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Stop Taking Regular Notes; Use a Zettelkasten Instead (eugeneyan.com)
785 points by 7d7n 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 300 comments

This seems to be a new trend now. I'm skeptical. Many of the most successful people I know don't have complicated systems like this - instead of spending time on optimizing note taking, they actually get stuff done. In fact, many don't have systems at all. On the other side, most people raving about the systems are "productivity gurus" writing articles and books, not people who actually get stuff done or would be considered "successful" in the economic sense.

I see a similar trend with org-mode users. It's great and all on a technical level (I've used it myself in the past) but it's easy to fall into the elisp and customization rabbit hole. Over time, the few hours spent here and there to optimize the system add up to thousands of hours that could've been used to get stuff done.

These complex systems are the perfect excuse for procrastination because they make you feel like you are doing something productive while you actually aren't. Just get stuff done.

> Many of the most successful people I know don't have complicated systems like this

How do you know? Maybe their set of habits are a complicated system which they are just not aware of being a system, thus not they are not talking about as they consider it as natural or just obvious.

It seems to be some kind of effect of the internet that people talking about everything leads also to people making big science and systems out of every little detail and habit, seeking some big secret and stuff. While on the other side you have people making up cheap solutions on the spot and throw them away when they don't need them anymore, not calling it sytem or such.

> I see a similar trend with org-mode users. It's great and all on a technical level (I've used it myself in the past) but it's easy to fall into the elisp and customization rabbit hole. Over time, the few hours spent here and there to optimize the system add up to thousands of hours that could've been used to get stuff done.

Yes, customization is a curse. Given enough power, people ultimatly end in corruption until they learn to wield it wisely. But wisdom does not comes easily or fast.

> Just get stuff done.

There are always a multitude of ways to getting stuff done, but some are faster than others, or less exhausting. Thus people aim to be smart and find the best way, which can end in wasting more time on finding the best ways, but also can end in saving time on the grand scale. You need enough experience to smell which road is better and when you should leave it.

> How do you know? Maybe their set of habits are a complicated system which they are just not aware of being a system, thus not they are not talking about as they consider it as natural or just obvious.

You're absolutely right. But with that you are also just arguing about the definition of "system" - everything is a system in one way or another depending on where you draw the line. If I scribble stuff into my notebook and throw it away once it's full, you can call that a system.

By system here I meant a system or product that has a well-known name they can point to, like Zettelkasten or GTD or BASB, etc.

> If I scribble stuff into my notebook and throw it away once it's full, you can call that a system.

If you do it regulary, then yes, it is. A system in that space is mostly definied by habits and rules. Regulary doing the same stuff again and again, even if it's braindead simple, is basically what people consider as a system. Though, whether it's good, is a different topic.

> By system here I meant a system or product that has a well-known name they can point to, like Zettelkasten or GTD or BASB, etc.

Yes, that's what I'm curious about. Zettelkasten is not very complex. Actually it's even very simple. The whole secret is to use reference in your notes and connect them by using a simple naming/numbering-schema. Not much work, not much system. People do that with their notebooks all the time.

The whole cargo-cult growing from it is a different problem and indeed something really bothersome at some point. But GTD and BASB are also not much more complicated if you take the gist of them.

Maybe people are stimulated to build big trades of them because they are just so quite simple and obvious? Many undefinied are, many space for people to paint their thoughts and habit on the canvas.

Right, iterating on your workflow is a normal part of work.

> I see a similar trend with org-mode users. It's great and all on a technical level (I've used it myself in the past) but it's easy to fall into the elisp and customization rabbit hole.

I think part of the issue is that people try to jump into the middle of something which has evolved without going through that evolution themselves. In other words, they need to go to the starting line and iterate from there rather than pushing through to the finish line. I have seen some complex workflows in Org mode, but those flows were built up over years.

The software analogy would be premature optimization. Developers attempting to use tools which are meant for scaling without knowing the how or why of these tools. If you don't know why you should use something, then you might not be to the point where you need it.

I learn the most about how to tackle a problem once I stumble across the need to fix the problem. The best tools are those I find when I then go in search for the fix.

I went through multiple stages with org-mode myself: 1) Just use it naively, instead of the ad-hoc note-taking I did before. 2) Customize it heavily, including a system for citation management. I definitely wasted a lot of hours reading documentation and blog post. But I also ended up using that system for 5+ years consistently. 3) Switch to paper notebooks for calendar, tasks and note-taking.

During 2), I often felt overwhelmed by the ever-growing list of TODOs, in particular those that scheduled at regular intervals.

With paper notebooks, and manual migration of tasks from one month to the next, it's easier to say "no" to things.

But, now that I've filled up three 200-page notebooks, I do struggle to find some old notes, or even remember that they exist.

So, maybe I will revert to an org-mode based "archive" for long-term ideas.

> I often felt overwhelmed by the ever-growing list of TODOs

This is an issue with a global set of todo lists. I follow a butchered BASB type of system. I just keep all ideas in resources folders. Todo items go in those folders, but those are just ideas rather than actual todo items. Then do an occasional review to determine what I want to work on. Whatever I decide gets a folder in projects and todo items get actual deadlines. If I can't work on it, then it gets archived and maybe I'll go back to it later. The only todo items I'll look at are in those project folders and they make progress based on deadlines or they get ditched.

> I think part of the issue is that people try to jump into the middle of something which has evolved without going through that evolution themselves

This is so true. I use a small subset of Org's features, and I have grown my workflow really slowly.

I also have very minimal dotfiles, yet I consider myself an advanced Emacs and Unix user.

It doesn't need to be a timesink. Also, as you say, complicated workflows are the consequence of iterating through many years and are likely paying off the efforts multiplied by a big factor.

I know elisp and I never use it for org-mode. Actually all of my use of org-mode can be summarized in this short comment.

I use org-mode as 'outline mode.' I only do this with it:

* asterisk denotes a level

* asterisk next to an asterisk denotes a sub-level of a level

* sublevels can have sublevels, effectively making them a level, by the above rules

Then you press tab to expand a level or sub-level, press tab again to contract a level or sub-level.

That's it! I tried some of the org-mode add-ons but never found them useful; this is the only one I use regularly.

I've been using Dynalist very similarly. I agree that it's a very simple approach but works well.

org-mode is outline-mode plus some extra markup like timestamps or links. Those are the basics.

Then, you can create views of one or several combined files. For example all items with a timestamp in the near future (deadlines). The standard view for organization is called org-agenda.

Aside from that, you have many other features which you won't need to use initially. For example, the ability to embed code and do literate programming.

Also, better keybindings and a table editor to die for.

