Obsidian Zettelkasten

228 - Zettelkasten as a Box of Legos

Think of your zettelkasten as a giant box of legos, with each individual lego being a piece of information (concept, commentary, reference, etc) in the form of a note. As you collect more and more legos you organize them (zettelkasten workflow) in such a way that when you want to go build something you are able to get all the pieces you need.

You can then take these legos (information building blocks) and organize them into different structures to create a bunch of different things. What you end up making are made up of all the same thing (information) but are different depending on how you structure them. These different structures are blog posts, books, presentations, and wikis.

You collect and organize the legos until you have enough to build a structure. In the same way you collect and organize information in the zettelkasten until you have enough notes to use for a wiki entry, blog post, or book. In this situation, the difference between a wiki and zettelkasten is that you might not use all the information on a topic for the wiki entry that you have in your zettelkasten. Zettelkasten is your loose collection of information, sometimes it includes incorrect information that you later correct in your research process.


229 - Zettelkasten isn’t a Catch All

I think how successful a zettelkasten user is depends on the person and how they communicate with their zettelkasten. Luhmann published prolifically with his zettelkasten. His output was a byproduct of the interaction between what he put in the zettelkasten, his default brain, and how the two communicated with each other.

Just because you create a zettelkasten, doesn’t mean you’ll somehow create great work. It is just a tool. Some people suck at using tools and others create amazing masterpieces with them.

In the same sense, you can think of your brain as an information processing program and the zettelkasten as a plugin. Plugins don’t guarantee success, but powerful ones can act as a great multiplier in the knowledge work you do.

230 - Summarization and Paraphrasing in Note Taking

231 - Recenter Focus - what are the high yield activities and low yield activities regarding knowledge work?

  • High Value
    • mastering general skills (e.g. deliberate practice guitar playing)
    • mastering desirable yet specialized skills (e.g. integrated circuit design)
  • Low Value
    • mediocre general skills (e.g. average guitar player, which there are a million of)
    • mastering specialized skills that are undesirable (e.g. masters in obscure literature, see Note)

Note: I often still think a lot of the masters in obscure literature are still valuable, its just harder for the average person to find a job with that skillset. But if you are productively contributing to our global knowledge base, then that is good. Same goes with Philosophy degrees, there is so much bullshit literature produced by PhD students, but if done right, the philosophy degree will give you a great thinking tool set.

Goal/Focus is High Yield Knowledge Work

  • High Yield Knowledge Work
    • Thinking Skills
      • Critical Thinking
      • Creative Thinking
      • Three Dimensional Thinking
      • Philosophical Thinking (Different?)
    • Learning Skills
      • Knowing what to Learn
      • Knowing how to find Material
      • Knowing how to Process Material
      • Building a Learning Loop (Testing & Learning)
  • Low Yield Knowledge Work
    • Suprisal and Utility Lens
    • Poor Study Skills
      • Massed Practice
      • Highlighting
      • Rereading
    • Productivity Busy Work (Think Deep Work by Cal Newport)
  • Uncategorized Yield
    • Reading
    • Writing
    • Note Taking
    • What other Activities?

Future Skills and Abilities

Future Roles

Future Industries

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232 - Career Focus

  • Career Preparation
  • Career Option 1 - Excel at Common Skill
  • Career Option 2 - 80,000 Hours Framework
  • Career Option 3 - Anywhere, but Contribute

233 - PKM Components

Breakdown and analyze all the different components of the PKM process

  • Finding Sources of Information
  • Capturing Information
  • Placeholder Text
  • Placeholder Text
  • Deciding on New Information


234 Luhmann Conceptualization of Zettelkasten was geared towards a grand theory. That is why he was focused so much on abstracting concepts from books and connecting them. Because this isn’t everyone’s goal, they should be careful about hyper focusing on concepts as what they wanted abstracted.

Second Zettelkasten

Over the course of his forty years of academic work, he developed a universal theoretical framework — i.e. sociological systems theory — capable of covering nearly the entire spectrum of social phenomena. In doing so, he placed great emphasis on conceptual and terminological consistency and was receptive to theoretical developments not only in sociology but in other academic disciplines such as philosophy, law, theology, biology and cybernetics in particular.

Whereas his initial publication activities were more strongly focused on the fields of administrative and organizational studies, he turned to developing the key elements of his sociological work in the period from 1962 to 1997, which involved considerations on the methodological and theoretical foundations of a theory of social systems, a comprehensive theory of society, as well as studies on the link between the structures and self-description of modern society.

The later collection (c. 1963–1996) covers the major part of Luhmann’s publication activity and, from the beginning, clearly reflects a sociological approach.

