Zettelkasten Forum

Moving on

I've decided to move my zettelkasten from The Archive to Notion.

My reasons:

  • Notion supports Markdown with hi fidelity rendering (eg code with syntax highlighting).
  • Notion supports not only media of all sorts but also tables (even linked ones) with different views.
  • Notion is available on all devices.
  • Notion allows for "nested zettel".
  • Notion allows for adding meta data.
  • Notion allows for filtering.

Although Notion stores zettel in the cloud in some database I retain full control because I can export my zettelkasten at any time to simple .MD files.

Sure, there are also drawbacks, e.g.

  • Notion requires me (more or less) to be online when working with my zettelkasten.
  • Notion is quite slow on an iPhone.
  • Notion is subscription based.

But I've decided that the cons are less important than the pros: much richer zettel with all the media I want embedded in them. I want to remember a video, a song, a web page, an image? I can include everything right there in my zettel. An since Notion has become one of my core tools I'm happy to pay for it.

The Archive was a good tool to start with. Simple functionality, no frills to get me going and develop patterns. But now I need to move on...

Some impressions from my zettelkasten in Notion:

  • Zettels displayed as little cards. That way it's easier for me to spot a zettel while browsing because my eye can detect features I remember:

  • This is especially useful for zettels with images in them:

  • A zettel showing more than just Markdown characters although it was created from my old Markdown file:

  • An alternative view of the zettelkasten. This is handy when I want to see the whole title at a glance.

  • An alternative way to collect quotes (or other material pertaining to a zettel). Instead of Markdown quotes with > I'm using an inline table (which also can have different views). Zettel are not limited to unstructured text:


  • Interesting. I tried Notion a while ago, but found it very cluttered and not intuitive to work with. The way to create tables also seems very fiddly and slow, but maybe I didn't spend enough time trying...
    Hope you'll stay satisfied!

  • I"ll be an old curmudgeon and contrarian. Looks on the surface interesting. The online requirement is a non-starter for me. (Rural unstable slow internet access.) Sounds like an Evernote want-a-be. There is a lot to be said for the simple uncluttered interface of The Archive. Some limitations enhance the cognitive horsepower gained.
    We'd love to hear how things are going in a few months of Notion use.
    Happy Zettelkastening.

    Will Simpson

  • edited January 9

    "Evernote want-a-be"? Hm... I think "peak Evernote" has long since been. Evernote sure is no leader of any pack anymore. It was good at start... but long since has lost whatever advantage it had. As for simplicity, focus, pricing, features, there are other tools I prefer (after having been an Evernote advocate for quite a while).

    "Unstable internet" sure is a no go for quite a few tools nowadays. Sad, but true.

    "Limitations [to] enhance cognitive horsepower": Sure, I'm a big fan of that and even have a small open source software project in that line to help focus .NET developers during trainings (https://github.com/ralfw/csrun). That said there is a fine line between limitations enhancing something and actually limiting something. The Archive has crossed that line for me. I found it focussing for a year - and now constricting.

    But that's for everyone to decide for themselves. I just wanted to share my experience. And I'm trying to avoid cargo cult: sticking to rituals which have lost meaning.

    We all are fond of building our zettelkastens. That's a great habit and goal. But we should not confuse any means with that end. So I think it's good there's a variety of approaches and tools to "follow the path" ;-)

  • edited January 15

    @ralfw I use Notion quite often, it's flexible, powerful and allows to do way more than TA, but I think TA as a deep freeze file system. It will resist time and changes since is a text-based system.

    As much as like Notion, the need for an internet connection all the time is annoying, and go against my requirements for a reliable tool.

    TA is also specialized, and the group of users around the tool, and the feedback they provide on the forum are the real horsepower of the tool, @ctietze and @sfast are just the hand that glue ideas together and make things work :smile:

    If you can, share with us your journey with Notion.

    Happy journey!

  • Thx for trying to strike a balance between TA and Notion ;-)

    Of course I see the current limitation of an internet connection.

    But then: TA is limited to the desktop, even the Mac. TA is limited to plain text. TA is limited to 2 developers.

    So I guess any tool comes with a set of features as well as limitations. Some of them for some people are crucial, others not.

    After using TA for a year I've come to the conclusion, that my feature/limitation preferences have shifted. I was able to see patterns in the use of my zettelkasten:

    • I frequently wanted to enrich my zettels with other "data types" (images, videos, tables)
    • I found looking at plain text with just minimal markup hampering
    • I found myself connected to the internet 95% of the time during verzetteln

    Before switching away from TA I considered the text and file system argument. Pretty plain text zettels are ageless ;-) And plain text stored in plain files in my file system are under my control forever.

    That's true. I like that. But it comes at a price.

    Probably only very few people here in this forum have experience with digital notes for more than a couple of years. Maybe we should do a poll? How long to you take digital notes in the sense of a zettelkasten? How many zettels do you have?

    For me the answers are: 1 year, 323.