I’ve worked with a few very successful business people. What was common among them was they wrote things down (frequently, but a little, not a lot) and had excellent recall. They wrote on anything handy, and discarded when done. Their systems were mostly disposable. They didn’t create libraries of notes.

I’m technical, self-employed, with an academic background. I’m very tempted by systems (I often think of the book “Lila” and his 12K index cards... it’s like thought/note porn). But my need to “ship” keeps my tendencies lightweight. My partner has crates of notes, spends time culling lists and to-dos and plans project work times on her calendar. She struggles to ship and is often frustrated by her own sense of progress.

It’s just a couple of anecdotal data points. I do like to deep dive into research jags and makes lists and record notes, but those usually happen at the beginning of projects or brainstorming sessions... I find old (digital) notes and have a very ephemeral relationship to them.

I care more about digressive and convergent mental habits. When I govern those effectively, I feel creative and productive. My systems tend to stay light.

Two random thoughts:

First, one of my high schools had a workshop on how to study. One of the things they encouraged us to do is to take notes, but only a moderate amount of them. Some amount of note-taking can have a huge positive impact on memory and retention. But overdoing it is actually harmful. It's overwhelming.

The other is that, if there's one thing I really like from name-brand Scrum, it's the idea that you should strive to make each decision no more than once. Lots of deep deep planning ahead tends to maximize the amount of effort you burn on re-making decisions. And the decisions that are most vulnerable to this effect are the ones that you made the furthest ahead of time.


That reminds me.. in college, I was employed by a "Class Notes" service to write the notes that other people in class bought so they didn't have to take notes.

I got great market for my notes, and when the class was over, students were encouraged to report back to the Class Notes company what score they got in the class. Again, by correlation, my notes were well regarded.

I scored very poorly in the class. I spent a lot of time taking notes in class, and then refining the notes to be turned in. Surely, I did less additional homework/studying than I should have. But I also had very little recall of the material.

I definitely wasn't optimizing my own effort along with my class notes effort -- but I stopped doing that as I was already pretty busy and the money was mostly a lift. I did better attending and being the kind of student I already know how to be.

I never looked into it, but I always wondered what police write down in their note books and how they balance writing enough and listening enough, making sure they don't forget but don't get distracted by the writing process. Maybe it takes practice.

Pretty much the same realization I came across too. I used to love taking down notes for the sake of notes... now I don't. Likewise pictures too, my idea was to capture everything

Notes for me now is just a temporarily placeholder to help process a lot of information in one go.

I don't ever store notes long terms until I find myself reaching for it the 2nd time

This kind of links to Alan Kay's insights on remembering content: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11809285

Same thread, on not taking notes, but capturing ideas: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11852959

I'm a long time Luhmannian Zettelkasten fan, but thus far all my efforts on keeping one myself have failed. I still admire this method, though; maybe it's just optimized for a different brain than mine. I have had better success with Lion Kimbro's latest (2004-ish, I think) method for indexing paper notebooks. Thanks to a short correspondence with him (really nice guy!), I even dug up his blog posts on that:



He outlines his "new" method more thoroughly and with images in the book "Mindhacker" by Ron & Marty Hale-Evans (Hack no 17 - Write Magnificient Notes).

Kimbro's eralier book "How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think" has been on HN earlier, eg: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8078819

All in all, I suppose it is just a matter of whether someone is a "free-form guy" or tends to prefer more complex, e.g. hierarchical notes. I would like to be more systematic, but I guess in reality I am not.

I want to think that for me the perfect note taking technique is a well built-up "memory palace" + guilt-free forgetting. In other words, taking as little written notes as possible and retaining important things in my head as visual (often metaphorical) images. There is a world where that would keep all relevant ideas and connections always floating on top. And everything irrelevant would magically sink to the bottom of my brain. How easy. Unfortunately I have yet to visit that world.

I'm sympathetic to this argument, though I suspect it isn't as simple as "just get stuff done". If we could have, we would have.

My suspicion is that the natural productivity for individuals in the population follows a bell curve: some people are crazy productive, regardless of their tools, and at the other end are people who are beyond help. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, and these tools will likely help some, but not all of them. It's unlikely any one methodology can help everybody.

As someone who's just beginning to try out orgmode, I can see its value, though it would likely do little to overcome my own personal productivity weaknesses: poor planning and foresight at the beginning. No amount of otherwise excellent tools can overcome a poorly thought out plan. They do, however, highlight how ill-conceived my initial plans were. It's up to me to do something about it. I have found a GTD-like review approach to be the most helpful.

First I'm very skeptical of the claim that there is any "natural" productivity scale out there. Nobody is born productive or "beyond help", unless they have some sort of mental handicap. It all comes down to what you learn and the good habits you form over the years.

I also don't think you can totally separate a "personal productivity weakness" from "tools". Tools and systems, when learned and used correctly, can go a long way in correcting bad habits and mindless counter-productive actions. An example that has already helped me a lot is the very simple act of writing out only 2 to 3 most important tasks for the day and make them easily visible with some form of stickies. This helps me focus my energy throughout the day instead of letting me wander around mindlessly with whatever free time that comes up, since those 2 to 3 tasks always stay on top of my mind and direct my actions, and are very easy to keep track of. This way I actually get things done constantly every day instead of obliviously letting time slip by while feeling lost amid the dozens of TODOs that I have in org-mode/todo software.

Full disclosure: I am CEO of a productivity/note taking app (Amplenote) that arguably competes with Roam.

Roam & Zettelkasten share a user base thick with academics. Productivity doesn't tend to be their stated end goal. Their goal is more often to arrange thoughts into webs of knowledge. They allow connected ideas, like wikis, except with zero forethought put into how the ideas should be organized. People really like being able to start writing without figuring out how to organize the thing they're about to write.

The goals that the R&Z community will benefit everyone as they seep into the broader ecosystem. It's (purported to be [1]) a powerful experience if you have the time to build a visualized network of your thoughts and see how they connect together. But it's not very similar to getting things done.

Incidentally, our app, Amplenote, allows bidirectional linking like Roam, and is focused specifically on helping users get things done (e.g., https://www.amplenote.com/classic_todo_lists_always_fail). In the real world, our product has allowed us to build three businesses that profitability sustain our team of 20. We have zero hype in part because we spend most of our time working. When a relevant comment like this one comes up, I don't see it until 12 hours later. C'est la vie when trying to actually get stuff done.

[1] Haven't had time to actually try out networked notes, but we're planning to add it to Amplenote later this month. Will develop an original opinion on them then.

