Zettelkasten Forum


[Journal, Q&A, AMA] Writing a Book with my Zettelkasten

edited January 20 in Your Current Projects

Dear Zettlers,

I am writing a book on habit. I know, finally somebody is making an effort on writing about that topic. Here are my reasons:

  1. The inspiration for writing the book was Atomic Habits. It is a very well written book. Written so well and concise that I didn't even need to barbell-methoding it. I just could process it right away. On the flip side, I can't recommend to read the book if you already read another of the popular books on habit, because the content was almost identical. This is one of the most critiques of the one-star-ratings: "Read X instead, same content but better". But I can't come up with a book that does what the current state of the collective knowledge requires: A book that actually makes an effort to give a complete picture. This is the gap I want to fill.
  2. A book that gives you a complete picture. Books like Atomic Habits, The Power of Habit or Tiny Habits belong in one category: They are built around a single model of habit and use it to give you a clear set of rules, a method or at least a set of principles to change habits, personal or on the level of a company. However, they lack the scientific rigour I require from a good book. Wendy Wood's Good Habits, Bad Habits has this scientific rigour which is no wonder: She is one of the world's leading researchers on this phenomenon. Then there are the works of William James (like Principles of Psychology and Habit or Felix Ravaisson's Of Habit) that still are written in this wonderful free and broad way the books back then were written. But there seems nobody to try to harmonise all of these approaches. One of the reasons is, that it is very hard on the mind. But luckily, I have a Zettelkasten.
  3. A demonstration of the power of the Zettelkasten Method. The power of the Zettelkasten develops in a similar fashion of a vampire or an Asgardian. I am lucky to have started my Zettelkasten in my mid 20s and worked with it and on it both quite extensively (during some years, I worked in my Zettelkasten for 6-8h per day and still I work roughly 15-20h per week in my Zettelkasten most of the weeks) and intensively (after some Zettelkasten sessions I was actually sweating disgustingly -- not only because of the amount but because the sweat of cognitive intensity is extra yucky). If you think of your Zettelkasten as stored cognition, which you can then use in a similar way that chess players extend their working memory, I feel the obligation to actually show what is possible with a Zettelkasten. So, this book will back up my claim that the Zettelkasten Method is the foundation for some really revolutionary knowledge work technology.
  4. Furthering my core project. I am writing a book series on the question How to live a good life in modern times?. This book is one of important books. See this post on the scope of the series.

This thread is for:

  • Some public journaling for the project. I am neither a good nor a motivated journaleer. So, you can give me a poke when you feel that a new entry is warranted.
  • Asking questions on how to use the Zettelkasten to write a book.

Live long and prosper
Sascha

Post edited by Sascha on

I am a Zettler

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Comments

  • The Series on How to live a good life in modern times

    The core of the series entails 5 books.

    1. Way of Living: Reflection and analysis. This is the introduction. I intended to write an integrating chapter for the book on nutrition and diet to bring all aspects together through the scope of diet. It grew into this book.
    2. Way of Living: Eating and Fasting. This is obviously about what you put in your body and when. This includes what you put on your skin and what you breathe, since we are donuts.
    3. Way of Living: Movement. In German, it is called "Bewegung und Mobilität" which reflects the dualistic nature of this book, but it sounds a bit awkward to in English (Movement and Mobility). This book is about
    4. Way of Living: Cognition and Rest. This book is about the energy expending aspects actions of our mind which I call cognition (it is about time management, stress etc.) and energy accumulating aspects (meditation, sleep, rest, otium).
    5. Way of Living: Self-Development. This provides the existential foundation of the series. It is about will power, meaning, ethics etc.

    Then there are main auxiliary books:

    1. The Principle of Total Responsibility. I came up with this term before I encountered Jocko Willink. :) Many core arguments might be the same (I didn't read the book by Jocko Willink yet), the goal of the book is to lay the first foundational brick of my work. (I might start the book Self-Development with a shortened version of this book and I started the first book with this as the introduction)

    2. Health, Robustness, Fitness. It is systematic approach which is in part already covered in the above described series. But it is a more technical approach and fills some holes. It is about mitochondrial health, xenohormesis, levels of health (cellular health, organ health, complete health), dealing with age-related loss of type II muscle fibres, etc. It might turn out more biohacky. The above books are actual manuals with all the necessary background knowledge.

