Simple Zettelkasten Guide

7/22/20 - this guide is being developed as a series of individual notes first over in the public zettelkasten: Note 133 - Note 162.

Once finished I will transfer them over to this post


This post over on Zettelkasten De forum made me realize I should probably work on creating a very simple zettelkasten guide. Creation of a more elaborate zettelkasten guide being outlined here (on hold while I do research).

All of this is being supported by the creation of a forum based zettelkasten.

Barebones Outline

  • Brief Evolution of Note Taking
  • Core Note Functions
  • Zettelkasten is about Development
  • Different ways to Develop Knowledge
    • Developing through Note Sequences
    • Developing through Connecting Notes
  • Practical Example
  • Principles that support Development

Brief Evolution of Note Taking

Note Taking at its core is the storage of information. This information started out in the form of knowledge (memorized information) that aided us in survival as a species, such as the location of the watering hole and what time of day animals congregate there.

Over time as survival became easier, we have been given the space that allows for the collection of information that isn’t vital to living. The explosion of information ran into conflict with our brains desire to streamline information for survival purposes (forgetting). So we started to write down information that we didn’t want to forget and referenced it when necessary.

This also allowed us to share information with each other over time and space, leading to an even greater proliferation of information. Over the centuries you see the cycle of information explosion and creation of tools to manage it, such as the index and table of contents.

Core Note Taking Functions

For most of time the tools have been centered around the core four note functions involved in referencing: storage, sorting, selecting, summarizing (Blair 2010, pg 15). Lets take a look at it from a paper and digital viewpoint, starting with a paper reference book.

  1. You start by storing the information on paper of various sizes and qualities.

  2. You then create pointers to the different sections of information so that you can easily find them again. Two common ways of sorting the pointers are thematic and alphabetical.

  3. The reader would then select the information they want to reference using the sorted pointers. If you wanted to search for the information thematically, you’d use a table of contents. Alphabetically, you’d use an index.

  4. Because the information out there is too big for one book, the authors of reference books would include summaries of other information collections (other books).

The digital version of this would be Wikis such as Wikipedia or SuperMemoGuru.

  1. You store the information on a latticework of webpages, with each page explaining an idea or concept.
  2. The information is sorted through unique page names, which in turn can be searched, removing the need for advanced sorting techniques. On both mentioned websites, pages are often sorted thematically for easier comprehension with the use of hubs or table of contents.
  3. To select the information you can either use links or a universal search.
  4. Wikipedia implements summarizing through the creation of page introductions/overviews at the top of each page.

Enter in the Zettelkasten

Zettelkasten, “note box” in German, is a broad term that can represent a different set of ideas depending on who you talk to. For the purpose of this guide, I am using it to reference both the note taking system of sociologist Niklas Luhmann and my digital interpretation of it.

The zettelkasten system is about introducing a fifth function, that of development. Instead of just structuring material for future reference (e.g. book or wiki), you are structuring it in a way that helps you further develop your knowledge base. Once a section of your knowledge base (zettelkasten) has been sufficiently developed, you can then use it in a couple of ways.

  1. You can share the knowledge you developed through a research paper, blog post, or book.

  2. You can formalize the knowledge into a more useful form that can then be referenced later. This would be using your zettelkasten to create an entry in your personal wiki.

  3. Leave the notes alone and just reference them next time you run into a situation where that set of information would be helpful.

  4. You can formalize the knowledge into a model that you memorize. This would be akin to creating a sequence of notes about a cooking recipe that you are experimenting with. After you’ve created a sequence of notes on the recipe over a span of 3 years, you memorize the ideal recipe intentionally with a program like Anki or unintentionally by just using the recipe frequently.

What Development of Knowledge Means

You can further developing your knowledge base in multiple ways. The two primary forms it takes is the generation of new ideas and the creation of structure.

As you create individual notes and link them together, you are creating a structure. Structure can take the form of mapping out the most important components of a idea. If I were to model/map out “my family”, I would include notes on all the members and the interpersonal dynamics between us. Another form of structure is the creation of arguments and the corresponding evidence, including counter evidence. For example, I have a sequence of notes about how awesome dogs are. Every time I come across new information that supports or detracts from this argument, I add it to the note sequence.

