# Identifying patterns in different types of notes, and how to optimally design outline notes

edited March 17

I'm doing a top-to-bottom review of my notes for the next few days and am already identifying that I tend to create the following types of notes in my ZK:

• Collection-oriented notes (index/outline/hub notes, "topic cluster" notes, "List of ..." notes, and MOCs)
• Definition notes (often used to capture definitions from different authors)
• Differentiation notes
• Concept-oriented notes
• Principle-oriented notes
• Executable strategy notes

The last three are the ones I'm particularly interested in. (the collection set is a bit messy and less well-defined, probably needs some cleanup)

Actual example note titles for each:

• Definition: def. Civic Society (Putnam)
• Differentiation: Comparison of unicast, multicast, and broadcast
• Concept: Teach me, coach me, watch me
• Principle: A well-defined security architecture enables a structured and consistent security posture
• Executable Strategy: How to efficiently read a book and maximize knowledge extraction

For Definition and Differentiation notes I titled them as shown above so they are easy to distinguish.

Does anyone else find that you create these types of notes? Do you clearly distinguish between them as "types" and if so, how?

I'm considering two options for the last three "types" of notes:

• Tag them as #Concept, #Principle, or #ExecutableStrategy (I don't like using tags for the first two, but perhaps I'm wrong)
• Add them to structured outlines

I'm generally preferring the outline approach, but that begs the question how to optimally design an outline note to help manage this?

My "collection" notes above are all gradually converging on a structured outline approach, but there tends to be a lot of overlap between them. It's honestly the same problem as tag proliferation: overlapping tags are replaced with overlapping outlines.

So it seems the issue is how to properly define outlines such that they take the above note types into account, and how to define them so each outline is clearly distinct and distinguishable from other (possibly related) outlines.

This may involve changing the way I title the outlines, which currently are noun-based e.g. Security fundamentals or Note-taking systems etc.

Appreciate any insight on solving this growing problem.

• edited March 17

I am using note signifier in the file name for my hubs. I see them as specialized notes.

Can you explain a little bit your motivation? It looks like you are searching for mutually exclusive sets, am i right? You cannot avoid overlapping connections in your Zettelkasten. So you have to explain how you are planning to deal with overlapping before removing it on other places. I found that outlines are very difficult to read when expressing overlapping connections.

How many notes are you dealing with? And how does this relate to a top to bottom order?

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• I'm no expert by any means, but couldn't you simply create a new note (one for concepts and one for principles, commonly called structure notes)?

Somewhat related as well, was a "light bulb" moment I had when trying to figure out how to treat "literature notes", when @sfast mentioned that he just makes notes. And things just clicked for me: Just make notes. We can call them what we want (it may even be useful for our own processing or to communicate with others), but a zettel is just a zettel, a note is just a note. I'm reminded of a quote by Bruce Lee:

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

I suppose we would say:

Before I learned about the Zettlekasten method a note was just a note. After I learned the Zettelkasten method a note was not longer a note. Now that I understand the Zettelkasten method, a note is just a note.

I think this is the essence of what @sfast was communicating then and still communicates now (see here: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/11038/#Comment_11038). This understanding has helped me with some of the friction you express.

Sorry that was kind of tangential and more on the philosophical (rather than practical) side, but just wanted to share what helped me when wrestling with different note types.

• edited March 17

@Darryl said:
a quote by Bruce Lee:

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

I suppose we would say:

Before I learned about the Zettlekasten method a note was just a note. After I learned the Zettelkasten method a note was not longer a note. Now that I understand the Zettelkasten method, a note is just a note.

This is gold, thank you!

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• edited March 17

@zk_1000

I don't mean "top to bottom" to imply any particular hierarchy in the ZK, only that I was going through my files in the order they are displayed in the file browser to ensure I at least briefly looked over everything.

Re: mutually exclusive sets, yes and no. I don't mean to imply that a note should belong to one and only one outline. I'm fine with multiple outlines linking to the same note where appropriate, but as I grow in notes the number of potential topics into which a particular note can be faceted grows significantly. It becomes a problem when multiple outlines have many of the same notes in them. This is similar to the problem of tagging based on topic where you can either have tags that are extremely broad and thus near-meaningless for context, or extremely tightly focused which leads to a plethora of tags and you start to run into problems with terms that can be synonyms for each other.

What I'm trying to figure out is the right heuristic / strategy for determining when there is "too much" overlap. Basically I'm feeling that situation right now and it's causing me some frustration.

For stats, I have a bit more than 322 permanent notes and 325 literature notes currently in my vault. And I now have 35 hubs/outlines (grouped under a few broad MOCs), not counting "List of..." type notes and a few other notes that are somewhere in between evergreen notes focused on content and hub notes themselves.

Perhaps a better way to word the outline question may be: What percentage of your notes are hub/index/outline notes?

Is 10% a reasonable ratio of hub/index/outline notes to content-focused evergreen notes? Because it feels a bit excessive to me, but perhaps my feeling is unfounded.

• edited March 17

@Darryl Copy all and yes I completely understand the "a note is just a note" philosophy. And you aren't being too philosophical at all! Honestly its the tangential statements that often give me the most value since they branch off in new and unexpected directions.