Luhmann never explained why he started a second collection in the early 1960s that was largely intended to replace the first one – which can be assumed from the fact that the numbering of the cards started with number one again. One can suspect that this had to do with his turn toward sociology in the early 1960s and his first drafts of a universalistic theory of the social, which required re-conceptualizing the structure of the collection. Accordingly, the two collections are only loosely connected, i.e., there are relatively few references between the collections where even the same (key) concepts are involved (such as role, informal organization, institution).

Source - Johannes F.K. Schmidt

235 - Plant Breeding and the Zettelkasten

"Plant breeding is the science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired characteristics.[1] It has been used to improve the quality of nutrition in products for humans and animals.[2]

Plant breeding can be accomplished through many different techniques ranging from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation, to methods that make use of knowledge of genetics and chromosomes, to more complex molecular techniques (see cultigen and cultivar).

Genes in a plant are what determine what type of qualitative or quantitative traits it will have. Plant breeders strive to create a specific outcome of plants and potentially new plant varieties." - Wikipedia

Zettelkasten Concept Breeding

Remixing the plants and creating new variations in hopes of creating something better. If you think of the plants being pieces of written work, then what would be the seeds? What would be the traits that make the seed?

The seed would be the primary idea you find within your zettelkasten, and you get that idea by copying, transforming, and combining different concepts within your zettelkasten.

Good point about keeping in perspective the particularities of Luhmann’s own theoretical commitments! What is distinctive about his sociological “Systemtheorie” is at least the following:

  • he was convinced that abstraction is the path to insight (his seminal book “Social Systems” opens with a comparison of his theory to flying above the clouds and only occasionally glimpsing the land below);
  • he was suspicious of what he dismissed as “old European” assumptions about what happens in the social world being a matter of individuals engaging in intentional actions for reason. Rather, according to Luhmann’s systems theory, structures reproduce themselves and interact with one another via “autopoetic” processes that have nothing to do with people understanding or consciously guiding what they are doing.

I think that especially this second point is related to the tendency among some Zettelkasters (and, perhaps, Roamans) to hype the idea that the well-ordered ideas will magically form themselves, bottom up.

One thing I really like about the way in which many on the Obsidian forum approach PKM – and I’m especially thinking of @nickmilo and his LYT approach – is the acknowledgement that there is plenty of intentional thought that has to go into curation of notes, to thoughtfully pruning the garden, as it were. Maybe this approach worked automagically for Luhmann himself, but I doubt it works for many people. What must of us need are tools that encourage a mix of intentional curation and unintentionally connection.


@AutonomyGaps yep, I’m still trying to work out my thoughts around to what degree Luhmann’s system is specially designed for his project (abstraction of abstractions) and how much of it should be emulated. On one hand I can see how his system & workflow is advantageous for his specific project, but at the end of the day it is still a system for managing information, therefore I think it can be emulated to a degree. Remix you might say.

abstraction is the path to insight

There is a lot of truth to this generally speaking. Abstraction allows us to get more utility out of concepts and models (See Notes 41, 40, 39, and 38). You just have to be careful about running the risk of over abstraction, whereby information becomes meaningless/useless.

Regarding the second point, I imagine its a mix of hidden systems and people acting intentionally. I actually created a note about this the other day titled “Intertwined Concepts” because I notice a bunch of people acting like some concepts (e.g. nature-nurture debate) are battling each other when in reality they are intertwined.

encourage a mix of intentional curation and unintentionally connection

Yep I agree with this, I’m more interested in how to facilitate the unintentional connections. I thought of creating a program to help facilitate connections but I don’t have any programming skills unfortunately.

238 - Questions for Johannes F.K. Schmidt who is one of the scholars working on publishing the Luhmann Archive online. He seems to be the most knowledgeable, so thinking about questions I’d have for him is a good way to get at what I don’t quite understand about the zettelkasten.

Department Level

How did Luhmann’s department level categories work? Did he create them beforehand or did they emerge overtime? By the numbering system, it sounds like he created them beforehand. See 1 - Subject area below. This means that people are mistaken when they say the zettelkasten has a flat file structure or is heterarchy?

Note Contents

I wonder what the breakdown is (percentage wise) between the different types of content within a note (e.g. own thoughts, references to other notes, references to books).


Would love to see some examples of how disparate information was actually connected within his zettelkasten.

