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Building a Second Brain and the Zettelkasten Method


imageBuilding a Second Brain and the Zettelkasten Method

Learn what “Building a Second Brain” is, how it relates to the Zettelkasten Method, and how to perfectly combine both methods.

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  • edited July 2023

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on ZKM for BASB. BASB is a complete system for beginners so you don't need to know about GTD or ZKM or anything else. I think it is an important message that you can adapt the presented solution to your existing system. To me, it looks like GTD taken apart, replaced with other tools and assembled together.

    You mentioned that you are using ARA instead of PARA, but I'm not sure what is meant by that. You create a structure note for each project, doesn't that mean you are using PARA? I wonder why you opted for creating a structure note for projects in your Zettelkasten, since projects are temporary and short term, notes in a Zettelkasten are permanent. It seems like a bad fit.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • ARA means that I don't have projects on top. My second brain is managed by TaskPaper. Just a big outline with notes and links.

    You create a structure note for each project, doesn't that mean you are using PARA?

    Not in my second brain. But if it counts as PARA if P is present somewhere, then almost anyone uses PARA. :)

    I wonder why you opted for creating a structure note for projects in your Zettelkasten, since projects are temporary and short term, notes in a Zettelkasten are permanent. It seems like a bad fit.

    This is what the saved search for my book on habits looks like:

    1. The project document at the top
    2. An excerpt of my own book because I am currently processing it back.
    3. Concepts and Models of habit
    4. An old writing project (the morning routine)
    5. And my central structure note on habit building

    When I am finished with the preparation of the book in my Zettelkasten the first note will just contain a big outline for the book with links. And when I am finished, I will most likely delete it.

    The reason is integration. I want my project document right there where I am working.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:
    My second brain is managed by TaskPaper. Just a big outline with notes and links.

    I'm interested in why you choose TaskPaper instead of Bike if you wouldn't mind speaking to that.

    And what is the boundary between something being in Things and TaskPaper?

  • I'm interested in why you choose TaskPaper instead of Bike if you wouldn't mind speaking to that.

    1. The sidebar for navigation.
    2. Syntax to put some secondary structure on it (primary is just intendation)
    3. Habit

    And what is the boundary between something being in Things and TaskPaper?

    Things is for simple and daily tasks. Sample tasks for today are

    • Upload Bike screencast
    • Take out glas (trash)
    • Write invoice for Alex.
    • Write concept of test workshop

    TaskPaper is for storage and long-term development. The stuff for my next book for example is in TaskPaper. The task to work on it is in things.

    I am a Zettler

  • Hey Sascha.

    This whole article was fantastic to read, and made me realise a couple of things about myself and my Zettelkasten and Second Brain. Without talking too much about it, it's basically that I've just been hording knowledge and never really processed it. I was (still am) obsessed with knowledge and just putting every link, reference, video, anything into my second brain, but never really understanding, reading and processing it.

    Even with books, it's very interesting to me that you're saying reading something without notes is basically worthless unless it's for recreational purposes. That is super interesting and I have to absoultely agree.

    When I first met the Zettelkasten method years ago, it was difficult for me to get into. Although I understand it, I'm still trying to figure out where to put what. But as the years have gone by I realised it doesn't really matter. I'm still not a 100% sure how I would link permanent notes as a software engineer. There are trivial things I don't really have thoughts about. Like 1 = 1. Well, yes. What are my thoughts about that? Nothing really. It's obvious. I know this is a very simple example, but some things in software engineering are just like that. You just have to know and that's it. It doesn't matter what your thoughts are on the matter it is how it is.

    So I was looking for something else to fill the hole in my knowledge gathering and learning practices. And I thought that second brain is just the right fit. And for a while, ( and even now ) it certianly is. I find information faster and sometimes it also helped me when I was encounting the same problem again. And a simple search led me to my previous solution. Which is nice. BUT!

    This article made me realise that I learned nothing. It's a Dragon's Horde. It just sits there. No-one is using it. Nothing understands it. Not even me. I didn't ever go back and process the information I'm putting in there. Blog posts, videos, there is nothing learned. Nothing gained.

    I'm really thankful that you put this thing together. I think I learned a great deal and I'm going to go throuhg my horde and will try to actually learn something from it. :)

    And you also managed to rekindle my curiosity with zettels. I'll try to actually process information now and gain some insight from them.

    One last thing. You're saying that full text search will be slow on large amounts of files. I'm not sure I agree with this. There are tools like ag (Silver Surfer https://geoff.greer.fm/ag/) that process and search millions of files in microseconds for information. So a full text search should be pretty fast even after 15 or so years of content. :)

    Cheers,
    Gergely.

  • @Skarlso said:

    One last thing. You're saying that full text search will be slow on large amounts of files. I'm not sure I agree with this. There are tools like ag (Silver Surfer https://geoff.greer.fm/ag/) that process and search millions of files in microseconds for information. So a full text search should be pretty fast even after 15 or so years of content. :)

    Note that Sascha is writing about usability of the global search, not performance of full text search.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • Hi Sascha, do you have updates on your book about zettelkasten?

  • @zk_1000 said:

    @Skarlso said:

    One last thing. You're saying that full text search will be slow on large amounts of files. I'm not sure I agree with this. There are tools like ag (Silver Surfer https://geoff.greer.fm/ag/) that process and search millions of files in microseconds for information. So a full text search should be pretty fast even after 15 or so years of content. :)

    Note that Sascha is writing about usability of the global search, not performance of full text search.

    Oh now I notice that my question was left off actually ah. 🤣 so yeah if by global search you mean all files everywhere it’s still pretty fast but not unusable. Anyways. If that doesn’t work my question is what is used then? Some kind of topic indexing that can be followed? Like breadcrumbs?

  • Indeed, I don't want to answer on behalf of Sascha. Putting in my own words, as your system grows global search becomes more and more difficult to use. No matter how well you set your search term, you'll always get a large list of matches no matter how relevant they may be.

    BASB has PARA, GTD has horizons, both rely on categories and global search. This doesn't scale.

    ZKM has breadcrumbs. The idea behind ZKM is to get yourself close enough to what you're looking for. This is what structure notes and links can do very well.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • @zk_1000 said:
    Indeed, I don't want to answer on behalf of Sascha. Putting in my own words, as your system grows global search becomes more and more difficult to use. No matter how well you set your search term, you'll always get a large list of matches no matter how relevant they may be.

    BASB has PARA, GTD has horizons, both rely on categories and global search. This doesn't scale.

    ZKM has breadcrumbs. The idea behind ZKM is to get yourself close enough to what you're looking for. This is what structure notes and links can do very well.

    Ah yeah. I see. I remember reading that and wondered how much work goes in there everyday to keep the index cards fresh. :)

  • Also, thanks for your answer!

  • @Skarlso That sounds like the collector's fallacy to me. :) Glad to here, that the article was able to move you a bit further from it.

    Regarding search: @zk_1000 said it correctly: "Sascha is writing about usability of the global search, not performance of full text search."

    Your Zettelkasten is not the internet. You don't have the problem of an immense collection of texts that are unknown to you. The problem is not to find something in a strange place but to (re-)make sense in a familiar one.

    @geovaly said:
    Hi Sascha, do you have updates on your book about zettelkasten?

    The manuscript is finished. Now it is just about typesetting and cover design.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:
    @Skarlso That sounds like the collector's fallacy to me. :) Glad to here, that the article was able to move you a bit further from it.

    'tis indeed. :) And thanks!

    Regarding search: @zk_1000 said it correctly: "Sascha is writing about usability of the global search, not performance of full text search."

    Your Zettelkasten is not the internet. You don't have the problem of an immense collection of texts that are unknown to you. The problem is not to find something in a strange place but to (re-)make sense in a familiar one.

    Ahh, I understand. I see your point now. Thanks for clearing that up. :)

  • the difference between project and area is really well explained. I compared it with my own notes on that but the difference is less obvious.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • I tried building a second brain but there was blood everywhere.

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0. Problems worthy of attack / prove their worth by hitting back. -- Piet Hein.

  • Wonderfull article! I was realy nice to read it.
    I just have one question: you use the four folds (PARA, actualy you personaly only use three of them, ARA) + the folders for the literature notes and permanent notes? So you PKM software would have at least 5 big folders right? (A, R, A, Literature notes and Permanent notes). The ARA is the organizing and GTD stuffs while the zettelkasten folder (like, literature and permanent notes) is your processing information?

    Did i understand your point correctly?

  • Heads up, and I know it can get confusing, but the Ahren’s note types of permanent and literature notes aren’t assumed or used in the Zettelkasten Method. Check out the introduction to the Zettelkasten method article by @Sascha

    I’ll let @Sascha speak to the organization question more clearly though.

  • @DlThunder said:
    Wonderfull article! I was realy nice to read it.

    Thanks.

    I just have one question: you use the four folds (PARA, actualy you personaly only use three of them, ARA) + the folders for the literature notes and permanent notes?

    The distinction between literature notes and permanent notes is a byproduct of the internets interpretation of the translation by Sönke Ahrens. I just distinguish between notes in my ZK and all the other notes. But this is only hindsight description. I don't make a fuzz about typology, since it doesn't provide any benefit to one's productivity.

    So you PKM software would have at least 5 big folders right? (A, R, A, Literature notes and Permanent notes). The ARA is the organizing and GTD stuffs while the zettelkasten folder (like, literature and permanent notes) is your processing information?

