What do people use tags for in a zettelkasten?

Dear Zettelkasten-community,

A question that regularly comes up when I work with my zettelkasten is how to use tags. Until yesterday, I used tags like #thearchive, #health, #farming, #composting, etc. to mark the central zettels around a specific concept – a search for the tag in the Omnibar would then show far less (and far more relevant) results than a search for the term itself. I'm now wondering if this use of tags is the best way to achieve this goal: Instead of tagging all the central zettels on composting with #composting, I could create a structure note for the concept "Composting" where I collect the links to all those zettels. Using structure notes has the additional advantage of providing space for thoughts on how these different zettels are related. But if I replaced tags like the ones mentioned above with structure notes – what sensible uses would remain for the tags?

What are your thoughts on the two alternatives mentioned above? And what do you use tags for?

I'm curious to hear some thoughts!

• I agree with the notion of the use of Structure Notes for gathering together notes in a project. Loosely defined project. Like a book or class or a screenplay or maybe even a maker project like building a composting bin. In these use cases, "providing space for thoughts on how these different zettels are related" would add value. In other use cases, the time between recording one note on the subject of say #conversation_skills and recording another in a wholely different context might be months or years, so a Structure Note wouldn't add value.

One use case I use tags for is when I plan to export a series of notes into a published writing project. Example. Tagged 65 notes #slogans as they represent the 59 chapters in my book. I can navigate and export them easily.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @Will: Thanks for your thoughts! It makes sense to use structure notes when thoughts on the relationships between notes add value and tags when they don't.

One more use case: I add the tag #unlinked to zettels that aren't integrated into the Zettelkasten yet in the sense that no other zettels link to them. Once in a while I will go through the zettels with this tag and see if I can think of any connections that can be made to my "changed" Zettelkasten.

• I have not been tagging any 'content' words, I keep that for the structure notes. The only tags I am really using so far are arbitrary signs for things I need to go back to.

The only tags I have so far are:
-- the tag #XXX appears on every structure note, and XXX is in every structure note title after the UID, so I can see structure notes quickly in the list.

-- #QQQ means 'to follow up' - something I need to flesh out, fact check, or otherwise extend, but I had to stop for some reason. I would much rather write and look for interesting connections, than do the boring donkey work of developing the references, so there is a danger I could end up leaving these too long before processing. But, hey ho, I'd rather have those extra bits as messy for the the time being than not have them at all.

-- #Ref means a citation, which I later need to copy into a reference manager (I still have not got a ref manager up and running but I've been storing all the full reference info on the relevant zettles, and one day in the next wee while I will make myself collect them all into the ref manager and use that from now on

• I don't use tags, but I found this post looks interesting for people who want to think more about using tags:
Friction with getting started — Zettelkasten Forum

• Tagging is a losing game because the the more ones Zettelkasten grow the less useful a tag is if used to organize. It is just a small, very small, piece of the puzzle.

I am a Zettler

• I use tags for keywords and also for authors of my primary sources. Yes, it ends up being a lot, but I find it useful. When I search for #Aristotle, it will result in a list containing both my primary and secondary sources. When I search for #causation, again, I get a list with all the primary and secondary sources about the subject.
I try not to have more than 2-3 (at most 4) tags per zettel, and do my best to "standardize them".
I like this more than structure notes. At the time of reading a paper/source, I may not be equally interested in all the ideas it discusses. I keep structure notes for things that I find important at the time or that are related to my current project.

[Feature request, and I assume this must have come up before: displaying a list of all tags would be super useful...]

• @Vinho, I see, thank you! Looking forward to it .

• @zvt: In case you can't wait until then and use Keyboard Maestro, you might also want to try @Will's workaround here.

• Thanks, @Vinho. I have not experimented with / invested in Keyboard Maestro yet (although I can see that many people here use it so I may try it some day). Anyway, I'm currently using the "pedestrian" solution of having a file where I keep track of all the tags. It is not pretty, but it works fine, and is not too much of a hassle (or at last not yet!).