    (Or, if I count my blog posts and articles which I have used somewhat as long and comprehensive zettels, it's 20 years and some 1500. Would I have created "real" zettels right from the start I'd probably be at around 5000 ;-) )

    So the question is: How important has it become for anyone to really have plain text file system based zettels? Has it ever been a real limitation to store zettels in a richer format in a more proprietary store like Evernote?

    I don't think so. Evernote has been around for many more years than most of the zettelkasten afficionados have been writing zettels, I think. And Evernote is alive and kicking.

    And what about Bear Writer (which I'm using for ordinary notes) or OneNote or Ulysses? They have been around for years and probably will be around many more years. Bear and Ulysses have a solid business model and are not greedy, I believe. And Microsoft is big.

    Feature-wise both provide more than TA. The only argument against them is the proprietary store. But what's the big deal? I don't think there is much risk involved. (Luhmann, by the way, ran a big risk: destruction of his zettelkasten by fire or water. He had no backup, I believe.)

    There is a trend in software development to use just simple tools. (Except for when developers like to use highly complex tools - where the complexity is hidden ;-) ) Developers like to use command line tools and bare bones editors. They look down on people who are asking for tools to be equipped with a shiny GUI.

    Well, that's all well. Why not. Some people like to stay in a hotel, some in a tent. But a tent is not categorically better. It just fits different needs and environments and contexts.

    So what's my context for developing my zettelkasten?

    I'm assuming a world where an internet connection becomes more available and stable every day. I'm not preparing for a life without.

    I'm assuming a world where tool transition becomes the norm. Yesterday it was TA, today it's Notion, tomorrow it will be some other tool. The only requirement for me is: easy to switch.

    And that's the case with notion! I'm able to switch because I can download all my zettels to Markdown files (with relationships and tags intact). So when the next seemingly better tool comes along I'm eager to find out about its importing capabilities.

    If they are good, I'll move over my Notion zettels. If not... well, I'll see what I'll do then.

    But that's in the future. Why should I prepare for that by limiting myself in many ways today?

    Here's a snapshot of my zettelkasten today:

    It has become richer every day since my switch. I extracted the tags from my plain texts zettels to see them right away in the overview or to structure my notes:

    And I gave up encoding a timestamp in the zettel title. That was helpful for paper zettels, but it's just plain visual noise with digital zettels. I'm losing no information in my overview, and I'm as easily able to "go back in time" or link to zettels.

    But, hey, that's just my thinking as of now after having reflected on past tool usage. I like to stay at nice hotels or Airbnb apartments, others like outdoor adventures and sleeping in a tents. That's just fine.

    I like to hear outdoor stories - and maybe I'm gonna do an outdoor vacation again in the future ;-) For now, though, I'm sticking to a comfy bed in a hotel room :-D

  • Have you tried exporting your Notion data yet? Without timestamps or index numbers, you're relying on their data export to maintain the associative structure between your notes.

    I use Notion & like it quite a bit, but I do worry about its longevity. Based on their "what's new" page, updates have slowed quite a bit: https://www.notion.so/What-s-New-157765353f2c4705bd45474e5ba8b46c

    I would love for them to build a sustainable business, but I worry that their goal is to get acquired by a larger company.

  • @ralfw thank you for the detailed answer, it's always enlightening to learn the background and the thoughts behind a change. Have you tried DevonThink (Mac only, unfortunately)? I use TA synced with DevonThink Pro Office, this way I have the ageless system of TA and the AI capabilities of DTPO. If I want to enrich my files DT supports that (I don't do it because I only use plain text).

    I'm not a text-based evangelist. My work is heavily based on the newest technologies and software in my field, and I have seen many companies come and go. I guess I just like to feel that I've some control over it.

    Particularly, I like the timestamps, with a glimpse I can see when the files were created, which gives a sense for the other files around it, which is useful, given the fact that related zettels normally will be created around the same time.

    Keep visiting us here, to share your journey!

  • Have had a look at DT - but did not find it convincing at that time.

    What intrigues me about Notion, though, is it's different approach: it's not document focused, but table focused. What you create is a just entries in tables which can be structured and linked.

    It's like a database with added wiki capabilities. Or the other way round :-) It's tables all the way down. And linked tables on top of that.

    That, I guess, makes it harder for many people to "get Notion" or to like it. But for me it's what I was looking for without knowing it.

    But I don't want to sell Notion to anybody, just report how it has changed my approach to verzetteln.

    The most important thing, though, still is to do it at all :-D Regardless of any tool. To get into the habit of verzetteln as opposed to (or in addition to) regular note taking. To build a 2nd brain is the habit we all share.

  • @Will, just for the record: Notion supports working offline - as I just realised. My wifi unexpectedly went down without me noticing it while I was working in Notion. Only after 20 minutes or so I saw the "offline" notification. No data got lost; all changes, additions, deletions were persisted correctly.

  • @ralfw good to hear that Notion supports offline work. Thanks for the heads up.
    I still am partial to a simpler, get out of your face, interface. My data needs to be front and center. Different strokes for different folks. I'm a rabid used of Evernote but I'm relagating my personal life to it and using The Archive for knowledge management and growth through reading, digesting, and writing.