In my descriptions I may be making too fine a distinction between note types – I don't get too caught up in the distinction usually, and I'm identifying the above list of note types simply as an observation when I was reviewing my notes; I'm considering if there may be a way to adjust my note taking process to leverage this emergent structure that I am observing is naturally occurring in my notes. I'm big on starting simple and allowing complexity to emerge, and since this is emerging I'd like to try to work with it somehow.

My current distinction (such as it is, which again has blurred lines) between evergreen and literature notes emerged as a simple and elegant solution to an increasing internal pressure I felt regarding managing my vault, and I'm starting to feel a similar internal pressure regarding my intermediate layer of organization through these speculative outlines to steal Andy Matuschak's term.

Although I don't follow the LYT process as it is written Nick Milo has a great term regarding MOCs which describes this sensation. He calls it the mental squeeze point: https://publish.obsidian.md/lyt-kit/Mental+Squeeze+Point

I don't care for the way he uses MOCs as the solution, and prefer Matuschak's simple outlines.

One reason for considering the distinction, at least mentally, is it can lead me to a loosely standardized approach to outlines, e.g. each hub/outline can generally proceed from definitions to principles to strategies, all on that topic – again, since I'm already building those different types of notes anyway it seems a natural evolution. And beneficial, since the principles tend (generally speaking) to support the creation of executable strategies that become opinionated guides to future behavior. This seems to me very much in keeping with the ZK approach since it is an organic bottom-up evolution from a broad set of multi-disciplinary notes that grow towards defined principles and strategies.

What I'm trying to figure out is a good strategy for drawing the lines between those topics.

• edited March 18

I think you're on the right track, but your tags look like hubs to me. If so I wonder what your hubs look like 🤔. What's your tags/hub ratio, also could you explain MOC?

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• edited March 18

Tags: I barely use tags at all currently. I agree with @sfast's previous blog entries on topic-based tags creating weak associations so I generally adopted a "zero tags" policy when it comes to content, using (a very few) tags instead to denote note type or status. (e.g. #refactor gets used a lot because it provides value, but the few other tags I have are barely used) I am relaxing that just a bit to use tags for specific concepts/ideas like @Will's use of #beautiful-language or David Kadavy's use of #IcebergPrinciple. (I have one called #LeakyAbstraction since that's something I see everywhere...)

MOC is just the LYT / Lion Kimbro term for a "map of content" which is essentially another term for hub note.

Several of my hub notes are quite messy, but are gradually moving in the direction of Andy Matuschak's simple structure.

Here's a couple examples of hub/structure/index/outline notes. (I use those terms pretty interchangeably honestly)

There's a mix of ID formats in here because I haven't gotten around to updating many of the old ID-prefix titles to use ID-suffix format.

This is what I would consider a "good" format in general. Many of them are messy dumping grounds that I need to spend time cleaning up.

I use ✧ prefix to denote a more tightly focused hub note, and ✨ prefix to denote a broad hub note that may link to many more focused hub notes. For example, on the right is ✨ Signals. The reason this is denoted as a "higher level" (so to speak) hub note is because signals are used in various ways, and I have notes on them (external to the ZK, slowly being absorbed in) including computer networking (wired and wireless) and digital signal processing. There are also security concerns regarding signals that are independent of the specific mechanism by which they are transmitted, while others do depend on the medium and method used. (and perhaps later I'll use them in the economics and systems thinking/systems engineering sense and add hubs for them as well) All of those are "signal" notes. So the way I am setting things up I would have the Signals note link to:

• a hub note ✧ Networking that would contain a bunch of links to notes on specific concepts, principles, and strategies computer networking (as well as link to a hub note on network security, which in turn contains principles, concepts, and strategies)
• a hub note ✧ Digital signal processing that would contain a bunch of links to specific concepts, principles, and strategies in DSP
• a hub note ✧ Electronics (if useful) that would be similar to the above but focus on that topic
• and notes on the concepts, principles, and strategies that apply at the general signal level

(I have a lot more on crypto & signals & DSP in my external flashcard system, which has roughly 14,000 flashcards that I'm slowly incorporating into my ZK)

So my effort right now is (1) clean up my existing messy hubs/outlines and (2) figure out the right strategy/heuristic going forward for knowing when to set up a hub/outline and how best to ensure they are semantically distinct enough without creating artificial silos.

Hope that makes more sense.

• @davecan said:
... I don't mean to imply that a note should belong to one and only one outline. I'm fine with multiple outlines linking to the same note where appropriate, but as I grow in notes the number of potential topics into which a particular note can be faceted grows significantly. It becomes a problem when multiple outlines have many of the same notes in them. What I'm trying to figure out is the right heuristic / strategy for determining when there is "too much" overlap. Basically I'm feeling that situation right now and it's causing me some frustration.

Relax, maybe too much focus on the current snapshot of your vault. After a thousand notes, things will look different. The so-called ratio between heavily linked notes and the notes with sparse links will change. After ten thousand notes, it may change again, and you’ll be frustrated with some other aspect of your vault. Rather than counting links, maybe we should be focusing on making each link relevant. That way, any feeling of “too much” will actually be a sign of thoroughness.

Perhaps a better way to word the outline question may be: What percentage of your notes are hub/index/outline notes?

