Zettelkasten Overreach

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

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

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.

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich