The reason you don’t ‘get’ Zettelkasten

2022-05-20

This post is a translation of “Et toi, qu’est-ce que tu fiches ?”

This week, there was an online conference on linked notes, the Linking Your Thinking Conference. The event was put under the umbrella of personal knowledge management (PKM). Many authors took the opportunity to share their thoughts on the subject and I saw a bunch of articles on different methods: how to take notes, make links, manage writing projects, etc.

Reading through some of these, I thought about two things.

First, I think that most of these methods can be merged. They touch on such fundamental issues that, essentially, their differences come down to marketing. David Allen’s Getting Things Done method outlined the elements of task management in such a definitive way (capture, process, create) that innovation now happens mostly at the margins. Any new, supposedly definitive method seems to me like it tries to reinvent the wheel.

Second, I’ve read the following idea several times: people enthusiastically discover interrelated note-taking tools but quickly become disillusioned, because they struggle to make sense of them. In “The essence of the Zettelkasten method, demystified” for example, author Fei-Ling Tseng complains that the aforementioned method does not come with instructions – hence the need to “demystify” it. In her case, the struggle produced something useful and clever: she imagined the Idea Compass, a series of prompts for coming up with ways to link your notes. But underlying her initial remark, I see a problem.

People look at a tool and ask themselves, “What can I do with it?” I’m not saying that nothing interesting can come out of this line of questioning, but it seems like a designer question, something to wonder about when your job is to push the limits of what can be done. For most of us, I think looking at the tool and asking how to use it is twice misguided: it’s the wrong question, and it formulates the problem the wrong way around.

The first question to ask is “what do I want/need to do?” The second is “what tool can help me?”

Choosing the right tool

This is where the second question comes in: “which tool can help me?” It is much easier to select the appropriate tool when you know what you need to do with it. If you’re a student who needs to compile a bibliography, take notes on your readings and synthesize your ideas, all to help with a scientific writing project, you will quickly filter out tools and find the one that can help you accomplish all this. In the case of linked notes for research, Zettlr comes to mind, along with Cosma.

This applies to other types of knowledge work. You already have goals that include the need to take notes. Knowing what they are helps you find a tool and a method that makes sense. It might be Zettlr and the Zettelkasten method. It may be an outliner like Roam or Logseq. It may be a toolbox like Obsidian or VS Code, loaded with plugins.

Where it gets complicated is when you haven’t thought about your goals beyond note-taking. Then, sure, you may feel a bit helpless when discovering Zettelkasten—just the name alone is enough to confuse you if you don’t know German…

What’s strange, is that the underlying principles of interrelated note-taking tools should be familiar to us. It’s hypertext, which we see everytime we browse the Web. It’s association, the very mechanism that Vannevar Bush said is the basis of the way our mind operatesBush, “As We May Think,” 1945, p. 106.
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But perhaps this is why it’s difficult to grasp. It’s too generic. If you bury it under jargon, it becomes even more difficult to ‘get.’ And without purpose, it makes even less sense. But put it in the context of a broader objective and then it becomes much clearer.

References

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic. 1945, p. 101–108. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.
Cantagrel, Laurent. “Postface du traducteur.” In : Eco, Umberto, Comment écrire sa thèse. Flammarion, 2018, p. 331–338. 978-2-08-142242-1.
Eco, Umberto. How to write a thesis. Trans. by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. MIT Press, 2015. 978-0-262-52713-2.
Mongiat Farina, Caterina and Farina, Geoff. “Translator’s foreword.” In : Eco, Umberto, How to write a thesis. MIT Press, 2015, p. xv–xviii. 978-0-262-52713-2.