Is 10% a reasonable ratio of hub/index/outline notes to content-focused evergreen notes? Because it feels a bit excessive to me, but perhaps my feeling is unfounded.

The current snapshot of mine is 3.8%. The ratio between note with the official #hub or #structure-note tags and all my notes. I wish I had more. I'm a bit jealous of 10%.

In my descriptions I may be making too fine a distinction between note types – I don't get too caught up in the distinction usually, and I'm identifying the above list of note types simply as an observation when I was reviewing my notes; I'm considering if there may be a way to adjust my note-taking process to leverage this emergent structure that I am observing is naturally occurring in my notes. I'm big on starting simple and allowing complexity to emerge, and since this is emerging I'd like to try to work with it somehow.

First, we create a note in an atmosphere of innocence, with flow and focus. Only then do we give the note critical treatment trying to fit it into some category. Confession, I do this. At least I used too much more than I do now.

I think I have experienced the desire to find and maximize some “emergent structure” I thought was in my archive. It caused me to divert my attention away from my focus of research. I was like a doctor that instead of treating patients, practicing medicine, became a hypochondriac spending all my time trying to self-diagnose.

I know this temptation to speak ‘inside baseball.’ Still, in my experience, this confuses beginners causing them to focus not “ .... on learning the core principles in the new topic or skill, and to specifically ask existing practitioners what core principles to focus on first.” Instead, they hear the “existing practitioners” pontificate on the finer esoteric details. I should be careful.

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• I am really amazed how the direction of the meta-discussion changed for the better: in the end, practical application is the only touchstone. If the patterns in one's notes are all over the place, that doesn't automatically imply they are worse than the next person's notes. (Though I do get why finding patterns is interesting, it's what I do all day.) Squeezing what should've been a paragraph and a picture into a list format might hurt more than relaxing about the form. @sfast has a post in the publishing queue that might help with the relaxation

A ratio of 3% vs 10% is virtually meaningless on its own. But if you track your own ratio over time and see an increase of structure notes, well why could that be? Maybe you reap more project outlines from your existing stuff? It all depends so much on what we put in that it's probably hard to make good comparisons between note archives of 2 users. (I still think a 0% ratio is a bad sign though.)

I do recognize patterns like concept definitions that collect various viewpoints from different sources, sometimes even offering a synthesis in my own words. But I seldomly catch myself planning these in advance. They emerge from the process when I find a term isn't clear to me and I need to figure it out. I know "just let it happen" isn't very good advice

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

• Does anyone else find that you create these types of notes? Do you clearly distinguish between them as "types" and if so, how?

No. I did this ca. 8 years ago and then ditched any kind of classification. I used tags and title signifiers for a couple of years each but it turned out to be just artificial post-hoc naming and not related to any productive action.

My "collection" notes above are all gradually converging on a structured outline approach, but there tends to be a lot of overlap between them. It's honestly the same problem as tag proliferation: overlapping tags are replaced with overlapping outlines.

My suspicion is then that you still just collect instead of actually creating something for a purpose.

@Darryl, do you have the source of the quote available?

The quote perfectly aligns with what McGilchrist is writing in his awesome book "The Master and His Emissary". In my opinion, this identifies many learning difficulties with the Zettelkasten Method: Many people seem to make it a point to stay in the second stage.

In my opinion, this is not philosophical but truly practical.

Perhaps a better way to word the outline question may be: What percentage of your notes are hub/index/outline notes?

11,6% of all my notes are structure notes.

Is 10% a reasonable ratio of hub/index/outline notes to content-focused evergreen notes? Because it feels a bit excessive to me, but perhaps my feeling is unfounded.

This an empircal question which cannot be answered to this point. There needs to be data and there needs to be reliability. Both are not available.

@davecan wrote:
I'm considering if there may be a way to adjust my note taking process to leverage this emergent structure that I am observing is naturally occurring in my notes.

It is not an emergent structure. It is a classification that you are applying to a set of notes. This is a big difference.

Example: An emergent structure would be a castle that somehow is forming in you lego bucket. The classification is more of a decision that legos are distinguished by color. The first one is a "natural" phenomenon (could be described as objectively there) and the second one the application of a classification (could be described as arbitrary but sometimes useful).

@Will wrote:
Rather than counting links, maybe we should be focusing on making each link relevant.

This. The Zettelkasten Method allows to concentrate on the local and ignoring the global.

In retrospect, I think this examplifies one of the biggest issues: The Zettelkasten Method itself is rather a small percentage. At its core, its just compromised of three actions: note creation, note connection, navigation of the archive. Even the time-stamp is not mandatory to the method but a secondary principle to make the tool more software independent.

All the other aspects are not special to the Zettelkasten Method but rather just aspects of dealing with knowledge. It is not concept notes you are dealing with but concepts or comparisons.

The Bruce Lee quote hits the nail right on the head: A punch is a punch. After years of boxing I enrolled in a Wing Tsun class (ironically, Bruce Lee's first martial art) and we talked a lot about "different punches" and the differences between the hook of kung fu, boxing, capoeira etc. To me, it was very odd. I wasn't used to classification of punches but to talk about efficiency, power etc.

Fun story: I was classified as the boxer of the class. So, a higher level student asked me to attack him. I agreed, and performed a single-leg take-down. "But you are a boxer!", he objected. It was a very shitty take-down by the way.

