How can PARA and Zettelkasten workflow live together?

Oh Hello! :smiley: yeah I use the same username for every account I have.

I will certainly attend there if I don’t get any answers here or over the slack group of fortelab. Mostly I love to see what people here practice if they are mixing these two methods.

So I sort of took BASB class and I have to say that you can adapt it to whatever needs you have, but as far as I understood from Tiago and others, PARA and BASB are not limited to business. So as an example, AREA may include every area of responsibility that you have to keep a level of standard for a long while. It may include pets, partners, health and etc.
But for Zettelkasten it seems to me that you are right. But for me, I cannot separate academic activities and everything else. So as an example I’m researching time-perception in ADHD. I also have ADHD and I manage a telegram group that is about ADHD and a blog that contains information about ADHD and … So for me, whatever system I have to choose cannot be separated from my PARA, as it can get confusing for me very quickly.


I think it’s a kind of fallacy to see them as mutually exclusive, or wedded to a particular discipline. It’s just knowledge. One is a record of thinking and the other is organized projects in terms of actionability. So it’s just a matter of emphasis for your workflow.


hmmm. Interesting. Can you maybe share an example or make it a bit more concrete for me?

As soon as I can, I will elaborate further. Let me at least state more in combination with my two above posts.

PARA represents a ‘state’ of a knowledge constellation at anyone time. PARA reflects aggregates/projects that are composed of zettels. In a way, a zettelkasten are stars in the sky, constellations, etc; while PARA is the belief system built on those representations.

Wait that wasn’t more concrete. Zettels are the building blocks, PARA just represents different states of the architecture (projects) built out of the building blocks.


The reason you have all the notes together in a zettelkasten is that you do not know when a piece of information will be relevant in the future. You may find the desire to elaborate on it or connect to it 5 years from now. For example, see my post on an timeline for learning about storytelling using the zettelkasten.

I don’t think there is a problem with having the two systems as long as you have an easy way to update links as you move notes between folders. It is also important to not archive your notes such that you no longer have easy access to them. If you archive them in such a way that you don’t automatically search them then that is a problem. But Obsidian searches all folders in a vault, so I don’t think that should be a problem.


So what you are saying is that if the links are not broken between different notes, it is okay to keep them in folders based on topics?

I have a question for anyone. Does adding projects, todos, work knowledge, personal interests, etc. muddy up the waters? Obsidian sees the whole vault, doesn’t having all that information in one bucket make unlinked mentions and the graph less useful? It seems like once you reach a certain threshold in number of notes it might be an issue. I was thinking last night it might be useful to have a “hide directory” option in Obsidian to get around, say, not seeing your interest in dog information mixed in with your mental model information. But maybe this isn’t an issue.

  1. Want to have a system that keeps links from breaking
  2. You want a system that gives you easy access to all notes all the time. This is why they tell you not to have multiple zettelkastens. That causes you to fracture your notes, which makes future linking harder.
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@kbrede yes and no. If you think of Luhmann’s zettelkasten as an example, he had 90,000 notes by the time he was finished. I don’t think he manually flipped through all the notes when he wanted to contemplate what notes might connect to his newest note. Instead, I imagine he used his minds spreading activation or looked through the index to spark an idea of where it might connect.

If you connect notes that way, then having all of them together doesn’t really matter. On the plus side, you never know how information will connect. You realize that you create a mental model around the concept of a dog, so those two concepts are tied together in a way.

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I’m also reading the Ahren’s book and at least at this time my understanding is the containers of the notes (folders) matter less than the bottom-up connections of links and top-down organization of index pages you create and manage. In this way I think you can use a note to index your Projects, Areas, Resources… Or a note to index tags and then you can show which tags or notes are actionable.

While I am reading the book I heard about PARA and am curious about it but I don’t see the value of an Archive folder where everything no longer actionable ends up.

I’m thinking of letting index notes provide more top-down organization as needed and I have a hunch this is how Luhmann (spelling?) was able to make use of all his notes, he probably used high-level indexes like a map to get to the right part of town where exploration would be best to start, then non-linear links lead the journey forward.


So BASB also has a second part, which is capturing and progressive summarization. I haven’t taken the course so I’ve only read blog posts about it, but the name is fairly suggestive of what it is.

IMO “progressive summarization” is not as good a method of knowledge creation, especially for original, creative work, compared to Zettelkasten. Presumably, one’s hope is that the later layers of summarization would be more synthesis than summary. Zettelkasten seems more explicit in that respect.

If you delegate content of the work and management of thoughts and information to the method described by Ahrens, then the part that PARA that matters is “PA” like others have said. PA by itself is just GTD with some grouping, which I think one will probably do anyway.


I’ve actually found the idea of “progressive summarization” to be very helpful, though I wouldn’t claim to have much experience with the idea yet. I’ve found that it has made me a better reader, in the sense that I actively highlight passages as I go, then I go back once I’ve read the whole thing and use a combination of the highlighted passages and my own thoughts to summarize the work. This summary becomes its own note in my vault. Now, instead of reading stuff passively, and forgetting it a week or two later, the process of highlighting and summarizing has led to a habit where I now get more out of what I’ve read. In that sense, the method has just produced better reading discipline, which I’m OK with for now.


With regard to @kbrede’s comment about muddying the waters, I’ve chosen to err on the side of putting everything in my vault – personal, work, deep thoughts – and I’ll let the organization scheme sort it out. Haven’t been doing this long enough to know how it works out, but I have a sense it’ll be fine. There’s ephemeral stuff, like current project meeting notes, which I’ll care about now and for the duration of the project, but then will probably consider to be clutter. I imagine I’ll want to find a way to retire that stuff with an #inactive tag, or something similar, so that it’s not gone, just filtered out (of Graph view, queries, etc.)


