Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkasten as a coping mechanism (or: why I abdicate the zettelkasten method)

The zettelkasten method is supposed to help you structure knowledge in a meaningful way. 'Meaningful' in this context means that the insights you get from your notes are enmeshed in a network of other thoughts (notes). You create a somewhat natural system of thoughts analogous to how your brain works when it connects neurons (notes) with synapses (links).

Some on this site claim that the zettelkasten would be antifragile. This, in itself, is true in so far as you look at the zettelkasten as a standalone system.
However, having a world-view that is quite related to that of Nassim Taleb (the guy who wrote Antifragile), I came to realize over the past weeks that the zettelkasten actually does not make you, personally, more antifragile. If at all, it will keep you in a fragile state, and in the worst case it might just make you more prone to falling for the traps of modern fragilista life.

A lot of people seem to be drawn to the zettelkasten method because they want to handle the flood of information, as it were. While individual preferences and adaptions may exist, there generally seem to be two groups of people who use the zettelkasten (one can be in both groups or in either one of them).
One group are people in academia that need to write texts for professional purposes (in other words, those who unironically call themselves knowledge workers).
The other group are those that use the benefits of the zettelkasten to further develop their knowledge into their hobby horses, be it history (as was the case with me), literature or something else. At one point, we all came to the conclusion that even if you take notes, there is little order in them and there is no way you can remember everything forever. A zettelkasten will give you a sense of order, a 'second brain' that you can communicate with.

However, this order is clearly just a pseudo-order and it only exists within the realm of whatever tool you are using for your zettelkasten management. The pseudo-order might even transfer into a coherent text, like an article that you will write based on your zettelkasten notes.

The zettelkasten does not help you in becoming a more self-reliant person though. What seemed particularly promising to me was the dialogue-style interaction I would have with my zettelkasten, and don't get me wrong, I often did have exactly that dialogue. It was better than what I had before (which was e.g. spaced repetition). But it did not help me in becoming less dependent on the overwhelming monolith that we call the "information age" or whatever fancy word you prefer for what we all struggle with.

I really do believe that the overwhelming amount of books, videos, websites (again: information) does need to be reduced somehow, and I do agree that if you for some reason see yourself forced to deal with all that (as a 'knowledge worker'), the zettelkasten is probably the best method there is.
But in the end, for me it comes down to this: I want to live a life that is truly antifragile, in the sense that I am less dependent on 'the system', for lack of a better word. For me this has meant no internet at home for the past 1.5 years and little exposure to the news cycle, less dependence on city infrastructure and large-scale technology overall. Modernity causes fragilistas, as Taleb calls them, to rule the world. Whoever has recognized this and wants to live a life based on not becoming a fragilista may find himself in a Catch 22 using the zettelkasten, having to spend potentially hours every day micro-managing his thoughts in interaction with a machine. After the initial excitement was over, it just made me feel like a wanna-be craftsman telling myself that I am actually doing something creative or meaningful like carving a statue or building a house, while in reality I was just using a coping mechanism for the problems of modern life.

In a sane world, you would only be reading books that are likely to be meaningful to you. The amount of books whose content you can somewhat coherently memorize over a longer period of time would be relatively high, maybe between 50-100 books depending on your age and brains. You might also take some notes or write a short summary about its most important ideas, just to be on the safe side if you quickly want to recap its contents after a while.
In general though, your brain itself would be a perfectly good filter for what wisdom gained by a book is worth preserving. If you act upon the insights gained from the book, that would be a natural case of antifragility in action, too, because antifragility is based on doing instead of thinking.

However, many potential zettelkasten users are probably trapped in exactly the opposite kind of lifestyle, working in the generally toxic environment of academia or other 'intellectual' or 'scientific' professions that require you to be deeply involved with the ever mind-numbing forces of modernity. You have to come up with deeply elaborate schemes of training your mind in order to make it in an ever more complex system that bit by bit shapes you psychologically into becoming a cog in a wheel, albeit a highly qualified one. This deprives you of your autonomy, both psychologically and physically, even if you can minimize the physical effects through exercise (which again is just a cope mechanism).