    3. Habit. This is the book I am currently writing. The reason why this is its own book is: Habit work is one of the three pillars of self-control which itself is just another version of the ability of delayed gratification. They both point to one of the core tenants of the human condition: The problem of temptation. (the other two are will and creating a good life-world)

    The other books that I might write are supplemental. Examples are:

    • Minimalistic Training. (Training with your bodyweight, creating your own equipment, etc.)
    • Hybrid Training. (a training system developed mostly by Alex Viada , but I like to integrate protocols like Anti-Glycolytic Training)
    • The Low Information Diet. (Managing Information Influx)
    • The Artic Athlete. (How to use cold stress to improve athletic training)
    • Self-Control. (A book the covers the full scope of this phenomenon)

    I am a Zettler

  • I am currently processing Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood. I don't measure how long it takes to process this book. But I estimate that to fully process the book, I need to read and process an additional 150-200 papers.

    • Sometimes, because I need to go to the primary sources to back up my claims.
    • Sometimes, because I add additional sources to a claim or check her claims.
    • Sometimes, because I get an idea and instead of directly processing a paragraph, I write something because I felt inspired. Then I need to back up my claims.

    Processing a book during the research phase of a book doesn't mean that you just have the book as a task. It actually means, that the book is substance which scope you don't grasp. But progress is not measured by the number of sources you process (or count as processed...). -> Future and already written article.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha Wow! You have taken on a large and worthy project with this book series! I see many aspects that parallel lessons I have learned over a long period, some of them the hard way. I applaud your vision and efforts!

    You were unclear in your second post - have you completed some or most of the basic five books on "How to Live a Good Life in Modern Times".

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    You were unclear in your second post - have you completed some or most of the basic five books on "How to Live a Good Life in Modern Times".

    One is published of the five: The Introduction: https://www.amazon.de/Lebenswandel-Reflexion-Analyse-Sascha-Fast/dp/1979748594/ It was surprisingly successful considering my almost complete lack of marketing (hold even Amazon rank 5 in General Health for a couple of days) and this being pretty niche.

    I am a Zettler

  • German or English?

  • @gdigesu said:
    German or English?

    Look where it was released - the German Amazon site :smile:

  • @gdigesu said:
    German or English?

    German. There will be an English translation when I translated the Zettelkasten Method.

    I am a Zettler

  • Very nice. Thank you.

  • Thanks Sascha for sharing this writing process :-)

    Q1 - What do you use to write the manuscripts of a book? The Zettelkasten itself or an external writing tool? If it is an external writing tool, which and why?

    Q2 - How much processing do you do before writing the manuscript? Do you wait until you have figured out everything on your Zettelkasten?

    Q3 - Are there any significant differences between the process of writing a book and a blog post? Do you need extra tools to handle the structure of a book?

  • @FernandoNobel said:
    Thanks Sascha for sharing this writing process :-)

    Q1 - What do you use to write the manuscripts of a book? The Zettelkasten itself or an external writing tool? If it is an external writing tool, which and why?

    I will write this manuscript in iA Writer. It is more optimised to write a linear fashion. I am thinking about using Scrivener for the editing phase. But must likely, I won't introduce any novel tool during a difficult project.

    Q2 - How much processing do you do before writing the manuscript? Do you wait until you have figured out everything on your Zettelkasten?

    Yes, for this project I try to have the complete picture in my Zettelkasten. To give you numbers:

    There are 16 books physically present that I need to process and 741 lines in my TaskPaper-managed 2nd brain for the project. A line is either a heading or a task. The task could be "process book XY" or just "re-rewrite this for a note" or the link to an article to be processed.