• Thanks - that works well and will be really helpful.

@Vinho said:
@zvt: In case you can't wait until then and use Keyboard Maestro, you might also want to try @Will's workaround here.

• @ctietze: Is it somehow possible (e.g. through naming) to get a particular zettel to be opened when clicking on a tag? It would be nice if I could link to structure zettels via tags. Currently when I click on a tag, all the zettels with that tag are shown in the note list, but none of them opens.

• You could rename the note so it starts with the tag, which will produce a match in The Archive that's displayed

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

• edited November 2019

@ctietze: I tried that, but it doesn't seem to work. When I type the tag in the search bar directly, it works. But if I click on a tag in a zettel, the tag will appear in the search bar (selected), but no zettel opens in the editor section:

If I hit Return in this state, the correct note will open, but I have to hit Return...

• edited November 2019

Yeah, you're right: when you type the tag, it works, but when you click a #tag link, it doesn't. Will look into this issue!

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

• @ctietze: Great, thanks!

• @ctietze said:
Yeah, you're right: when you type the tag, it works, but when you click a #tag link, it doesn't. Will look into this issue!

Interestingly it opens the 'hashtag' note if you hit enter.
Fixing this small issue would help my workflow as well.

Thanks for all you do Christian.

• @sfast could you please elaborate why do u think tagging is useless or not effective?
How do u search and retrieve from your ZK?

• To my limited experience with a limited size zettelkasten suggest that making a note for each tag (even called 'tag-') and then replacing tags with links towards that tag seems to do most things that an object tag (ie. 'composting' or 'tar-archives') could ever do.

But for tags like "#TODO", "#Question", "#DoSpacedRepetition" and such which concern what I'm about (or what I think I should) do to the said zettel seem better served by simple tags.

• @discordian said:
But for tags like "#TODO", "#Question", "#DoSpacedRepetition" and such which concern what I'm about (or what I think I should) do to the said zettel seem better served by simple tags.

I use a saved search for this.
I temporarily rename the 'said zettels,' I am working currently on, adding a ✔︎. I only use this for the few active summary notes and 'in process' writing projects. I try to keep the focus on these notes till they are complete or answered, or the book is read.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @arron said:
@sfast could you please elaborate why do u think tagging is useless or not effective?
How do u search and retrieve from your ZK?

Tagging is a loser's game. The more your Zettelkasten grows, the less useful tags become. They become bloated (to many search results per tag-search) and increasingly harder to manage (e.g. keep an overview).

Using tags means keeping an ongoing maintainance. But it is only a question of time when you lose it.

Therefore, I do not invest so much energy in tagging.

I retrieve via Structure Zettel, Full Text Search and tags (it is about the combination of all of them).

I am a Zettler

• If you wanted to free tags for a more scalable use or more useful purpose, not sure what that is yet (anyone, any ideas), you could use metadata to park or capture whatever purpose you felt the tags served that you might think you may need maybe someday. Topics for example. Still searchable, available if there was a need. So many ways to do things, lots of flexibility.

You could also use comments. Again searchable.

A security blanket to assuage your angst of letting things go you once thought essential but now useless or were convinced you needed.

• I’ve learned that tags are best thought of as specially designated search terms.

I choose using tags for Zettelkasten with two different goals in mind:

• to build up an index
• to define clusters

Both methods of tagging support further searching:

• The terms in my index are leading me to important entry points in the slip-box.
• The terms which define clusters are leading me to a number of similar notes that belong together.

While tags for indexing should link only a few important notes, the entry points for further investigation, the tags for clustering connect larger groups of notes with similar focus.

• @Edmund Thanks for that distinction - I've used tags in both ways but never recognized the two uses in my own brain. Your post is very helpful.

• Thanks @Edmund for the nice illustration.

