I have always been a bit of a nerd about note taking and knowledge management systems. I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done with relish, and I’ve obsessively experimented with every iteration of note taking apps and tools mankind has created. Trello, Todolist, Evernote, Bullet Journal, you name it.
I think my obsession in this area is mostly driven by the combination of my love of useless trivia and my immense capacity for forgetfulness, a perfect recipe if ever there was one for developing the habit of writing things down.
Of course, being an obsessive optimizer means that I can’t just settle for any solution; I have to find the BEST solution. The result is that I’ve drifted from app to app, from method to method, ever searching for the metaphorical glass slipper that perfectly fits my needs.
Not long ago, while reading a blog post by another information management nerd, I stumbled upon something called a “Zettelkasten”. At first, I was put off: I felt there was already enough diversity in the note taking ecosystem without delving into other languages. Once I’d gone down that rabbit hole, who knows where it would end up?
However, my curiosity was piqued, and I dipped my toe in the water. I have since become hooked, and I now use a Zettelkasten as my primary note taking and knowledge management method. In the rest of this article, I’ll explain exactly what a Zettelkasten is and why it meets my needs.
An important disclosure is necessary before we continue: if I’ve learned anything in my quest to find the perfect knowledge management system, it’s in that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The reason there are 7 billion different note taking apps and methods is because there are 7 billion different people on Earth. One of the reasons I like the method I’m about to outline below is precisely because it’s flexible and moldable to my own needs, but just because it works for me doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.
What is a Zettelkasten?
Quoting from the blog post above (emphasis mine):
[A] precise definition of Zettelkasten is likely to be counterproductive. Short of saying it is a loosely defined method of constructing an archive of notes. An archive built upon layers of nodes and connections. If you want to know more, however, Christian and Sascha have a growing archive of their own at the Zettelkasten blog. In case you don’t already know how philosophical note taking can be, you have been warned.
Zettelkasten.de is the canonical home of everything Zettelkasten-related. It’s written and maintained by two guys (the aforementioned Christian and Sascha) who are passionate about efficient note taking processes (did you ever imagine that such people existed? Alas, I am apparently one of them). Put simply, a Zettelkasten is like an external brain, a flattened structure of information that connects to itself like a web, linking together all of the information it contains in ways that might not be apparent at first, creating insights for synthesizing new knowledge.
In German Zettel means “note” and a Kästen is a box: a Zettelkästen is literally translated as “note box”. Its inventor, Niklas Luhmann, literally kept a box of index card-style notes. Each note had a unique identifier that could be referenced by other notes, creating an interconnected web of knowledge. Modern Zettelkastens can of course still be created this way, but most people find it easier and more efficient to use digital versions.
One of the defining characteristics of a Zettelkasten over other forms of knowledge management is its use of unique identifiers. In a Zettelkasten, each Zettel has a unique ID that other Zettels can refer to. Links are created between Zettels by placing IDs within notes, and when one note references another note’s ID, that note can itself be updated with a link to the linking note, creating a backlink.
Over time, a Zettelkasten grows in an organic fashion to truly become an external brain. As you enter more and more information into your Zettelkasten, you will find that links develop between notes that you may not have ever have anticipated. These connections can then help you synthesize new information or succinctly put together complex ideas in a simple way.
Another defining characteristic of the Zettelkasten is its eschewing of hierarchy and categories. Instead, Zettels are tagged. This might seem like a minor distinction, but it pays off in one important way: it eliminates any friction when creating a new note caused by asking oneself to which predefined category that note ought to belong. Instead, the new Zettel is simply created in a flat structure and any tags that seem appropriate to the content can be entered. Then, when you want to query your Zettelkasten for anything you’ve written about bumblebees you simply search for notes tagged with “bumblebee” or that contain the phrase “bumblebee”.
Another appealing feature of the Zettelkasten is that it can (and should!) work perfectly well in plain text. In fact, the folks over at Zettelkasten.de insist on this, and I agree. Anything that you want to last needs to be in plain text: proprietary or application-specific formats are no good and interfere with your knowledge’s ability to be fluid and flexible. If you put everything in Evernote, you’re stuck in Evernote unless you want to go through the arduous process of exporting your data into a format that will almost certainly come out funky or malformed.
The Zettelkasten.de guys use MultiMarkdown as their plain text format of choice, but I just use Pandoc’s Markdown syntax. Not that it really matters, since the whole point of using plain text is that it’s perfectly readable as plain text. Write them in any format you want, as long as it’s consistent and easy to search.
All of these attributes mean that creating and managing a Zettelkasten is low friction, low maintenance, and highly portable. Individual Zettels are meant to be (generally speaking) small and atomic. You don’t need to worry about if the note is in the right place, or what’s written in it. Just write it! If you think of something else, modify the existing note if it’s relevant or just create a new note and link back to the original. In this way, the Zettelkasten grows organically over time along with its creator.
The aforementioned traits also mean that implementing your own Zettelkasten tool is quite trivial. I did this myself with wk (which I’ll write about soon), but you can also use something like The Archive or nvALT.
Ok, you’re a visual learner. I get it, I am too. Here’s an example of what one of my own Zettels looks like:
--- title: Alexander von Humboldt date: December 13, 2019 tags: romanticism, nature, science, ecology ... Alexander von Humboldt was among the first in the post-Enlightenment modern era to think of nature as something to be enjoyed, commune with, and treasure instead of simply to exploit and command. One of the last polymaths of the Enlightenment, he re-imagined science's relationship with nature, insisting that nature was not simply mechanistic but rather highly complex and interwoven. His discipline would later come to be known as ecology []. ### Influenced - George Perkins Marsh [] - Ernst Haeckel [] - John Muir - Charles Darwin - Goethe ### Backlinks - [] - []
Let’s go over the structure here.
At the top of the note is the metadata section. This is an extension of Pandoc’s Markdown format. It specifies a title, date, and tags. It’s fairly self-explanatory.
After the metadata is the note body itself. Note the use of the
[] style links. These are references to other notes. Also
take note of the
## Backlinks section at the bottom: this is a list of other
notes that link to this note in turn.
That’s it. In other notes, I might also have a citation section where I include citations of things I reference in the note itself. I use Zotero to manage references and citations, and copying a citation from Zotero into a new note is a simple copy-paste operation.
I interact with notes in my Zettelkasten with the aforementioned wk tool. Like I mentioned, I’ll write about this in more detail later, but briefly, it’s a command line tool with commands like “open”, “new”, and “search”. For example, if I just finished reading an interesting blog post about the history of bear migration in North America, I would simply type the following in my terminal:
wk new 'Bear migration in North America'
This would open a newly created note prepopulated with the relevant metadata in
my editor (Vim) and allow me to quickly start writing. In the
tags: field, I
migration. When I’m done, I just save and close the note
and go about my day. The whole process is very fast and very low friction.
I have been growing my own Zettelkasten for about 6 months now and have, amazingly, been able to get the process to stick, which is more than I can say for most other processes I’ve tried.
It’s worth repeating my disclosure at the beginning of this post: the system I’ve outlined above works well for me. It might seem byzantine, awkward, or bizarre to you, and that’s okay. The perfect note taking system is the one that will actually get you to write notes and use the notes you’ve written down. In that sense, the Zettelkasten method is, for me, a huge success.
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