The actual solution to dealing with modern life/information overload/knowledge work/whatever you want to call it, is not to structure your information intake into specific parts, or to take smart notes. Nor is it to use a zettelkasten. The actual solution is to take in less information. Just don't read books. Don't consume news or article or anything. For a while. Don't be in places where you are surrounded by screens and billboards.
Finally, after you have been able to detox your brain from all the surrounding information noise (which might take a while), pick up some book and just read it.
With a clear mind that is not scattered by distractions or notions about having to somehow process what you are reading, you are going to get so much more out of it than with any kind of external knowledge management tool.
Just like you probably still remember many of the earliest children stories that were read to you by your parents when your mind was still fresh, you should aim for this freshness. Sure, our minds are not a blank slate at any point in time, but looking at the obvious decreasing attention spans and psychologic impacts of desensitization (both emotionally and cognitively) on people these days, your primary goal should not be to process your thoughts through some filter like the zettelkasten in order to get a presentable, sellable result. Your aim should be innate clarity of mind.

Comments

  • I think you are misunderstanding the zettelkasten and methods surrounding it.

    I'm currently reading a book on information management before the modern age and people have been complaining about too many books and frailty of human resources (memory and time) since the ancient times.

    From my understanding Luhmann only read what he enjoyed and liked working with the zettelkasten. On average he created 6 notes per day, that isn't some crazy information overload scenario. Be more selective in what you choose to read and incorporate into the zettelkasten.

  • @lunario often discussions fall into the right way, the wrong way, right thing, wrong thing, better or worst, etc. It becomes a matter of sides. I am hoping that isn't your intent.

    I am more interested in your journey and the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that you gain for making and taking the choices you described. Please quantify those things as they applied to your experiences.

    Please share those thoughts. Obviously this is important to you. I think what you have to say is important and valuable. I very am interested in how an approach like this helped you.

    Give us your success story!

  • The difference is between knowledge and wisdom. What are those things that you wish to dwell upon, understand deeply and incorporate vs bits of knowledge that you are hoarding for the sake of coping.

    Christian wrote an excellent article on the collector's fallacy which illustrates this point.

    For me Zettelkasten is not just the technique, but the reasoning. I want to explore certain themes and thoughts. I am not collecting other people's opinions, rather I am collecting my reactions and thoughts to those opinions or facts. It is my interpretation rather that the absolute facts that I am interested in.

    As an aside - the hard facts and observations I need for my job are kept in Devonthink and accessed using tags and folders. There is very little linked and my analysis for technical details is rather shallow. The information is there for my future reference in case I run into the same problems again. However, I do make my own notes and not just collect data. Hopefully this means I am not just blindly falling into the Collector's Fallacy.

    With a clear mind that is not scattered by distractions or notions about having to somehow process what you are reading, you are going to get so much more out of it than with any kind of external knowledge management tool.

    I will have to agree and disagree with your statement. The knowledge/wisdom you choose to follow hopefully is a reflection of your true desire to understand better rather than a blind grab in the hopes of capturing something useful but never truly incorporating it(coping mechanism). Get what you need or want out of a reading - you are never going to capture everything, because your perspective is different every time you view the "same" information.

    The one delight I have with this Zettelkasten system is that I am having a conversation with myself. Luhmann had a similar observation

    Luhmann claimed that his file was something of a collaborator in his work, a largely independent partner in his research and writing. It might have started out as a mere apprentice when Luhmann was still studying himself (in 1951), but after thirty years of having been fed information by the human collaborator it had acquired the ability of surprising him again an again

    This is the power of an external brain full of connected thoughts. It reminds us of the thoughts and connections we had and connections always make new connections and insights.

    Well that was a lot of words:

    • Zettelkasten (for me) is a collection of interconnected thoughts
    • More importantly it is a collection of my thoughts
    • Every thought has to be connected to something else (well okay - structure notes, tags - maybe not everything)
    • The things that I put into the system are well thought out. I do not want an information grab. I need to give them consideration. That means I may construct a note elsewhere, get my thinking clear and then include it in the system.
  • edited April 27

    This summary of Sönke Ahrens' book, How to take Smart Notes says it better:

    Ultimately, learning should not be about hoarding stockpiles of knowledge like gold coins. It is about becoming a different kind of person with a different way of thinking. The beauty of this approach is that we co-evolve with our slip-boxes: We build the same connections in our heads as we deliberately develop them in our slip-box. Writing then is best seen not only as a tool for thinking but as a tool for personal growth.

    Thank you lunario. I think what often gets lost in the discussion of tools and techniques of Zettelkasten is the why of it. Without this reasoning, it gets relegated to one more note taking technique.

  • I sympathize with @lunario's sketch of a Good Life™️, and I think growing your own food, having a couple of chickens, and space surrounding your home, that's a good step to make one's life less fragile, less dependent upon existing infrastructure, and less dependent upon the internet. Permaculture is an interesting topic surrounding all this.

