Zettelkasten Forum

Introducing myself a real newbie and soon to be Ph.D candidate

Hello forum members. I am about 5 days into my Zettelkasten experience and hooked. Why did I not know about this? A fluke find from Atomic Habits to Deep Work to Smart Notes resulting in crash learning how to get started in Obsidian.

Many years ago a science degree, now as a 60's something student, just finished a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Hons) I am moving on to a Ph.D (preparation mode at present). During Honours I held way too much information in my head, bounced from art journals for drawing, bullet journals, todo lists and adhoc method of note taking and Mendeley for references.

After a couple of months preparatory reading I have multitudes of ideas but have frozen at the writing/note taking point, word docs and OneNote are resulting in dead notes that I know in a couple of years wont serve me well. Zettelkasten is how my head so I am hoping this will be a game changer.

If anyone else is in the process of working on their Ph.D thesis I would love to know how you use your Zettelkasten, do you keep it purely for creative notes or use folders etc to track authors, titles etc to ensure you have covered your lit review requirements? Any tips, starting points for a new Obsidian user would be appreciated.


  • I finished my PhD a decade ago at the age of fifty-nine, so I know how much work is involved, and what it is like to be a mature student. That was long before I had seen a Zettelkasten, and long before the explosion of the whole world of "Personal Knowledge Management". In those days I used DEVONthink, and a simple system in which anything to do with Chapter 1 would go into a folder for Chapter 1, and so forth. That approach is fine if you are only going to write one thing, but not so good if you want your material to be useful after you have finished the project. That is where more flexible systems are better.

    Something I learned from the Tinderbox forums is the concept of "incremental formalisation". This basically means not trying to define all your categories, folders, containers, etc. at the outset. Instead, you slowly add metadata to your notes as you work with them and begin to understand where they "fit" in your understanding of the material.

    I believe that metadata (tags and that sort of thing) give you much more flexibility than using a folder structure (which still has its uses, let it be said). Once you have put an item in the folder for Chapter 1, you cannot also put it in the folder for Chapter 2, unless you duplicate it. But tagging something "chapter-1, chapter-2" means that it can appear in both places by using a smart search, or similar. In other words, you can start VERY small, and build slowly. No effort will be wasted. And if you learn to use the Dataview plugin for Obsidian, you will find that you can invent your own metadata for your own purposes. Take a look at this video for some information. You could also take a look at the Linking Your Thinking channel.

    However, don't overwhelm yourself with ideas. Just start slowly and let things grow. Obsidian is very powerful and flexible, and I think incremental formalisation is a good approach. That way you won't paint yourself into a corner.

    Best of luck.

  • I highly recommend using citekeys to keep track of sources, notes, pdfs, etc.

    See this blog post for a rundown: https://localauthor.github.io/posts/citekeys.html

  • edited June 2022

    @amandaleigh Also, welcome to the forum! You will find all sorts of great information here, starting with the "getting started" links, at which we suggest every newbie have a look. And feel free to ask questions - everyone here is very friendly.

    @MartinBB 's advice is very sound. You want to wrap your head around alternate ways of accessing information in your ZK, such as tags or "wiki-like" links between zettels. ZK does have some top-down structure built in - for instance, "structure" notes. You can read a lot about those on this forum.

    Best of luck in your ZK journey, and in your PhD. I'm a 70-year old geological engineer with a PhD from antideluvian times (that's a geology joke, by the way). But I'm also a ZK newbie - been at it for a little over a year. And what a wonderful world it is!

  • @argonsnorts said:
    I highly recommend using citekeys to keep track of sources, notes, pdfs, etc.

    See this blog post for a rundown: https://localauthor.github.io/posts/citekeys.html

    Citekeys are nothing to snort at. Zotero with the BetterBibTeX add-on will generate citekeys for you when you add references to Zotero. You may generate your own, as the article in the localauthor post suggests, and it is of course possible to collect your own citations in BibTeX format even if you don't use LaTeX, Pandoc, BibTeX etc. Citations in BibTeX format can be extracted from articles and posts online and imported in Zotero also. Whatever you do, maintain the citations as you go, of course. If you follow Ahrens, the workflow is to document sources (these are "literature notes in" Ahrens) and then Zettels, using the citations already collected.

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0.

  • Thank you all for your comments. I am following up on your advice. LYT Free Kit is giving me a good start on what's possible, but will gradually work out what I really need. I don't want to clutter the system unnecessarily.

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