  • New Ideas
  • Remixing Ideas
  • Representing Ideas
  • Creating New Connections
  • Pooling Diverse Sources (Spatial)
  • Pooling Information over Time (Temporal)

Reference Features of a Physical Zettelkasten

  • How Luhmann Structured his Notes for Increased Development
  • Note Titles
  • Index

Developmental Features of a Physical Zettelkasten

  • How Luhmann Structured his Notes for Increased Development
  • Luhmann IDs
  • Note Sequences
  • Linking between Notes

One important understanding about Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system is a lot of his design choices were centered around limitations placed on him by having a physical system. It is important to keep that in mind when creating a digital zettelkasten because it does not face the same restrictions, so some design choices may be different.

Reference Features of a Digital Zettelkasten

  • How you can Digitally Structure your Notes for Reference

Developmental Features of a Digital Zettelkasten

  • How you can Digitally Structure your Notes for Increased Development

Practical Example One

Use the pizza recipe as a basic example.

Practical Example Two

Practical Example Three

Use my forum based zettelkasten


Steps to Getting Started


Principles that Support Development

Rules help guide you in achieving an outcome. These principles (rules) help push you in the direction of knowledge development instead of just knowledge management.

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FAQs

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This is great. Zettelkasten De is where I first learned the intricacies of the system (probably like a lot of people). In my opinion, they just didn’t have the amazing software we do now to accomplish it (Obsidian, Roam, etc). I know Evergreen Notes is part of the Starter Kit but I think it’s the best refinement I’ve ever run into. That’s probably heretical.

Steps to Getting Started

  1. Get Obsidian up and Working
  2. Your First Note
    • Define your Problem
    • Just start Absorbing
      • Books
      • Internet
      • Own Thoughts
      • Talking to Others
      • Podcasts
      • Videos

First Note

You now have Obsidian set up and ready to use, staring at a blank screen. It doesn’t really matter what your first note is. If you are having note creation paralysis then create a note describing what problem you want to solve or what area of information you want to develop knowledge in. Once you’ve done that then start with step 1 of the Core Zettelkasten Workflow.

Core Zettelkasten Workflow

  1. Pick a source of Information
    • Digest the Source of Information
    • Create Notes out of the Information
    • Create the primary link
      • Note Sequence Link
      • Add to Index Manually?
      • Add to Index with a Tag
    • Link the Notes with other ones
  2. Develop and use your Notes
    • Further Develop Existing Lines of Thought
    • Create new Lines of Thought
    • Using your Notes
      • Formalize your Notes and Share with Others
      • Formalize your Notes for Personal Use
      • Reference your Notes for Personal Use

Pick a Source of Information

Picking a source of information

Developing Specific Knowledge in your Zettelkasten

  • Students
  • Graduate Students

Developing General Knowledge in your Zettelkasten

General Readers

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Fiction Writing with a Zettelkasten

First Question to Answer is what areas of information do writers develop?

  1. Characters
  2. Settings
  3. Plot
  4. Conflict
  5. Themes
  6. Meta - further developing your understanding of storytelling itself

How do writers develop these various parts of a story?

Characters

Settings

Plot

Conflict

Themes

Meta


Creating a Choose your Own Adventure Book using with a Physical Zettelkasten

Idea from /u/sfast of ZettelkastenDe Blog

Using a Zettelkasten as a Student

First Question to Answer is what areas of information do students develop?

Undergraduate Students

Undergraduate students are not developing new knowledge but instead developing an understanding of existing knowledge. What does that look like?

You are creating an understanding of a set of ideas and the relationships between them. How the ideas connect to each other and the wider picture (e.g. the field you are studying) is the context.

With a zettelkasten, you have two options.

  1. You can create notes out of what you are studying and then use them as a basis for further development, because all knowledge builds off each other. But this is not always necessary, more of a personal preference, usually depending on how well you know the material. You typically don’t have notes for material that is so well ingrained in you because there is no need for them. You can just rely on your memory instead.

  2. You can creates notes out of what you are studying as a way to facilitate understanding. Often times explicitly writing down concepts and their connections forces you to really understand what you are learning, so creating notes can serve as a elaboration tool for learning. See “processing a textbook for understanding” below for how this would look pratically.