    However, I do not see the relevance of all this for less fragile knowledge work, though. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is one way to solve the problem, but is it an end state everybody would be happy with?

    If you want to go full peasant, you may truly escape the information overload, but then we wouldn't have anything interesting to share about knowledge work. I'd be interested in your tips to grow edible plants, though :) When you really, really want to be a writer, or even hobby scholar, and thu participate in all the information stuff in general to bring forth new knowledge, then we can continue talking about tools (e.g. Zettelkasten).

    With my own cultural upbringing, I can life a Good Life™️ working the fields and then reading the Bible, some Aristotle and Seneca over and over again, and try to be a generally good person, and that's it. Time well spent. That's not material for a discourse on learning more things, thinking new thoughts, it's a discourse about what's essential, what's enough, and how one wants to conduct his/her life. It's a different conversation altogether, and I think that's why "Zettelkasten" has no room in it; it's not a defect of the topic, it's just a different topic.

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

  • I found this post quite interesting. I agree that if your life is not optimal due to information overload, the ZK will not solve your problems. However, removing oneself from the world by shutting off external information has advantages and disadvantages as well. You can become a completely disengaged Zen monk if you want to. Perhaps you will be happier. But you cannot retain an ongoing relationship with other people in a way that aims to have positive impact on the world if you shut yourself off from it. And maybe you don't want to do that, which is fine also.

  • I think you are right in principle but wrong in scale. The Zettelkasten Method is never meant to clean up your information diet. You need a healthy information diet (e.g. limit news to zero, limit email checking, install information filter,...) and a healthy life in the first place. What gets in can be processed by the Zettelkasten Method.

    I am a Zettler

  • I have been studying Advaita Vedanta and Zen Buddhism for almost a decade now and one of the best things that I have learned is that "leaving the world behind" is also a coping mechanism, one that keeps you very "fragile". True anti-fragility would be learning to find beauty and happiness among the chaos. Of course, it can be very useful to abstain from society for a while, so that - like you mention - our minds have a chance to clear, but remember that happiness, peace, tranquility is always found within.

    Like the zen proverb goes: "Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water".

    "The Perceived cannot Perceive" - Rupert Spira

  • Hello everyone - I won't quote anyone in particular, as I found most of the comments in this thread interesting.

    I am familiar with antifragility concepts and have read Nassim Taleb's books (the one on Black Swans as well). I have thought about his concepts mostly from the concept of making engineering designs and works more robust, more resilient, and hopefully even antifragile (a very difficult and in some cases hard to define task).

    My own opinion, though, is that there are many ways to build antifragility into one's personal life, and many paths to take. A ZK is just a tool to help you improve how you think and how you organize data. I don't believe it is, in and of itself, fragile or antifragile. The tool doesn't make the product, the builder does.

  • The culture surrounding Zettelkasten and knowledge work is a peculiar one. At first glance it particularly exposes the indecisiveness and/or lack of confidence that many people possess in themselves and their work. Often I sense an an ire of helplessness in certain inquiries on how or when to start taking a note, or what it should even be about. I can imagine that much of the blame is on the educational system... globally! But it doesn't help that taking notes is treated like some mind-altering, esoteric experience that will transform you into a barefooted sage. To boot, there is a handful of individuals composing of people with good intentions to outright charlatans, quacks (and maybe even some kooks!) to help you out for a small fee. 1

    The entire concept of "building a second brain" itself is one of the most cringe-worthy phrases that I have come across. I don't know much about "transhumanism" but it sounds a lot like that sort of stuff. I hate to break it to you folks, but that lump of skwush in between those waxy canals of yours is the best that you've been given. If a person can look at a list of markdown files and citations and feels content with declaring it as an iteration of their mind...then...that is sad...and pardon me if I come off strongly by saying that.

    Interesting words from Beck Tench

    I think obsession with zettelkasten is a symptom of something larger: a frustration and sense of helplessness with how to work (and just be a decent human being) in a culture of chronic distraction. Look at what most folks zettel as their examples: books on productivity and self-improvement. Zettelkasten promises to organize, make things findable, make writing nearly effortless (just pull all these snippets together and the article’s practically written itself!), and on and on. It’s not a cure all, but nothing is. What I see when people get enamored with zettelkasten is a desire to control something that isn’t actually controllable (information) and to make easy something that is actually quite difficult (thinking, writing, etc.).

