An organized collection of notes (a Zettelkasten) can help you make sense of your existing knowledge, and then make better use of it. Make your notes personal and make them relevant. Resist the urge to make them exhaustive.

Don’t build a magnificent but useless encyclopaedia

I guess we all start from our existing knowledge, since none of us is a blank slate. You could just start with what most matters to you right now, and work from there. That’s because it’s more useful and feasible for your system of notes to be personally relevant than to be generally encyclopaedic.

There’s a big difference between an encyclopaedia and a human brain.

  • The encyclopaedia has the information but no effective way of showing what actually matters at the moment.
  • The brain is the opposite: it knows what matters right now but can’t remember all the details.

Document your journey through the deep forest

The Zettelkasten is a useful middle way between these two extremes. It’s a tool to help you make and maintain personally useful trails through the deep forest of accumulated knowledge. Because these trails are useful to you, the expert, they are very likely to be helpful to someone coming up behind you.

On this basis I think there’s no point in trying to recreate, say, ‘20 years of project experience’ in a Zettelkasten. That would be like building your own Wikipedia. It would be a beautiful construction but how would you use it, and would you really be creating knowledge you couldn’t find elsewhere? (Maybe this really is what you’d like, though, I don’t know).

Avoid inert ideas

On Reddit u/cratermoon pointed me to Alfred North Whitehead’s classic essay about “inert ideas” PDF. According to the philosopher and educationalist, there is a great difference between what you remember and can repeat, and what you can actually apply.

“ ‘inert ideas’ – that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.”

The Zettelkasten method is at the very least a means of throwing your ideas into fresh combinations, to see what’s useful and what’s merely received knowledge.

Converse about what really matters to you

What the Zettelkasten excels at is systematising information that matters to you right now and that might matter in the future for a specific purpose. You have a bright idea in the present moment but your brain forgets it. Take a note, link it, and your Zettelkasten will resurface it for you. Your brain can probably remember this idea, given the right prompts, but the Zettelkasten is useful because it remembers the idea slight differently from how you do. Each idea in the Zettelkasten leads from and to different, and sometimes surprising places. In this sense your Zettelkasten is not so much a tool for remembering as a creative conversation partner about shared memories.

Imagine, then build, new knowledge products

Having said that, the Zettelkasten is also best when it’s aimed at the creation of products beyond itself. In other words, it’s primarily a working tool for creating new knowledge products. It’s really not just a reference catalogue or archive.

You might intend to create a book, or article series, or a course on project management, say, distilling your experience and passing it forwards. With that in mind, the Zettelkasten really is useful.

Where (and how) you go is more important than where you start from

The first note: the single most important thing. Here’s an example: “20 years of Project Management experience in two paragraphs”. Everything then follows as an extended commentary on that single idea. However, because it’s all connected, you don’t even need to start with the most important idea. You can just start with the first idea you think of right now. Where does it lead? The Zettelkasten process will take you there.

This unfolding process is the opposite of the standard practice. In the case of 20 years of PM experience the standard practice might be to take a conventional set of PM categories as your table of contents and then to write the same thing everyone else already wrote. The Zettelkasten method is specifically to deny the established categories and to allow the process to uncover new, better ones - new and unique trails through the forest of knowledge.

An example

This, for example, is how Niklas Luhmann worked. He was an experienced senior public administrator, with years of professional work behind him, before he became an academic, a professor of sociology at Bielefeld University. He used his Zettelkasten to break free of the established ways of understanding organisations, and to create an innovative theory of social systems, the subject of his many publications. Though he died in 1998, he was so prolific that there’s a backlog of books he authored. Two new volumes were published in 2021 1 and a collection of his lectures in 2022! The single idea that powered his Zettelkasten was: “Theory of society; duration: 30 years; costs: none.”

This article is adapted from a comment I originally posted on Reddit. There’s plenty more on this subject at Atomic Notes

  1. Die Grenzen der Verwaltung (you can read a German article about it), and Differenz – Kopplung – Reflexion. Beiträge zur Gesellschaftstheorie ↩︎