See: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”

And: People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use

Once loaded, scroll all the way to the right:


Anecdotal disagree here. I have a system that would probably be deemed complicated by anyone that would look at it (even more so than the OP article).

While I wouldn't consider myself the most successful person, I've got a lot done, and I attribute a lot of it to my system, notes, and organization. The system wasn't immediately complicated either, it has been developed and refined over 10 years to suit my needs. And for me in particular, it alleviates a lot of mental overhead and allows me to just focus on whatever it is I'm working on.

But that's just me, I think you do have a point to some extent. It depends on the person, YMMV.

Here's an article that goes into more about these concepts, the author calls it a "Second Brain": https://fortelabs.co/blog/basboverview/

I see your point but this viewpoint might be veering to another extreme. The truth is probably somewhere in between, as is the case with many other matters.

I certainly spent a lot of time taking notes in org-mode but I don't regret it. Whenever I want to look something up and revise, I can find it in an instant by simply grepping my repo or by targeting a header. Goes without saying, this is particularly useful for notes related to programming. However, even for other notes (e.g. vacation plan) I still find tremendous value in org-mode's flexible and powerful approach. In addition, org-mode is also a medium for me to freely write things down and clarify my thoughts whenever I feel the urge to do so. I can even "write and forget", but the reward is already reaped when I wrote out my thoughts in the first place.

However, I have indeed moved time tracking and task management out of org-mode, after struggling with it for a couple of years and trying out various customizations. Ultimately it feels like that org-mode is not built as a suitable system for this purpose, for various reasons. Being "able" to do everything doesn't mean it does everything well, and I fell into the trap of idolizing it too much to the detriment of other viable alternatives. IMO it's a perfect note-taking system for programmers/STEM people, but task management and time tracking should not have been mixed with note taking in the first place. It feels like a bloating of product scope (were it a for-profit product, of course). Now I've switched to a dedicated software for task management + time tracking that has cross-platform support, and I feel much happier and can actually properly track my tasks, review my productivity and get things done.

I do a lot of planning before 'getting stuff done' which involves jotting down a ton of ideas and linking them to formalize the thought process before performing the actual work. It's not exactly Zettelkasten but the essence is the same. I don't consider it procrastination because a lot of planning ahead of time means less adhoc lower quality planning during implementation.

I have a similar observation around the idea of "working in public" by, e.g. blogging or tweeting a lot about your work. Proponents of this approach say that it will help your career immensely, and while I believe that it can I've also observed that the most successful people don't spend a huge amount of time blogging or tweeting about their work.

I think your skepticism and concern is well placed -- the output is what matters. But I'm a little confused about one aspect: what is it that you perceive as "complicated" and "complex" in this? Genuinely curious and not meant to be snarky.

By using tools for this you will inevitably spend additional time organizing, tagging, and summarizing notes, most of which is probably a waste of time. The article has a pretty good example of this

> I find watching how this knowledge graph grows satisfying

Yep, it's satisfying. Because it's procrastination and gives you the illusion of "being in control" - just like engaging in social media is satisfying. Or cleaning your room while you should be doing homework. I don't think it's useful.

Taking notes is great. Research has shown that active note taking, e.g. while watching a lecture, is a crucial part of learning. Organizing them into some (in case of roam, PAID!) system that you will probably not even come back to? Procrastination.

It surely is easy to procrastinate by inventing more and more complicated systems, but I don’t think the (base) Zettelkasten is an example of such procrastination.

> active note taking, e.g. while watching a lecture, is a crucial part of learning

I agree! The word “active” is crucial here — categorising, structuring and interlinking knowledge fosters understanding. The Zettelkasten builds on this principle, because — when it works in classroom, maybe it would be good to interlink and structure your ideas outside of it as well.

> Organizing them into some (in case of roam, PAID!) system that you will probably not even come back to?

I sense a straw man here. Of course, if you don’t plan to look at your notes ever again, why bother writing them down in any kind of system?

The whole point of Zettelkasten is to write down notes that you intend to use in the future. You can still have some ephemeral notes, but you don’t rewrite those to the Zettelkasten.

For me, I am a hand-written note taker. Action items, insights, situation summaries, interesting thoughts or quotes. They are rough and often hastily written. Some numbers of days later, I review all of them and transcribe important notes to a nicer notebook. This allows for some spaced repetition and ensures I don’t miss action items. Way less frequently, I review my nicer notes. Anything still relevant gets rewritten and pulled forward in the notebook. I spend less than fifteen minutes a week on this. This isn’t procrastination, it is organization that ensures I don’t forget important and not yet completed things. I later learned of bullet journaling. Mine is similar in spirit but waaaaay less formal or structured.

> Many of the most successful people I know don't have complicated systems like this - instead of spending time on optimizing note taking, they actually get stuff done.

I admit not reading the article fully - I scanned it and it's not that great. But I'd like to ask - why relate ZK with "getting stuff done"? That's not a selling point of Zettelkasten and seems like misplaced criticism.

ZK is for academics. And while I don't know any personally who used it, I do know plenty who have some sort of extended note system, and the correlation to their success is not low.

And since ZK is becoming more popular, like so many other comments, I would caution people in not expecting too much from it. It is a lot of work. I used to (and still try to) keep notes on my computer for everything I study - done in the "inefficient" manner, and it is very time consuming. ZK requires more effort than that. You can't just dump notes in the system and have it work out. For every note you add, you need to ponder over what other related notes you already have, and explicitly link them. This is not fun and it is "expensive".

I read an account from one academic who started using ZK in his grad school years. He said something similar: It is a lot of effort, and he said most of the real gains happened after he'd collected notes for eight years - then things took off for him.

> I see a similar trend with org-mode users. It's great and all on a technical level (I've used it myself in the past) but it's easy to fall into the elisp and customization rabbit hole.

OK - now the gloves come off :-)

Most org mode users don't know elisp. I didn't for almost my first decade of using it. And people only stick to org mode because it is fairly successful for them. I use it extensively to author documents (be it for Word, HTML, LaTeX, Reveal, Beamer, etc). Except for a few PPTs, I haven't authored in any other system for over a decade.

I use it for taking notes, and nothing has replaced it since I started. I often refer to notes I took years ago.

I'll admit I haven't used it well enough as a TODO system and this is likely where people may get stuck tinkering.

I use it as a logging tool (weights, people I've met and when, etc) and it's great.

I use it for literate programming. Awesome - especially when learning a new language. I have code snippets, with evaluated results all in the same document.

All my blog's content is authored in one org document and exported to individual pages. I tried many blogging systems in the past and this is the only one I stick to.

Org mode is just amazing.

