Harnessing the Benefits of an Analog ZK

Hey all,

I have been a longtime Obsidian user to analog ZK convert. There are benefits of analog systems which makes me order of magnitude more productive than a digital systems.

The big question is, can we somehow harness the benefits of analog ZK in Obsidian?

Personally, these are the reasons I’m using an analog ZK:

  1. Alleviates perfectionism: With digital ZK, I get perfectionist about organizing it, and rewriting notes to make everything consistent. This urge is not triggered with analog ZK for me, especially if using pen. I keep on chugging along with my imperfect index cards and keep on adding.
  2. Nonlinear writing: Plain text is awesome, but it is linear. Many of my index cards have arrows and diagrams and mind maps and annotations on equations. A pattern I use a lot on index cards is to write down a mathematical equation, then annotate it to hell using colored pens. This helps me understand very complex formulas.
  3. Eufriction: It’s too easy to make a note digitally. Writing stuff down on paper is cumbersome, and that’s good. That means I think and mull over a topic for a while before I finally sit down to distill it onto an index card. That means notes end up being more insightful.
  4. Distance from distractions: I get distracted easily in front of a computer.
  5. Page size limit: Having some sort of a soft limit on the size of a zettel means I am forced to condense information down into its essence, which helps avoid collector’s fallacy.
  6. Physicality: It helps for me to see the sequence of folgezettel physically laid out in front of me. There is limited ability in Obsidian to view multiple notes and their relation to each other, a digital analogue to spreading index cards out on a desk.

But the reasons that I wish there was a digital solution are:

  1. Portability
  2. Search, indexing
  3. Ease of creating backup
  4. Ease of integrating notes with different sizes into the same system

For these reasons, if I can get digital to work as well as analog – insofaras productivity goes – then I would switch immediately. Alas, for now, analog ZK works for me as a Ulysseys pact: the cumbersome constraints of pen & paper tames my human psychological faults such as perfectionism, distractions, and busywork.

That, plus the ability to write more freeform notes with many annotations and visual cues.

Thoughts?

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I agree with you that there is something about analog ZK that isn’t captured by Obsidian as is. I wrote about this a while back: I used an analog Zettelkasten system for 100 notes. Here is what I learned.

I think the main point is that the analog system forces us to put our notes in relation to each other. That happens because when you store them in the system, you want them to be stored close to related notes. It happens naturally because when you retrieve the notes, you want related notes to be close to one another so that you can grab a stack and lay it out on your desk.

For me the benefits of digital are still too great, the main friction point being space constraints and the cost of moving a large number of cards from place to place. I’m experimenting with ways to recover what you describe in point 1-6 digitally. I think things could be improved by creating new UI experiences for Obsidian. In that theme, your point 6 may be addressed by an extension I made for Obsidian, it’s pending review but I think it will be merged shortly: GitHub - davidlandry93/obsidian-desk: A desk for obsidian

A lot of the benefits you mention could be addressed with other software like Apple Notes or OneNote. I think in these (and a digital pen like an apple pencil) you get 2 3 5. Then you would get the benefits of digital as well. You recover some of the physicality as well, because the notes have to be organized manually in “binders”, but indeed it’s not the same as looking at multiple notes at once.

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Indeed, I too would love to get rid of my box of index cards that I worry will get lost or damaged if I have to move!

I have tried your plugin, actually! Thanks for contributing to the ecosystem :slight_smile: I do think there is much missed opportunity in innovating UX to enable a sense of physicality in Obsidian notes.

Ultimately, it seems if you want a more analog-style tool in the digital environment, then you have to use a more proprietary tool like Apple notes, Onenote, or the proprietary apps that come with e-ink tablets. (I should note that I use linux as my main driver. So no Apple Notes, and only hacky OneNote support.) The state of open-source ZT-style handwriting note taking apps is sparse and currently I don’t trust any one project’s file format to stay alive for a long time.

Which is a shame, as markdown is awesome at what it does well: it’s open, human-readable, and will likely never be rendered unreadable; it is my preferred way to write technical documentation. But it can’t do freeform note-taking in two dimensions.

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Two other avenues we didn’t discuss are Canvas and Digitization.