    So, there quite some work left. :)

    This book as a scope that warrants very thorough understanding beforehand and a lot of scientific work. Currently, the present material in my Zettelkasten is enough to produce a book that is orders magnitudes deeper than all the books I read so far on the topic (which is no surprise since I processed and build on them). However, since it is part of my core work and aims to be a showcase of the power of the Zettelkasten Method, there needs to be more.

    Q3 - Are there any significant differences between the process of writing a book and a blog post? Do you need extra tools to handle the structure of a book?

    No yet. I can't remember if I wrote my last book with Ulysses or iA Writer. But there were no other tools needed than just a writing app.

    I would say that the process has more steps, but there are (apart from the publication) no new step types.

    I am a Zettler

  • Today was a session that I spent most of the time working on my 2nd brain, since it entailed a lot of just using the primary sources cited in the text. So, I decided to create a rough plan on how to attack a topic and the chapters of the book were just the substance to create this plan instead of being the source for notes themselves.

    Sometimes, a chapter doesn't invite so much direct processing. In that case, I liked the source material, but I didn't agree with the author of the book I am processing. Therefore, I focussed on working with the sources.

    I am a Zettler

  • Thank you for the answers @Sascha!

    @Sascha said:

    @FernandoNobel said:
    Q2 - How much processing do you do before writing the manuscript? Do you wait until you have figured out everything on your Zettelkasten?

    Yes, for this project I try to have the complete picture in my Zettelkasten. To give you numbers:
    There are 16 books physically present that I need to process and 741 lines in my TaskPaper-managed 2nd brain for the project. A line is either a heading or a task. The task could be "process book XY" or just "re-rewrite this for a note" or the link to an article to be processed.

    I agree with processing completely before writing about a topic (if you want to reach this level of quality in your final product). In my case, I divide my writing into three phases:

    (1) Preparation
    (2) Writing
    (3) Editing

    And, as you point out, Zettelkasten's processing belongs mainly to the Preparation phase. Once you have the complete picture in your Zettelkasten (or in your mind) is when I start writing the manuscript also with a linearly-oriented text-editor.

    Q4 - Do you have any tools in your Zettelkasten to help you writing or editing?

  • @FernandoNobel said:
    Q4 - Do you have any tools in your Zettelkasten to help you writing or editing?

    You mean like my desk to hold my computer or like a candle to give me a sense of warmth when it's dark? :trollface:

    I am a Zettler

  • Haha! In my early days, before desktop computers and decades before I had heard about Zettelkasten, when everything that needed typing was submitted to a pool of secretaries/typists, I would handwrite my reports. As I went, I would write with one half of my brain and recompose earlier parts with the other half, which meant stopping, cutting up what was written before, rearranging the material, inserting new material, and chucking some parts. The result was a heavily taped and stapled set of handwritten sheets.

    My tools of the trade were a pen, a stapler, a roll of tape and a large desk on which to lay everything out.

    I want to emphasize, though, that the writing and the crystallization of ideas happened at the same time. With all the changes to computers and screens over the years, that has mostly stayed the same for me. I still follow the same process, except I do it electronically rather than physically. What has my Zettelkasten added to the process? Some of the bits and pieces of the report are already written, but the story still has to be imagined and then told (fictional or technical), bringing the disparate ideas from zettels into the overall document. The process of fine-tuning (and in some cases discovering) ideas isn't finished until the report is written, through all stages of drafts and the final version, and sometimes even during document review.

  • @GeoEng51 I am not sure, if I should envy you or be happy.

    I cannot fathom doing my work in the old days. There are days in which I sift trough dozens of papers. Access to virtually all written texts is now a given for me, especially scientific literature.

    However, I constantly have to manage distractions, getting square eyes (this is how we say it in German if we look to much at screens) etc.

    I totally agree with your sentiment: Thinking didn't change. Just the tools. But it looks pretty similar. Reminds me of martial arts in which the bullshit artists try to sell special punches ("boxer's hook" vs. "Wing Tsung's hook" is my self-experienced favorite), while we people keep having two arms and legs.