So instead of training hard to master martial arts you suggest to not waste time, go out and just fight people.

You are going to learn either way.

It's important to keep in mind that Zettelkasten's creator was an academic in the humanities. When I tried this system, I found it really shone when my goal was literature review -- i.e. to weave together arguments from disparate sources and articles, particularly when there was no quantitative or numeric way to do that weaving (e.g. in a table).

I think that more technical and quantitative subjects do not benefit as much from these large 'connectionist' note-taking systems. For example, if your goal is to learn a new programming language, I don't see Zettelkasten being particularly helpful: you've already grokked a a for loop in other languages, and you gain nothing by creating a new linked note under the 'for loop construct' heading. Just do some practice problems instead!

But if your goal is to compare and contrast features across many languages, or to identify where certain software architectures are lacking, Zettelkasten would work just fine.

I tried Zettelkasten a few months ago and I found a lot of what you said to be true. It also has a serious upfront labor overhead that really makes it hard to stick with.

Then I discovered Building a Second Brain and it's P.A.R.A. method which was like Just-in-Time Zettelkasten and it's suddenly become a cornerstone of my productivity routine.

I compare the two approaches in this blog post: I recently studied both Zettelkasten and Build a Second Brain (aka P.A.R.A) note taking methods. They share some core principles but BASB seems much more practical for most people

I compared the two here: https://zainrizvi.io/blog/remembering-what-you-read-zettelka...

I find that for myself, the ease with which I can take notes depends on the tool that I'm using. I've tried Notion and Zettlr, but both take a bit to get going.

Have you used anything that you find well suited for the tasks of either PARA or Zettelkasten?

Pen and paper, there is something about writing and quickly drawing diagrams using the pen that seems to be involving the right parts of my brain that seem to be asleep otherwise.

Agreed. Pen and paper is great for taking notes

Yet discoverability becomes a huge challenge. I find that I almost never go back to reference those paper notes. I'd need a good system to keep those notes organized

The solution for me is to keep an index in the front or back of the notebook. Each time I write something of significance I put it in the index.

I have something resembling a Zettelkasten using Tiddlywiki with the Stroll plugin. I'm loving it. I feel like this system is taking me from being someone who hoards notes and never looks at them to someone who actively learns and remembers by making connections between newly-added notes and pre-existing ones in my Tiddlywiki.



Take a look at Emvi [1]. We wrote about how you can use it as a Zettelkasten [2] even it's not build primarily for that.

[1] https://emvi.com/

[2] https://emvi.com/blog/luhmanns-zettelkasten-a-productivity-t...

I'm using Evernote as my main note taking tool. They've put more effort into making it easier to put notes into it than the other systems I've seen and the PARA system was designed by a guy who used Evernote so it works really well with it.

However, I'm starting to experiment with Roam to write more long form notes to see if I can take advantage of the easy linking capabilities it offers


Obsidian recently came up here.

Roam Research

great but expensive.

To be honest, they aren't even charging yet.

Great write up, thanks!

My pleasure!

Well, yes. It is important to clarify the purpose for note taking. Zettelkasten-like approaches are useful when you're trying to synthesize knowledge into a framework/perspective, sometimes as a way to find and contextualize new ideas. If one doesn't care about that, and ones notes already have a well-defined taxonomy/structure then the linking feature of Zettelkasten is not particularly useful.

I disagree. The general idea that human mind stores information as a connected knowledge graph is still valid for technical subjects.

Sure, for simpler examples like if statements, you may not gain much. But, even for loops have differences across languages. JS uses for..of for iterating while Python and Swift use for..in

Also, there are different approaches in each language for getting the index and value while iterating.

Then, there are more complex topics like generics which have significant implementation differences between Java and Swift etc.

It would lead to a better understanding looking at these notes in connection rather than in isolation

Side tracking: What is complex about implementing generics? It is either monomorphization or type erasure. It is not complex in the sense of "stuff entwined with other stuff".

You've just listed two possible things the concept intertwined with, those in turn are interwined with other things.

I mostly agree.

Recently I started with the Zettelkasten approach (120 notes now), so not much experience yet. I did not use something like this for my phd thesis. Thinking back, I don't think it would have helped significantly because computer science works differently than the humanities.

What works very well is to use Zettelkasten as the next step after taking notes from reading book, blog posts, and articles to collect your personal insights. Probably also from movies, podcasts, whatever.

I believe Zettelkasten will help me with writing for my own blog and when I'm collecting information for personal projects. In both cases, I have lots of ideas which are not fully formed yet to be published or implemented. With a job and a family there is little time to pursue it, so I have to work in little steps. Externalizing this ideas is essential and a very-hyperlinked style like Zettelkasten seems to fit well.

For learning little facts about programming languages, spaced repetition is probably more suitable.

> you gain nothing by creating a new linked note under the 'for loop construct' heading. Just do some practice problems instead!

This is when you are learning very basics and not equivalent of literature review.

The proper equivalent would be doing overview of current frameworks. Or learning about bitcoin where you are going through math, design, algorithm, economics considerations and social consideration. Or security where you jump between modeling, attack, defense and tradeoffs.

>overview of current frameworks

Or simply linking libraries to ideas for applications, and explaining how they fit together to provide end user functionality.

This is useful for anyone whos life goals are a little more generic. If all you use it is for learning a new programming language, it's probably limited in usefulness. If however you use it to not just note interesting ideas in a language but whatever you learn about tech in general, it will become more useful. I intend to use it to keep track of interesting tech notes, my project ideas, potential things I want to learn and read further, and some other life activities as well such as house hunting.

I have notes on the internal of a programming language, or what library function does what, along with accompanying example code, as well definitions for things I saw in the wild.

It was sometime difficult for me to figure out how to use an API due to lack of examples. So it's important to document that.

> I have notes on the internal of a programming language, or what library function does what, along with accompanying example code, as well definitions for things I saw in the wild.

I don't think Zettelkasten will provide much benefits for this type of note taking. It probably still is better than normal note taking, but don't expect great benefits using ZK for things like this.

That's fair. All my notes goes into one system, regardless of how applicable a Zettlelkasten system is to certain notes.

It’s useful in pure (abstract) math for linking similar proofs. If you can spot some subjective link between proofs (e.g a proof in algebra and a proof in number theory that use essentially the same counting method) then you might be onto a deeper connection. I used this as an undergrad to “borrow” proofs from other areas.

> if your goal is to learn a new programming language, I don't see Zettelkasten being particularly helpful

I started using one to learn Erlang, and have found it incredibly helpful. Going down a wikipedia-style rabbit hole of my own notes is cool, like I'm exploring my own brain. Sometimes I completely forget how something works, and when I look up the note I took I just have to read a few of my own words to immediately remember it all.