I wonder what the best way to get a picture from a phone to the vault is? This could help with schemas and handwritten notes.

What do you think of Canvas? I don’t tend to use it much myself, but in theory ot does recover the physicality, so I wonder why I didn’t end up in my toolkit.

One thing I’ve played around with but never committed to was handwriting card sized notes on an iPad and exporting them as a flattened pdf or jpg straight into obsidian. This exporting adds an element of finality and obvious if attached to a note, they can then easily be linked to other cards, have metadata added, or notes can be created with sequences of a bunch of cards.

The nice thing about this is you can get a little bit of the physicality of actual cards by dragging a set of related notes from obsidian back into the drawing app (I use Concepts) on a bigger page size and rearranged there. You can then mark up connections between the notes and export this new larger board with added annotations straight back into obsidian.

It certainly combines some of the best features of both traditional and digital zettelkasten systems. You could have a somewhat similar but more cumbersome workflow using a scanner.

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Canvas is just too cumbersome, I feel. Certainly doesn’t feel the same as shuffling a stack of cards.

As far as digital writing hardware goes, the only one that I really enjoy is e-ink; so it is unfortunate that e-ink devices have terrible software which makes this sort of hybrid setup very cumbersome. I might eventually try out scanning as a means of backup & indexing (with OCR).

There’s benefits and drawbacks to each way of doing things. Just gotta figure out what you can deal with. No magic bullet here. Neither one is inherently better. Don’t believe (either) hype.

  1. Perfectionism isn’t a system problem, nor is it one a system can solve.
  2. I’ve never found a digital platform (other than Procreate on an iPad or Goodnotes on an iPad) that can handle what you’re looking for in any fulfilling way.
  3. As the person who came up with this term, I appreciate you using it :slight_smile: Eufriction is almost entirely situational/circumstantial. One person’s eufriction is another friction. Personally, I find writing ideas down by hand (which I do every morning) to be far less “liquid” then jumping into Obsidian, where everything flows really nicely. I’m also far more able to unpack cerebral things in a much more dynamic way in Obsidian. If that’s not you, do you.
  4. Don’t we all. Just part of the deal. If you need to figure this out (and want to), then you will eventually.
  5. I find the “collector’s fallacy” to be a really overused term, which is applicable in virtually zero scenarios. (If you really think that by collecting quotes you have internalized them, and you have a proclivity for profressing this non-knowledge to the world, you’ve got bigger issues.) That said, your point goes back to eufriction. See above. Personally, I have no problem being concise in Obsidian when I need to be.
  6. Digital will only take you so far in this regard.

I think it comes down to a practice of self-discipline or a system type of thing. I really think Obsidian helps out with the self-discipline approach, but one must take the time with building a system out that reflects it and works. When a working system is implemented, that offloads much of the overhead needed for self-discipline. The punchline it at the end of this post (as it’s pretty lengthy).

I’m an Electrical Engineering student and Comp Sci grad who’s been using Obsidian for my studying, homework, Leetcode and just overall knowledge tracker. What I favor about digital is actually the full-suite of software (both native and third party) to utilize and take advantage of - but it took some time to get here. I definitely make use of everything I know of so far: links/backlinks, tags, folder structure, plugins, etc. I started out having only an Electrical Engineering vault, but over time this vault just basically held everything as my 2nd brain across multiple fields and interests. Anything I come across the internet, I’ll try and make the extra effort to put into Obsidian.

I completely hear what you’re saying about handwriting and have asked for a more fluid native support for it (I’d love to be able to annotate on top of an Obsidian note). In the meantime, I write/rewrite all my homework in Concepts, make each problem an Obsidian note and paste the Concepts drawing into the note. Then I’ll link problems that relate to one another together. I also do the same for what I learn: annotate PDF pages if need be, paste those pages and I’ll summarize it into my own words (see what I mention later about my Feynman Technique workflow). If not a PDF or something I read online and it’s something I read in a physical textbook, I’ll take a screenshot, annotate it in Concepts and paste it into an Obsidian note. Anything that needs to be drawn I’ll do it elsewhere and copy and paste. Each concept/note will be deep but I’ll try to organize them with headings as they’re easier and less messy to link to. Then I’ll link the problems to the concepts/Obsidian notes. I’ll take the extra time to set all this up because the focus is on the long term access/relationships. I’m creating all this with my future self in mind so I want there to be as much context as possible.