    When I was 12, I engaged in world building which looked very similar to your process. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • Currently, there is a lot of cross-pollinating in my Zettelkasten.

    The day before yesterday, I wrote a note on how to consider habit psychology if you design your trainings schedule. It will be part of the book on habit, but it also connects areas of my Zettelkasten like training, meaning work (rough translation..) and self-organisation.

    My hypothesis is that in the beginning of a book project, there is a lot of building within the scope of the book. But over time, your Zettelkasten will offer you more and more connections to more distant areas.

    This is not so far a problem because I have a tight input control. Apart from the occasional single entry, I process only books and articles that have direct relevance to the book. The rest goes in my 2nd brain.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:

    @FernandoNobel said:
    Q4 - Do you have any tools in your Zettelkasten to help you writing or editing?

    You mean like my desk to hold my computer or like a candle to give me a sense of warmth when it's dark? :trollface:

    As I'm following your advice to have "places" in my Zettelkasten, I've started to build a cafeteria inside one of the productivity related structure notes. The good thing is that it has a wikilink to go to the toilet if needed :-)

  • Today, I finished Wendy Wood's Good Habits, Bad Habits.

    The special value of this book for me was that one of the leading researchers on the subject of habits has written a popular science book. She has not only endeavoured to present the subject. She has also tried to categorise the topic in terms of its role in human life. This is one of my central intentions with my book and so I had a lot of material to work with.

    I had to take a few detours via my second brain because I took the references and statements completely apart and reassembled them. I used to do this in my Zettelkasten. Now I'm doing the groundwork in a first step: instead of directly dissecting the problematic chapter, I'm using it to write my own instructions. The chapter Happy with Habit, for example, is about how habits have a positive structuring effect on our lives. But because I don't agree with Wood's approach and have a self-developed model of the lifeworld, I have to completely reorganise what I find. The chapter did not result in individual notes, but rather a section in my habit book project called Regularity leads to a sense of home. This section is a kind of construction manual for the corresponding section in my Zettelkasten.

    I really liked the direct quotation style. I think the trend in modern books of cumbersome citation styles sucks. People avoid footnotes because what? Because they think the ordinary reader will cry out in panic when they see a superscript number in the text?

    I could make a categorisation of books for Zettelkasten users who write books.

    (DeepL translation)

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:
    I could make a categorisation of books for Zettelkasten users who write books.

    Please do so, it would be quite useful for comparison.

  • Addition: I started to process the book 25th of October 2023. I processed at least once a week, twice most of the time, sometimes thrice.

    Just to give you some perspective on how time-consuming diligent processing is. However, this is also the mode that returns the highest ROI per time. It looks inefficient from the out


    @Martin said:

    @Sascha said:
    I could make a categorisation of books for Zettelkasten users who write books.

    Please do so, it would be quite useful for comparison.

    Ok.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited January 31

    First problem identified: I have a premeditated idea on how to attack this book (my book, not the book I am processing). So, my toolbox on developing the idea doesn't benefit from me writing this book.

    Minor problem. Perhaps, I will create some versions of the book, just to test and improve my toolkit for idea development (specifically for non-fiction books).

    Post edited by Sascha on

    I am a Zettler

  • The book project increased to almost 800 lines.

    I am a Zettler

  • Perhaps, I need re-evaluate the status of Tiny Habits. I thought I could process it without a first reading step. But it seems, that there is more opacity than I anticipated.

    I think, I commit to 3 chapters of processing and see how it goes.

    I am a Zettler

  • Got some news (can't be open about them) and a rush of anxiety and motivation made me plough through the first 50 pages like nothing.

    Right now, I highly satisfied with the progress and the simplicity of working on that book. The hard work is the wrestling with the ideas. This is exactly the right bottleneck: The only limiting factor for me are time and energy.