If you can easily sort your knowledge into clearly-defined folders, you probably don’t need a Zettelkasten. I couldn’t, so I have benefited from moving most of my PDFs in one big folder in Zotero, and most of my notes into one big folder in Obsidian.
Structure and clarity are emerging as I develop linkages and index notes. I could use tags, but prefer links so I can annotate why I think this note is relevant to the topic, or why I want to keep this image for inspiration.

This would be compatible with my Zettelkasten. Topic-specific folders wouldn’t. I use folders to distinguish note type (i.e. meeting notes, clipped articles) or status (i.e. fleeting vs permanent notes).

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Luhmann’s card index consists of approximately 90,000 handwritten cards in A-6 format organized in two collections. The first collection, approximately created between 1951 and 1962, a time when Luhmann was on his way from a legal expert with interests especially in constitutional law and administrative sciences to a systems theoretical sociologist, is based primarily on his readings in political science, administrative studies, organization theory, philosophy, and sociology. It consists of approximately 23,000 cards, which are divided into 108 sections by subjects and numbered consecutively, two bibliographies comprising about 2,000 titles, and a keyword index with roughly 1,250 entries. The second collection (1963–1997), now clearly reflecting a sociological approach,6 is divided into eleven top-level sections with a total of about 100 subsections. It consists of approximately 67,000 cards, including a sizeable but obviously incomplete bibliographical apparatus with roughly 15,000 references and a keyword index with 3,200 entries.

So he had 23,000 cards with a 1,250 entries in a keyword index.

Then he had 67,000 cards, with 3,200 entries in a keyword index.


He had one to three entries of where you could find a topic in his keyword index. You can browse his keyword index online btw (I turned on google chrome automatic translate).

Sometimes the keyword index linked to a note in a sequence, sometimes they linked to overview notes, from the linked source above

Three types of linking can be distinguished:

  1. References in the context of a larger structural outline: When beginning a major line of thought Luhmann sometimes noted on the first card several of the aspects to be addressed and marked them by a capital letter that referred to a card (or set of consecutive cards) that was numbered accordingly and placed at least in relative proximity to the card containing the outline. This structure comes closest to resembling the outline of an article or the table of contents of a book and therefore doesn’t really use the potentials of the collection as a web of notes.

  2. Collective references: At the beginning of a section devoted to a specific subject area, one can often find a card that refers to a number of other cards in the collection that have some connection with the subject or concept addressed in that section. A card of this kind can list up to 25 references and will typically specify the respective subject or concept in addition to the number. These references can indicate cards that are related by subject matter and in close proximity or to cards that are far apart in other sections of the collection, the latter being the normal case.

  3. Single references: At a particular place in a normal note Luhmann often made a reference to another card in the collection that was also relevant to the special argument in question; in most cases the referred card is located at an entirely different place in the file, frequently in the context of a completely different discussion or subject.

If you are confused after reading Ahrens books (I like the book, but many people seem to be afterwards), hit me up and I can give you a couple resources to look into that better help explain the zettelkasten.


This is all really useful and suggests to me that there are three aspects to the tradeoffs between “progressive summarization” (more about developing an insightful reconstruction of the ideas in the text being discussed) and Zettelkasten-style note creation (more about elaborating (original?) ideas and concepts (often, but not always, sparked by engaging with a particular text):

  1. Effects on memory (both retention and recall) of actively engaging with (difficult) material multiple times
  2. Added insights gained from revisiting material, typically in new contexts or from different perspectives
  3. Avoiding the complementary concerns with tunnel-vision (getting trapped in a self-generated filter bubble and/or losing contact with richness of the source text) and dissipation (generating fragmentary and superficial formulations in the vague hope that associative links will make them deep (the snake-oil of the ZK-cult?) and/or losing track of what one is “borrowing” from others).

It’s not clear to me that there is a method that guarantees the best outcome. On a case-by-case basis, progressive summarization and (to coin a phrase) Zettelkast-ing both need to be assessed in terms of all three, with an eye to the specific context and in light of what one is trying to accomplish. If the goal is to understand a text and retain the key three ideas, then memory concerns might be central, and tunnel-vision not much of a concern. If the goal is to develop an original and systematic approach to a given domain (what Niklas Luhmann mostly did), then revisiting a text (and an resulting increase in the atomiticity of smart notes) will have its value in generating new thoughts and connections.


Thanks to everyone for taking the time on this thread. I find it super interesting. One thing – reading your post @lizardmenfromspace – is that the word ‘reference’ is pretty ambiguous, perhaps particularly for anyone from an academic research background who is mixing with zettelkasten practices. You have three types (or instances?) here, but there are also what are called citations (they tend to be called references in the antipodes where I was trained). I found this nomenclature quite confusing also in Ahrens’ book as well. Perhaps though I’m overthinking the term and that it is always simply something that refers to something else (through some form of link).


All that is meant by reference is just pointing the reader to another note in the collection. Because he gave each note a unique identifier, he could reference any one note in a different note.


So I read the book. And I’m not sure if I would say I’m confused. I just don’t understand the details of the process as much as I like to know. I also don’t have a good grasp of the theory of how it might help in everyday life. So if you could kindly tell me about the resources you’ve talked about, I would be ethernally greatful.