I will say though that progress actually feels pretty slow compared to my usual strategy of just reading through books and articles once or twice, and then web searching whenever I forget something. But I guess that just has more to do with meticulous note-taking in general rather than the "zettelkasten" thing.

> you've already grokked a a for loop in other languages, and you gain nothing by creating a new linked note under the 'for loop construct' heading

So don't do that. Your notes are for you and you only. If you write useless notes, then the notes will be useless. Just write down what you think you might have trouble remembering later.

As a programmer, every time I try to nail down the flow for a new program, I quickly realize that I'm just writing pseudo-code - and often, just straight code.

Maybe the problem is English. Maybe there's a way to structure English sentences in a more precise and meaningful way with hypertext linking and structuring like a legal document? ...but for human-to-human communications?

I like this idea of somehow augmenting human language with more associative structures for deeper meaning and shared understanding.

Maybe one implementation of this is that if the people we talk to (perhaps via a chat app) have their own Zettelkasten, the chat is supplemented/augmented by each others Zettelkasten (either publicly or privately) so we have a deeper understanding of each other and we can go on interesting tangents and create new links. This also aids in more progressive discussions.

(I'll add this concept to my Zettel and see where it takes me :) Thanks for the inspiration)

Be sure to write something about this if you ever take it further. I think it'd be a cool concept and could potentially help connect with people.

I could also see it being too overwhelming and nobody reading the extra context available to them.

Legal documents have cross-references to annexes/addendums. In addition, some words used are defined in the definitions section.

For contracts, there is a customary order, you start with subject of the contract and end with force majeure, severability, term etc.

I don’t believe there is a hyperlinked inherent structure in legal documents. Skilled lawyers can of course draft a meaningful, concise document. But, I think that’s analogous to a skilled programmer writing clear and understandable code.

Most lawyers I know dread formatting and checking for cross-refs.

However, I think we do have one quality, we are used to subconsciously analyze sentences for ambiguities, double meanings, logical contradictions etc. Therefore, lawyers may use English in a way that would do the least harm (or most harm depending on which side they’re on :)).

If we figured out natural language processing or (even if very unlikely) switched our legal documents to an unambigious context-free language such as Lojban, lawyers’ jobs could be entirely automated.

I suspect that impressively structured legal documents stem from templates that have been perfected over the years by multiple lawyers, battle-tested by actual use.

That’s my impression being a junior associate and normally doing the grunt work of checking cross-refs and formatting contracts.

> if your goal is to learn a new programming language, I don't see Zettelkasten being particularly helpful

I don't have experience with Zettelkasten, but after reading this article I'm imagining using it for studying algorithms in general and physics simulations in particular.

It even might be more useful than you think for learning languages. For example, the return expression in Haskell might look like a return statement from an imperative language, and might even be used in a similar way, but under the hood the two have nothing in common. There's a significant amount of foundational knowledge you need before you can jump in and start doing practice problems.

I would find such a thing invaluable for connecting different articles on “the best way to for loop in bash” and “how decomposing a for loop results in AVX512 optimizations”, for example, even if my goal isn’t literary review.

People love doing things that feel like work, but aren’t.

I’m terrified of picking up new systems like this without having a purpose. I could spend hours building out a graph, admiring all of MY knowledge, but not really have any intended use for it other than telling others about it and how I’m going to use it someday.

You're in a perceptive loop concerning this particular object (systems like this) then. You see future-self behaving as past-self did.

You can keep doing that, looping. People who are natural contingency planners do this all the time--they map their past onto future-self. Flexing this muscle because it's strongest.

However this is also a good way of preventing yourself from re-exploring new objects through a different lens.

Or asking people, "here's what I tried--what are you doing differently?"

If you can treat it as a skill with unlimited outcomes per-experience, rather than a forced repetition of past-self, you get a huge mental plasticity bonus. Once you've gotten to that point you can also find yourself building your own tech with fewer crippling concerns about future outcomes. It's a great unlocking method.

This was a very insightful analysis. Thank you. I absolutely loved how you brought it back to technological development.

This is a pretty astonishing insight! @themodelplumber1 do you have more information about this? Either a blog post you have written, or a book you read (or wrote!) on the topic?

Edit: ... and I checked out your profile and bookmarked your blog in my feed reader. Awesome!

I write a lot about perception in the blog there...Glad you found the feed. I think I host some of the world's top RSS feed-chipmunks :-)

Hi @rendall, in exploring this subject more broadly you may find it useful to search for "metacognition". See also the book "Ultralearning", https://RoamBrain.com, Tiago Forte, NessLabs...

Also google "growth mindset" -- cultivate a mental state where it's not about ruminating about past failures, but rather focus on what you learned from past experiences (what doesn't work) and use that to iterate on your future self.

Same; I've been using various note taking approaches over the years, but my "problem" is that I rarely actually have to go back to a note, they are usually only relevant for one task like e.g. writing a blog post or implementing a feature.

So while I'd like to retain my knowledge and research somewhere, at the same time I don't actually use it???

But some writing I've done that will be relevant in the next years is writing ADR's (Architecture Decision Records) in my application about technology and architecture choices I've made, so I can look them up later, use it to train new people, and have a basis to challenge a decision on as well. That's more practical for my personal situation.

But maybe one day I'll be doing something more academic and will need a way to collate research and the like.

I would say that one of the goals of note taking is to make it so that you don't need to go back to them. If you write notes about a book you read, not copy-pasting the exact quotes, but writing your understanding, you'll be more likely to remember it later. And if, at some point you want to remember more, then you actually go to the note and check.

I completely agree. Note apps are focused on categorization when 90% of note taking is creation, not retrieval. I have a new app that’s focused on creating notes as quickly as possible, working offline, and syncing to all your devices (web too). I’d love to include you in the alpha we’re launching this week, just send me an email and we’ll add you. This is open to anyone else as well!

This is why I always come back to Apple's humble Notes app after trying the others. It's simple and dumb enough that it gets out of the way and just lets me write notes on my mac or my phone and everything is quietly synced for offline use.

Once I start thinking about how I'm going to use the note, I go down a rabbit hole of style / format considerations and it gets in the way of the idea I was trying to capture. So now I give myself permission to just write a note and if it does need to morph into something more structured, it's only a copy-paste away to a fancier tool.

Do you have a link to a website for your app? I'd be interested in trying it out.

You could still benefit from a Zettelkasten just by distilling knowledge in note form. Even if you don't actually have to go back very often.