1 - Subject Area

Of course the file collection is not simply a chaotic compilation of notes but an aggregation of a vast number of cards on specific concepts and topics. This order per subject area on a top level is reflected in the first number assigned to the card followed by a comma (first collection) or slash (second collection) that separates it from the rest of the number given each card (see below). The first collection features 108 sections differentiated by subject areas, exploring and reflecting on largely predetermined, fairly detailed fields of knowledge in law, administrative sciences, philosophy and sociology, such as state, equality, planning, power, constitution, revolution, hierarchy, science, role, concept of world, information, and so on

Johannes F.K. Schmidt

242 - My Information Diet & Projects - I expose myself to a wide variety of information because I find it to be very enjoyable, sometimes to my detriment (scatterbrain at times). Thought I’d include this note here of what I’m currently reading/listening to in bits and pieces.

Updated Last: 9/10/2020 - I haven’t been contributing much to this zettelkasten lately because I’ve been reading books that don’t have to do with knowledge work directly.


I’m really bad with books, as I like to start them and am slow to finish them, the big pile of books phenomenon.

  • Positive Psychology 101 by Philip Watkins (textbook)
  • Social Science: An Introduction to the Study of Society by Elgin F. Hunt (16th Edition, textbook)
  • Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (4th Edition, textbook)
  • Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
  • Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene
  • Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age by Ann M. Blair
  • Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills by Zachary Shore
  • How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco
  • Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown


I have a love/hate relationship with podcasts. They make for great background listening when you are doing busy work or manual labor type activities. On the other hand I get a ton of book recommendations out of them, which is distracting. I don’t listen to all these podcasts all the time, but instead listen to an episode if it sounds interesting.

  • Sean Carroll’s Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture
  • The Ezra Klein Show
  • In Our Time BBC
  • The Knowledge Project with Shane Parish
  • The Psychology Podcast with Scott Barry Kaufman
  • Tides of History
  • All Songs Considered (NPR)
  • Hidden Forces Podcast
  • Lex Fridman Podcast
  • Various Topical News and Politics Podcasts


These are a lot of projects going on at once, so many of them do not get love for long stretches of time. But I have a special bookmark on my browser for them, so they are not forgotten. They are just really long term projects.

  • Private Zettelkasten - where most of my notes and readings go
  • Obsidian Wiki - wiki I’m developing within my private notes collection, that I will eventually combine this with and make public using Obsidian Publish
  • Obsidian Zettelkasten - this public zettelkasten
  • Tools for Thoughts Zettelkasten - also created an experimental zettelkasten on the tools for thoughts forum because being able to make “note chains” using entire discords posts is a good experiment.
  • Simple Zettelkasten Guide - an attempt make a beginners guide to the zettelkasten
  • Pizza, Pizza, Obsidian Zettelkasten Example - showing how you can develop a concept within a zettelkasten

243 - Zettelkasten Forum Posts I Like

244 - Unique Identifiers

UID Primary Purpose

The primary purpose of each unique identifier is the quite obvious. It serves as a way to point towards another piece of information. Whether it be point to a whole another note (e.g. see note Metacognition) or section of a note (e.g. see Metamemory section in Metacognition note). With a digital system you can create a clickable link to it (e.g. see 202006011558 Metacognition). The whole point of it is it allows you to pull up more information when needed.

The key here is that the UIDs is unique and you have some method of tracking titles that keep them unique. In Obsidian, it automatically scans your notes so you can’t create duplicate titles. Because time flows forward, generating a timestamp of that instant will also always create a unique identifier that won’t ever be duplicated.

A contrasting example of a identifier would be the #tags system within obsidian. A single tag can represent many different notes, so it is no long unique to the note. Unless you track your tags and make sure they are descriptive enough to be unique.

UID Secondary Purpose

All the different options also have a secondary purpose besides serving as a unique pointer to that note or section of information. Titles for example give you a quick idea of what the contents of the note will be. Time IDs will give you an idea when the note was created. Luhmann IDs allow you to pretty much infinitely expand on any section of information in a physical system. People also misunderstand them and use them to show hierarchical relations between notes (not judging it).

UID Option 1: Titles

Titles are the go to standard for note UIDs. They have the capability to be unique, give you a brief idea of the notes content, and make note retrieval easier. Typically we search for information through retrieval cues that take the form of words. So it makes sense to search for note titles in the form of words.

The problem with note titles is there is no easy way to organize them so they stay unique. You could have them all sorted by title alphabetically but then that will become a giant headache when your notes are heavily interlinked. You’ll be jumping all over the place to pull up a set of notes. That is why Luhmann IDs work so well. They can be forever expanded upon while also keeping notes relating to one topic near each other. All these problems go away with digital software , as the computer can easily search all your notes for a matching title. Because of clickable links and automatic searching, collecting a the relevant notes become easier.