    First, I don't use and like the term PKM, because I don't manage knowledge. I build, tend or something like that. Knowledge is not something that can be managed.

    Second, I use The Archive, of course. So, my Zettelkasten just has one folder.

    Third, I use TaskPaper for my Second Brain. My Second Brain is a single text-file that is organised by the PARA-principle.

    Fourth, my Second Brain is a text-file. So, any resource is linked not stored in my Second Brain.

    Fifth, I don't use PARA to organise the files I store. The organisation happens within the file. PDFs and similar texts are stored in a big folder. So, storage and organisation are separated.

    Sixth, I rarely save any PDFs after I processed them. I also don't download anything preemptively from the internet. I don't need a permanent solution to store massive amounts of files other than the notes in my ZK.

    Seventh, I am still experimenting with some details of the integration of the ZKM and PARA. So, it is still in flux.

    I hope that clears things up. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:

    @DlThunder said:
    Wonderfull article! I was realy nice to read it.

    Thanks.

    I just have one question: you use the four folds (PARA, actualy you personaly only use three of them, ARA) + the folders for the literature notes and permanent notes?

    The distinction between literature notes and permanent notes is a byproduct of the internets interpretation of the translation by Sönke Ahrens. I just distinguish between notes in my ZK and all the other notes. But this is only hindsight description. I don't make a fuzz about typology, since it doesn't provide any benefit to one's productivity.

    So you PKM software would have at least 5 big folders right? (A, R, A, Literature notes and Permanent notes). The ARA is the organizing and GTD stuffs while the zettelkasten folder (like, literature and permanent notes) is your processing information?

    First, I don't use and like the term PKM, because I don't manage knowledge. I build, tend or something like that. Knowledge is not something that can be managed.

    Second, I use The Archive, of course. So, my Zettelkasten just has one folder.

    Third, I use TaskPaper for my Second Brain. My Second Brain is a single text-file that is organised by the PARA-principle.

    Fourth, my Second Brain is a text-file. So, any resource is linked not stored in my Second Brain.

    Fifth, I don't use PARA to organise the files I store. The organisation happens within the file. PDFs and similar texts are stored in a big folder. So, storage and organisation are separated.

    Sixth, I rarely save any PDFs after I processed them. I also don't download anything preemptively from the internet. I don't need a permanent solution to store massive amounts of files other than the notes in my ZK.

    Seventh, I am still experimenting with some details of the integration of the ZKM and PARA. So, it is still in flux.

    I hope that clears things up. :)

    Thanks for the awnser! It did clarify a lot

  • @Sascha you say in the article I quote :
    "The inbox is coming back. I have reintroduced inboxes. Originally, I eliminated all my inboxes and immediately put everything into the right place. I actually dislike inboxes, but have accepted them as a necessary evil."
    Can you expand on that point please ? More specific questions I have are :
    What do you put into your inbox to be organised ?
    How do you manage your input inbox with multiple media forms (video, article, website...) do you just put everything into BibDesk and link it in your to do with a Citekey (I still haven't figured out completely how to use BibDesk to be honest) ?

    Otherwise, I really appreciate reading your articles. They are well detailed, clear, no fluff and honest (we can feel the experienced person who has been through the quest of understanding.)

  • @Tristqn said:
    @Sascha you say in the article I quote :
    "The inbox is coming back. I have reintroduced inboxes. Originally, I eliminated all my inboxes and immediately put everything into the right place. I actually dislike inboxes, but have accepted them as a necessary evil."
    Can you expand on that point please ? More specific questions I have are :
    What do you put into your inbox to be organised ?

    Tasks, Links to Sources and small ideas.

    How do you manage your input inbox with multiple media forms (video, article, website...) do you just put everything into BibDesk and link it in your to do with a Citekey (I still haven't figured out completely how to use BibDesk to be honest) ?

    I rarely save the source itself. Most of the time, I just link to the source from my second brain. Other than that I store the bibliographical data in BibDesk. So, I do a pretty bare minimum.

    Otherwise, I really appreciate reading your articles. They are well detailed, clear, no fluff and honest (we can feel the experienced person who has been through the quest of understanding.)

    Thanks!

    I am a Zettler

  • Hi @Sascha.

    First, wonderful article! It brings a lot of clarity about the subject.

    I just want to ask you, what are your thoughts about reconciling BASB/PARA with a ZK linked by sequences of notes (folgezettel)?