This way of notetaking is the first time I feel the "actions that feel like work but isn't" overhead is below a critical threshold. I don't plan anything, I don't do reviews, I spend no time working with or around the tool, I just stick to a couple simple principles and jot things down, curating connections as they arise.

that is not an unreasonable fear. I'm reminded of something I read once.

there are two kinds of people:

- those who make lists and use them.

- and those who make lists and lose them.

I would say 90% of the todos and ideas I jot down and overorganize don't lead to anything. But the 10% I do - they keep the wheels from coming off my life. (to be fair, there is a very low cost of capture, and I do it all electronically)

I agree with this ratio. I generate a ton of ideas for projects or hobbies, but writing each one down and putting it away (in Trello, Joplin, GitLab issues, etc.) lets me move on with priorities rather than getting pulled into new things all the time.

Do you know Vannevar Bush? Most note taking tools/systems are an approximation of a memex. I think it's worthwhile to develop a system along the lines of a memex because sharing knowledge effectively is how we all become more effective.

I recently stumbled upon [0] this quote from Walter Benjamin:

> Und heute schon ist das Buch, wie die aktuelle wissenschaftliche Produktionsweise lehrt, eine veraltete Vermittlung zwischen zwei verschiedenen Kartotheksystemen. Denn alles Wesentliche findet sich im Zettelkasten des Forschers, der's verfaßte, und der Gelehrte, der darin studiert, assimiliert es seiner eigenen Kartothek.

My translation:

> Already today the book, as tought by academia, is obsolete as transmitting information between two card file systems. Anything of substance is in the Zettelkasten of the researcher, who wrote it, and the scholar, who studies it, assimilates it in his own card file.

[0] https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Alles-Wesentliche-findet-si...

That's a good quote. I've been trying to figure out what a programmable wiki would look like and I always end up with something that looks like a smalltalk VM.

I think it's possible to build a personal memex now. I'm looking at couchdb, lucene, apache tika, deno, and node.js as the initial set of tools to mash together and expose through the browser. CouchDB and Lucene will be used for persisence and searching along with Apache Tika for extracting metadata and doing OCR on images and PDFs. Deno and Node.js will be used for executing code on the server and the client. Deno can be used for sandboxing and exposing each person's knowledge base to programmatic control by other people like a federated search engine where people can share interesting code patterns for acting on knowledge bases and exposing hidden patterns.

Combine with some basic machine learning models and you get a pretty useful personal toolkit for knowledge enhancement.

Also, a quote by another good thinker

> Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them. - Alfred North Whitehead

I've taken 3000 pages of notes in a linear, bullet-point fashion, and I also keep up with education research.

As far as I can tell, both in studies and in personal experience, the fiddly details of your note-taking schemes don't matter. The only thing that matters is attempting to integrate the information into a cohesive whole, which takes intentional thought.

With linear notes, there's a failure mode where links that should be made aren't; you can even walk around believing outright contradictions without noticing. But with a web, there's an equally bad failure mode where your knowledge gets diffuse and unstructured (instead of "X causes Y if Z", you get "X, Y, and Z are related. But... was Z the thing that caused X? Wait, but then what was Y for?").

Both of these reflect a failure to aggregate and chunk the information into hard tools, but no productivity system can magically fix that; it always takes time.

For Academic writing like the creator of zettelkasten was, web method is much preferred.

For linear notes, the remedy is not really feasible, you'd have to go through everything thoroughly fixing unlinked notes.

For the 2nd, the 'failure mode' of the web note taker as you describe, that isn't really a problem. Notes are just tools/building blocks to writing or coming up with cohesive ideas/arguments. If you don't know what Y was for, its either irrelevant or you've found a gap in your knowledge you need to plug.

>But with a web, there's an equally bad failure mode where your knowledge gets diffuse and unstructured (instead of "X causes Y if Z", you get "X, Y, and Z are related. But... was Z the thing that caused X? Wait, but then what was Y for?").

Isn't that exactly what the point of a memex-like system is? Instead of simple X-Y links, you get 3-tuples such as (X, "can cause", Y).

Zettelkasten can handle this. Create a note called "My Theory" with the contents "X causes Y if Z", where X, Y, and Z are links to the relevant notes.

I've come to realize that:

    1. 80% note-taking value is in writing the info down in *any* form.

    2. 19% is in re-reading your notes.
Moreover, you'll evolve a loose/informal system if you stick with it long enough. You'll learn to read your past self. That's presumably what Herr Luhmann did.

Note-taking changed my life. I urge people to stop chasing perfection and just get started.

As a follow-up: if you want to improve your ability to synthesize knowledge, but don't know where to start, I recommend Rich Hickey's Hammock-Driven Development talk [0]

Spoiler alert: it's all stuff your parents and teachers have told you before.

[0] https://youtu.be/f84n5oFoZBc.

The power of any system comes when you re-organize the information in your own mind. Reviewing might be enough to allow your brain to do it automatically, but you can also force the process with things like concept-maps and, apparently, this system (which seems to be a type of concept map- but I've not used it so I'm not sure).

Again, from one internet stranger to another, it has been my experience that:

1. Writing & reviewing notes is forcing the process. It is not automatic.

2. Specialized methods don't generalize well.

3. Personalized methods/notations/styles emerge naturally.

4. Nothing beats pencil-and-paper (with a lot of sketches).

5. Chasing "more efficient note-taking" is grossly counter-productive.


> "4. Nothing beats pencil-and-paper (with a lot of sketches)."

i bought the first ipad pro with pencil to replace paper for this use case, on the promise of search for handwritten notes. i thought it would be the killer app for ipad pro. instead, it's been disappointing. if only apple had improved the notes app, especially OCR/search, over time rather than regressing it.

I think the Newton was actually better at that.

> I urge people to stop chasing perfection and just get started.

This is BY FAR the most important aspect of note taking. Just do it. Start now.

Are Zettelkasten the latest Hipster fad?

A fortnight or so ago, I saw a link on HN mentioning 'Zettelkasten' and had to look up the word, because I'd never heard it before. Since then, there must have been a Zettelkasten reference at least every other day.

Certainly a fad I think partly due to the book “How to Take Smart Notes”. Personally I think it’s a very well thought out argument about why this particular note taking system works and why it might work for you. But as the author says, it is meant for academics, particular those in the humanities although it doesn’t state that explicitly.

I believe this kind of work doesn’t share a lot of commonality with the research that readers of HN would do - although it is a very effective tool for some stuff we do.

I think if you’re gonna read it, don’t take it as “the one true way” to take notes. Take what you like and do what works for you.