Got carried away: I think it is more productive to think about the content than to think about the notes.

I am a Zettler

• do you have the source of the quote available?

Here is the original source and verbatim quote:

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I'd studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick.

Page 70 of, Lee, Bruce. Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications, 1975.

The quote perfectly aligns with what McGilchrist is writing in his awesome book "The Master and His Emissary". In my opinion, this identifies many learning difficulties with the Zettelkasten Method: Many people seem to make it a point to stay in the second stage.

Thank you for this reference. I think this second stage is not only relevant to the Zettelkasten method, but seems to be of learning difficulties in general (in my experience anyway).

In my opinion, this is not philosophical but truly practical.

Good point; I see the practicality.

The Bruce Lee quote hits the nail right on the head: A punch is a punch. After years of boxing I enrolled in a Wing Tsun class (ironically, Bruce Lee's first martial art) and we talked a lot about "different punches" and the differences between the hook of kung fu, boxing, capoeira etc. To me, it was very odd. I wasn't used to classification of punches but to talk about efficiency, power etc.

Fun story: I was classified as the boxer of the class. So, a higher level student asked me to attack him. I agreed, and performed a single-leg take-down. "But you are a boxer!", he objected. It was a very shitty take-down by the way.

Got carried away: I think it is more productive to think about the content than to think about the notes.

I too studied Win Chun for years. My instructor taught not only the principles of WC, but also BJJ. He distilled his method for both ranges down to two principles: connection and pressure. Regarding the latter, he constantly reminded us that it's not the punch, the kick, or the takedown that we need to learn to deal with, but the pressure behind it. "Can you deal with your opponent's pressure?" he would always ask (you seem to be hinting at the same thing in your story).

So, yes, I agree, just as it is much more productive and efficient to think about dealing with pressure in physical combat, so too it is much more productive to think about the content in intellectual activities such as writing.

• edited March 18

@sfast

My suspicion is then that you still just collect instead of actually creating something for a purpose.

Not strictly correct. I have a lot of notes in other systems and tools, collected over the years on several topics, but each generally focused on at least a few broad themes. (Evernote is an exception because it encouraged random collection, a known trap)

My current ZK covers quite a few topics but again broad themes are emerging. The information I place in the ZK is related to lifelong personal and career interests: systems thinking, human development and cognition, technology and security, paradigms, freedom.

Luhmann had two separate ZK boxes from what I read of his system in journal articles and in the Luhmann archives. His first one had over 100 different top-level entry point structure/hub notes, but I doubt we would consider him to have not been collecting for a purpose.

(his second box reduced to 11 I believe)

Re: your comments on emergence, I think there is a miscommunication here. What I'm trying to convey (poorly) is that by finding these patterns in the notes I'm observing this is how I think naturally and that how I think is being reflected in my notes (leading to my discussion of "types" of notes) so therefore I should consciously accept and apply this more proactively in my note taking and curation.

So this is not an attempt at top-down classification from the start but rather is an insight into how my mind works formed from a review of my existing notes (hence my calling it an emergent structure, though emergent property is probably a better term) which leads me to wonder if there are better ways to approach my note taking process to take advantage of this and maximize my efficiency and potential. My mind automatically (subconsciously) distinguishes between principles and strategies (for example) but this is only signaled through titling with no clear heuristics on how to title in this way – so why shouldn't I make this concept explicit in some manner and build systems and workflows that support it? (i.e. by consciously choosing to title principles in a certain way, and strategies in another, or by choosing to tag them, or by some other mechanism such as outline notes – which goes right back to my original question )

Hope that makes more sense now.

Post edited by davecan on
• edited March 18

To continue waxing philosophical, I studied traditional jujutsu (not BJJ) for several years and a core concept drilled into us was that a punch is not necessarily just a punch.

I can still hear the instructor belting out:

A block is a strike, and a strike is a block!

Point being that a punch that interrupts an opponent's strike is also serving as a block, and a "block" that inflicts damage or places an opponent in a disadvantageous position can have the same result as a strike intended to do the same.

There are a lot of deep secrets in the old katas that show this, with for example what appear to be blocks actually also being grappling movements and strikes. It's interesting too seeing the similarities between styles. For example a close relative of mine teaches Wing Tsun for two decades and what he does looks remarkably similar at its core to what we did, just with differences in specific mechanics.

This seems applicable to our discussion here too since the lines get blurry between them (as @sfast and @Darryl pointed out) but also that the desired effect is the important gauge rather than the mechanics themselves. (Back to @sfast's point on connection, I have a note on exactly that topic from several months ago!)

In my case I have a desired effect of molding my ZK approach to more closely resemble and support my thought processes – processes which I was discovering while reviewing my notes -- and is what prompted my original question on note types.

• edited March 18

Perhaps an easier way to describe this (now that I just re-discovered the article!) is that I am in the second stage defined by @sfast here: https://zettelkasten.de/posts/three-layers-structure-zettelkasten/

I have 650 notes in my ZK (plus another 200 floating around outside my ZK in my Obsidian vault) and I'm trying to find the heuristics and strategies for well-defined and well-scoped structure notes. (which I have been calling, "outlines") I also have a few broader top-level structure notes as described in that article as well. All of these are emerging out of the notes rather than being defined top down.

