Zettelkasten Forum

Friction with getting started

Hello. Me again. My problem, or problems, with getting a zettelkasten started is mostly a series of mental blocks having to do with setting up my system:

Do I need a reference app like Zotero if I don't do academic writing?

I'm not sure if I like the idea of having long timestamps at the beginning of the note titles.

What do I do with all of my old notes that aren't proper zettels?

Do I need to figure out some kind of UU system and or buffer note system before I get started?

I spend at least 50% of my time on iOS, and I'm not sure how to approach this in such a way that I can properly work with it if I'm not using my MacBook.

Then I ran across Taigo Forte and his “Second Brain” method. I can’t tell if it’s nonsense of if it’s actually smart, and then I’m swirling about apps and methods again.

Any thoughts from the gracious hosts?


  • Don't worry, you don't "need" anything for the Method's sake: it all depends on your use case and what you want to achieve.

    So if you don't do academic writing, what do you do? -- If you never cite anybody else, there'd be no point in setting up a reference manager. Say you want to work on poems and totally shield yourself from the world, never taking in any outside material, then you needn't worry about reference management. If all you do is comment on web links, pasting in the URL could be enough to get started. (I don't create reference items for 99.99% of web links because they are links to tutorials, documentation, or just blog posts for later reference.) I guess at some point you will end up quoting from a book, and then you'll have to decide how you want to handle this properly. You could ditch a reference management app and only keep the book into in your notes directly. A dedicated app is useful to have a central hub for the info, and find and copy the info out into your notes, plus you have a useful database when you want to publish a book/paper to generate a list of references -- it's less useful if all you write is on the web, though!

    As for the ID timestamps: there are upsides and downsides to any approach here. Put them in the front of the filename and you get the notes sorted by date at the price of wasted screen real estate. Put them in the back and your notes are sorted by title, which opens up possibilities like using naming conventions to group e.g. all structure notes at the top of the list, if that's your cup of tea. Leave the Ids out completely at the price of not being able to find notes by ID without a full-text search (IIRC, Dropbox will only search in the filename). Again, this depends on what you want to do.

    In the end, I would like to suggest you start with the least amount of preparation to get started writing/taking notes, then experiment. I had at least 5 iterations of note Ids and header formats since 2009. And I don't mass-migrate all my notes to new formats the moment I come up with one; I convert them as I encounter outdated notes manually, like a good boy scout is supposed to leave the place a bit tidier than it was when he arrived. :)

    As for iOS, I still recommend 1Writer because you can script some parts of it and the full-text search is very quick. With Siri Shortcuts, you can create notes with the current timestamp from a quick action; or use apps like Drafts to automate note creation a bit more.

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

  • I am trying to like 1Writer. I keep getting tempted by Bear. I know that’s blasphemy around here because the files are obscured in a database.


    They just changed their wiki links so that if the title of a note changes, all of the wiki links update themselves and don’t break.

    It seems almost purpose built for ZK.

    But, I know, I know. It’s the notes app equivalent of junk food.

    This is another dance that I do to keep myself from actually starting.

    I guess I need to sit down with 1Writer and really learn it.

  • Long time lurker, first time posting.

    Kevin your posts and comments resonated with me and motivated me to register to the forum. I have experience the same struggles trying to make progress creating a Zettelkasten. After many starts and stops and regrouping I gain traction using Bear Notes. When Bear changed their wiki links to change when the title changes that helped me to decide to not use timestamps in titles.

    I too don't have much need for a reference manager but like timestamps which both are great ideas I had much angst not using one. I did decide to go with Zotero but use it here and there and use it occasionally as the urge or need presents itself. The more I use it the the more often I tend to do so.

    Old notes. The guilt of leaving them behind was strong but decided to move froward with new notes and then as I gained traction I slowly migrated important ones and those I needed as I wrote new notes. Will they all get migrated? Probably not. I have lots of notes in lot of places in lots of formats. Most are probably trash and should stay where they are. If they are important and I can find them they will make it to Bear Notes.

    Bear is macOS and iOS so that was important for me. It does Images, sketches, and attachments very well, which was also big for me. I also have found the hierarchical tags useful for separating different ares or domains like personal notes, project specific notes, bible notes, and knowledge repository zettelkasten notes.

    I do use UID's sometimes but use them as tags. I also use a hierarchy tag for this to keep them separated in the tag list. They look like this: #uid/20191019095048# I use these like The Archives uses [20191019095048] to connect related notes together. I use other word tags #art etc too but these UID tags when I want a network of related notes. When I want to link to the a note specifically I use the Bears style wiki link [[Textual Criticism]] or just the Copy Link to Note Bear functionality.

    Structure Notes. I use Ü - As the beginning of a structured note title. And then include a #zk/!Ü# tag in the note itself.

    I use the first node in the hierarchical tags as the domain I am working in for example:

    • #bible/!Ü#
    • #personal/Ü#
    • #zk/!Ü#

    Plain text and the blasphemy of using a database. Well the plain text people are right. To be perfectly safe it is the way to go. There is no one perfect system or tool. I have many apps that I don't use that prove this point. So you find the bets that works for you and mitigate the comprises as much as possible. Bear Notes lets you export in lots of formats including plain text. Moving from one tool to the next nearly always involves some pain. While plain text is the simplest to move from one tool to the next but I feel Bear with tis export features doesn't have a lock in. If I need or wanted to get my notes out and move to something I feel confident I can. I admire and respect the plain text approach and have used it extensively over the years but I am god with my decision and don't feel like a blasphemer.