UID Option 2: Time IDs

Time IDs are another way to create UIDs for your files. They are so popular because they can be easily generated (just look at a clock) and will always be unique. In addition people find the Time/Date aspect of it very helpful because they see their notes and topics in a temporal aspect. For example, you remember writing a bunch of notes on a topic in January of 2015. It becomes very easy to pull up all your notes from that time period. This strategy wouldn’t work well in a physical collection because notes that are thematically related are not together. You run into the same problem as note titles above.

Another way to approach time IDs to is the method employed by Zettlr and The Archive (I think, don’t have an apple computer to test it out). Zettlr allows you to either generate a Time ID in the title itself or anywhere in a document. Then when you go to search it just does a universal text search for that time ID and uses a ranking system to display the findings. This means showing notes with the time ID in the title first, then notes with it in the metadata, then notes that have it show up early in the note, followed by every other note that mentions it.

Left off: Other downsides to Time IDs?

UID Option 3: Sequential IDs

Sequential IDs are where you give each note a number and just a next highest number when adding a new note. This is the strategy that Zettelkasten^3 uses. Because it is all a digital system, using Luhmann IDs become unnecessary as you can easily pull up related notes through linking and the creation of custom note sequences. The main downside to sequential IDs is that they serve no secondary function. Zettelkasten solves the search problem (pulling up the note you want) through the use of tags (keywords) and related notes being connected. So if you want to find a note on “meta-memory” you’d either click on the meta-memory tag or find the most closely related note (psychology or metacognition) and click through the note links until you stumble upon it. The case for doing this instead of directly going to the note is it forces you to expose yourself to other notes which might induce an unexpected but useful insight.

UID Option 4: Luhmann IDs

Fill Out

Combining UID Types

Because UIDs are just characters/filenames, you can use multiple types of UIDs in a single file. I’ve seen people over on Zettelkasten De Forums who are championing the use of Time ID + Filename + Luhmann ID, so a note would be titled something like “202006011558 Metacognition 4d5a”. The purpose of doing this is it allows for one to use all the secondary functions/purposes. The alternative to this would be sticking to one title type, while embedding the other information in metadata at the top. An example of this is TiddlyWiki, where it allows you to see when a note was created and last modified.

Where I’m at with UIDs

I’m still trying to figure out what the best option is, as I only occasionally come back to this topic and think about it more. I only have so much time, so I’m trying not to spend too much on the question. So far I’ve settled on combining Time IDs with Titles, so in Obsidian this note is titled “202009141037 Unique Identifiers”. I’m still not entirely sure this is the best option as I lose the ability to have unmentioned backlinks. I’m hoping someday Obsidian will implement partial note title matches for unmentioned backlinks. The primary reason I am using both is it future proofs me if Obsidian doesn’t work out. This is the strategy that the folks over at The Archive use, and I tend to trust them because they’ve put a lot of time into creating a zettelkasten program. Take this with a grain of salt though because I haven’t entirely worked out why this is the preferred method. My current understanding is they do this because it serves as a redundancy in case something gets messed up with the note title. I will add a section after this if I gain further understanding.


@lizardmenfromspace, Thank you. I’ve been looking for just such a explanation of a UID/Title/Zettelkasten ‘connection’ as you have provided here. Well done.

246 - Useful Features of a PKM Programs

Reflecting on and brainstorming useful features of a PKM program that I don’t currently see out there. There are a lot of programs with features I don’t use. What would be something I’d find myself using a lot?

  1. Existing PKM Features I use a lot?
  2. Breakdown the PKM process than think about what tools could help facilitate along each step in my personal PKM process
  3. What PKM problems more generally speaking?


  • File Explorer - I use heavily, one of the main ways I find notes.
  • Search Tab - primarily use for finding notes I haven’t worked on in a while and don’t immediately find using the hashtag index
  • Hashtag Index - I add hashtags to the end of notes in such a way that it creates a basic index, whereby I’m easily able to search if I have a web/section of notes
  • Linked mentions - I haven’t used successfully, it is nice when going through the creative phase to see what concepts connect to the current one. But I only have used it so far as a sort of quick back button.
  • Star Tab - I use the star tab to track notes that I want to come back to because they are unfinished when I’m burnout or too distracted.
  • Edit Button - Placeholder
  • Pin Button - Placeholder
  • Foot Notes - Placeholder
  • Wiki links - not only do I use the wiki links feature (when you type [[ ) to interlink my documents, but I also use it to quickly find and navigate to other notes. Instead of going to the search tool, I just try to create a link to the note I’m looking for within the current file.


