I added/changed things in Obsidian. So far, this has worked well for me.

    If you're comfortable at the command-line, here is the script I use. Enjoy!

    # NAME: dump-slips-to-textfile.sh
    # PURPOSE: takes all the ".md" files in the current directory and
    #          "prints" them to a single, large textfile (adds simple
    #          formatting)
    # DATE: 1/17/22
    # VERSION: 1.00
    # USAGE
    # Put this script in the thinking-box directory (along with all the 
    # slip .md files). To make this script executable, execute 
    #    chmod u+x dump-slips-to-textfile.sh
    # Then, in a terminal window, cd to this same directory, and execute 
    #    bash dump-slips-to-textfile.sh>filename.txt
    # NOTE: execute with bash or zsh, but this breaks using sh!!!
    # The problem here is filenames that include spaces. Normally, 'cat $f'
    # "sees" the text in $f as a set of arguments separated by spaces and 
    # freaks out from *seeing* too many arguments and *not* seeing the contents
    # of $f as a single string (here, a filename) with embedded spaces.
    # The lines involving IFS and SAVEIFS temporarily change the workings of
    # the shell such that it does not see spaces as delimiters. Thus, the
    # script sees the string in $f as a single filename and echos it properly.
    for f in *.md ; do
        printf "========================================================\n";
        printf "$f";
        printf "\n--------------------------------------------------------\n";
        SAVEIFS=$IFS;IFS=$(echo -en "\n\b");
    #   SAVEIFS=$IFS;IFS=$(echo -en "\n");
        cat $f;
        printf "\n\n\n";
  • @GreggInCA That's an interesting compromise. I suppose that would be a way of viewing all of your notes, but what about the ordering? In my old paper-based system, the order was definitely part of the structure. It's part that I haven't fully translated over into the computer system that I'm using now.

  • @adamcross The script prints all the records in chronological order, which works for me.

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