Zettelkasten redux

Clarity after a hasty first attempt

A few months ago I wrote a long-winded guide to building your own zettelkasten system. This was prompted in large part by my having just read Sönke Ahrens’s book How to take smart notes. Like someone whose enthusiasm for novelty outweighed their thoughtfulness, I rushed to create my zettelkasten system true both to the original principles of Luhmann’s system and to Ahrens’s thoughts on note-taking in his book. For the record, I stand by my review of the book and my exposition of Luhmann’s principles in my previous article.

However, three months later—with a great dose of reality and at least some real-world experience—I have come to the conclusion that the system outlined in my previous article no longer works for me. In fact, no single system does because the idea that a system exists independent of its creator is a fallacy. To put it more crudely, the urge to use any system as a one-stop solution amounts to wishful thinking.

This is my second attempt at outlining my new and likely permanent system in a clearer manner for anyone looking not to replicate it but instead to build a system of their own. The main takeaways are quoted throughout the article as a helpful summary.

The inbox

What zettelkasten gets right, and what is also a recognisable feature of other systems like GTD, is the inbox. You need a place to store things when you execute the first step of getting them out of your head. But what I noticed was that there were an entire class of things I was offloading from my head or from other places where I consume information—books, websites etc. So my inbox is not a note but a folder with subfolders.

The extreme specificity subfolders means there is no decision-making involved ... but if I find myself stopping to think, I immediately file it in my inbox root and move on.

This might seem counterintuitive at first: should an inbox not prevent decision-making and simply promote offloading? The structure of my inbox folder system does, in fact, not require decision-making. Right now, this is what it looks like:

	|__ Reading list
	|__ Online reading
	|__ Conceptual notes

The notes which amount to mental offloading go straight to the root of the inbox and my aim is to keep the root of the inbox empty except for subfolders. Therefore, at least in this first step, there is no decision making involved. I have the action button on my iPhone programmed with a shortcut to take in text and save it as a markdown file directly into the inbox. I use the same shortcut on my Macbook and iPad too.

Second, the subfolders are highly specific: “Reading list” for (mainly academic) books I have been recommended; “Online reading” for things I come across online that I might or might not want to read later; and “Conceptual notes” because there are some concepts I am thinking of over long periods to the point where I know precisely what goes in there.

The extreme specificity of these folders means there is no decision-making involved. I know when a note needs to go into one of these folders; but if I find myself stopping to think, I immediately file it in my inbox root and move on.

Birds of a feather

The second principle underlying my system is that things that are alike must be filed alike. This means, for example, attached PDFs all stay in one folder. Obsidian makes this possible by allowing us to specify a folder for this purpose. I do maintain some further classification within my “Attachments” folder where it makes sense. Likewise I give every research project or paper its own folder so that everything associated with it—except attachments—go into that folder. (Attachments may be useful for more than one paper.)

The benefit of this becomes clear when you have to look for something and search does not turn it up. You at least know where to start looking.

There are a couple of other example of this but of particular interest are my “Daily notes” get their own folder. These are what Sam Bleckley calls Lab notebooks and comprise continual notes I make while working at my desk. This could be routine academic reading that I log my activities, my workflow, my thoughts or my decisions for later reference. Sometimes what we are clear about now we tend to forget six months from now when things get much less obvious. There is another great point Sam makes:

…too many developers rely on their working memory, and end up burning out because they are afraid to leave a problem halfway. If the entire plan of attack exists only in your head, taking a lunch break can be disastrous.

A lab notebook makes it safe to stop work at any time.

There may seem to be some overlap between daily notes—or lab notes, because I much prefer that terminology for being more fun—and the inbox, but here is a helpful way of looking at them: when I am working, the daily notes are themselves my inbox. At all other times, the inbox is where I offload my thoughts.

The benefit in keeping similar things together becomes clear when you have to look for something and search does not turn it up. You then at least know where to start looking given the nature of the information you are searching for. As we shall see presently, folders help in this too.

