Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output Processes

Perhaps too much of the resurgence of the zettelkasten idea and the online space about it is focused on what a zettelkasten is or how it should be done. After this, descriptions of the process of collecting material for one’s zettelkasten is followed by using it to generate new ideas and thought, though this last part is relatively sparce in comparison. Very little of the discussion or examples I’ve seen in online fora, social media, websites, and the blogosphere is focused on actively using them for creating actual long form output.

As Luhmann’s (all-too-frequently used) example is so powerful, I think it would be massively helpful if users had stronger examples of what these explicit creation workflows looked like, particularly at the longer end of creation of chapters or even book length spaces. Are there any detailed posts, videos, other media about how one approached this problem? What worked well? What didn’t? What would you do differently next time? Have you done this multiple times and now settled into something you feel is most efficient? Is your process manual/digital? What tools helped along the way for laying out and doing the actual stitching together and editing? Would you use them again or try something else? Have you experimented with different methods or practices?

Here, I’m looking for direct and actual experience; I’m explicitly not looking for “this is how I would do it” responses.

Because it’s much easier and far more successful for humans to imitate the practice of others than to innovate it for themselves, I’m ultimately looking not for outlines of what people recommend, but public examples of the practices in progress. Who can show their actual “receipts” and in a reasonably linear and practical way for others to follow? We suffer from a lack of these practices being visible online as most aren’t. Further even the digital ones aren’t public, or if they are, they aren’t well known.

As an example of the broader problem, I’ve yet to see a week go by that someone doesn’t read Ahrens’ generally excellent book, but in posting online they still seem lost in attempting to put the lowest level ideas into active practice.

Personally, I use as a digital tool for the majority of my note taking. One could follow my feed and see it in real time if they choose. There are benefits for this public practice and I’m aware that many people follow this feed of notes out of curiosity. I’ve even gotten emails from folks indicating that they’ve learned some interesting things for use in their own practices. Sadly, the follow up of revision, cross linking, active indexing, and subsequent growth isn’t public (yet), though the platform I’m using is open to active public conversation and commentary, which is a useful side benefit. I have seen a few other public examples of others’ practices, some in video form, though this can be dull as the time and effort is work and doesn’t make for powerful entertainment because it isn’t. Still these public examples can be far more powerful than some of the explanations I’ve seen, especially for beginners who don’t comprehend the long term benefits (surprise, serendipity, insight, emergent creativity) and who generally focus on the minutiae for lack of direct experience.

On the creation portion, I’m currently experimenting with carrying out the original  instructions of Konrad Gessner, an early zettelmacher, as laid out in his book Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. (1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer) and hope to report back shortly about the experience. 

Call for explicit examples

So where are the examples? Show us your receipts. Who’s doing this in public that people can follow? Who can be imitated until people have the experience(s) to do this more easily on their own? Let’s collect some of the best (or at least extant) examples for sharing with others. 

Once we’ve got some concrete examples then we can study them and iterate on them.

Too many people seem intent on potentially wasting their time by innovating on a practice they haven’t even tried because someone in the productivity space (who usually hasn’t tried it either) wrote a page long post saying it would be a good idea. I know we can do far better.

Zettelkasten Overreach

The zettelkasten is just that, it isn’t a calendar, a rolodex, a to do list or a hammer, saw, or even a jackhammer.

The basic zettelkasten note taking method is very simple and clear cut as originally described by Konrad Gessner in Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20, 1548) to Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Just a handful of bullet points can outline the elegance and simplicity of the system. This dramatic simplicity leads to some tremendous value and complexity.

However, in modern use as seen online since roughly 2018 on, the idea and the digital tools surrounding it, has seen some severe mission creep. Zettlekasten has moved to the fad stage and we’re “zettlecasting” everything under the sun. While it can be used as a productivity tool specifically for writing, some are adapting and using it (and tools built for it) for productivity use writ-large. This includes project management or GTD (Getting Things Done) functions. Some are using it as a wiki, digital garden, or personal knowledge management system for aggregating ideas and cross linking them over time. Others are using it as a journal or diary with scheduling and calendaring functions tacked on. Still others are using it to collect facts and force the system to do spaced repetition. These additional functionalities can be great and even incredibly useful, but they’re going far beyond the purpose-fit functionality of what a zettelkasten system was originally designed to do.