I also have a few thousand notes scattered around different places (including paper notebooks) that I'd like to eventually incorporate, as well as some 14,000 flashcard notes from my former SRS tool that I need to reverse-engineer from super-atomized single-fact notes (each with a single question and answer) into proper evergreen notes which provide more value to me. (this will be a long-term effort of course)

So I'm looking at how best to establish this middle layer of structure so I can more easily scale up.

• In my case I have a desired effect of molding my ZK approach to more closely resemble and support my thought processes – processes which I was discovering while reviewing my notes -- and is what prompted my original question on note types.

That might one difference between us. I try to mold my thought processes to be fit to the already existing patterns of knowledge. There is no self to be considered in my work.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
I try to mold my thought processes to be fit to the already existing patterns of knowledge

I wonder if this lead to redundant patterns over time. Do you delete many structure notes for the sake of others, to ease navigation and understanding?

Isn't there also a problem with immature knowledge levels, which haven't been sufficiently elaborated to make note of its existence? I never had a note which was "left empty [or] not flagged for completion" but i do feel a sense of unease when creating a map of small dimensions. Perhaps growing these maps is actionable and requires a trigger (GTD slang). But other times, going through your notes looking for connections it might simply be overseen. I think the biggest problem for me is that i cannot estimate the margin of error for this to happen.

Speaking from the heart not from experience...

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• Do you delete many structure notes for the sake of others, to ease navigation and understanding?

No. I think I deleted less than five structure notes over the last decade.

I don't understand the second paragraph. What do you mean?

I am a Zettler

• edited March 20

@sfast said:
I don't understand the second paragraph. What do you mean?

I was revising why and how i am using tags. There is a contradiction about classification. We need them yet we don't want them. By simply connecting a note to another we already create a form of classification, by deciding what is connected and what isn't. The more connections we form the more abstract such classification becomes. I can see this looking at my own hubs which have different level of abstraction.

When we create the bottom layer we are depending more on concrete classes, for example by using tags. This is unavoidable, we need to connect new notes somewhere and in the beginning these connections are formed out of necessity instead of a higher motive (higher layers).

This process is somewhat automated, we could say that we are collecting connections. Without the middle layer it becomes more and more expensive to add new notes since they are connected to concrete classes as being on-topic, off-topic or of some other nature. It also rises the risk to miss an important connection (not in the sense of a new insight but in the sense that we later expect to find a note where we don't).

So i would argue that classification is not wrong, but as we build up a higher layer isn't that turning the lower one successively obsolete? Referring to Ahren's book, when we don't know what to write about it is too early to write, when we know what to write it is too late since many insights to the topic should have been taken note of in beforehand.

Doing a top-to-bottom review of these layers sounds reasonable to me. When a top layer provides to the reader a better explanation on the content than a tag, hub or structure note that had been formed out of necessity at the time, why not delete it to reduce the cost of choice? The use of signifiers (#Ün) could facilitate both review and navigation between such layer.

Finally, the top layer is of too much value to me that i would risk unfinished holes in it. I think that each top layer must always have a next action defined.

What i am struggling with is to remember for what reason i was creating a middle layer. Sometimes, the difference is very small and it is unclear which variant the top layer is going to end up referring to to offer a general perspective.

I know i have been mentioning deletion a couple of times before and the whole world insists on not doing it. At this point the reason why i am still considering it can only be an obsession.

The bottom of my lines is this: any classification is only an artificial, temporary barrier. We don't need to remove these barriers if we don't create them in the first place. I think it is impossible to build the bottom layer without an artificial barrier.

Post edited by zk_1000 on

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• I think you lost me completely now.

I am a Zettler

• @zk_1000 I have a hard time following the exact struggle and story here; it sounds like an interesting problem to tackle, though. Maybe it pays off to discuss this in a new thread with concrete examples of tags, structure notes that render the tags obsolete, and what your 3 layers amount to?

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

• edited March 20

@ctietze@zk_1000 strikes directly at the heart of my own struggle with this statement:

There is a contradiction about classification. We need them yet we don't want them. By simply connecting a note to another we already create a form of classification, by deciding what is connected and what isn't. The more connections we form the more abstract such classification becomes. I can see this looking at my own hubs which have different level of abstraction.

My original question was regarding classification by note type (term used loosely of course) rather than classification by content but the point @zk_1000 makes here is one I've experienced as well.

A simple way to understand this dilemma is this thought experiment:

• We establish connections between notes to establish relationships between the ideas
• If every note were to always be connected to every other note (a fully connected graph) then there are no truly meaningful relationships between any pair of ideas – every connection now means the same thing, which is useless
• Since that would defeat the purpose of connecting ideas we must then have some strategy or heuristic for managing the complexity in a way that forms meaningful relationships between the ideas
• So we use tags or create hub notes, structure notes, outline notes, whatever you want to call them – and here we apply those strategies to apply classification to our notes so we can navigate them in meaningful ways

(I'm avoiding the argument of whether or not tags are quality connections, here the point is that using them is a strategy)

I would argue that even when disregarding classification schemes one is still using an implicit classification by even using the term "hub note" or "structure note" or whatever, because doing that is by definition imposing some form of structure (e.g. classification of notes) on the system.