Do not be a luddite

No system is designed to be confined by the technological possibilities of its time. Dogmatism of this nature is tantamount to curbing the effectiveness of the system. For zettelkasten this is seen mainly in people’s insistance that it be an unorganised collection of notes because its originator, Niklas Luhmann, intended it that way.

With folders and tags I can continue to have all my notes accessible and flexible while also exploiting the additional organisation, clairty and possibilities that folders and tags can bring.

A cursory look at Luhmann’s system would tell us this is probably not true. Working with pen and paper and boxes and filing cabinets, Luhmann functioned in a world where folder-based organisation was expensive and time-consuming, and where tag-based organisation was not a concept that existed at all. But he did use folders in some form—the boxes for separating fleeting notes and permanent notes, and index cards periodically splitting his otherwise unorganised collection of notes. Anything more would have made it difficult for him to work: it would have been cumbersome to search across too many folders and to retrieve and file notes in place.

Today we have universal search across folders and subfolders and sub-subfolders and beyond. And we have tags that effectively allow us to “file” a single note, sans duplication, into multiple folders—a capability beynod the comprehension of the physical world. We know that Luhmann did not use many folders or anything like tags, but that does not mean he would have not used them at all had he worked digitally today.

So I use folders (never beyond subfolders for the sake of simplicity) and I use tags liberally. Besides concept-based tags I also employ action-based tags such as #read and #lookup to quickly bring up pending tasks and upcoming activities. I can therefore continue to have all my notes accessible and flexible, like zettelkasten intends, while also exploiting the additional organisation, clairty and possibilities that folders and tags can bring.

Take a leaf from PARA

It might seem counterintuitive at first but PARA actually simplifies things by adding a specific layer of folders to my Obsidian vault. No longer is the zettelkasten outlook of “more things means more complications” valid; that outlook turns into a weakness. In PARA absolutely everything gets condensed down into four folders:

  1. Projects
  2. Areas
  3. Resources
  4. Archive

While I do not use these specific folders, I do extend this idea to better suit my workflow. In place of “Resources” I have a “Reading” which contains all my literature notes and permanent notes of zettelkasten fame; and instead of “Projects” I have “Events” for workshops, seminars and conferences, and “Learning” for specific, scheduled tasks, lessons or training programmes I undertake to improve my skills or pick up new ones. And in place of “Areas” I have “Work” and “Research”. An “Archive” exists, just as PARA intended, along with a “Templates” folder because of the way Obsidian functions.

What does zettelkasten offer? Linking of knowledge, atomising of knowledge, and... nothing more. Any note-taking system works effectively when you constantly revisit your notes and zettelkasten seems to force you into this habit by remaining unorganised.

The parallels with Tiago Forté’s method are apparent in the structure of my Obsidian vault. While my vault does not use the PARA set-up as-is, I do make use of it this way on Apple Notes for my casual and personal note-taking where I do not have to bother about platform-agnostic formats or general tending to the way I have to think about it with my vault.

The fundamentals

Kristoffer Balintona wrote an excellent piece, which was especially eye-opening for me, on zettelkasten purism where he discusses the fetishisation of zettelkasten and the importance of aligning our “directives” with our “needs”—

The commonly understood novelty of the Zettelkasten tool is its non-hierarchical organization composed of hyperlinks. Backlinks generate interconnected networks of thought which mirror the associative nature of our brains. It is a departure from traditional hierarchical note-taking practices … The novelty of backlinks has made the concept synonymous with ‘Zettelkasten.’ … it would be unwise to study only a sample size of one, decontextualizing Luhmann’s methodology from other successful knowledge management systems.

For instance, the time spent writing — and thus thinking — is increased. There is a heightened intentionality from creating links, rearranging ideas, and concretely classifying new information. Deliberate writing and thinking has benefits to production which are too scarcely acknowledged.