    I'm particularly hesitating on how does it work in terms of linking Projects, Areas, and Resources? My two main concerns:

    • How would you handle the notes IDs, given their different nature? Projects are short-term commitments towards a specific goal, but an Area is a long-term state where you should put attention recurrently. My doubt if the classical folgezettel fits in this case. Is it correct, for example, that 27a2b should represent a project or area, or should it be something more transparent, like 1_2024_10, where it means it's a project (1), in 2024, and it's the tenth one (10), instead?
    • If the solution is the latter, what is the right method for the information flow between the different PARA “folders”? For example, if I want to transform an Area of Responsibility into a whole Project or Resource (or vice versa), my doubt is if the IDs could destroy the note's context. Following the last example, a note in the ZK (Resources, for example) with ID 1_2024_10, does not have any contextual information around in a folgezettel system.

    Thanks!

  • @maikol Sounds to me like you are conflating the tool (files, named in a particular scheme) with the method (to get a Zettelkasten).

    And from the point of that conflation, you try to intersperse non-Zettelkasten stuff using the same tool (same folder, same naming scheme) to do something else (PARA).

    I would like to argue that the question resolves itself once you re-introduce the difference again: the actual Zettelkasten doesn't contain any project notes. It's a tool to work with ideas. The same folder on your computer could host both Zettel/notes and project lists. The disk drive doesn't care, the OS doesn't care, neither is the Zettelkasten phased by this mixture. But it could become confusing for the human user who wants to find things in this folder.

    It's like not making the distinction between sweet vanilla pudding with cream for dessert, and hearty chicken broth for soup with celery and as the main course, mixing ingredients of both into one unholy stew, then asking the chef if you are supposed to add garlic before or after the onions and the sugar. -- The correct answer is neither "before" nor "after", it's "you maybe got something mixed up here my friend" :)

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

  • @maikol It sounds to me that you want PARA to be inside your ZK. They are two separate systems. :) You can link from your PARA system via the ID to specific note in your ZK. From your ZK you can refer to projects by giving your projects IDs, separate from your ZK (like a time-based ID).

    I am a Zettler

  • Hi @Sascha and @ctietze.

    Thanks to both for replying my questions.

    Yes, I know that I'm trying to mix two different systems. And just to be clear, I don't want to create “the ultimate” note-taking system. I just want to understand how to include PARA into a workflow with a ZK inside. My motivation is because I am in the process of reorganizing my files, and I want to use the PARA method.

    Now, thinking about the whole framework, maybe the thing is to accept that we cannot have precise IDs like the folgezettel in the project and areas folder. They are so volatile that they cannot have such a precise location.

    Drafting my notes structure, I imagine something like:

    1_projects
        ﹂project 1
        ﹂project 2
    2_areas
        ﹂area 1
        ﹂area 2
    3_resources
        ﹂ZK (the only one with folgezettel)
        ﹂other resource
    4_archives
    

    Therefore, the only part of the PARA system with a folgezettel should be the ZK folder. The other files and notes can move freely around the system until you organize them into a zettel or structured note.

    What do you think about this?

    Best.

  • Why don't you just open 5_zettelkasten?

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:
    Why don't you just open 5_zettelkasten?

    Yes, this is a great option, thanks.

    Another idea I had was to open one note in the project/area folder that has all the notes I'm collecting about the topic. If I need references from my ZK (with folgezettel), they can also help me out. It should be like an index note but focused only on the project/area. Although this will burden the system, at least I will not mix the ID systems too much.

    In any case, I now understand that both methods are two different beasts that should be handled differently.

  • edited February 9

    I've tried this when I was truly committed to test PARA thoroughly ("everybody raves about this, what am I missing?") and found it was really difficult to decide upfront whether something should in in Resources or a Zettel (even when I put the Zettelkasten in Resources). It added a ton of cognitive dissonance and friction when writing. I hope you find your way around that difficulty.

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Zettelkasten: Bear + DEVONthink, GTD: OmniFocus, production: Scrivener / Ableton Live.

  • @KillerWhale said:
    I've tried this when I was truly committed to test PARA thoroughly ("everybody raves about this, what am I missing?") and found it was really difficult to decide upfront whether something should in in Resources or a Zettel (even when I put the Zettelkasten in Resources). It added a ton of cognitive dissonance and friction when writing. I hope you find your way around that difficulty.

    I'm in the exact same situation as you were. What did you do to avoid the friction and the cognitive burden of deciding whether a note or file should be in a Zettelkasten or just left loose in the system?

    Do you have a particular workflow or insights after you journey with PARA?

    Thanks.

  • I've totally dumped PARA and gained an intense distrust for Forte's work, as I've explained elsewhere in way too much detail. I'm now using purely project notes (in GTD parlance), journaling and the Zettelkasten method (from where Zettels can be called upon in case they are useful for projects), favoring an emergence-based system.

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Zettelkasten: Bear + DEVONthink, GTD: OmniFocus, production: Scrivener / Ableton Live.

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