    I use Keyboard Maestro and TextExpander for short cuts for creating uid tags structured note titles etc.

    I read How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens and read nearly everything here at Zettelkasten.de (Thank you Christian and Sacha!) and then took a long time pondering and applying what I learned as I adapted Bear Notes for my own system for writing and retaining notes. I also read other sties but always came back to ZK.de and How to Take Smart Notes.

    When I started I wanted someone or some place to say here do this and this and that and your will have a perfect flexible note taking system. What I learn on the journey is that you have to get and understand the ZK principles and concepts and then adapt them to your own needs, style, and preferences.

    When the tool begins to get out of your way and you develop your own process and start to trust that process the magic will happen. Bear Notes, Taking Smart Notes, and ZK.de and much trial and error and time together helped me to overcome the friction. I still have a ways to go to achieve flow but feel like I am finally on my way. (See what I learn here at ZK.de)

    Bear Notes is working so for me. Just wanted to share.

    I purchased the The Archive to support Christian and Sacha and will continue purchase any upgrades in the future because of the great work they hove done. They have created a wonderful place on the web for folks like us. You guys are so generous. I just wanted to say Thank You!

    Whew, I didn't realize I had so much to say. I hope my comment helps.
    Good luck on your journey.

    • Mike Braddock

    Here are some images of my tags and some zettels that may be useful to you.

  • Mike, this is fantastic. Thank you for weighing in. A lot to digest from your system but it all seems to make good sense on first reading. I’m sure I’ll have more to ask later, but do you do your writing in Bear as well or somewhere else? I prefer to write in Ulysses but have also thought about plain text apps so I could integrate everything (notes, writing, etc) into one searchable collection. Bear could work for that, though writing in it is a bit of a bummer.

  • I do long form writing in Ulysses as well, personal journal, blog posts, etc.

  • I like using IA Writer on iOS for Zettelkasten. For some reason 1Writer and iCloud were having some issues for me. But, because the system is in plain text, the system remains tool and platform agnostic.

    I use a combination of tools on Mac OS to write a Note - the Archive, Vim, BBEDIT. The notes are indexed in DEVONthink for it AI linking capabilities. If I need to export a note,I will preview it with Marked 2 ( you have control of the CSS and a variety of export formats).

    The power of plain text is that I am not locked in - platform or tool wise, and I can use whatever tools I need to add functionality. As for reference managers I don’t cite enough to make it worthwhile, but original documents can be kept if DEVONthink with working links to the note/page in any note. I usually just reference the source in a note.

    Old notes. I have lots of those. I started fresh with ZK. I prefer to use ZK for more processed notes rather than snippets. I wanted a place to keep my own thought and insights. I do have reference notes and technical notes for work, but they are kept in DEVONthink.

  • @NiranS Do you use any note linking? If so, is it the IA Writer links? If IA Writer had wiki linking it would be a no brainer for me.

  • @ctietze said:
    You could ditch a reference management app and only keep the book into in your notes directly. A dedicated app is useful to have a central hub for the info, and find and copy the info out into your notes, plus you have a useful database when you want to publish a book/paper to generate a list of references

    This was very helpful, Christian, thank you. It clarified perfectly what I was starting to sense intuitively.

    There is no method to my madness. My madness is my method.

  • When I first started I used a Bibtex file for my references, but since I don't write academic papers but only online posts I abandoned this as it was more work than it was worth to me. What I replaced it with is a reference note in my zettelkasten for sources with multiple notes in my system (books for instance). I use a reference key as the title, e.g. Nixey2014, and place a complete citation in the body. I can also write a summary of the source there. In notes from the source I place a link back to the reference note. Lastly, in the reference note I generate a list of backlinks, which gives me a complete listing of notes I've taken on that source.


  • edited December 2020

    @MikeBraddock Thank you for your detailed notes on your ZK Process!
    As a fellow Bear user, your information is insightful!
    Like you, I want to work in Bear’s sleek software interface while preserving notes as individual text files that maintain the ZK structure and network. As an artist, I’m also frequently attaching images to notes as well, so Bear feels right in terms of usability.
    May I ask you a few questions about your process?

    • Why do you link notes with a UID link, UID hashtag, and sometimes also the Bear style wiki link?
      I ask because I like how The Archive links through UIDs and not the note title. Bear’s Wiki style linking is beautiful in the software, but I prefer the fixed UID for future-proofing and to maintain note structure outside of software.

    • Have you figured out a way to export notes in Bear so that the name of the plain text file is the note’s UID followed by the title, like The Archive?
      To do this in Bear, I put the UID and title together in the header, but I don’t like the way it looks in the software.

    • What is the “ Ü” symbol?

    Thank you again for your time and input.



    Post edited by ctietze on
  • @WoodruffCoates, that comment was from October 2019. I no longer actively use Bear for note-making. At that time Bear didn't support the wiki-style link type. I used UID links and UID tags as a kluge to approximate the link-as-search functionality The Archive uses. I never imported into Bear. Sometimes export notes out as I decide to use them elsewhere. Ü was just a visual I used for identifying level 1 and level 2 structured notes.

    I currently use Obsidian for my note-making system. Sorry I wouldn't much help as a Bear resource since I stopped actively using it. Good luck to you.

  • @MikeBraddock

    I no longer actively use Bear for note-making. At that time Bear didn't support the wiki-style link type. I used UID links and UID tags as a kluge to approximate the link-as-search functionality The Archive uses.

    Got it. All the same, thanks for your 2019 post! :D

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