The Problem with Seeing the Zettelkasten as a Note Storage System
A lil something I wrote today. Figured someone in here might get something out of it. Citations are still just reminders for later.
The inclusion of the zettelkasten into the lexicon of contemporary productivity scenes, many of which view note-taking systems through the lens of task and project management, has led to confusion as to what a zettelkasten is and for what it can be used. This confusion becomes particularly apparent when comparing zettelkasten to other note-taking methodologies, where the zettelkasten is seen as an advanced (and sometimes outdated) way to store and retrieve notes. I'd like to argue that the zettelkasten should not be considered within the lineage of agnostic note-storing systems and apps, but rather as something else entirely: a note-making and note-linking methodology with intent. One that is specific both in usage and objective.
The Ol' Store and Retrieve
Storing notes suggests retrieving notes. For example, in Tiago Forte's PARA system, the act of storing and retrieving notes is a fundamental principle. Articles, meeting notes, atomic notes, to-do lists, chapters of books, how-tos, and important emails may all find a home in the PARA system. Most importantly, however, is the fact that these "notes" may be both unprocessed or even unread, existing, in a sense, as raw material. To deal with this, Tiago emphasizes a form of delayed "progressive summarization," where these sometimes large text documents are processed on a need-to-use basis rather than at the time of capture.
Like many productivity-minded note-taking systems, the intention is not to link your ideas regarding an article on "tiny house building" to a note on "permaculture." The goal is to be able to retrieve each separate file when the time is ripe, process it in the moment, and make use of its information in the form of "intermediate packets." Doing so, it is suggested, enhances a person's ability to write papers and books, potty train their child, or build a house.
Seeing the zettelkasten as a complementary note-storing system along the lines of PARA, as many productivity-minded PKMers mistakenly do, confuses what a zettelkasten is typically used for, leading some to dismiss the zettelkasten as too time-consuming to maintain or simply as an outmoded note-taking system made obsolete by advances in digital technology.
At the root of these critiques, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the zettelkasten functions, and especially so over time. In his essay "Communicating with Slip Boxes" Luhmann mentions the changes in function that come with a mature slip box:
"The slip box needs a number of years in order to reach critical mass. Until then, it functions as a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in. This changes with its growth in size and complexity."1
Could it be that due in part to the rapid increase in interest in zettelkasten over the past two years, the speed at which ideas and opinions about zettelkasten are shared, and the genuine lack of source material on the methodology in English that we are living in an environment of misinformation? It wouldn't be the first time. Perhaps both criticism of the zettelkasten and misinterpreting it as a note storage system are each the result of making sense of something that for the vast majority of people has not matured with age.
I Rarely Look for a Single Note
Rarely do I engage with my zettelkasten with the intention of finding a single, specific note on, say, basket weaving (full disclosure: I am not a basket weaver). Instead, I look for "clusters" of notes 2. I look for areas of my zettelkasten that are bulking up, pushing at the seams, tapping me on the shoulder saying, "Hey, you seem to be taking a lot of notes on basket weaving these days. Maybe it's time you converted some of these basket weaving notes into an article on basket weaving?" This is, in part, how many of us work with our zettelkasten, and is one of the principle workflows discussed in Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes. Those of us who use the zettelkasten to maintain a writing schedule can let our zettelkasten "tell us" what we've been thinking about and what of this thinking might be ready for expression. This is how a zettelkasten can become, to use Niklas Luhmann's term, a "partner of communication."3
But, what if I wanted to find a specific note. Could I do so? Absolutely. There are enough touch points throughout the zettelkasten to make finding a single note easy to do. Enumerable links between notes; familiarity as to where notes live due to daily engagement; the use of alphanumeric codes at the start of note titles; structure notes, hub note, and index notes; tags; and, in the case of the digital zettelkasten, "search," make finding a single note almost...fun. But, again, finding a single note is not my typically use-case.
I, like Luhmann, see writing as integral to complex thinking.4 Therefor, my goal in keeping a zettelkasten is to link ideas and turn these links into essays, blog posts, books, and content for my newsletter. Writing is, to use Karl Weick's term, an act of sensemaking. A generic note storing system—were it sentient enough to have feelings—would not care if you made sense of the way your notes interacted or if you turned that sense into a book. But, a zettelkasten—with equal sentience—does. A zettelkasten "cares" that you connect your ideas and find ways to express them, because doing brings life to you, your creative work, and the zettelkasten itself.
Both Luhmann and Ahrens refer to "lumps" and "clusters" respectively. ↩︎