I mostly use tags to define clusters which facilitate search contexts. So a certain tag isn't really meant to bring up a workable list of results. Instead, it defines a dynamic collection of notes which relate to the same topic or quality and that I can further work with: I.e., search within this collection, or filter by additional tags to identify notes where search contexts overlap, etc.

To facilitate these search contexts, I make abundant use of topic tags. If I'd solely rely on searching a notes content, I'd risk a note dropping out of a search context when editing the note later on. The tags of a note instead explicitly state the topics where this note should be included when I'm dealing with one of these contexts again[*].

Using tags to define search contexts also has a very useful side effect for me: By searching for a certain tag and listing all tags that occur in the found set of notes, I can easily explore topics which co-occur with a certain topic.

As an example, here's a list of topics that co-occur with the tag "snow ice":

I got the above list of co-occurring tags by command-clicking on the tag "snow ice" within the note. But this really doesn't matter, one could also use scripts to gather such a list.

[*]: Note that this doesn't obviate the need for structure notes which are important to bring order to a topic or overarching thought.

• Nice graphic!

@msteffens Dang! You screenshot reminds me of my childhood dream to become a ethologist.

You use of tags reminds me of a function @ctietze and I plan to bring back: Fixed Filters or do I misunderstand you? I interpret what you wrote that you basically pre-filter your ZK based on a topic tag and then work within this subset until you "release" the pre-filter.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
You use of tags reminds me of a function @ctietze and I plan to bring back: Fixed Filters or do I misunderstand you? I interpret what you wrote that you basically pre-filter your ZK based on a topic tag and then work within this subset until you "release" the pre-filter.

Yes, exactly. Selecting any tag(s) in the left filter list will display only matching notes to the right. You could then continue filtering/searching that list using the regular search bar.

Plus, as shown in the image above, displaying just co-occurring tags in the filter list helps to "focus" on topics that are related.

And the same filtering approach can be applied to other properties of a note (like labels, publication citekeys, file identifiers, link types, or organizational attributes such as ratings etc) – or even "filter notes by other notes" which can be really powerful.

• I don't remember why we changed the decision. But I later discovered that the method itself creates this scaling effect. We still plan to include this feature to enable workflows that we don't think of, though.

I hestitate to call the use of fixed search as filters brilliant since it my idea also. But it kinda is.

I'd love to see your ZK in action since I am very interested how you deal with tag bloat.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
I am very interested how you deal with tag bloat.

Besides the more common measures like tag autocompletion and being able to search/filter & sort your list of tags, there are also some more (not so common?) approaches:

1. You can "flag" a tag (or any other filter element). This allows to identify certain tags (for whatever purpose) and then sort the tag list by flag so that these flagged tags appear next to each other. This could be used, say, to have all your commonly used tags readily available. In the future, one should also be able to search for this flag property to only display flagged tags in the tag list. I'd also like to give the first 10 flagged tags a keyboard shortcut so they can be assigned quickly.

2. The feature that allows to display co-occurring tags in the tag list is simple but very powerful: Besides being able to search your tag list by tag name, you can also search the full text of your ZK notes in the tag list. But instead of displaying your matched notes itself, the tag list will display all distinct tags from all matching notes. So you can easily restrict your list of tags to be sourced from just a subset of your ZK notes. This also works in a similar fashion for any of the other filter elements.

3. In addition, I plan to represent tags (and all other filter elements) via special plaintext notes. This will help to easily get organisational data like tags out of the application. But, more importantly, it will allow to treat tags like notes, i.e. you can add comments or links, and tag them! Being able to "tag a tag" may sound strange at first, but it can be a powerful means to group your tags hierarchically (w/o the typical limits of folders). You could then display your tag outline hierarchically (collapsing unwanted tag subtrees), or search the full tag "notes" to only display tags in the tag list which match your search criteria.

• You are going deep into the rabbit hole with this directions. I'll be an interested bystander.