    If I wouldn't make any changes in my process from this time, I wouldn't drop a tear, even though I still have some ideas on improvement.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited February 10

    Another useful model along the same lines are the Dimensions of Health or Dimensions of Wellness. Idea being part of the good life is building constructive habits in every dimension of health. Here is an article on it but just googling the topic is sufficent also.

    I've also thought a bit about what a book would look like on the topic of The Good Life and is intersting how yours looks very different from my conceptualization.

  • @Nick said:
    Another useful model along the same lines are the Dimensions of Health or Dimensions of Wellness. Idea being part of the good life is building constructive habits in every dimension of health. Here is an article on it but just googling the topic is sufficent also.

    Many thanks for the article!

    I've also thought a bit about what a book would look like on the topic of The Good Life and is intersting how yours looks very different from my conceptualization.

    I wanted to write: "I hope so." But in hindsight (just a couple of seconds in the past, though), it should be surprising, since all the classics converge to a great extent and we are all people, therefore are pretty similar.

    Hit me with an email or pm if you want to compare our approaches.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited February 12

    I am almost finished with preparing The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal for processing. I am very surprised by the book:

    1. The content is awesome. There is quite some material that surprised me. There are A LOT of "!!". I read quite some books on that topic and stuffed my face with a gazillion articles surrounding that topic. So, I am very pleased with discovering a lot of white spaces on my map.
    2. For some reason, I don't like to read it. Perhaps, it is too storyfied? Or just strange antipathy to the style? Or did I dislike something in the beginning and am falsely judging the book? (Don't ask @ctietze about our try to read Luhmann's Soziale Systeme together...)

    It is a very recommended read!


    Right now, I am experimenting with reading two books in one session. I start with a book I have more difficulty to read (e.g. Willpower Instinct) and then an easy book (right now: Feel-Good Productivity). This is a strategy in dog training: You start with obedience and finish the session with something fun. Over time, the dog will realize that obedience leads to positive outcome and are more willing to engage in obedient behaviour. (Hat tip to Stonnie Denis) Or as we say in German: Zuerst musst du dein Gemüse essen.

    I am a Zettler

  • Btw.: This is my trick to engage with journaling. (I don't like it)

    I just do it in public as an act of communication. I am very high in extraversion* and therefore my attention is drawn to this thread as it feels social compared to a personal journal. Private journaling always felt like a mildly annoying habit like cold showering that I need to entrain to make it happen. (I also don't observe the benefits in me, since I don't have that much opacity left in my).

    *I am not a true extravert, since I very often feel that social interactions drain me of energy. But I am moderately high in enthusiasm and exceptionally high in assertiveness. I might have some contradiction in this temperament dimension, which most likely stem from some unusualness in my biography.

    I am a Zettler

  • This is how the project currently looks like in Things:

    1. Phase: Zettelkasten work
    2. Phase: Writing Articles (some alpha testing, creating funnels to the work etc.)
    3. Phase: Outlining (I have a specific tool to test already)
    4. Phase: Write the thing.
    5. Debrief: I will then process back this thread into my ZK to improve my process.

    The complexity of the project is under total control by my rumen (TaskPaper) and my ZK.

    For N=1, the problem of writing complex non-fiction books is more or less solved.

    As a side quest, I will slowly apply my method to my fiction writing (fairy tales for my daughter, fantasy for me, cyberpunk to generate stories for my existential critique of the contemporary modernity) to see, if I can make it work for a different domain, too.


    A side note: Since there is quite some pressure on the system (=me), I am engaging in more in motivation management. Motivation management is a tricky beast that is justified by the very strange fact that we want to want the right thing, but often don't.

    One aspect, for example, is the careful timing and dosing of stimulation.

    This:

    @Sascha wrote:
    Got some news (can't be open about them) and a rush of anxiety and motivation made me plough through the first 50 pages like nothing.

    One's ability to do knowledge work is set on a psychological foundation.

    I am a Zettler

  • So, Tiny Habits got processed. It seems to be a basic pattern that the most benefits are to be found in the beginning of each book. The last third is quite often not that useful.

    I am a Zettler

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