    And I should mention that I say this with this hypocrisy and insight of someone who maintains a zettelkasten and is as obsessed by the shiny object as ever.

    @cobblepot's satire is perhaps one of my favorite posts here. Karl Kraus' criticism of Zettelkasten via the resourceful Taking note blog is a nice read too.

    This post by @Nick is probably the most succinct explanation for a Zettelkasten amidst all of the mystical descriptions that are given of it. 2

    IMO Zettelkasten is about knowledge development. Niklas Luhmann, whose zettelkasten system people look to for understanding, was trying to develop a theory of society.

    So a starting point might be explicitly stating what area of knowledge that you want to develop? Then start reading on that area of knowledge and taking notes, such that you start to map out the different avenues of exploration around that area.

    Sascha's post in this very thread is also a good one.

    I think part of the problem is that too many people dive into trying to build a Zettelkasten without identifying why they're doing it, what they're supposed to be covering and what they're supposed to even get from it. From what I've observed, many new devotees get sucked into the vacuum of trying to duplicate whatever Luhmann, Tiago Forte, Sonke Ahrens or whoever, has done. No amount of backlinks, intricate tagging or metadata or any help from Alfred, Alvin or Theodore will transform you into Batman with his thinking cap on.

    In my opinion, the Zettelkasten is merely a nifty piece of a larger ecosystem of note-taking, archiving, reading and organization. I think the principle of writing atomic notes is helpful, especially in your own words. But that doesn't mean that one should be discouraged from just saving a load of quotations for later use or saving any material that requires you to refer back to the original text if need be. The Zettelkasten as a standalone process may be fine for some, especially those who are just hobbyist so to speak. And I'm sure that there are many devoted professionals who can excel with just a Zettelkasten too. In my own experience of discovering Zettelkasten by chance, becoming captivated and then eventually sobering up from it, it's best to rely on as little outside input as possible, with the exception of software recommendations, the documentation from said software and insight from distinguished individuals who operate in whatever fields you are trying to gain progress in. If you're going to observe a person's "workflow" then never prepare to adapt all of it or take on their "philosophy", do your best to figure out what pieces of it work best for you. I mean, if you end up liking all of it then by all means take all of it...but there is always the danger of hopping around from method to method and end up carving a bullet journal out of a tomato and starving to death before you ever publish that magnum opus of yours.

    I would like my criticisms to be aimed not at the practice, but the culture that is proliferated by its practitioners. I am not an academic by any means and I possess no references to any scientific journals to back up my claims, but I think that much of the allure and often the subsequent disillusion with this trend that inevitably brings reference to Zettelkasten revolves around the themes that myself and others have already mentioned: self-reliance (or lack thereof), a desire for control and a want to produce meaningful output. These are matters that cannot be solved merely through hypertext documents. It's inappropriate to assume or advertise such. Rather, people need to be instructed and informed on how to identify meaningful objectives and concerns in their personal lives, households and communities before they take counsel from strangers with Moleskin notebooks. Most of all, what is learned and pursued has to be acted upon somehow. Otherwise there is no hope for substantial retention outside of becoming just a "box of notes" yourself, as Kraus put. The allure of knowledge work, note-taking and productivity speaks to the underlying issue of a bereft of meaning, foundation and cohesiveness in many of our own lives. Which again, is evident why so many people as pointed out by Beck Tench, begin by studying self-help books, are captivated by glorified motivational speakers who know how to put together Electron applications and so-often refer to the "zen" of things.

    I will close with a portion of a draft of mine that is tentatively titled, "Who are the knowledge workers?"

    It’s appeal, in my opinion, is that it provides the infrastructure for just about anyone to moonlight as an “academic”, or just someone who is serious about studying their interests in-depth and is looking for a practice that keeps them steadfast in thought and productivity. A Zettelkasten isn’t your “second brain”. It isn’t even close. It’s just a nice place to feel good about yourself and what you’ve learned and perhaps figure out how to put action behind your ideas after you’ve identified common links and themes.

    There is no guarantee that your work will be of any benefit to yourself or mankind because you took better notes. Your self-esteem may or may not increase. You may or not become more productive. Just because you have an extensive archive of notes and ideas does not mean that you’ve produced anything valuable. You may learn more, you may remember more, but there is no guarantee that you will become a budding intellectual or a “thought leader” or found a startup company. It’s easy to persuade yourself and others that a bunch of programs and a routine is all it takes to become more productive and more insightful. Let the record state that while I am indeed an advocate for so-called "knowledge work" as a practice and a purpose, I am ideologically opposed to many of its adherents and those who they appear to learn from.