When taking notes to facilitate understanding (option 2 above) it is important to keep in my that you are engaging in a trade off. By choosing to take notes on a topic, you are giving up precious time to the universe and that may not be worth it. For example, I’m not going to create notes for every word in the english language because that would be a waste of time. Instead I might create notes for words I find very important and am actively writing about. You want to do the same thing with textbooks.

Think of it as a spectrum. One one end, it is a waste of time when you are creating notes around concepts you are extremely familiar with because you already have mental notes. On the opposite end, you are wasting time by taking notes on concepts you’ll never use or write about. You want to be in the middle, where you are taking notes on concepts that you don’t know so well but will still use in your working life.

Processing a Textbook for Understanding (option 2 above)

When processing a undergraduate textbook, I think of a four tasks

  1. Create notes for the important concepts themselves (often bolded terms in the book)
  2. Link the note (concepts) with other important notes (concepts) in the textbook chapter
  3. Link the note with the immediate context it sits in (e.g. the textbook chapter)
  4. Link the note to the wider context (e.g. the field you are studying)

For example, I am undergraduate psychology student (hypothetical) with a plan on going into the sub field of cognitive psychology. When reading I would create a note for the concept of “semantic memory”. Following the four tasks, I would:

  1. Create a note for Semantic Memory
  2. Link it to the related concept of “episodic memory”
  3. Both semantic memory and episodic memory are forms of explicit memories, which in turn is a form of long term memory. So I would create a link to my notes on long term memory and explicit memory. This is the “immediate context” that semantic memory sits in.
  4. I would then create a link to the wider context, saying why “episodic memory” is important to the field of cognitive psychology. Or even doing something as simple as including a tag in the note #CogSci

Using my Textbook Note for Future Development (option 1 above)

Now that I have a basic note on “semantic memory” I can use it as a starting point for further development. I created this note during my “introduction to psychology” college course. In my junior year I take a course on memory or cognition. In this course, the concept of “semantic memory” gets elaborated on even more in the corresponding textbook. So I add the most important parts of the elaboration to my original note. Then at the bottom of the note I may also put in references to studies we looked at surrounding semantic memory.

Two years go by and when I eventually get to grad school, I do even more research on the topic of “semantic memory”, collecting in my note all the cutting edge research that has been done on the topic. At some point I see an component of semantic memory that hasn’t been explained or explored, so I make that into my dissertation. I create my own study and add that to my note on semantic memory.

As you see, over a long period of time I’m elaborating on this concept more and more, further developing it in my notes. I’m essentially creating a wiki entry, collecting all the important information I’ve come across on this topic. For this example its all been one note, but in reality what I’d do is create multiple notes. At each step in this process (intro course, intermediate course, grad school, own research) I would make a new note and connect it to the previous one, thereby creating a sequence of notes on the topic of “semantic memory”. The reason for this is that it allows you to use the information of a note in multiple contexts. Say for example that the study I did has implications for other concepts. By having it in its own note, I am able to create a link to it. If I didn’t and instead just linked to the whole page on semantic memory, then it would be confusing and a pain in the ass to find.

Graduate Students

You will get the most use out of a zettelkasten as you become a graduate student, where the goal is to not only to create a deeper understanding but further develop the knowledge of your chosen field through a thesis/dissertation. In this way, you are using the zettelkasten to track where your knowledge currently stands and facilitate the generation of new ideas through connecting material.

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Using a Zettelkasten as a Programmer

First Question to Answer is what areas of information do programmers develop?

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Using a Zettelkasten for Everyday Living

First Question to Answer is what areas of information in your life would benefit from development?

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Zettelkasten FAQs

Pull from ZettelkastenDe Blog, Zettelkasten Tags, Obsidian Starter Kit Comments, Reddit Post and Forum.

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I really enjoy this reading, thanks for sharing!

Thank you for sharing this, and I hope you find time to continue developing it. As a beginner, the most helpful parts for me are concrete examples of how you add and edit notes over time, such as how you evolved notes on semantic memory.

@matthew of course! I’m currently porting over, cleaning up, and elaborating on my various notes that are scattered throughout this and other forums to Obsidian Publish. I’ll let you know when I’ve had the chance to really dig into this specific page and flesh it out more.

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