    So the question is: How important has it become for anyone to really have a plain text file system based zettels? Has it ever been a real limitation to store zettels in a richer format in a more proprietary store like Evernote?
    I don't think so. Evernote has been around for many more years than most of the zettelkasten aficionados have been writing zettels, I think. And Evernote is alive and kicking.

    Yes! There is nothing magic about plain text. Again it is the ideas that matter.

    Will Simpson

  • edited January 22

    @ralfw said:

    Although Notion stores zettel in the cloud in some database I retain full control because I can export my zettelkasten at any time to simple .MD files.

    Full control is obtained not by the ability to export your data, but by the ability to freely manipulate your data in place using whatever method you wish. This is where Notion, Bear, Evernote, Tinderbox, and all the rest fall down. They force you into a single-app interface with your data. Interestingly, even though it's a plain-text format, org-mode sort of fails here as well because Emacs is the only way to access most of the functionality of an org-formatted file.

    So the question is: How important has it become for anyone to really have plain text file system based zettels? Has it ever been a real limitation to store zettels in a richer format in a more proprietary store like Evernote?

    My answers would be "very important" and a resounding "yes". The value of simply formatted plain-text is not in future-proofing data — pretty much any program can export my data in some reasonable format these days. The real benefit is that, because there is no difference between the internal and external representation of plain-text data, I am free to use whatever program is most suitable for my needs at the moment. I add new zettels to my zettelkasten mostly through The Archive, but I also have my zettelkasten added as a folder in FS Notes (where I keep my short-lived project-specific notes as well as my non-zettel reference notes) and in iA Writer (where I do my long-form composing). If I'm putting a table into a file, I'll open it up in Vim and use table mode. Sometimes I'll take live notes in org-mode, and I'll want to look something up so I'll pull up my archive in deft. Tweaks to the ZK can be done directly in any of these programs with no context switching. I find it immensely valuable to have my archive available directly in these programs. And no waiting for app authors to pretty please implement some feature.

    I've found tremendous benefit from just deciding to use a directory of markdown files so I can stop wasting energy finding the "perfect" solution. For my usage, the union of functionality of the gaggle of apps that operate on a folder of markdown files is more than enough.

    @Will said:
    Yes! There is nothing magic about plain text. Again it is the ideas that matter.

    Magic, no. But plain text has very real benefits over proprietary formats. It's not simple for the sake of being simple, and not just for curmudgeons.

  • @galen Your argument, as I understand it, has changed my thinking/mind. Plain text is not magic but immediately flexible. Being editable by whatever tool is at hand or the flavor of the moment, is so advantageous as to mitigate any advantages of other file types. Other file types are useable (viewing and editing) by one or a very few tools. Exporting and importing to proprietary databases is too cumbersome to be practical.

    Thanks for the schooling. I've heard this before but it has never sunk in. I've drunk the Koolaid of plain text.

    Will Simpson

  • Sorry for resurrecting old threads; I love the way Will changed his position here, a rare skill that humans find hard to do! I have moved from nvAlt to The Archive and iA Writer (on Android) with DropBox today, binning Simple Note, and it was so easy to do thanks to previously being on plain text solutions. Even nvAlt has a database with tags, though fortunately I never used tags and am still not convinced (I have my own built in pseudo tagging).

    I am toying with the idea of using a media sub folder to link to non-text docs, such as screen grabs. But should I?

  • @johnnypoll said:
    I am toying with the idea of using a media sub folder to link to non-text docs, such as screen grabs. But should I?

    I do this and it works great. Clicking a properly formatted link reveals the file in finder in The Archive. Open with Preview. If the zettelkasten folder is indexed in iA Writer, the image appears in live preview. 1Writer also works well for this on iOS, previewing images inline. As I work in a visual medium, most notes involves images. There are slicker ways to make all this work - e.g. the way Bear previews the images and makes them swipe-able - but I've found none that offer the indestructibility of plaintext unbound by software lock-in.

    Unrelated to the preceding, I'd also thought to share an unoriginal thought in praise of the way The Archive works with zettels. While plaintext flexibility is essential, what gives a zettelkasten it's true power is the connections between the notes. These connections are the vessels through which blood flows, transmuting the zettelkasten into a living 'second brain' as it were. If my goal is to have a thriving, organic mess of an archive that still functions in 20 years and these most precious connections are locked in to a specific application, that would be a spectacular act of trust on my part. In a sense, the vital interdependence of my zettelkasten is now completely dependent on a developer who may have very different ideas about how they want to develop their software than whatever suits my very specific needs. It's almost inevitable that at some point in the coming decades - if the software survives that long - that those ideas will conflict. The result: a broken zettelkasten. That would be a major major bummer.

    I've tested more than a few options that will work very well as a functioning note archive - Bear, Devonthink, et al. However the connections die without those applications. Hence my current workflow of The Archive and iA Writer and gratitude for The Archive developer's precisely articulated design philosophy.

Sign In or Register to comment.