Zettelkasten Forum

One note at a time

Hello everyone; as a long time lurker on this site and many others devoted to note-taking and knowledge production, I just want to say how much I'm enjoying building a zettelkasten, one note at a time.

I work in academia--a 26 year career teaching American literature and critical theory but now a full-time administrator--and as you can imagine, in that time I've amassed quite a collection of notebooks containing many hundreds of pages of notes on a wide range of topics. When I read and take notes I'm always running across connections between ideas encountered in very different disciplines and domains, but sadly these connections often go unexplored because I've never had an effective knowledge processing system.

Over the years I've experimented with a variety of note-taking systems and formats--my go to method has always involved a marble cover Mead notebook and some variation of handwritten long-form notes )the Cornell Method, idea indexing, brainstorming, mapping, etc.--but these suffer from the usual flaws in analog note-taking sytems (good storage strength, low retrieval strength). No amount of indexing solved this problem--although thy did look nice all lined up on the shelf! My notes tended to be project-focused, gathered in order to present a paper at a conference, write an article, or prepare for class. I wanted most of all to be able to build on the connections between ideas.

I've puzzled over the Zettelkasten method for a few years now, but admit I've never really fully grasped the system. Only by using The Archive have I figured out why. I started using the Archive in April and it's revolutionized the way I think about writing and about learning (Sönke Ahrens book was helpful too). It's been a bit of a lightbulb moment, I must admit. By making the insight that writing is thinking a central part of the process, and by elaborating ideas one interconnected note at a time, I've realized how my previous struggles with writing and procrastinating about writing are deeply connected to the wrongheaded way I thought about how writing works.

I thought writing was (an after-the-fact) transcription of an idea; instead, through building a Zettelkasten I realize now that ideas and writing are the same thing. Each time I elaborate on and develop an idea in a new note I'm producing writing. I can't emphasize enough how deeply this insight has shifted something in my approach to the labor of writing (and as everyone who writes words knows, it's hard work).

I wrote my first note in The Archive in April; I'm now past three hundred notes, and steadily producing about a dozen new notes a week, every week. I'm enjoying the steady daily rhythm of building an archive, although as the zettelkasten grows the task of connecting a new note to existing notes on similar topics is getting increasingly challenging.


Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."


  • Quick follow up: I say this insight was a light bulb moment, although in truth it emerged more slowly, over the course of a few weeks. I want to think of the shift I refer to above in figurative ways too, so as to convey the feeling of the shift itself.

    This vividly felt sensation: my collection of notes is no longer mute, as if through the zettelkasten they've learned to speak to one another....

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • Hi Phil,

    welcome to our board.

    I realize now that ideas and writing are the same thing.

    Nailed it. :smiley:

    What do you think were the biggest obstacles with adopting the ZKM?

    I am a Zettler

  • Thanks for the response, sfast!

    Biggest obstacles? Just about every conventional piece of advice about note taking, outlining, drafting, and writing! Plus the academic bias towards output and product as opposed to process (despite the lip-service that's paid to this last idea).

    I mistook my thoughts about writing for the reality of what writing actually is, and I had to let go of those thoughts and instead actually do the writing.

    Sort of like getting out of the head and back into the body.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @Phil said:
    Sort of like getting out of the head and back into the body.

    I like the the metaphor a lot. This will go as a quote in my archive. :smile:

    I am a Zettler

  • I love the way your epiphany turned into words. Very nicely quotable :) Welcome on board!

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

  • I love this description of the transition from writing as writing to writing as thinking. Aspire to have the pencil/fingers be a tool for thinking. The nice thing about a pencil is that it can be sort of a trigger to get in the note-taking, Zettelkasten-building, thinking mindset. Especially in today's culture where we rarely have a pencil in our hand. I'm thinking about what I could do to spark the same mindset at the keyboard. A bell, music, incense? It sounds like a meditation session.

    I've started reading with a pencil in my hand. Thanks, @ctietze for the tip about marks in library books being just in light pencil. I've evolved to just adding a dot in the margin in pencil as a reminder to review the section during processing into Zettelkasten. These then can be erased as each highlight is reviewed.

    Will Simpson
    My zettelkasten is for my ideas, not the ideas of others. I will try to remember this. 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.

  • Hi @Phil,
    I read this since you linked it in my other post. I'm curious-- since this post is a year old, has anything evolved? Like you, I also have over a decade's worth of notes for classes I've taught (high school and community college) and my own studies for my degrees.

    The rub for me is making those old notes accessible and retrievable. When writing a note now in The Archive and you want to connect it to something in a notebook, what do you do?

  • edited January 2020

    Hi @Sociopoetic,

    Apologies, just reading this now.

    I've been systematically transferring all my old analogue notes from notebooks into my ZK. This is tedious but worthwhile. I have around a dozen paper notebooks filled with notes, dating back to 2006 or so. I'm about a quarter of the way through retyping them and, if the notes are simply content indexes of books/articles or brainstorming for syllabi (as about half of my notes of them are), I simply scan them (using Scanner Pro, a fabulous app available here, and log them in Zotero.

    [Since my original post, I'm up to about 1250 notes].

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

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