Obsidian Zettelkasten

169 - What to look for in a Book - using the example book deconstruction as an example:

  • Model - what set of rules about learning comes out of reading Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning?
  • Key Concepts/Ideas - what are the main ideas the author wants you to take away and integrate into your own thinking?
  • How the key concepts relate to the larger model - how do the key concepts discovered above relate to the rules?
  • How the key concepts relate to each other?
  • How the key concepts and larger model relate to other notes?

Learning Model

Successful learning involves

  • Rule 1
  • Rule 2

Key Concepts

  • Intentional Retrieval
  • Practice
  • Desirable Difficulties
  • Illusions of Knowing
  • More

Relating Key Concepts to Larger Model

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Relating Key Concepts to Each Other

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Relating new Notes to Existing Ones

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170 - Utility is a common theme throughout how I approach thinking about zettelkasten and knowledge work more broadly. It is also useful to use as one of many lenses to think about life with. At the end of the day, we have limited time and must make a decision. Therefore you should consider the utility of an activity. I think where this conversation gets lost is that people often don’t understand the utility of activities and therefore perceive them as bad.

A common example of this is art. People often devalue art because it doesn’t have immediate utility in their mind. But art is important for the spread of culture, ideas, and values in a society. Even something that is devoid of meaning and purely aesthetic has utility if it promotes an appreciation for life and reality in your mind.

It is also important to create a distinction between utility and efficiency. You don’t want to chase utility to such a degree that you become rigid and dehumanize others. You often see this in business settings, where people get treated like widgets instead of humans with human needs.

Related to Applicability.

171 - Cycling through a set of Books

Learning Books as an Example

Begin Building the notes model with the initial book

Brown, Peter C. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning . Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

Then you start reading more and adding to the initial structure

Weinstein, Yana, Megan Sumeracki, and Oliver Caviglioli. Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide . London ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2019.

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens . First edition. New York: Random House, 2014.

Oakley, Barbara A. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) . New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2014.

McGuire, Saundra Yancy, and Stephanie McGuire. Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level . First edition. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2018.

Doyle, Terry. The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain . Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Pub, 2013.

Then you might start with introductory textbooks if you are still interested in the topic

Gluck, Mark A., Eduardo Mercado, and Catherine E. Myers. Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior . New York: Worth Publishers, 2008. Topic: Psychology

Bear, Mark F., Barry W. Connors, and Michael A. Paradiso. Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain . Fourth edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer, 2016. Topic: Neuroscience

Then move onto intermediate textbooks

Baddeley, Alan D., Michael W. Eysenck, and Michael C. Anderson. Memory . Second edition. London ; New York, NY: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. Topic: Memory

McBride, Dawn M., and J. Cooper Cutting. Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology . Los Angeles: Sage, 2016. Topic: Cognitive Psychology

Hoy, Anita Woolfolk. Educational Psychology . Fourteenth edition. New York, New York: PEARSON, 2019. Topic: Educational Psychology

Illeris, Knud, ed. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists… in Their Own Words . Second edition. London New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

Then read more advanced textbooks

Byrne, John H. Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference , 2018. http://www.credoreference.com/book/estlearning.

Murphy, Robin A, and Robert C Honey. The Wiley Handbook on the Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning , 2018. http://www.credoreference.com/book/wileyocnl.

Clark, Robert E, and Stephen J Martin. Behavioral Neuroscience of Learning and Memory , 2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-78757-2.

Then start to follow the current research

172 - Useful Links - a link becomes useful when it promotes further understanding on a topic. The problem you run into with this is that you don’t always know what level of understanding your future self will have on a subject matter. If you understand it really well down the line, then all the links you created become useless and distracting. If on the other hand, your level of prior knowledge on a topic is low then links that provide more information become very useful.

Related to concept of Utility

173 - Knowledge Management - is the second layer of abstraction in note taking, with the first being information storage as a solution to a limited memory. Once the information has been stored, then you add layers of structure to facilitate information retrieval. This means being able to find the right set of information once you are presented with a retrieval cue.

In the case of this note, perhaps you see the word retrieval cue and don’t know what the term means. So you either search for a note on it or type it into google. It is a stimulus (e.g. seeing the word on the screen) that prompts you to search for more information on it (e.g. google the phrase retrieval cue).

Traditionally, before the computer, people relied on custom search tools to find the information. These would take the form of an index, table of contents, reference book, or word of mouth.

The third layer of abstraction is the introduction of tools that promote not just management, but development.

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174 - Zettelkasten is Learning - learning is essentially the process of taking in new information, processing it for long term storage, and tying it to your prior knowledge.

Learning, when done right, is going beyond just rote memorization. You are structure building mental models by combining the new information in front of you with what you already know. In Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised, the cognitive processes involved in learning are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

If you were to map the cognitive processes to the zettelkasten:

  • Remember - basic storage and retrieval ability in the zettelkasten. You can type up a note and then find it again through the file explorer or search function.
  • Understand - a topic in the zettelkasten through the creation of notes and interlinking them, such that you link to the wider context or topics. You can also facilitate understanding by removing the immediate context of a concept and writing it in your own words.
  • Apply - include possible applications of a concept to help facilitate understanding.
  • Analyze - further develop ideas in your zettelkasten by breaking down concepts into their constituent parts
  • Evaluate claims and arguments within a zettelkasten by collecting evidence and counter evidence over a long period of time.
  • Create new ideas in the zettelkasten by comparing two notes and thinking about how they might be related or can be “remixed”.