    If there wasn’t benefit in learning about things such as the Zettelkasten, the importance of plain text notes, how to use a bibliography manager and what not, I really hope that I would not have coerced myself into writing this manifesto. But the truth is that there is a threshold that has to be sought out between knowledge work as a practice can often eclipse knowledge work as a purpose.

    Discovering and understanding the best way to connect and format your notes will not make you a better learner, you’re just a great micro-librarian. You’re a thought-janitor. A mind-maid. The value of knowledge work is that it creates an environment where you are using technology like your computer and the internet more responsibly. The real value of the Zettelkasten is the person in charge of the actual mind that’s operating it, not the second “mind” you think that you’re constructing on your computer or your notebook.

    Eventually your presence in this world will cease to exist. Your notes, references and projects may very will outlive you, stored on an external hard drive that’s kept in a shoebox with the rest of your old belongings, bunkered away in your mother’s garage.

    The best approach to knowledge work is not to worry one’s self over theories and methods, but to concern one’s self with becoming knowledgeable of one’s “self”; that being who they believe is in pursuit and possession of knowledge to begin with.


    1. Who in the heck is Nat Eliason and why and how in the world would a person think that they can derive benefit from "lifetime access to a part of his brain"↩︎

    2. Aside from this comment on Hacker News that describes Luhmann's famed iteration as "hypertext principles to a common note-taking tool". After learning about what software like Tinderbox is about, I feel like we don't talk about hypertext theory nearly as much as we should be in these spaces. I have very little knowledge on any of this stuff, but from an applicational standpoint, all of these new note-taking apps just revolve around the concept of cultivating hypertext documents. ↩︎

  • @s41f Your piece above is interesting and fascinating. And spot-on as an overview and criticisms of the state affairs in the Zettelkasten Wolrd(s). I, too, enjoyed @cobblepot satire. I love the way he writes and his way of looking that things.

    I wonder do you feel you have hints or are motivated by self-righteousness. I think it is difficult to avoid it when taking on a lofty task of perhaps trying the right the course of those engaged in these endeavors. I am not trying to suggest anything negative or dubious about your comments. It is just a pitfall of taking a side in a "this is right and that is wrong" debate.

    I don't understand the worry or concern about the state of affairs. It appears human nature is functioning properly and there is room for the mistakes, successes, and motivations that everyone brings to the table. Most people have the discernment to eventually decide for themselves and anyone that doesn't have the freedom to find out for themselves. Saving someone from themselves is a big task to take on. Live and let live?

    There is a lot of competition in the Zettelkasten World(s). Which I find healthy. Some sites and software and forums will succeed and improve and others will fail. The great ideas and approaches will rise above the crap and trash and last beyond the moment.

    I did enjoy your comments, but I didn't care for the "me, us, them" tone. Perhaps others will. I just feel you can express your point of view more thoughtfully. Then instead of being a good comment, it would have been a great comment.

    Do you write elsewhere on the internet? I would enjoy reading more of what you have to say. You articulate your opinions well.
    Based on the history of this site and forum I feel once the course is available we fledgling note-zettel-maker-takers will have a reliable place and resource to find our path. Do you feel the same? Or do we all need more guidance?

  • @MikeBraddock said:
    @s41f Your piece above is interesting and fascinating. And spot-on as an overview and criticisms of the state affairs in the Zettelkasten Wolrd(s). I, too, enjoyed @cobblepot satire. I love the way he writes and his way of looking that things.

    I wonder do you feel you have hints or are motivated by self-righteousness. I think it is difficult to avoid it when taking on a lofty task of perhaps trying the right the course of those engaged in these endeavors. I am not trying to suggest anything negative or dubious about your comments. It is just a pitfall of taking a side in a "this is right and that is wrong" debate.

    I don't understand the worry or concern about the state of affairs. It appears human nature is functioning properly and there is room for the mistakes, successes, and motivations that everyone brings to the table. Most people have the discernment to eventually decide for themselves and anyone that doesn't have the freedom to find out for themselves. Saving someone from themselves is a big task to take on. Live and let live?

    There is a lot of competition in the Zettelkasten World(s). Which I find healthy. Some sites and software and forums will succeed and improve and others will fail. The great ideas and approaches will rise above the crap and trash and last beyond the moment.

    I did enjoy your comments, but I didn't care for the "me, us, them" tone. Perhaps others will. I just feel you can express your point of view more thoughtfully. Then instead of being a good comment, it would have been a great comment.