In addition to using the backlinks/links, I’ll try to keep everything organized into folders. I simply see no reason to keep lessons and notes about Multivariable Calculus in the same folder as my notes about AC Circuit Analysis - but I will not hesitate to link/backlink the actual content of the notes if the opportunity arises. I want to be able to go into a folder and look for a specific piece of material, just as I want to be able to go into any file and see all the relationships and links/backlinks I may have forgotten (or had no idea) that exist.

Making use of plugins such as Templatr, Data View, Excalibrain, etc. has been key with keeping organized. I have a Feynman Technique framework saved as a Templatr template that I have on hotkeys. I use it when necessary and gets me to put things right into my own words. It’s consistently the same block of prompts every time so it helps to keep the discipline: Describe in my own words Component 1, Component 2, Sub Component of Component 1 etc. I’ll use backlinks here as well.

For visuals, certain plugins like Excalibrain can be used to make those relationships stick out. I have a template setup with multiple YAML/Properties at the top. Excalibrain allows you to customize the way links display in another window, so I can have a YAML/Property called “WhyIsItImportant” styled as an Orange link pointing from one concept to another which really helps with chunking. So I may have a note called “Voltage” from the DC Circuits folder pointing to a note called “Conservation of Energy” from the Physics folder and another note “Gain” from Op Amps pointing to “Conservation of Energy”. That way when I go to “Conservation of Energy” I can see some relationships and (even see how it relates to Music Production - because “Gain” also points to “Music Production” as does “Transients” which points back to “Step Response” which points to “Capacitors”. All represented after a single click of the mouse.

For Circuits I’ll also take extra time to setup a CircuitJS diagram and use the CircuitJS plugin installed on Obsidian to render in the note page. In addition, I have Python scripts on Templatr that use the Execute Code plugin for handling some things such as Matrix Multiplication or drawing any graphs. Some can run the code in the file, others are just blocks of code that mention to run it in another Python/JavaScript/etc. environment because the Execute Code environment can’t run them.

I also have a folder/module called “Equation Cloud” where it’s literally just equations. For example Ohm’s Law in the Phasor Domain is made up of voltage, current and impedance. I can also see that Voltage points to RMS Voltage which points to Complex or Apparent Power and that points to the relationship of (Rms Voltage) ^ 2 / Conjugate of Impedance. Another example is something like clicking on the Kinetic Energy note, seeing it has a term for velocity, I can see all the equations/notes I have (so far) that connect to or involve velocity. In Math/Physics/Engineering many of these equations are just relationships of compositions and having these relationships for any single equation pop up is really convenient. That way when I just want to see equations, I can just see equations - I don’t try to link them with any extra content (you won’t see this module have any backlinks outside of just Physics/Math/Engineering).

It sounds like a lot of work, and it really is. I had to basically transfer all my other methods into Obsidian to come up with this workflow but it was 100% worth it. I can copy and paste from the internet very easily right into my system and extend it to make use of any new plugins that come up. Utilizing templates, hotkeys, etc. is really a way to help stay organized and focused and categorize all the information and ideas that may come across.

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Thanks for the article @davidlandry! I think people in digital systems really downplay the “Folgezettel,” focusing on graphs/links more than the actual storage/hierarchization process. I just remade my system from a “flat” single folder of notes to one that was deeply/recursively nested using plain old folders. When notes get created, they’re in my Inbox folder which simulates a desk (I could have a Canvas note to organize/mindmap but haven’t done that yet). Then in order to store them I need to search the folder structure to put them in proper places.

This is super useful because now with Obsidian’s link autocomplete, I can start with folders to get as specific as I want in my notes database. Folders are super powerful! Especially in conjunction with links to prevent silos. I use “Folder Note” to make a title note for each folder, which directly mimics the index notes in physical Zettelkastens.

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I considered systems like this but I felt like folders would get clumsy after 2-3 levels of depth. How does it feel in your experience?