There are others who have made similar arguments for separating backlinks from zettelkasten, even if only indirectly; most notably there is Sascha from the ever-popular zettelkasten.de website where fans of the method often flock to discuss their experiences and help one another. Sascha straight up called backlinks “harmful”

Backlinks will provide you with one of the least useful type of link: None, or only minimal, link context and therefore no or minimal good reasons to follow them. To make it even worse: With automatic backlinks, this dilution is not even a product of your own choice…

So backlinks need to have context. I agree. In the larger scheme of note-taking, context is also provided by how you want to use your notes. Your notes, at the end of the day and for the most part, are not useful to anyone but you. Therefore your requirements provide the “context” within which your note-taking habits and systems exist.

This is more fundamental to me than the principles of zettelkasten which I outlined in my last essay because principles only come into play once you have settled on a system based on all that it offers. And “effectiveness” is not something any system can hope to offer: only users can judge that after the fact. So with that set aside, what does zettelkasten offer? Linking of knowledge, atomising of knowledge, and… nothing more.

Why Obsidian?

My first app of choice for note-taking would be iA Writer. It has been my tool since long before Obsidian. But there are some things it does not do that have pushed me to Obsidian for this specific use case; that said, I do use iA Writer for the actual writing process sometimes because the files inside Obsidian are just markdown files. And this is a large part of why I prefer Obsidian to anything else (like Apple Notes) besides iA Writer.

There are not many apps that leave my data platform-agnostic. I already dislike that Obsidian does not handle plaintext files (it only works with the .md extension) but this is a problem that can be solved quite easily. You can also overlook it when you consider a couple of things that Obsidian brings to the table: firstly, Obsidian is user-supported, not backed by VCs which means their primary loyalties lie towards their users; but they understand that while their app might not exist forever, users’ data will so platform agnosticism is central to the company’s commitments.

There are still other things I do not like which—if resolved by another app that remains user-driven and platform-agnostic—will make me take my vault elsewhere. This includes Obsidian being an Electron app which makes it feel visibly and structurally different on all my devices to the point where it is discouraging to use on mobile. Also, the lack of support for .txt files is a glaring omission. iA Writer comes really close but does not rename wiki-linked files automatically like Obsidian does, so I do have to rely on Obsidian if I need that. As a writing environment, I prefer and use iA Writer.


The zettelkasten system is effective not because of backlinks, atomisation or methodology but because it requires us to revisit out notes in the process of adding new ones or—as Arhens says too—as a matter of routine.

Any note-taking system works effectively when you constantly revisit your notes and zettelkasten seems to force you into this habit by remaining unorganised. But is this necessary? If you can make it a point to revisit your notes regularly—perhaps by simply surfacing a few at random and folloing internal links—you need no longer remain unorganised and can instead improve both your note-taking effectiveness and your organisational clarity.

This is not special to zettelkasten either. Revisiting your notes is just as easily achieved through purely manual, contextual linking if you develop that as a habit. Also, this is a central feature of GTD: David Allen calls this the weekly review. Indeed if you would want any note to be anything more than an inkstain on paper, age-old wisdom has it that you need to revisit it regularly. As for my method, I make sure I skim through my notes regularly—just keep hitting the down arrow—usually when I have a free moment in the mornings before I start my day. This is good enough to keep your notes in your subconscious where your brain will do what it does best: draw weird connections between unrelated things. Who would have guessed that the recipe for nightmares would also do wonders for note-taking?

Unshackling myself from a puritan zettelkasten system has led me to build a system that works for me rather than adapt a system several others suggest works. It has also pushed me to find methods of doing things that fit into my existing workflows, the nature of my usage of my devices, and my own lifestyle; and as a result I have with me a perfectly frictionless method that works really effectively.

In retrospect I do not believe Luhmann himself would have restritcted his practice to his original techniques had he seen some of the technological developments we are privy to today. The takewaway for me is that every so often we forget that technology and methods are all meant for us to mould and shape into forms that will work for us, not to implement word-for-word and step-for-step. Dogmatism is an effective recipe for a lose-lose situation.


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