  • Unlinked Mentions - I like the idea of unlinked mentions a lot but it is useless in its current form because my notes are in the format of “zettelkasten ID + title” (e.g. 202009161510 Aphantasia), and when writing I don’t use “zettelkasten ID + title”, I’d just use the title “aphantasia” in a sentence.
  • Quick Switcher - I always mean to but just haven’t gotten in the habit of doing so, maybe someday I will. I also just flip over to the search tab instead.
  • Outline - I feel like one day I’m going to use this but haven’t really found the need to yet because I have generally avoided creating really long notes that would make it useful.
  • Open Random Note - I have this one saved, as I plan to use it more in the future. It is nice for selecting random note for the combinng process in remixing. See also localized random notes.
  • Open Today’s Note - Placeholder
  • Link with Pane - Placeholder
  • Split Vertically/Horizontally - Placeholder
  • Reveal in File Explorer - Placeholder
  • Open Local Graph View - Placeholder
  • Open Backlinks - Placeholder
  • Star - Placeholder
  • Open Outline - Placeholder
  • Create a New Zettelkasten Note - I do not use this button because I have it mapped to a hotkey which I use instead
  • Graph View - Placeholder

PKM Process

  • Purpose of PKM
    • Building a Knowledge Network for School
    • Building a Knowledge Network for Work/Writing
    • Building a Knowledge Network for Personal Use
  • Information Digestion
    • Choose Material to Process
    • Process Material
    • Index Material
    • Interconnect Material
  • Collection Maintenance
    • Connecting Loose Notes
    • Looking for New Connections
  • Creative Writing
    • Looking for Critical Mass of Notes
    • Following existing arguments

I haven’t actually done much creative writing besides trying to synthesize two notes and making connections. All my writing has been done towards creating notes, not outside pieces.

PKM Problems

  • Lack of Precision
  • Lack of Connection
  • Shallow Notes
  • Overcollecting

247 - Zettelkasten as an Abstraction Machine

Another way to conceptualize a zettelkasten is as an abstraction machine, whereby you abstract ideas out of a text then use them to create new ones using the copy, transform, combine creative remix. Below, looking at it through the REMIX FRAMEWORK


Read recommended books to understand their ideas and copy the most important Ideas into your notes collection. While books are the primary form of information gathering because they can be the easiest to process (fluid pause/rewind ability), you can copy information from anywhere. I use podcasts as a common source of information for my notes collection.


Generalization : a process in which detail is ignored to reveal a deeper structure. The term overlaps with abstraction, conceptualization, inductive reasoning, modeling, theorization, categorization, conclusion, unification, colligation, de-concretization, pattern extraction, pattern separation, and more.

Abstraction in its main sense is a conceptual process where general rules and concepts are derived from the usage and classification of specific examples, literal (“real” or “concrete”) signifiers, first principles, or other methods.


You can either combine a set of ideas to reach a higher abstraction, which would be like following themes across many different fields. Or you can combine concepts and ideas to come up with new ones.

A basic example of this would be to write out the sales pitch for a television show you love in one sentence. Do this twice, than write a third sentence that is a combination of the previous two sentences.

An ingenious real life example of this is how Gunpei Yokoi combined “withered technology” to make Nintendo what it is today.


The zettelkasten is good for creating conceptual connections through copying, transforming, and combining. This is typically done by combining information you already know very well (your primary field of study) with novel ideas you get from reading broadly.

This presumes you have a primary field of study, which not everyone has. Especially someone who is first starting out (e.g. first year college student). When this happens to be the case, then a zettelkasten can be used for understanding through creating a private model of the field. Understanding in this case, is literally uncovering all the concepts of the field and how they are connected to each other.

This is good and bad. The model you end up building in your zettelkasten can be useful because the information serves as anchor points for new information that is related. But it is bad because the information loses its utility over time. For example, when first starting a job, having pictures of all your coworkers with their names on it would be useful. But overtime as you internalize everyone’s name, then the pictures/names become useless. The information that was once useful, now just takes up space.

248 - Localized Random Notes - I like the idea of using the random note feature to select two different notes than ask if there is a connection between them. If there is a connection, than you create a middle note, otherwise repeat the process.

This feels like it may be unproductive because you’d have to go through so many bad note pairs before getting to a good one. I wonder if instead it would be a better idea to probe for local connections.

So a localized random note button would allow you to select two random notes that are 3-4 steps away from each other. This means that there is more likely to be a connection between them (I think) that you haven’t discovered yet. Besides the connection used to select them in the first place. A more direct connection (e.g. 1 to 1 connection) instead of the existing indirect connection (3-4 middle notes between them).

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Actually I do follow this approach quite regulary - and in less than 1 of 10 cases this is really unproductive for me… :wink: If you’d stop thinking in categories for a moment, this almost always triggers a thought in your mind that had not existed there before…