So the question really is, what is a good strategy for each of the following:

1. How to identify these note types that eventually need to emerge in one's own system, and consciously use that to one's own advantage.
2. How to deal with situations where this bottom-up emergence of structure leads to closely overlapping tags/structure/outline/index/hub notes and how best to clean this up so you avoid the big ball of mud architecture that is impossible to understand.

I say this with the understanding that top-down design of the system is fundamentally bad but its also clear that purely bottom-up growth without some management is also bad. (If that weren't true the concept of "structure notes" and "index notes" wouldn't even exist!) So there has to be a balance between the two, where we start at the bottom with a simple focus on the note itself and then allow complexity to emerge over time bottom-up, and then groom the emergent complexity to aid understanding, without imposing too much structural rigidity that it constrains organic growth.

I'm looking to find heuristics and strategies for maintaining that balance and I suspect @zk_1000 is as well.

For @zk_1000 I'll say that I ruthlessly delete notes when warranted. I don't understand the aversion to merging and pruning. When notes are evergreen then they are constantly updated to reflect changes in thought, and that means sometimes connections are added or removed and sometimes thoughts are merged together as patterns are identified, or old ones are deemed no longer worthy and removed. My zettelkasten is not sacred, it is but a tool – the ideas are sacred, and as @sfast previously said we should not focus on the note but on the ideas therefore the mechanics of whether or not to delete a note are entirely superfluous – since it is the thinking that matters then who cares whether a note is deleted, as long as the thinking is improved in the process?

Also @sfast and @zk_1000 Perhaps it would help if you each define what you mean by "structure note" in your statements. I'm getting a bit confused here, especially given @sfast's prior insistence that there should be no distinction between note types yet he talks about structure notes as a separate type of note – and also just published a blog article describing a specific structure in a particular note type in his system that has no structure... 🙃

• @davecan, you are a deep thinker and are looking at maintaining and growing your vault intelligently. I'm thinking more closely at these topics, and I have you to thank. I hope I can be open to changing my mind.

@davecan said:
@zk_1000 said:
There is a contradiction about classification. We need them yet we don't want them. By simply connecting a note to another we already create a form of classification, by deciding what is connected and what isn't. The more connections we form the more abstract such classification becomes. I can see this looking at my own hubs which have different level of abstraction.

Does classification always equal different levels of abstraction? Maybe but I'm not sure.

• We establish connections between notes to establish relationships between the ideas
• If every note were to always be connected to every other note (a fully connected graph) then there are no truly meaningful relationships between any pair of ideas – every connection now means the same thing, which is useless.

Yes, if every note had all the links possible in the entire zettelkasten, things would be just mush.
To have all notes linked together in one cluster is different. @BasilPH scripted a tool that shows how many clusters (components) are in your entire zettelkasten. I'm not sure it works in Obsidian. It showed that all my notes are interconnected except the 70 orphans with no inbound and no outbound links.

There are level zero links and level one links, and so on. How far away two notes are in a cluster, a link between a level zero and a level four note will tell you something about the relationship. It would be interesting to have these relationships color-coded. If the link were to a note one level distant, it would be green, two levels yellow, three levels red. Always changing based on the level zero note.

Maybe this is a silly idea. All links on a note would be green (da) color-coding would only make sense as one explored deeper and deeper comparing each links relationship to the original note as the level zero. Thinking in public is not my forte.

• Since that would defeat the purpose of connecting ideas we must then have some strategy or heuristic for managing the complexity in a way that forms meaningful relationships between the ideas

Links of various kinds can have various "meaningful__ relationships between the ideas". This works if you standardize on a format. Here's mine currently.

[[202102131753]] = Link between notes Level One
›[[202102131753]]‹ = Reference link to other reference link
›[[202102131753]] = Self referential link Level Zero
[[202102131753]]‹ = Reference link within same zettel


I'm exploring how I might set up to help get a transcluded idea of linkage significance.

So the question really is, what is a good strategy for each of the following:

1. How to identify these note types that eventually need to emerge in one's own system, and consciously use that to one's own advantage.
2. How to deal with situations where this bottom-up emergence of structure leads to closely overlapping tags/structure/outline/index/hub notes and how best to clean this up so you avoid the big ball of mud architecture that is impossible to understand.

Great metaphor! "the big ball of mud architecture that is impossible to understand".
I'm afraid my zettelkasten is destined to be a swamp of mud, but at least it mine, and like a fat old swine, I love rooting around in it. Understanding comes out of messy confusion. Where else would it come from?

I'm looking to find heuristics and strategies for maintaining that balance and I suspect @zk_1000 is as well.

A heuristics I'm interested in is attention value. I've thought about how to capture the level of attention I have paid to an idea. It would accumulate over time. Have I spent 100 minutes with note A and 300 minutes with note B? I have no idea. I have no idea which note thread I've spent the most time with or the least. I have no idea which ideas could benefit from more attention or have sucked my attention (these might be called vampire notes). I don't trust gut feelings: too much bias in the forms of confirmation, duration neglect, availability heuristic, and newness biases.

This is a tough nut to crack.