Ahrens highlights the zettelkasten method as being simply and specifically designed to do its particular workflow well—no more, no less. He cleverly analogizes slip boxes to their larger box cousins, the shipping container, and the way that that they revolutionized the shipping industry.

In hindsight, we know why they failed: The ship owners tried to integrate the container into their usual way of working without changing the infrastructure and their routines. They tried to benefit from the obvious simplicity of loading containers onto ships without letting go of what they were used to.

Following this analogy, many people are currently trying to not only revolutionize shipping, but sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing as well. While this may be interesting and the digital tools might accommodate some of these functions, are they really custom built from start to finish to really excel at these functionalities? Can they really do all of them at once? While some may come close and do well enough, the added complexity and overreach of all these functionalities may be diluting the base power of what the zettelkasten is capable.

People conflate the idea of note taking and the zettelkasten with tools like Obsidian, Logseq, and Roam Research. This is not necessarily a good thing. If they expect it to do everything and it’s not capable of that or well designed to do what they expect, they’re more likely to get confused, frustrated, and eventually give up. I’ve seen it happening more and more.

As an example, in a book club related to Ahrens’ text in which many highly educated and talented people have been using these tools and have even previously read the book, many are still far too confused about what these tools are and the value that can come from them.

For those who are just coming to the idea of a zettelkasten, I recommend you limit yourselves to just that basic functionality. Don’t muddy the waters with other productivity functions, to do lists, journals, diaries, kitchen sinks, or the latest wiz-bang plugin. Don’t throw in buzz words like GTD and MOC. Stick to the simplest script for a few months and focus on finely honing a small handful of questions and ideas each day from your reading to see what happens. Write, link, repeat. Don’t get caught up in the collector’s fallacy by keeping and saving every single fleeting note (thought) you’ve got (or if you must, put them into a folder off to the side). Focus on the core idea.

Once you’ve got that part down and it’s working for you, then consider adding on those other functionalities. Experiment with them; see what works. But don’t be surprised if those other portions aren’t the magic bullet that is going to revolutionize your life. We’re likely to need new tools, functionality, and a system built from start to finish, to make those other things a useful reality.

Featured image: zettelkasten flickr photo by x28x28de shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Replied to a tweet by Brian Mann (Twitter)
I’ve done something similar in paper form as early as the 1990’s and have seen examples in diaries and commonplace books that go back much earlier. TiddlyWiki had a digital capability to to something like this as early as the late 2000s and I’ve used it there as well. As you mention, content management systems like WordPress certainly do this with various archive views, but this is a secondary effect and not done up front as is seen in tools like Roam, Obsidian, et al. I suspect that one might find the ability to do such workflows with early versions of DEVONThink, Tinderbox, or even MediaWiki, though as these are used personally, it’s much harder to provide evidence for their direct use as such.

The real question is what additional value and affordances does this pattern allow? Some of the value is in emptying your head (forgetting) as seen in productivity systems like 43 folders or doing Morning Pages. I suspect that rarely are people revising these tidbits at later times to get additional value from them.

Outside of this, systems like Roam Research may make it easier to create a diary like this with the day’s work, but the real value there is not the date/timeline created, but the way that the system treats each block like its own unit of knowledge and allows cross linking them. In this case, the real precursor goes back at least as far as Konrad Gessner’s Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (1548), which provides a classic definition of the zettelkasten format, though this obviously is heavily informed by the earlier traditions of excerpting and annotating found in commonplace books, florilegia, etc. stemming from the ideas of rhetoric from the Greeks and Romans.

In oral cultures, precursors of this sort of time ordering can be seen with respect to the ideas of ancestral time, genealogy, and techniques like the songline in Australia, but the implementations will vary and it’s unlikely that one might find a complete one-to-one mapping of these ideas into Western cultures.

Ok zettelkasten fans. Unless someone can come up with an earlier source, the inventor of the zettelkasten method for excerpting and note taking is Konrad Gessner in 1548. (Again it’s not Niklas Luhmann!)

Text card that reads "1. When reading, everything of importance and whatever appears useful should be copied onto a good sheet of paper.  2. A new line should be used for every idea.  3.“ Finally, cut out everything you have copied with a pair of scissors; arrange the slips as you desire, first into larger clusters which can then be subdivided again as often as necessary.”  4. As soon as the desired order is produced, arranged, and sorted on tablesor in small boxes, it should be fixed or copied directly.  —Gessner, Konrad. Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. 1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20"

More details to come on this fun bit of history soon.