Can I learn coding / Cyber Sec with Zettelkasten and ADHD . . . where do I begin!


Massive lightbulb moment - Stay at home ADHD Dad discovers Zettelkasten after failing to study Cyber Security effectively as notes were a mess and nothing would stick.

  1. Is my ADHD brain going to get bored of Zettelkasten? - gut instinct says no . . .
  2. Can I use this to break down course material on say ‘Firewall Setup on Linux’ when most of it is chunks of code / command line tools?
  3. Can I use it learn a programming language like Go?
  4. Where do I begin? . . . I’m keen to get started but poor preparation will be a disaster.

I’m ex IT professional, studying to re-enter the work force after 16 years as a stay at home Dad. I’m studying Cyber Security, initially working on the five pillars, getting back up to speed.

  1. General Computing
  2. Computer Networking
  3. Scripting and Programming
  4. Linux / MacOS
  5. Windows

Six weeks and it’s been a lot of fun - so I know I’m on the right path. My note taking is rubbish. Fortunately on day one, there was a lesson on note taking apps and I chose Obsidian because I could run it anywhere and include screen shots, pdf’s etc in the hierarchy and I love the simplicity of mark up.

I also discovered last year that I have ADHD, so I’m wary of Shiny Object Syndrome, so there was a strong possibility I would ditch Obsidian after a couple of months. So owning my text in md files was a big plus. I’m now 100% sure that won’t happen having stumbled upon Zettelkasten.

During the six weeks I have been down many rabbit holes because nothing was sticking and my notes were a mess, so I couldn’t even find the stuff I had written down. I discovered the sneaky beast called ‘productivity procrastination’ . . . I was spending eight hours at my desk using a computer thinking I was learning stuff but I was actually spending more time looking for new tools, new methodologies, reading productivity books . . .

Last night, I was awake at 2am. My strategy is to read a productivity books, sending me back to sleep in minutes. Last night was different. I had downloaded “How to take smart notes” on my Kindle . . . 15 hrs later, no sleep, no work, but a massive OMG moment. I finished the book, watched too many youtube videos, read and listened to folks . . . My conclusion:

  1. I’ve been using Obsidian the wrong way
  2. I’m already using Obsidian, the perfect digital platform for Zettelkasten (Got to love the way new words are made in German)
  3. I’m using dozens of different platforms and courses so freeing the content from them is massive - no silos!
  4. I’m now totally overwhelmed . . .

So I do have a few questions which I know are hard to answer but just writing them down gives me some clarity.

  1. Is my ADHD brain going to get bored of Zettelkasten? - gut instinct says no . . .
  2. Can I use this to break down course material on say ‘Firewall Setup on Linux’ when most of it is chunks of code / command line tools?
  3. Can I use it learn a programming language like Go?
  4. Where do I begin? . . . I’m keen to get started but poor preparation will be a disaster.

I’ve written too much for my first post and it’s probably bad form to ask four different questions in one post.

1 Like

I am an old fart who is currently coaching a small number of students in how to study. Their ages range from early 20s to mid-60s, and they are ALL improving rapidly. I have 59+ years of computer background starting out as Cryptologist in the US Army in 1965.

First, be clear by what you mean by Zettlekasten. Much of what passes for good advice is unclear or even complete BS. The most authoritative book I have found on the subject is by Scott Scheper called, “Antinet Zettlekasten”. This is a huge book, very well researched, and the book I would recommend for actually learning about Zettlekasten.

I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and the only way to learn and organize your research at that time was through index card systems called “slip systems”. Check your local Library for old books on “common slip systems” and see what they have. The best book I’ve seen on the subject is, “Brainpower Networking: Using the Crawford Slip System” by H. William Dettmer. These two books are specifically aimed at ANALOG systems, and analog systems seem to be superior to digital systems for developing learning. Most of my favorite and most prolific writers and authors used some sort of slip/index card system.

Learning is a subject all by itself: I strongly recommend a Coursera program called, “Learning to Learn” by Barbara Oakely. Coursera courses are free if you don’t need a certificate. Two of my students are supposedly ADD, but you would never know it by the results they are getting. Learn about the Pomodoro technique and you will see magnificent increases in your learning ability.

Learning programming is also different: I started out in 1965 with an Assembly Language (AUTOCODER) for the IBM 1401/1440 and have learned dozens of computer languages since then. Even if you already know how to program, I’d suggest another Coursera program called, “Python for Everybody” by Dr. Charles Severance (“Dr. Chuck”). His opinions on becoming a Master Programmer are terrific, and all the resources he suggests are available for free. (Go is not one of the languages he would recommend starting with, incidentally.)

Now, as to your main question, YES, a system like Obsidian will help you learn any subject, especially if you practice a lot and tie it in with something like Anki for periodic review. I’ve tried a number of different systems, and I’m just learning Obsidian, but I have had the most success with MindForger/MindRaider. I am drawn to the logic of "Hyper-Tree/Hyper-Base organization. This facilitates “bi-directional” linking and improves learning. I’m switching to Obsidian because there are a lot of tools and plugins that streamline my learning curve that aren’t available anywhere else. These “Digital Zettlekasten” systems will help you be more productive and master skills in a shorter period of time than an analog slip/zettlekasten system will. I believe that a good learning framework is important to have in place, and then build your digital zettlekasten system to support it. Some people, like Tiago Forte, have leveraged the “external brain” idea for massive results. I can absorb a good amount of knowledge in a short time, very efficiently, using Digital PKM, although I still rely on my analog systems for Math, Physics, and Computer Science, because I think it leads to more in-depth learning.

Have at it, and good luck!


I have ADHD and I’ve been using Zettelkasten. I can’t speak to the specific experience of using it to learn in a highly structured environment, but it’s easy for me to imagine how it would work really well, especially if they’re good about following a syllabus.

I’ve been using it to learn about aquarium related biology and microbiology. I also use it to take notes when I learn something new or look something up that I wish I could remember more consistently (anything that feels like it should be part of my brain canon, political, economic, the scientific names of local plants, health, the size of the air filters in my house, etc), and it’s been interesting to see the emergence of interconnected clusters between separate disciplines. It’s organized like my desk, which is organized like my brain: interrelated piles which all have a Very Important Purpose in my life.

It’s also helped me to remember where I learned things from, or find sources quickly. I have a habit of keeping hundreds of tabs open because I learned something or wanted to use the information in a certain way; this system gives those tabs somewhere to go, and gives me a way to provide context to that source and find it again easily.

I’ve been doing this for about two months. It’s not the longest I’ve used a system, but it’s certainly the most consistent I’ve ever been. I spend about a third of my time reading my notes vs the time I spend writing, which is a much better ratio than ever before. The time spent writing has continued to decrease as my notes continue to become more useful. I find myself linking to old thoughts in new notes, instead of writing down the same thing multiple times.

I attribute my success to starting very simple and adding tools as I discover that I need them. Sometimes I like to browse the community extensions just to know what’s possible, but I never use a new tool until I’ve fully described a use case (in a new note, which then becomes a troubleshooting and documentation note as I learn how to use the tool or extension). Sometimes this leads to thinking of ways I could use an existing tool to accomplish the task, or other even more useful ways the new tool could be used. This method has helped prevent me from cluttering my vault with shiny objects and useless metadata, while having the flexibility to refine and add only useful features to my vault.

I’ve been following the method described in the below video almost to the letter, though I do have some dataview templates I use to quickly generate an index. So far, this has lead to an almost frictionless experience with maps of content that practically created themselves. Sometimes I forget to link notes when I’m distracted, but it’s become very easy to identify orphans by fiddling around with graph view, and this almost never happens now that I have a robust set of indexes that most of my notes fall into.

I can’t say if it will work for you, but I closely relate to everything that you’re saying (incl ADHD and productive procrastination) & loved to read it. I’d love to hear about the twists on this journey.

I had some similar questions & motivations when I started using Obsidian, and what I found was that I increasingly kept coming back to it because there’s so much scope for novelty. I love that it doesn’t have to be perfect and that the structure/method can evolve from the collection I’m making. I can choose to change my system, or refactor my notes, or solve new problems/find new efficiencies.

I’ve ended up making notes by default even if I’m not sure where to put them or how they’re connected to everything else, not least because I can use the search functions to find related topics, or I have the joy of stumbling on ideas that I’ve forgotten about. It’s like having external memory hooks.

My vault has ended up developing organically over time, the structure I needed kind of emerged, and I’d often wonder if it would be possible to do one thing or another to make it work better for me, and then go down a rabbit hole looking for solutions (which often exist in one way or another, and having a programming mindset seems to help with that).

The answer for me was no - because there are always ways to change how I work, or find fresh perspectives. I think that’s why I didn’t use Evernote so well, but Obsidian is so effective for me.

I don’t make everything Zettelcasten though. I think it’s great for looking for new ideas in research, but I have part of my vault more as a personal wiki of things I’ve found, grouped into notes by topic, and for now zettelcasten is more for stuff like literature research.

It might be that in time that changes, but I think part of what has kept it fresh for me is not having a rigid structure I have to fit things into, and having the space to explore ways of working and being able to adapt and solve the organisational problems as I find them.

I started reading and watching videos about other people’s methods, but ended up cobbling something together that works for me, and I think that that kind of evolution is possible is pretty awesome. I’d suggest keeping it loose, and prioritise collecting ideas over making the organisation perfect.

Thanks for making this thread, I’ve already got a bunch of ideas I want to follow up.

Btw, on youtube I like Artem Kistanov for zettelcasten (who gingercake mentioned), @BryanJenks (who also posts videos about ADHD & is active here) & for ADHD productivity this guy