175 - Linking vs. Embedding in the Zettelkasten - what is the criteria one should use on deciding whether to just link to another note or create an embed within the note. This is the distinction between notes being directly and indirectly related. Is the new note part of a larger note sequence?

The process that I’m moving towards now after having thought about it, is to keep all notes on a given topic in a single note because we have the ability to edit notes and infinitely expand on a single note. In a digital system, the only reason to make notes atomic is to promote understanding. If I link to a note that is 2000 words long, then it could be confusing to know what idea I’m referencing specifically. On the flip side it isn’t necessary to atomize to the extent that I have so far. Where I’m settling down is to let notes naturally grow really long and only excise a paragraph and re-embed it in the document when I want to reference it elsewhere.

176 - Luhmann and Multiple Contexts - Luhmann had individual small notes because it was necessary for him to be able to reference notes in multiple contexts in a physical system. Because digital systems are more flexible, it only becomes advantageous to create note chains when you want to be able to reference a section of information in multiple contexts.

What does multiple contexts mean? Lets take a hypothetical person, named Bob Loblaw. I know him through work as a co worker. I typically think about him within the work context (context 1), when in reality he exists in multiple contexts.

  • Context 2: He has a home life, where he exists as a father and husband.
  • Context 3: He volunteers for the local wildlife as an expert in bird law.
  • Context 4: He is part of a handball team, which he participates in weekly

He exists in all these different contexts, and it is limiting to only see him existing in one of these contexts.

Same for Ideas within books. They often can contribute to multiple contexts, so when you take an idea out of a book and create a note around it, you want it to be able to contribute to many different contexts. This is part of what allowed Luhmann to be so prolific, his ideas could mix and help enrich each other.

See Literature Notes vs. Permanent Notes #to-do

177 - Ideal Digital Zettelkasten Structure

  • Facilitating Fast Information Retrieval
    • Digital Index
    • Hashtags
    • Search Functionality
  • Facilitating Information Development
    • Note Sequences
    • Linking

Having atomic notes and having that single note on a topic don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And, you seem to have both.

if I understand you well, you have atomic notes, which you “knit together” by embedding them in that single one topic note.

Isn’t it still the objective of a zettelkasten to “mix and help enrich each other” of the zettels? In other words, that, the way to find new associations and new ideas - serendipity.

Is search functionality part of a structure or part of the feature set of the zettelkasten?


A lot of people advocate creating atomic notes from the start. I actually think that is a waste of time and that you should only excise part of a note (making it into a new “atomic” note) when you want to reference it elsewhere, whether that be a link or an embed. Instead a note should look like an interweave between the notes content and embeds. The primary reason Luhmann used atomic notes is it allowed for the insertion of new information anywhere in the notes collection. In a digital system we do not face that issue because we can edit the text on the fly.

Yes the objective of a zettelkasten is knowledge development, which is essentially the remix of ideas or creation of new connections. Traditional note taking tools do not look to promote the development of knowledge but instead stick to just knowledge management (storing & retrieval of information).

Search functionality is not part of the feature set of a zettelkasten, but instead a more fundamental feature of information management (note taking) systems. Linear search is a nightmare so throughout time we create search tools to facilitate quicker search. In the far past this took the form of indexes, summaries, and table of contents. This is why Luhmann used an index, he needed a search tool.

Nowadays we have digital search tools that make it very easy, so we don’t necessarily need to use an index or other traditional search tools. You might ask why then do I have an index? Well I find that an index can still often be faster than using the universal search tool (the magnifying glass icon in top right corner of forum) because the universal search tool pulls up all the occurrences of a concept, when in reality I only want the first occurrence.

For example, my index takes me to the very first note on “Note Size”, whereas using the universal search tool brings up every occurrence of the word Note Size.

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When you have very long notes, you aren’t engaged in knowledge management but merely in info arrangement and a tiny bit of knowledge acquisition. I am speaking from experience with one of my non-zk knowledge bases.

Atomic notes with one idea are not only meant to embed in other notes,. Their primary purpose is to get a full handle on that one idea and branch out from there to make new associations. With long notes that is a lot more cumbersome to do, and less efficient.

As for search functionality, no, it is not part of the structure. Search is to find info you are looking for, and that info itself is part of the notes structure, whereas Search, whether that be linear or more sophisticated Regex-based, is ephemeral, only relevant in that one moment that you use it, then it’s gone again. A structure is permanent, not ephemeral; a structure can change, it can even disappear, but a search is never permanent, its output can be.

I agree an index note is part of the structure

183 - Creating Note Sequences with Embeds - One drawback of current digital systems is the inability to easily insert notes between each other as you would do so with a physical system. This is for the creation of note sequences (chains of notes). One work around to this, is to have the start of a sequence be a note then embed other notes within it to create a note sequence.

An example of this is the Note 79 - Cognitive Skills, which has 8 embeds in it. Here is what it looks like in my Zettelkasten. @kbrede


184 - To Do - tracking notes I need to follow up on or rework


  • Fix Pointers (Luhmann IDs -> Sequential IDs)
  • Interlinking Notes
  • Add New Entry Points into the Index

To Do


Elaborate On

Long Term Research

185 - Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised - is a set of learning objectives used by theorists and researchers. You can think of our brains as information processing machines. Your zettelkasten can be framed in the same way, except it serves as an external machine.

The key mental functions you engage in for learning are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. The goal is to be able to engage in these functions with the four different types of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive.

Source: Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

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186 - Understanding more broadly is the process of acquiring knowledge about a topic such that you can make predictions about it.

On a neurological level this means creating a network of memory traces (chains of neurons) such that you can pull to mind all the relevant information on an idea through spreading activation. This is done through the natural or deliberate memorization of connections in everyday learning. These connections can take the form of knowing the relationship between two concepts or how the new information relates to prior knowledge. You essentially want to create as many retrieval cues as possible, so that you can pull up the information when needed.

Conceptually understanding means forming a working model around an idea whereby you can predict the output with a given input. On the most basic level, you can think of a simple math equation. You develop an understanding of it such that If I give you a set of inputs you can tell me what the output will be. This means knowing all the different components of the model (e.g. rules & concepts) and how they relate to each other.

With a zettelkasten understanding means taking the above working model and making it explicit through a series of connected notes instead of just having it all within your head in the form of a mental model.

cognitive processes (and alternative names) in the category of Understanding

  • interpreting (clarifying, paraphrasing, representing, translating)
  • exemplifying (illustrating, instantiating)
  • classifying (categorizing, subsuming)
  • summarizing (abstracting, generalizing)
  • inferring (concluding, extrapolating, interpolating, predicting)
  • comparing (contrasting, mapping, matching)
  • explaining (constructing models)

The concept of understanding can be applied to the four different types of knowledge outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised:

  1. Understand Factual Knowledge - construct meaning out of the basic information on a subject matter. What is meant by “construct meaning”? #todo
  2. Understand Conceptual Knowledge
  3. Understand Procedural Knowledge
  4. Understand Metacognitive Knowledge

Conceptual - The interrelationships among the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together.

Procedural - How to do something, methods of inquiry, and criteria for using skills, algorithms, techniques, and methods.

Metacognitive - Knowledge of cognition in general as well as awareness and knowledge of one’s own cognition

Understand - Construct meaning from instructional messages, including oral, written and graphic communication.

187 - Everything is a Remix

Remix to combine or edit existing material to produce something new. With knowledge work, the existing material takes the form of information and knowledge.

Elements of Creativity

Copying is how we learn, and we do that through emulation. It builds your foundation of knowledge and understanding. After establishing a foundation of understanding, then you experiment through transformation. Transformation is taking ideas and creating variations until you get a breakthrough. Most dramatic results happen when ideas are combined.


188 - Luhmann on Zettelkasten

"The problem of reading theoretical texts seems to consist in the fact that they do not require just short-term memory but also long-term memory in order to be able to distinguish between what is essential and what is not essential and what is new from what is merely repeated. But one cannot remember everything. This would simply be learning by heart. In other words, one must read very selectively and must be able to extract extensively networked references. One must be able to understand recursions. But how can one learn these skills, if no instructions can be given; or perhaps only about things that are unusual like “recursion” in the previous sentences as opposed to “must”?

Perhaps the best method would be to take notes—not excerpts, but condensed reformulations of what has been read. The re-description of what has already been described leads almost automatically to a training of paying attention to “frames,” or schemata of observation, or even to noticing conditions which lead the text to offer some descriptions but not others. What is not meant, what is excluded when something is asserted? If the text speaks of “human rights,” what is excluded by the author? Non-human rights? Human duties? Or is it comparing cultures or historical times that did not know human rights and could live very well without them?

This leads to another question: what are we to do with what we have written down? Certainly, at first we will produce mostly garbage. But we have been educated to expect something useful from our activities and soon lose confidence if nothing useful seems to result. We should therefore reflect on whether and how we arrange our notes so that they are available for later access. At least this should be a consoling illusion. This requires a computer or a card file with numbered index cards and an index. The constant accommodation of notes is then a further step in our working process. It costs time, but it is also an activity that goes beyond the mere monotony of reading and incidentally trains our memory."

One of my favorite pieces of writing on the Zettelkasten and why Luhmann values it. This comes from his essay on reading. He also has a nice essay on communicating with a zettelkasten.

This section from his essay is essentially saying that to create meaningful connections with our reading material, we must make an external form of long term memory. This long term memory takes the form of networked references within a large body of notes, using condensed reformulations of information. This condensed reformulations is also highly recommended for learning writ large through the process of elaboration.