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• @ctietze said:
@zk_1000 I have a hard time following the exact struggle and story here; it sounds like an interesting problem to tackle, though. Maybe it pays off to discuss this in a new thread with concrete examples of tags, structure notes that render the tags obsolete, and what your 3 layers amount to?

Preparing concrete examples takes some time. For now i limit myself to no more hijacking.

@davecan said:
My original question was regarding classification by note type (term used loosely of course) rather than classification by content but the point @zk_1000 makes here is one I've experienced as well.

I think it is the same thing from a different perspective. When a "concept" note type holds a concept in its content, aren't you going to end up with the same dilemma?

@davecan said:
Also @sfast and @zk_1000 Perhaps it would help if you each define what you mean by "structure note" in your statements. I'm getting a bit confused here, especially given @sfast's prior insistence that there should be no distinction between note types yet he talks about structure notes as a separate type of note – and also just published a blog article describing a specific structure in a particular note type in his system that has no structure... 🙃

the structure alone doesn't explain what a structure is. When you have a hub, what is its purpose? As an extreme example, I write a single word, e.g. word and can see a structure, so i create a new note, referring to word as an example, and explain how a word is formed from consonants and syllables and some conventions to form other words.

So referring to structure or no structure is a simplification, but the former always needs understanding so we can tell that this is a question, an article, a book, etc. I always need to explain how i use a hub or a tag for a specific purpose. If i cannot do that i am either speculating or collecting.

Structure means that several parts are coming together, for a purpose.

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• @Will thank you for the very kind words. I have learned much from observing your comments and the comments of others as well, so my thinking is only a reflection of the influence of the work of you and others who have been on this path longer than I have.

Does classification always equal different levels of abstraction? Maybe but I'm not sure.

I don't think it has to, but it can. So "always"? No.

But more generally, is classification always abstraction? Yes, because classification is the application of a mental model onto the reality we are observing, in an attempt to order that reality in a way that makes sense within a certain context. So we apply the model and by necessity must discard some information to suit the model, which means the model is immediately wrong (as all models necessarily are) but can still be useful.

Any classification scheme is at best "right" for some purpose and "wrong" for others. Your classification scheme will not match mine, because the forces acting on you and your thinking are not the same as the ones acting on mine. I may order your notes in a way that makes little sense to you, and vice-versa.

Another way of looking at it is that, given that our notes themselves are abstractions (symbolically-written distillations) of abstractions (thoughts) of abstractions (others' ideas) of abstractions (real-world phenomena) then any classification scheme must be an abstraction as well.

A classification scheme can involve different levels of abstraction though. If we say for example a structure note is a type of note that applies a structured ordering of links and relationships to other notes, then there are a variety of note "sub-types" that could fit that description: outlines, indexes, hubs, etc. The distinction there is they apply more or less structure, but each applies a structure to a set of links.

This is getting very philosophical and less practical of course, but it's useful (to me) to understand the philosophical side, since that informs our pragmatics.

Side Note: I had no idea I would be going so far down such philosophical rabbit holes on a topic as simple as note taking until I found this method.

This tells me there is something deeply profound at work in this method, and that most descriptions barely scratch the surface of understanding the forces at play in it. The Zettelkasten is not only a reflection of our thinking but significantly shapes and orders our thinking, providing a basis from which we can integrate the ideas of others and expand our understanding of the world. It seems to me to be what the humanities has always claimed it was for (but seldom teaches in a practical manner) – how to think. I've been thinking about how to think far more, and far more in depth, since starting this endeavor.

(discussion of graphs and counting connected components)

Yep Obsidian has a built-in graph that shows both the global level and a per-note graph as well. I was fascinated by it when I started, but have barely looked at it after about the first two months. It's interesting occasionally but otherwise I spend time in the notes themselves. What I've gathered from discussions here and elsewhere is that this is a common reaction to note graphs as well.

It would be interesting to have these relationships color-coded. If the link were to a note one level distant, it would be green, two levels yellow, three levels red. Always changing based on the level zero note.

Maybe this is a silly idea.

Not a silly idea at all, in fact it is an open feature request to the Obsidian devs in their forum. They've already improved it so you can apply different colors to different search filters in the graph, but nothing on distance yet. The color filters do make the graph somewhat more useful, but its still not a main part of my process at all.

There's also an interesting plugin for it that, given two notes, will use a path-finding algorithm to find a connecting path between the ideas.

That sounds neat until you realize hub notes can render most of those automatically-generated paths meaningless – ok so you found a connection by going from A -> hub 1 -> home -> hub 2 -> B – so what?

There's a lot of potential with some of the plugins but I don't think it's been unlocked yet.

Links of various kinds can have various "meaningful__ relationships between the ideas". This works if you standardize on a format. Here's mine currently.

[[202102131753]] = Link between notes Level One
›[[202102131753]]‹ = Reference link to other reference link
›[[202102131753]] = Self referential link Level Zero
[[202102131753]]‹ = Reference link within same zettel


Aha! This is an active use of some form of classification executed as a practical strategy in the notes!

But now for me to understand it requires an explanation of "Level One", "Reference link", "Self referential", etc. Because I have no idea how you are using those terms, and I don't use terms like that in my system at all.