    Do you write elsewhere on the internet? I would enjoy reading more of what you have to say. You articulate your opinions well.
    Based on the history of this site and forum I feel once the course is available we fledgling note-zettel-maker-takers will have a reliable place and resource to find our path. Do you feel the same? Or do we all need more guidance?

    Mr. Braddock, let me begin by saying that I enjoy the thoughtful input that you offer to this community. I am not an active poster here, but I do lurk often and take pleasure in your posts.

    I have a lot to take in from your comments. I do not feel slighted by your inference of self-righteousness from my post in the least. I am a man, a flawed, man. I am in the midst of striving in the path of adhering to a particular regiment of morals and beliefs that are not of my own design or anyone else's among creation. I only disclose this bit of personal information for the sake of transparency. In my personal life, those who I entrust with advises concerning my self-reformation often warn me that some of my sentiments lean too far toward "the conflict" and not enough of "the resolution". I am appreciative that I get to be reminded of these things from an individual such as yourself, who was able to offer me a dose of honey along with a spoonful cod liver oil-flavored humbling.

    Allow me to clear up any misconceptions, if there are any, by reiterating that I do find Zettelkasten to be of use. I have taken much from @sfast and Dan Sheffler particularly in their application of the system.

    To be honest, I'm sort of stupefied by how a topic such as note-taking can unravel such a deep dialogue for some. One of the comments in the MPU thread that I linked to likened the task to "organizing a sock drawer". But for some, evidently, it's so much more than that.

    These notes, these index cards..the links...the tags....and the world(s) (to take from you) that come together to cultivate them...mm-mm-Mmm. They can place us right at the cusp of whatever "enlightened" period of history a person may have an affinity for. You can I both need to get around to reading whatever this Ted Nelson guy wrote about in the 70s if we haven't already.

    It is not my job to go around auditing peoples notes and correcting them for what they have recorded. I cannot guide anyone. My literary likeness is that of a Wacky Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man™.

    The "right" and the "wrong" can only ultimately make itself known by way of what each of our respective systems and efforts produce once these ideas come out of our file cabinets, Dropboxes and JSON files. This is not an attempt to compound my take on these world(s) with that of others and compel anyone to adopt my perspective or cause division. But as you said, competition is healthy here, and the least I can do while I am still breathing is put a little effort toward suggesting that there is a different way to see things, and that there may be some things that we haven't taken a look at to begin with. We can put the same effort into distinguishing "right" from "wrong" as we do in deciding should this note be titled "20200712143754", "Soap - Dish Soap - Downy", or "Soap/1ax2v-%". I understand that this line of dialogue is in the unspoken realm of "Metazettel*. Some people will fare perfectly fine just approaching the system from a lighter point of view, and that's okay! We need people these people! Thank you for your recipes, Mike!!! How else are we supposed to unwind in the midst of this practice?

    Whatever it is that I'm trying to get across in the midst of the perplexing world of Zettelkasten and Knowledge work is meant for everyone, but the objective (the losfty tasks, as you put) will only be taken on by few. I may slip, fall stumble and become crushed in my own efforts. But I hope whoever comes up behind me has enough drive to rush past me and scoop up what's left of me when they've got the time.

    To answer your questions, I don't have anywhere else with any recent writings as of late, but if our Creator allows me to, I may have one soon. I don't have any knowledge on the course that you're referring to, but I look forward to its debut.

  • The course is here. Literally it is here at Zettelkasten.de from the good people you already admire. Not many folks mention creators here, I glad you did.

    I like your idea of focusing on solutions. I am delighted to see you write well and quickly. You think well on your feet. Please I hope you will call me Mike.

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    We are all animal crackers made out of the same dough. It is the Grace of God that makes the difference.

  • @s41f said:

    The entire concept of "building a second brain" itself is one of the most cringe-worthy phrases that I have come across. I don't know much about "transhumanism" but it sounds a lot like that sort of stuff. I hate to break it to you folks, but that lump of skwush in between those waxy canals of yours is the best that you've been given. If a person can look at a list of markdown files and citations and feels content with declaring it as an iteration of their mind...then...that is sad...and pardon me if I come off strongly by saying that.

    I agree that the term “second brain” is quite odd, but the underlying idea (or at least what I think the underlying idea might be) is not “cringe-worthy” at all. Philosophy of mind has a long history of discussing what the mind might be and how it may differ from the body. Some of the more recent theories suggest that cognition is “embodied” 1, i.e. that the body plays a huge role in cognitive processing. Even more recent is the “extended mind thesis” 2, which states that the mind even reaches beyond the body. It extends into the physical world. A tool you use or a note you take (for instance) is important for your cognitive processing in similar ways as your body (or even your brain) is.

