Zettelkasten

An analog note taking system that emphasizes connections between atomic ideas. First introduced by Niklas Luhmann.

Related:

  • Richard Hamming talked about the value of connecting disparate ideas to think creatively about problems.
  • Andy Matuschak uses a similar system and makes it available publicly on his website.
  • Luhmann’s essay on learning how to read talks about the demands on the reader to learn from ‘theoretical texts’ by uncovering what is important and connecting it to existing information.

See also:

You can run queries directly on the org-roam database (it’s just a sqlite database) to get interesting stats about your Zettelkasten. The location of the database can be found by evaluating org-roam-db-location.

A fictional device from the essay As We May Think, written in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, which both stores knowledge (books, notes, annotations, conversations) and connections between them allowing someone to follow trails of associated knowledge. A memex is an example of a tools for networked thought that builds on top of existing knowledge.

An essay from Niklas Luhmann about learning to read and how there are different kinds of books that require different approaches.

A process for long form writing where you start writing independent units of ideas/topics (similar to ‘atomic notes’ in Zettelkasten) and synthesize them in a separate step. This allows you to focus on the most interesting and important things first rather than writing linearly.

A sociologist famed for his prolific output–he wrote 70 books and 400 scholarly articles on a wide range of topics. He came up with the Zettelkasten system as a “second brain” to work through connections of ideas.

Most knowledge work is ephemeral–we write documents, emails, code and then it’s done. The ways in which we work don’t tend to compound or accumulate over time. This makes knowledge work lossy. A good example of this is note taking–we tend to never look at notes once they are written.

Digital gardening is a superset of Zettelkasten principles applied to public content. The ethos of gardening is more free form and doesn’t emphasize the experience of visitor. The reader of a digital garden would benefit from Zettelkasten principles such as atomicity (one concept or idea per note). Content in digital gardens should be structured at the leaf nodes for a more useful visitor experience.

Tools that enable connections between ideas and memories help to improve the growth of accumulated knowledge. These tools build a ‘knowledge graph’ that mirror the way the human brain functions and offer the possibility to query it in ways that we typically access knowledge and memories, by context and association.

An easy way to explain a Zettelkasten system of taking notes would be to explain it as a mind map (connections between discrete concepts) combined with atomic notes (each note has a single topic). Rather than a node being a word or phrase as in a mind map, each node is a note.

I’ve now written 500 notes and roughly 84,000 words since May 25, 2020 in my Zettelkasten. Here are a few thoughts and observations.

A tools for networked thought that allows the user to offload a process into something external to themselves. This augments one’s ability to do certain kinds of tasks. For example, a zettelkasten offloads the collection off ideas and their connections into ‘off-brain’ storage that can be queried later thereby removing the need to memorize and retain accumulated knowledge.

Streams are a metaphor for the majority of the Internet we interact with today characterized by time-ordered events that require context to understand.

A blog of working notes that other can read and follow along with to learn about interesting ideas and things you are coming across. I find it easier to keep up due to my note taking practice especially compared to writing full-length blog posts or tweets. It would be interesting to follow along notes of other people to learn about new things.

Notes can be organized and structured into heterarchies (nodes with multiple relationships without a strict hierarchy) by creating an entry note that encompasses other notes (a note of notes). In Zettelkasten, this is referred to as a ‘structure note’. This has the advantage of late binding, you don’t need to worry about the hierarchy of information up front and multiple associations can be created using the same notes (which would not be possible without duplication in a strictly hierarchical system).

I’ve noticed that discussions on Zettelkasten forums and comment threads in HackerNews when a new Zettelkasten-like tool is shared are overly fixated on the tools and correctness of the process. Because there is an original source implementation (Niklas Luhmann), people judge the ‘purity’ of an implementation rather than focusing on the activity itself. This makes some intuitive sense, it’s hard to judge the effectiveness of a tool because note taking has compounding effects and most compounding benefits occur at the end so instead people judge in a more near-term way.

Knowledge work processes should be accretive (rather than ephemeral or ad-hoc). For note-taking, adding new notes should make other notes more useful and the accumulated knowledge should lead to new connections and thereby new ideas.

When writing essays, starting from an outline of Zettelkasten notes makes it much easier and faster to write. This method separates the structure from the narrative. For example, finding notes and related ones keeps your thinking at a higher level of abstraction (atomic ideas or concepts) instead of getting bogged down in how you will word it. Once you have the outline, you are filling in the narrative that connects the ideas. This leads to faster progress compared to doing both at the same time.

Since I started publishing my Zettelkasten notes, I’ve noticed a large change in overall search engine traffic. My personal site and notes have doubled in impressions and clicks. Notably I receive more impressions from search engine visitors than I do from tweets from my Twitter account.

Researcher who focuses on how to improve the productivity of knowledge workers.

An Emacs library that recreates Roam (software that implements a Zettelkasten-like system) using org-mode.