A heuristics I'm interested in is attention value. I've thought about how to capture the level of attention I have paid to an idea. It would accumulate over time. Have I spent 100 minutes with note A and 300 minutes with note B? I have no idea. I have no idea which note thread I've spent the most time with or the least. I have no idea which ideas could benefit from more attention or have sucked my attention (these might be called vampire notes). I don't trust gut feelings: too much bias in the forms of confirmation, duration neglect, availability heuristic, and newness biases.

I've also thought about "attention value" as you describe, what a great term! The problem I've found is determining how to calculate it. How does the computer distinguish between me staring at a note for 20 minutes without touching the keyboard in deep thought, from me stepping away to do something completely unrelated?

• edited March 21

@zk_1000

I always need to explain how i use a hub or a tag for a specific purpose. If i cannot do that i am either speculating or collecting.

Agree. This is why I have very few tags in my system. Interestingly though I have many "outline notes" / index notes at the "root" (so to speak) of my system, with many notes also acting as "hubs" within my notes as well. I do this because they establish a structure that mere tags do not. (ex: my note on note taking principles has nearly 70 evergreen note links in it, because "note taking" is so much more than just notes and involves analysis, extraction, ingestion, synthesis, and expression)

Structure means that several parts are coming together, for a purpose.

Ok, a working definition.

But – doesn't any note fit this definition?

I'll take a stab at a (poor) working definition:

A structure note is a note that uses an ordered arrangement of links and narrative to establish meaning to a particular set of notes – meaning that is not captured in the individual notes themselves.

This is still very hand-wavy but I think it is a start.

I'd be very interested in others' thoughts and notional definitions as well. (especially @sfast and @ctietze) It seems useful to come to agreed upon definitions of common terms since we all use them interchangeably.

To quote Mortimer Adler:

Coming to terms is usually the last step in any successful business nego- tiation. All that remains is to sign on the dotted line. But in the analytical reading of a book, coming to terms is the first step beyond the outline. Unless the reader comes to terms with the author, the communication of knowledge from one to the other does not take place. For a term is the basic element of communicable knowledge.
...
A term is not a word—at least, not just a word without further qualifications. If a term and a word were exactly the same, you would only have to find the important words in a book in order to come to terms with it. But a word can have many meanings, especially an important word. If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms. Where there is unresolved ambiguity in communication, there is no communication, or at best communication must be incomplete.

• @davecan said:
... This is getting very philosophical and less practical of course, but it's useful (to me) to understand the philosophical side since that informs our pragmatics.

Side Note: I had no idea I would be going so far down such philosophical rabbit holes on a topic as simple as note-taking until I found this method.

The philosophical informs the practical. It is warm and cozy, huddled together in this hole with other rabbits, like yourself.

#beatiful-language

This tells me there is something deeply profound at work in this method, and that most descriptions barely scratch the surface of understanding the forces at play in it. The Zettelkasten is not only a reflection of our thinking but significantly shapes and orders our thinking, providing a basis from which we can integrate the ideas of others and expand our understanding of the world. It seems to me to be what the humanities have always claimed it was for (but seldom teaches in a practical manner) – how to think. I've been thinking about how to think far more, and far more in-depth, since starting this endeavor.

The Zettelkasten Method is deeply profound. Learning about this constellation of a few 'first principles' never ends. You portrayed the power this method has on our thinking. In showing us How To Think, it points to answers for the question, Why Think?

(discussion of graphs and counting connected components)

Yep Obsidian has a built-in graph that shows both the global level and a per-note graph as well. I was fascinated by it when I started, but have barely looked at it after about the first two months. It's interesting occasionally but otherwise, I spend time in the notes themselves. What I've gathered from discussions here and elsewhere is that this is a common reaction to note graphs as well.

Like @sfast is fond of saying, it's not about the note. It's about the idea. Fiddling with graphs, dashboards, color-coding links, etc., is a form of procrastination—a distraction from the main activity. We have the opportunity to notice when we are lost in distraction and come to at the moment and then resume with fresh insights.

I've also thought about "attention value" as you describe, what a great term! The problem I've found is determining how to calculate it. How does the computer distinguish between me staring at a note for 20 minutes without touching the keyboard in deep thought, from me stepping away to do something completely unrelated?

Calculating attention is hard to do outside the lab. Inside the lab, we can't pay attention to anything meaningful. Inside the lab, we can be hooked up to EEG, and today there are wireless EEG setups. In some labs, you'd be put in an fMRI for the study of where your attention wanders. In the day, eye-tracking cameras were the rage in this field of research (Ergonomics). Thinks are getting smaller, less tethered, more economical. The future would seem like a strange place to us if we lived long enough. But science progresses. Even imprecise attention tracking is progress. Precision in the field might not even make much difference. The incremental value of gaining insight into the zero to 70% of what captures your attention has more value than the 30% remaining.

(Side note: I tried unsuccessfully to mimic the metaphor Groucho Marx used when he said, "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.")

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• I wanted to drop a little technical encouragement with regards to tracking eyeballs-per-note over time: most apps (including The Archive) make the currently visited file available for other apps to inspect. Time trackers like Timing for macOS can then observe non-idle time at the computer, which app is used, and which file the app is editing, to track how long you spend with a note. There are undoubtedly free tools to do something similar. (Making sense of the data would be the hardest part.)

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