Other sources of Slipbox ideas (Robert M. Pirsig)

The first time I read about a Slipbox was in Robert M. Pirsig’s book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, and Ryan Holiday’s “Commonplace Book”. Both of their systems are centered more around categories, and random access, and less about linking ideas, like Luhmann’s Zettlekasten. All three systems feature atomicity.

Lila was essentially a sequel to Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In this book, Pirsig describes his slipbox system, which he kept on cards in drawers aboard his sailboat. His topics, categories and subcategories aren’t really important, because this is something you need to invent and find for yourself.

But he did talk about some of his meta categories, which are very interesting. And these could be implemented into any note-taking system.

Robert M. Pirsig’s Slipbox System:

[UNASSIMILATED] - cards which aren’t integrated into the network yet. This was basically his inbox. I like the idea of having an explicit tag for this, to indicate to yourself that you mean to assimilate the note. (Rather than an implicit lack of connections or keywords.)

[PROGRAM] - this was his main meta category. His own personal commentary on the system as a whole. He would keep ideas and instructions to himself about the system, and about things he wanted to reorganize. Each slip was an instruction for how to deal with the rest of the system. Each note in this category was also an individual atomic slip, so he could still sort, reorganize and link this category as well.

[CRIT] - This was a safety measure. Sometimes he’d wake up in a foul mood and want to destroy things, thinking his ideas were terrible. So instead of trashing notes, he used CRIT to write down all his complaints about the notes. Then he could review when he was calmer.

[TOUGH] - These were slips that seemed to say something of great importance, but he couldn’t think of what topic to include it in yet. Note that this is separate from UNASSIMILATED. UNASSIMILATED was his rough inbox for any new scraps of ideas.

[JUNK] - Things he had written down before that seemed high quality, but now seemed like junk. If he found duplicates, he would throw away the extras, but otherwise nothing got deleted. He realized JUNK is a working category! Some slips never got reincarnated from this category, but some of the ones that did were some of the most important ones he had. In Tiago Forte’s P.A.R.A. this could almost be thought of as the ARCHIVE. It isn’t a trash bin!

I hope someone finds this useful. I actually forgot about Pirsig’s system until I began moving my physical index cards into Obsidian!


So happy you shared this. Those are interesting meta-categories. Were those basically all his big categories?

Thanks for posting. Some really nice ideas here :slight_smile:

Those were all the meta categories he listed in Lila, yes.

Interestingly, he said that JUNK and TOUGH were of particular concern to him. These were “the underdogs, the pariahs, the outsiders.” He felt the quality of the system as a whole depended on how he treated them.

Although, that is more related to the themes of the novel, his struggles with understanding Lila, and his “Metaphysics of Quality”, rather than pure note-taking guidance. :slight_smile:

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Excelent, thank you.

[unassimilated], [junk], and [program] are very smart.

Thanks for sharing, interesting reading!

From what I can tell, he got a few concepts mixed up.

I’ll share pieces of my system to clarify in case someone’s interested:

  1. Note “statuses” and note “categories” are messed up. [PROGRAM] is not a status, it’s a category of notes. E.g., it’s perfectly possible that some of the [PROGRAM] notes seem [CRIT]-ically flawed at some time.
  2. [PROGRAM] is a note category among others to me: I also have “admin” notes, “project” notes, “source” notes and several other to separate my thinking from technical stuff, projects and other people’s thinking. I use suffixes to note names to distinguish them.
  3. [UNASSIMILATED] or inbox notes are in fact not monolithic: some notes require further thinking, some are sources to be processed, some are processed sources to be formulated in own words etc. I personally use several categories for this.
  4. Instead of [CRIT] I use todo’s inside the notes to further elaborate on certain topics or to raise questions to myself.
  5. [TOUGH] are notes to be linked elsewhere, I only use a similar status if the note has zero outgoing links. Once it’s linked to another note, I change the status — which don’t prevent from adding more links later of course.
  6. [JUNK] category is the most obscure to me: a long time ago I realized there’s no junk produced by thinking (it may appear junk at some point of time, but there’s no way to be sure it doesn’t appear valuable again in the future), so my approach is to link any “junk” to another note with reworked thinking. I borrow this “status” for my notes then, I’ll call it “obsolete”.

Just finished reading this wonderful excerpt from the book.

They guy was not using Zettelkasten apparently and spend a lot of time reorganizing his notes into ever-changing categories instead of having multiple categories as a layer above.

Also worth adding is the following piece:

After a while he took a blank pad from the back of the tray and wrote on the top slip, [PROGRAM], and then under it, ‘Hang up everything until Lila gone.’ Then he tore the slip off the note pad and put the slip in the front of the [PROGRAM] pile and put the note pad in the back of the tray. It was important, he’d found, to write a [PROGRAM] slip for what you are currently doing. It seems unnecessary at the time you are writing it but later when interruptions have interrupted interruptions which have interrupted interruptions you’re glad you did it.

So he also used [PROGRAM] to reflect on what he is about to be doing. Interesting stuff!


This is very helpful being a newbie. I have my notes spread over word processors and Scrivener, so it puts my large task in some perspective. I particularly like the JUNK working category. It will get a lot use as well as grooming out duplicates. Thanks.

It is nice to see that great minds produce somewhat similar approaches to solve issues they encounter. I believe it is important to point out that the protoganist (Phaedrus) in both of Pirsig’s books has relentlessly tried to make sense of the information he possessed but also suffered greatly in not the sense that he was not fully successful in this effort. The content he is trying to organize/make sense eventually overwhelms him and one can even argue makes him lose his mind (the philosophical knife he uses in the 1st book - ZAMM).

To me, the second book (of which the quote above has been taken from) takes a softer approach and describes Phaedrus in a less fatal effort. This book is also less critical of the world, the good and bad parts of the world seen from the same perspective.

Maybe that is why he is in more productive mood to categorize and use his knowledge.

I’m grateful that Robert Pirsig’s work is mentioned here :clap: