Honest Alternatives to Zettelkasten

I ask this in good faith in my effort to explore all that the online PKM scene can offer. In short— I’m a newcomer. I’m not a genius researcher, I have no teaching degrees, no knowledge management experience outside what I do as a hobby. I’m trying to optimize my vault, and I want to scour the internet for every methodology that I can.

Please note: this is not a zettelkasten hate-post. I’m only asking about other ways to take, process, and organize my notes. I think having a good little forum discussion listing all the alternatives is a great idea, no? I’ve seen some ideas floating around, but never consolidated into a thread. Let’s collaborate! Tell me about methods similar to zettelkasten, wildly different from zettelkasten, even if you don’t like it. Nothing should be off the table. Also, feel free to include your opinions about any of the alternatives you mention; I’d love to hear the bad as much as the good.

Thanks in advance! Let’s please try to remain civil, of course.

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I’d recommend checking out P.A.R.A. and the book building a second brain. The author provides a reasonably simple framework for organizing your notes and files based on the projects and areas that you’d use that knowledge. The starter kit vault that @cotemaxime created is a good example of how it can be structured in obsidian.

I’ve been using this strategy this year, and I like the loose yet focused working environment the system allows.

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I think PARA is interesting, but I find that two of the options are kind of redundant (projects and areas). I remember previously doing a lot of resources trying to find alternatives to PARA as well. I should probably post that here.

There are as many ways to slice and dice knowledge in the PKM space as there are users and software:)

The methodologies aren’t so much about the tool (in our case Obsidian) but more about the mindset. The way you’ve phrased your inquiry indicates you already have the necessary mindset; you think and write logically.

Zettelkasten implies linking data. This method is based on creating notes that are small, concise, and atomic (about a single thing).

In Obsidian you can see links, both outgoing (link to something) and incoming (a backlink reference to this note). You can link to notes, sections (headers), and blocks (text blocks with space before and after).

You can also use tags as way of categorizing notes, typically placed in the YAML metadata section at the top of the note. Tags only reference a note

You can also use folderstructures as indicated by another poster in this post.

All of the above can be searched. That even includes not using any of the above and just searching for keywords. Learn the core search plugin first.

Some folks are disciplined enough to adhere to a Zettelkasten methodology.

Some folks put articles, book highlights, pdf files and such into their vault and use a combination of the above. I be one of them. I use alot of section and block links (internal links) to simulate a Zettelkasten experience.

The power of linking cannot be overstated, but it requires thought and patience to learn and use. If you’re new to the Obsidian space, put some content into a vault and get hip to using the software to ask questions and write your thoughts.

Hope this helps. Best wishes!

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I like this sort of ‘tool vs mindset’ conversation, which kind of reminds me of the ‘nurture or nature’ debate. Are the notes you make in the program “Obsidian notes” because of the program itself in one way or another altering the way you think and/or process information? I can’t say anything definitively, of course, but from personal experience, I know my notes are much different here than they were in, say, Notion.

Thanks for the addition!

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  • I dabbled in several of the methodologies early on: LYT and P.A.R.A.
  • As a fledge, they fit my yearn to adopt a framework and learn a tool. But my lack of discipline knocked me off the wagon; to many things accumulated as todo tags and follow-up work. Serendipitous me felt overwhelmed.
  • So, I gave up on doing anything more than creating links for interesting words and phrases; many of which are still not actual notes. Most of these I create on a kindle or in Readwise / Reader then both into Obsidian.
  • I also gave up trying to keep a complete breadcrumb trail from source ideas or notes to final manuscript (be it essay, presentation, or book chapter).
  • An example, I was obsessed with non linear plot forms and the use of strong secondary characters in prose. For over a year I chased and scoured content on these two phrases notating occurrences of them as links. Then, of course, another shiny tangent cropped up … off I go creating links for other phrases.
  • Over the course of this winter, both of the earlier phrases came up again.
  • All I had to do was search for those links using the core search plugin. At first I created a MOC type of note “non linear plot forms” with an embedded query. I could fish thru all that specific link information and draw from it into a series of notes for longer form work I was collaborating on.
  • Becoming fluent with the search plugin (and now the Bookmark functionality to save searches) means I don’t have to link everything together in breadcrumb fashion. And with saved searches as a bookmark I can revisit later.
  • The vault is becoming much more valuable now; albeit not formally structured. I use a handful of folders mostly for staging incoming info and status type tags in YAML.
  • The benefit of establishing my vault my way is that it will provide useful fodder as a reference heap to use with ChatGPT and other pending AI gleaning tools. Because my info hoarding and writing has a unique style and voice; an imprint if you will.
  • There is also merit, for me, in having content “disappear” for a while. It ferments into something that I re-visit with a different set of eyes; totally creative.
  • It is worth noting that Luhmann did not have modern software tools. He linked the only way that was possible at that time. Modern tools, in my view, don’t require such an adherence to atomicity. Besides, a little bit of friction to search for something is healthy.
  • Like you this is not a zettlelkasten hate-post:)
  • TLDR - I like your reminder about nature and nurture. Nature has provided us with a tool that can be nurtured into our own custom valued stash of meaningful fodder.
  • Appreciate your words. Cheers!
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This is a really useful insight, thanks for expanding!

Not to pick out the most unrelated part of this and pick at your brain, but could you please link me to any articles/videos/etc that are related to non-linear plots? I’m actually a fiction writer myself and found zettelkasten to be kind of incompatible for my longform writing.