    This theory may be regarded as a version of transhumanism, but not as in brain-computer-interfaces but as looking though binoculars to spot a bird high up in the air. Although our brains may be “the best that [has] been given [to us]”, it would not have brought us where we are without us relying on our body and on external tools. And the Zettelkasten is just such a tool, an extension of our mind, one with which we can retrieve knowledge, make connections between ideas, one which forces us to make our thoughts concrete, one with which we may “communicate” with, and one which helps us write papers or even books.

    I do not consider it sad at all that we externalise cognition: it is completely natural, there is no need to make a moral judgement about it. I sometimes use a calculator or write down a few numbers – even when I just make a quick calculation – and I don't feel bad about it at all. Using a calculator or a pencil and a piece of paper gives me a math superpower when I need it – it enables actions that my “lump of skwush in between those waxy canals” wouldn't have been capable of. The Zettelkasten is one practice may enable me to do something similar, just for a much more general cognitive task: making sense of (a relevant fraction) of the world.

    So, I'd say that the “brain” itself is overrated and that a second brain would be of no help. The answer is to “actively externalise” (see the insightful section 3 in Clark & Chalmers, 1998) our cognition. A perspective we should wholeheartedly embrace – even if, superficially, it just looks like a list of markdown files.

    When you write your knowledge-worker's manifesto, please keep this perspective in mind.


    1. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/ ;↩︎

    2. Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. J. (1998). “The extended mind”. Analysis. 58: 7–19. http://cogprints.org/320/1/extended.html ;↩︎

  • @s41f I think you are thinking in the right direction. But in the realm of Zettelkastens nothing special is happening. I see the similar phenomenon in fields like martial arts (before the UFC everybody knew the truth with absolute certainty. And then Teila Tuli got kicked in the face with a thooth flying into the crowd and nobody knew anything anymore), dog training, fitness, nutrition and any field I am diving into.

    To me, the solution is quite simple. Learn do identify true practicioners and learn from them. This is the reason why I will write a book in public to truly demonstrate that the Zettelkasten Method itself has unique advantages.

    I am a Zettler

  • If you are going to take notes why not use the zettelkasten method.

    Then regarding managing information in the Information Age I recommend reading the New Testament of the King James Bible for an hour every day.

  • edited July 17

    I also find the "building a second brain" phrasing a bit cringe and am very wary of that whole sector, even though I love it here. Mainly because I feel like peoples focus on the wrong things.

    Instead of getting heavily into the systems/workflows, they should focus more on doing the work (reading, taking notes, etc). But maybe I'm projecting here. I really liked sfasts post on zettelkasten/systems/workflows arising as solutions to problems you have, not being the starting point.

    I haven't gone that deep into the second brain stuff, but from that phrasing, it doesn't seem far off. I've been mapping out the different mediums of information storage. One of the core functions of our brain is to store information. Stone Tablets, Books, Zettelkasten, Digital Zettelkasten, are all different ways of storing information.

    Zettelkasten just takes it a step further and asks, how can we organize and interact with our notes so that they help with further developing our understanding of a subject matter?

    When you think of it as a "second brain" then you can start to ask some interesting questions, such as how it might map:

    • Retrieval Cues - hashtags, index, search function
    • Memory Encoding - abstracting out the most important information from a section of a book
    • Memory Storage - creating the initial note in your notes system
    • Memory Consolidation - linking your notes to the index or other notes to facilitate note retrieval
    • Memory Retrieval - what are the different tools you can use to retrieve your note (index, table of contents, search, hashtag tool)
    • Memory Reconsolidation - rewriting a note or creating a new one and linking to it after your brain has acquired new information or further processed existing info

    You can look at all these steps and further explore them and ask questions about them, such as what other retrieval cues could we add to a notes program to facilitate retrieval?

    What type of network does our note system make? The brain is connected in a "small-world network", where every cell is more closely linked than a random network or lattice network. Is that something worth trying to mimic?

  • I'd like to offer a slightly different perspective. About 5 years ago now, I developed mold poisoning. I had a form of toxic mold in my apartment at the time. I'll spare you the medical and legal issues that ensued and share one critical end result: my memory was severely damaged. Doctors were not sure how permanent this would be, with neuroplasticity and all that. I began practicing note taking systems (I started with GTD) because I literally could not function without those lists. My long-term memory was mostly fine, but my short-term and working memory were nearly nonexistent at first.

    Now, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with ZK? Or perhaps, if you are one of the people who treat your slip-box like an external brain and a conversation partner, you see where I am headed. I used my notes to rebuild what I had forgotten. Now, having healed largely from that chapter of life, I find that my ZK is something that helps to guide and structure my memory. On a good day, I would even go so far as to say that my memory is better than it was before the mold, because the habits I built (expressed in other forms at first, but now in a ZK) trained my memory. Nothing in my mind -- nor my Zettelkasten -- exists in isolation: by connecting my notes in a meaningful way, my thinking has indeed become more antifragile.

    Now, full disclosure, part of my healing also meant living in a tiny (mold-free) apartment after that. To get more exercise and more fresh air, I walked. I didn't have internet at home. I played board games to strengthen my thinking. I did many of those "antifragile" lifestyle sorts of things. While that helped my body though, it did not always help my mind. So I see what you mean when you say that antifragility exists outside of the ZK. Nevertheless, because of this kind of thinking-in-writing method, my memory can exist outside of a ZK, too.

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @Sociopoetic said:

    I used my notes to rebuild what I had forgotten. Now, having healed largely from that chapter of life, I find that my ZK is something that helps to guide and structure my memory. ... Nothing in my mind -- nor my Zettelkasten -- exists in isolation: by connecting my notes in a meaningful way, my thinking has indeed become more antifragile.

    Thank you for sharing your experience - that was very generous. There's nothing like a shot of reality to bring perspective into our discussions on this forum and in life, generally.

    I have a concern about losing my memory and associated with it, what I have learned over the years, as I get older. How will I or my family even know it is happening? I'm hoping a ZK will be a way of preserving some of what I "know" and of prolonging my ability to think clearly. We'll see. But I sure hope it is more than just an aide-mémoire.

    Ah - the concerns of the old are not the concerns of the young :>)

  • edited July 25

    @lunario

    I would say - there is a Zettelkasten and there is a Zettelkasten, in similar way as there is ... beer and beer. Majority of discussions here are understandably done by enthusiasts, who might seem for a "common user" to be a little bit perfectionistic-too demanding-too generalizing-argumentative-OCD. In similar way, on web we can find similar posh discussions about craft beers etc. Nothing against it and I like both - discussions about info management and discussions about craft beers. Some people love cars, some people can endlessly discuss about ontological meaning of Folgenzettels (I know, rather "epistemological meaning"...). But:

    The main point is:

    Zettelkasten is not anything like these discussions and rules and practices. Basically, by Luhmann, it was not even an explicit system. It was a very simple methodology/heuristic which he used and was helpful for him. Very easy rules/very easy formats. You can describe his rules on just one card of his ZK format. It is like having normal beer. You can buy it easily, you can enjoy it quickly. You can mix it with anything you like. No frills.

    Unfortunately, in current digital culture, we have tendency to inflate trivialism. We do not write on a piece of paper: we are "bullet journalling". We create/write about "systems" for any mundane area - we do not have list of tasks, but GTD, we have productivity system, we have hacks to exercise and apps for remembering us emptying recycling bin. Again, you can participate, but it is not necessary. It can also become obsession of productivism - procrastination by writing blogs about procrastination to enhance one`s false self-esteem (instead of working, real writing, producing...)

    In short, ZK system is absolutely easy system how to organize your thoughts/excerpts/info. It does not promise anything else. It does not promise omnipotence in scientific production, mastering information overload or better insights. You might try to use it for it. Or you might not.

    Many similar systems of organizing information using marginalias, commonplace books or cards/slips of paper (similar to Luhman) were devised in history.

    And now: We can be freely inspired by them. Or we can find new religion in them. My choice is the first. Yours can be too. No need to be a "follower" or "believer" or to be "abdicating". It is not a lifestyle. It is just a tool. You are not "abdicating" from using a knife or a pen. You buy better or different type. ZK is just one way how one scientist organized his information. We can use what is useful from his experience for our styles/approach to information management. We do not have to follow any of myriad rules as stated in this or similar webs. These are just suggestions. Use some of them. Or you can devise your own.

    So, we can choose if we want a normal beer, better beer, craft beer, super posh beer... My point is, you can enjoy your normal beer without abdicating from world of beers just because you were persuaded that you have to build your whole own brewery before you can feel affirmed as good beer lover. It is just not true.

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