Simplify Zettelkasten. But how?


Figure: Simplify Zettelkasten [3]

My first personal knowledge management system was based on OneNote. Over the years, not only did the number of notes grow, but the growing number of folders and subfolders also became increasingly difficult to manage.

When transferring my content to Obsidian, I wanted to get off to a better start. I used a Zettelkasten based on Niklas Luhmann’s principles [1] and found the useful book “The Laws of Simplicity”[2] by John Maeda, which offers valuable principles that can actually increase the efficiency and effectiveness of my Zettelkasten system.

Here are theses principles and how they can be applied to solve common problems or bottlenecks in a Zettelkasten:

  1. Reduce: Simplify the system by eliminating unnecessary elements.
  2. Organize: Arrange the elements of the Zettelkasten in a logical and intuitive manner.
  3. Time: Minimize the time and effort required to accomplish tasks.
  4. Learn: Make it easy to understand how to use the Zettelkasten effectively.
  5. Differences: Acknowledge and accommodate your diverse needs and preferences.
  6. Context: Provide context to better understand the information within the Zettelkasten.
  7. Emotion: Use simplicity to evoke an emotional response.
  8. Trust: Build trust by making the system reliable and consistent.
  9. Failure: Simplicity should not come at the cost of sacrificing essential functionality or depth in a Zettelkasten.
  10. The One: Focus on the one thing that matters most and prioritize it.

Let us start with the first one (Reduce) and ask three basic question:

  • How many plugins do you use within Obsidian?
  • How many folders do you use within Obsidian?
  • And how many would you really need to enhance the usability of your Zettelkasten?

References
[1] Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking, 2022.
[2] Maeda, John. The laws of simplicity: design, technology, business, life. First MIT Press paperback edition, The MIT Press, 2020.
[3] SimpleMind. “SimpleMind - Cross-Platform Mind Mapping Tools,” 2022. https://simplemind.eu/.


More about the 12 Principles For Using Zettelkasten


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3 Likes

Wrt your questions, the answer I think isn’t a number (x plugins and y folders).

It’s do I need the functionality of a plugin, and does a plugin a) prescribe specific behaviour or b) makes the resulting files only useful with that plugin. A, and b being negatives, and the need a positive in deciding on a plugin.
A need for a plugin for me is alwasy emergent out of working with my notes. E.g. when I see myself repeating trivial things often I wonder if I could automate it away somehow.
Same with folders: I only add a folder if I think it’s useful based on working with my notes sofar.

Adding a folder or plugin for me is always emergent. It doesn’t mean I started in Obsidian without folders, as I carried over the folders that emerged within my workflow earlier and still address a valid need.

1 Like

You are right, asking for numbers will not always lead to an answer.

Reduce
For me it was useful to limit my number of folders. 6 main folders + 6 supporting folders. And there are no subfolders. I use them to structure my process, not my content.

As a result, a growing number of notes will not increase my number of folders. Applying this principle helps me to optimize my Zettelkasten system.

1 Like

In my opinion, you can easily and happily start a Zettelkasten with no plugin, and no folder. This is how I work. In fact I do have one folder for attachments, but this is purely to avoid mixing misc files with notes. As soon as (1) you write a note; (2) you link it some way with other notes (in my case, it’s often a MOC and sometimes other closely-related notes), then you’re good to go. I use the “Backlink in document” option so that I can navigate easily back and forth my notes, but really this is all I need.

When I want to use my notes, I start either by my main MOC, or more often I do a search which quickly leads me to a note that I know will be “close” to the one I need.

My advice would be to avoid using too many plugins or folders, in which case you may quickly find yourself “again” in an unmanageable position (which folders does this goes to, in which folder should I search this, etc.). Obsidian already provides the requirements for a happy Zettelkasten.

4 Likes

Using as few things as possible, but it is not an easy task :slight_smile:
It’s a process that needs study and practices, paradoxically

As I become more confident with the method, I subtract, rather than add.

Less types of notes, templates less complex, no use of tags, avoid many folders, less metadata, less rules in general.
The things you really use survive, the others disappear

Every object you insert in your model adds time and effort thinking about if, why and how to use and need to maintain

4 Likes

I started using Zettlekasten this week. I’m still figuring out how to make the best folder system with less. Not only that, but I used to have a lot of folders for each thing, almost like tags. And it got confusing. Also, I had a lot of plugins that I hardly used.

So now I’m working on having the important things. My main goal is to have a few but really important plugins that can help me organize my folders better. And create a system that I can maintain without losing track of everything.

Your post made me think about it. How can I really use the best way but it minimize effort. You got me thinking about how I can be more minimalistic and functional with my notes and information. So thank you for your insight! :smile:

1 Like

I like this simple rule.

2 Likes

Thanks for the notes! How did you come with such a great mind map diagram? Inside obsidian?

1 Like

I use SimpleMind for mind mapping: https://simplemind.eu/

1 Like

Thank you for your feedback. And if you like, please share your ideas for being more minimalistic.

John Maeda: “Savings in time feel like simplicity.” - From my experience note templates are a good example for this insight: https://forum.obsidian.md/t/16-obsidian-templates-for-zettelkasten-to-start-with/

How do you save time with your Zettelkasten?

For my Zettelkasten I use 18+1 of the total of 1,771 Obsidian plugins. That’s barely more than 1%. “Less is more”, that’s my motto.

Have you already found the best selection for you?