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  • The trigger was an interview with Grant Faulkner of NaNoWriMo several years ago. He spoke of a hypothetical story written by a Flaneur recalling a gypsy life thru many locations and times with the narrative following a chain of connections made between incidents and people. The story was not chronological but the building, in his mind, of the connections of place and people and his thoughts whilst walking. This stuck in my craw until I discovered Jane Alison’s book “Meander, Spiral, Explode”. I rarely see these alternative plot forms in genre fiction. Most of the typical craft books allude to them in the same manner given to narrative in the second person; implying unattainable. Challenge accepted!
  • Fish around in this forum, folks are using Obsidian for longform and there is a plugin. I know at least one of our peers does it in one single note using headers as chapters (pantzer extraordinaire). I do all drafting in Obsidian but still prefer Scrivener for final output though that will most likely change.
  • BTW - I did not answer your earlier question about how the use of Obsidian has affected my research, thinking, and writing practice. It certainly has! Having research notes and thoughts in the same software space as my creative missives is powerful and efficient; am spending way more time in creative mode. I am able to do much more revising in early drafts without loosing momentum.
  • Safe to say, the use of Obsidian and the wonderful community around it has been life changing. Recent improvements in Search, Canvas, and now Bookmarks is awesome.
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I love this!

Of course some workflows are better suited to some brains; whatever helps one to do less “vault maintenance” and more “vault utilization” is better. My approach has been very similar to yours—or at least my paradigm has been.

Thanks for this post!

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My honest solution is “atomic folders”, which you can see here:

I don’t do much linking, but I make good use of the vault search tool. I don’t try to pre-design my workflow anymore, except for trying to maintain simplicity and brevity (i.e., non-complex templates). I have been waiting for the “metadata improvements” from dev team for a while now which means I have not used metadata at all (dataview or YAML) because I want to see what capabilities will be added first. Not using metadata has been quite freeing.

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Right on and thank you, @ryadaj !

It is unusual when software accommodates so many different neurodivergent strategies to use it. Fitting cliche’s in this thread - my vault, my way - less vault maintenance and more vault utilization.

Diatribes, dreams, and entmoots - I capture the former two with each use of Obsidian - the latter one describes the meeting of the great folks in this Obsidian realm.

Cheers!

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1 Obsidian feature I have not seen mentioned here is transclusions, embeds.

I often find when doing research that I come across a paragraph of text that can be used in 2 or more other notes too. So, rather than retyping/recopy-pasting the same paragraph, I put it in 1 note and transclude it into the others.

Apart from the fact that copy-pasting only needs to be done once, you also need to only amend that 1 paragraph if ever you need to make alterations, which will automatically show up in the other notes.

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Agreed @Klaas - another tool in our arsenal. I use your strategy now with canvas brainstorming … toss an transclusion (a block embed) onto the canvas. When done pondering and don’t need it to persist, just remove the link.

While playing with this I discovered two ways to copy a block reference:

Lets say I have a source document on the left and a destination note on the right. In the source document, if you hover over a block and right click there are two valuable options - “Copy Link to block” and “Copy Block embed”. Choose one and then paste into the destination note; very cool!

If you choose a “Copy Link to Block”, you can add a pipe and some text after the ^ to give the link context (displaytext).

[[Part 1 - Not Broken#^42z3vy|“Not Broken”]] - displays as Not Broken

This does not currently work for block embeds.

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Yep, I use that one extensively. It is not native to Obsidian, it is the plug-in Copy Block Link.

I don’t know why it does not work for block embeds for you because for me it works fine.

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Wow, I have never been able to have the DisplayText actually display in a transcluded block link. I’ve set theme to default, turned off all plugins and disabled all css snippets. This was an acknowledged bug back in Dec. '22.

Anybody else have observations here…

I don’t understand — what would display text do in an embed? It’s already displaying the text from another note.

Yep, agreed when I embed for that purpose in a note … but when I drop a bunch of them on a canvas for pondering, I’d like to see the display text. Why? Sometimes that little block has different meaning depending on the context.

When I get to a bigger screen, I’ll go fish for my original feature request post - if I’m not mistaken, one of the mods changed it to a bug. This discussion should be on that thread. Will link here…

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I am curious about the easiest way to drop embeds on a canvas. One thought I have is in the context that you already have a bunch of embeds in a note and your goal is to place them individually as cards on canvas. Especially if you have display text for the embeds, it could be convenient to enter source mode then arrow between lines, pressing ctrl/cmd c (copies content of line cursor is on) then using focus right/left hotkey to jump over to canvas and paste the embed before focusing back on note with list of embeds and repeating process.

Of course, if using a mouse and desiring unique canvas placement of embeds from the outset, triple clicking the line, then simply dragging and dropping selection onto canvas seems like a good strategy. If there is a better way that I am missing, I would definitely appreciate any tips or suggestions. Thanks!


As a side note, it is nice that links in Dataview tables, lists, or even Dataviewjs queries can be dragged into canvases.

I think they mistakenly called it “transcluded” block link. It should just be “block link” with an alias.

Not sure when this functionality appeared in Obsidian, but it is handy. In the left tab, I right click on a block and choose Copy block embed then hop over the right canvas tab and paste. This use case also illustrates the need for the use of DisplayText.

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