Self-enrichment with Zettelkasten—or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Start Writing
The Zettelkasten/slip-box system is a methodology whereby the writer takes small, atomic notes, designed to be linked to other notes and topics. A comprehensive thought might be made up of multiple notes, all linked to and relying on each other for context and further knowledge. The original method used physical cards and containers, hence the name (Zettelkasten is German for slip-box) but nowadays there are plenty of digital tools to accomplish a similar goal. This blog and even this very post actually live in my own slip-box, and as with most other posts here started out as individual small notes, later composed into a larger comprehensive post for publishing.
Why digital notetaking is bad (for me)
When it comes to notetaking, there is research showing that physically writing something down can help you remember it better. Personally my handwriting is garbage, I don’t like the feeling of a pencil on paper, and I can write much much faster with a keyboard, so that’s how I lean. However, writing digitally and the ease at which one can restructure and rewrite notes led to me heavily focusing on the note presentation over the actual subject matter; even if it wasn’t being written on a physical notepad, I would imagine that helped break whatever association I could have had between the physical action of typing and the memory, seeing as how I would often not recall notes I would write.
I would also focus overmuch on how notes were stored hierarchically. I grew up on folder structures and filesystems, so that kind of organizational structure was second nature, and I used it for everything. Whenever possible I would always opt for a verbose, top-down structure over anything else. Using tags for organization was akin to heresy in my eyes, since if it has a place it should simply be in its place, right? It was only recently (as of the posting of this essay) that I began to think differently.
Without the mental link between the note and the memory, with my notes often left incomplete due to a strenuous focus on presentation, and with a lack of discoverability due to inflexible and fragmented folder organization, my notes became meaningless. I would never bother looking up past notes due to the difficulty, the information being essentially lost. Sometimes I would even end up rewriting a note that I had forgotten I’d written.
Why digital notetaking isn’t bad (for me)
There was some internal anguish at first when I opted to not use a folder structure like I was used to when first implementing Zettelkasten with Obsidian, but the whole reason why I was looking for something new was because the old method wasn’t working. What I found when being forced to write small, compact, to-the-point, bottom-up notes meant the rigid organization, formatting, and prose I limited myself with were no longer concerns. There was a sense of freedom in that. It not only helped me get back into the joy of writing more frequently, and helped in organizing my often disjointed thoughts, but also helped me stop judging my own notes, and let me simply observe my thoughts as they were. Doing so helps me to better solidify the memory of the topic by observing and engaging with it, even without a pen and paper. And it’s not like I can’t later go back and restructure and merge notes together into a larger document, if I really want—in fact, this blog post (nay, the entire blog) started out under such a scenario.
Zettelkasten is ultimately just a system to structure and store information, and is only the solution to part of the problem when it comes to notetaking. The most prolific use of the method before modern software brought it back into the public consciousness was for organizing research for scholarly pursuits. However, due to its similarity in how the human brain stores and retrieves information in a fragmented way, the structure can easily be adapted for other personal pursuits—like as a “second brain” knowledge base, as the basis for a personal wiki, for short- or even long-form mind mapping, Q/E/C, and other personal knowledge management. I personally utilize my Obsidian vault following the “second brain” concept. I think this article by Forte Labs does well in explaining it from a general digital notetaking perspective, and also offers some alternative software to Obsidian.
Despite my penchant for structure and organization, the flowing, bottom-up approach recommended by many Zettelkasten adherents—something I in the past would have called cluttered and impossible to navigate—has really ended up working out in a way I never thought possible. From note taking, todo lists, or even this blog—there is a lot of power in short, compact, digitally portable notes. And while this essay is not meant to be an explicit advertisement for Obsidian (especially with it being closed-source software, something I am personally at odds with context/ideas/blog ), the plugin ecosystem, community, and general structure are all quite incredible, and I can only see my graph continue to grow.