"I believe this kind of work doesn’t share a lot of commonality with the research that readers of HN would do - although it is a very effective tool for some stuff we do."

I'm not sure what your expectations of the "normal" HN reader are but lots of people engage in stuff like creative writing, essays, general research to esoteric topics and so on.

For example I have a notebook I constantly scribble on. I've moved a portion of that scribbling to a zettlekasteln like system to a great benefit - although I just use text files and in a simple onedrive directory structure.

Feels more like viral marketing for Roam than anything.

Honestly I'm just glad that "Zettelkasten" as a concept is getting more exposure and it's being called what it is, instead of getting eaten up as "a part of Roam". The literal cult surrounding it certainly doesn't make it easy.

It's not really new, but finally the years of spreading the cargo-cult is paying.

There is now roam, a new fancy tool which does nothing new, but spreads hard with the new generation and connects well with the zettelkasten-terms. And there recently was was a book about smart notetaking, which sold somewhat well with people who seek some solution but don't know much about this space.

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or Frequency Illusion is the phenomenon where something you recently learned suddenly appears everywhere

That is certainly a thing. But on HN, we really do have topical trends. When an article gets popular, and piques our interest, people keep researching it. And finding related topics and articles, and those also get posted. We also see it impact the "Show HN" posts - before coronacrisis, we were seeing so many curated job postings sites that it got to be a bit of a joke. Just in the last couple week, we've see an uptick in blogging tools, and in the past couple days, an uptick in data gathering sites for police action. Trends do exist.

They sure do. Is there a "HN trends" tool you're aware of?

Not that I recall... but with all the people who participate here, I wouldn't be surprised if someone has a project along those lines in some stage of development. If not, it could be a fun project to try.

I stand [partially] corrected. Searching through the archives, I find the term first appeared on HN 4 years ago, with a few mentions a year, ever since. But there's definitely been a cluster of mentions over the past month or so:


Sure, but there's also culture and things go in and out of fashion and ideas go varying level of viral, too. I have certainly seen a post become popular and decide that an essay I read which has some passing similarity might likewise be too. So I post it, and someone links it on Facebook, and we run in similar internet circles and it hits you twice in different ways.

To some extent that applies.

In this case a strange new word like Zettelkasten also caused me to look it up the first time i saw it. Which was sometime this year.

I.e. had it been appearing everywhere before, I would have looked it up earlier.

I got interested in building one about 6 months ago after finding Devine Lu Linvega's memex: https://wiki.xxiivv.com/site/home.html

Tagged info can already constitute a Zettelkasten, since relations exist on matching tags. A wiki is much more advanced and a superset of Zettelkasten functionality.

In light of the "graph"-craze I could imagine that we will hear more of it.

That said, it can be helpful for sourcing all kinds of stuff, but still think it is a hipster fad.

edit: some dictionaries suggest that "outliner" is a fitting translation. I don't think that is true due to the hierarchy outliners seem to require.

Part of it because there is new hot notetaking/KM app called Obsidian, post on Show HN* about a week ago and people seems super interested. Also posted a just little while further back was another service called Roam which similar in principle.


You may have experienced the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.


https://hn.algolia.com/?q=zettelkasten suggests the vast majority of posts are recent, and the older ones received far less traction.

Off course, there's even a Zettelkasten markdown notebook (Electron based) called Zettlr


This looks interesting, but one potential problem with this method is that you start treating the number of notes or the size of the graph as a success metric. The author even notes how it is 'pleasing' to see their note graph grow in size. This could be a perverse incentive.

Yes, and what I find even more worrying about a densely connected graph is that it is not easy to extract information! Lack of connections (factorizing knowledge) is as important as noticing connections. Otherwise you'll be swimming in connections of marginal relevance (i.e. distractions). IMHO a sprinkling of connections, resulting in a relatively sparse graph is quite easy to make sense of. It's not easy to foresee where the optimum might be.

You're absolutely correct, that is the dominant hyperparameter for a tool like this. If every word was hyperlinked, it would be nonsense. The good news is we don't need to analyze and forecast what the optimum is, we just need to ride the bike and learn to balance.

I had the same thought. I see these graphs more as a gimmick that look nice but don't provide much insight as soon as they grow to a certain size. The first roam research graphs I saw where completely useless. Only when you zoom in and look at an individual note the connections become clearer.

I don't use Zettelkasten but I have over 1000 of my own frameworks in a homebrew organization and reference system. Up to about number 900, it had a "the more the better" vibe to it. It was fun to count the files.

Once I passed 900, I counted them up and then realized that the best frameworks are those that are actively maintained, and _those_ are more likely to cause churn throughout the system. Activities like reorganization and even condensation. This resulted in a reduction in the file count, but it was definitely for the better.

The most perverse incentive IMO is when your system of organization, structure, and own-ideas is so good that you become addicted to it. You forget to ask others what they think, or what they're doing, because you want to experience and learn it for yourself. Don't tell me--I want to puzzle it out.

But as with just about any perverse incentive, you probably learn about it as you go along, especially if the system is there to help you out in the first place. And then you fix the problem.

I've recently got into using https://kinopio.club for noting down these kinds of interconnected thoughts, which encourages combing and refining thoughts down to the root issues. But, some may find it too minimal compared to the tools linked in the article.

Doesn't seem that harmful, as it might increase their motivation to study a subject?

Studying a subject is not exactly the same as writing more notes about it.

Yes, but it's not unrelated. We don't have to measure everything objectively all the time when it comes to human performance. Sometimes rituals help indirectly or in the long run.

How can you quantify showers and ideas? The hotter the shower, the more ideas?

I recently studied both Zettelkasten and Build a Second Brain's P.A.R.A note taking methods. They share some core principles but BASB seems much more practical for most people

The biggest difference was that Zettelkasten required a ton of work up-front, which made it nearly impossible for me to stick with it. BASB on the other had was more Just-in-Time based which makes it much easier to stick with.

I compared the two methods here: https://zainrizvi.io/blog/remembering-what-you-read-zettelka...

I searched for hours for a viable Zettelkasten method: org-mode, vim-org, TiddlyWiki, Roam, Notion, Joplin, Notable, Obsidian, Zettlr.

All of them were too complex, and not lightweight, cross-compatible, private/secure, or futureproof enough.

I decided to settle on the default MacOS editor using a mix of .txt/.rtf files, with extensive folder organization and the built-in tagging system. I plan on consolidating journal entries into subject categories.

Example: let’s say I learn something about investing. I write something brief about it in my \journal folder, tag it under investing, then maybe save a .pdf of the source to my \investing\temp folder.

Next, I add the new info to a note under the relevant category, such as \investing\ETFs.txt

Or, I create a new .txt/.rtf (depending my needs)

I believe tags are saved as metadata, so it should be cross-compatible.

For books, I’ll structure it as \library\broad_category \book_name\chapter_n.txt, add the relevant folder tag, and maybe add an alias/shortcut in the relevant folder. I summarize key points under relevant files such as \investing\ETFs.txt

This seems like the best method to me, but I’m open to other strategies.

I'm confused as to why you find Obsidian not matching most those criteria. I heard about it here last week, and just installed it finally tonight, but as I understand it. It's just a bunch of markdown files in a folder on the local disk. That seems.pretty easy to access/convert, is private, is lightweight, and is future proof (I could write something in Perl to generate the graph in a night most likely).

I don't know anything about the others, since I haven't really used a note system before, so I can't comment on them. Your system seems to violate a few of your stated concerns though (is it cross compatible?), so I'm confused as to why you find it better.

there have been reports of Obsidian breaking and deleting notes when removing bidirectional links. I’m not interested in something that isn’t 100% failsafe when my notes are on the line.

That's worrying if true, but something hopefully they'll fix. I imagine deleting notes should be a fairly rare occurrence, so putting safeguards around it (such as a confirm, maybe moving note file to a trash location for later cleanup) is warranted.

Given what it is, it's probably safe and a good idea to make the vault on top of a versioned file system, even if that's a dropbox, google drive stream folder, or backblaze folder. It's probably not too hard to get a solution that's encrypted so it's more private as well.

now you see why it quickly becomes complex, and I use the built-in editor which is as light as nano

I still think replacing the document creation markdown handling with Obsidian, which also shows back-links and lets you easily follow links, is probably much more useful and efficient than to use a regular text editor and manually curate the folders and tagging.

You probably want versioning in all cases (your manual method or Obsidian), and it doesn't negate the benefit of a system that scans and builds a graph of your knowledge provides.

One of the ideas that Sascha and Christian of Zettelkasten.de have espoused is not not giving too much structure up front. At first I flirted with the idea of markdown files, and using something like an extension to Jekyll to resolve links and generate an HTML render of my zettel archive. But that's the same mistake I always make :) Way too much for what I need.

Like you, I settled on just using a text editor (sublime text and atom) with Markdown files. I don't plan to render them, I just like the syntax highlighting.

I think your proposed system captures the important part of the knowledge intake, ie two levels of abstraction (writing a source note, and then connecting the new knowledge from source note to (or just dumping it in) some existing node.)

But one other idea from Christian and Sascha is to avoid folder structures, and allow the organization to develop over time. On a work topic, notes from a few guidances and presentations, plus my experiences, cluster to create a note which transcends a categorical boundary I would have erected with a folder structure.

So, the suggested alt strategy is dump everything into one folder and create clusters using other structures, as they reveal themselves to be useful.

Would you mind sharing what caused you to abandon TiddlyWiki? I like the look of Notion and Roam, but I don’t like SaaS. I’m a few weeks into customising a TiddlyWiki instance and I am becoming quite committed to it. It seems to have the right balance of out-of-the-box functionality and customisability for me. But I am a little apprehensive about finding that it gets slow after a few years of use, or something like that.

Another TiddlyWiki fan here, I used to use DevonThink - which is pretty awesome, but less portable - it only runs on MacOS and has a barebones web frontend. I could carry or host my OSX VM anywhere, and use VNC or such, but TiddlyWiki is much more portable as it is a self-contained html+js file running in the browser. I loose functionality, but there's search, tagging, linking and listing and a ton of plugins. It's good enough. I used to think of the file system text file route as well, and there is this vimwiki, but as I'm used to browsing and looking up information in the browser TiddlyWiki is more convenient, and I can use SVG, mindmaps and diagrams. Emacs could be used to with the convenience of org-mode. There is also org-brain... all this is nice but is a bit more work and a bit less portable.

Regarding the potential slowing and bloating of TiddlyWiki, there is this filesystem plugin to link to local external images and documents. I use as much plain text, icons and svg diagrams as possible. I also segment several tiddlywiki's - perhaps at most 7. Now I use:

* 'VR oriented development, which is very broad and can include WebXR, UE4, Quill, C++, C#, hardware, game development, cyborg antropology, psychology

* Spirituality (meditation, christian theology, hindu tantra and buddhist philosophy) and health

* Family and friends, non-violent communication

* Tasks, notetaking, journaling, habits - including shadow work journaling (semi-spiritual/psychological practice). Work or private related, there is no seperation.

Ideally TiddlyWiki could be mounted in a FUSE-like filesystem manner, more intuitive search operators or had built-in compression to make it even more speedy but it's good enough, just like my tweaked dvorak. Perfect doesn't exist. I don't complain, I love it! I can use it on my phone and on my Quest as well.

If one day my browser grinds to a halt due to a 20 Mbyte TiddliWiki I'll think of a solution then. I think at most I'm at 16 tiddlers a day on average.

Yeah, Roam looks exactly what I'd love to have, and I would pay a licence fee; however, I don't want my knowledge hosted somewhere else apart from my computer a my backup.

I'm using Tiddlywiki as well, but I haven't customized it much yet.

Regarding your fear of it becoming slow, the good part is that you can manipulate the tiddlers easily, so you could import them in another system, if you need to migrate.

Creating a hierarchy of notes using folders can be counterproductive. It will be easy to classify the majority of notes, but some of them will match multiple categories, or even none of them. Unfortunately, those notes are usually the most interesting. Case in point: I have some notes regarding good technical writing, and some notes concerning good Git usage. If I had a hierarchy, the first notes would go under "writing", and the second ones would go under "development". But where would I have filed the notes regarding Git commit messages? I feel like they belong on both categories. Choosing just one of them means ignoring the other. That's why, if you still want to classify some of your tags, I strongly advise to use a tagging system, and to avoid creating note hierarchies.

It can be way more simple: I use one folder for my notes, and another one for my "sources" (linear notes on articles, books, talks, etc). Files have unique filenames (guaranteed because a timestamp is added to the name when they are created). And there's no need for structure, because I open the files with Emacs using Projectile, so I can autocomplete the filenames. If I need to search the contents of the files, full text search is also accessible and quick. All note taking programs have these features, and you don't really need much more.

There are note taking systems that enabled that. Obsidian (from here a couple days ago) and Trilium both track links and backlinks, which can let you integrate that to a degree. It creates a web of information, as opposed to a strict hierarchical taxonomy. So you can link across those to hopefully maintain discoverability.

I generally dislike labeling systems. My interpretation of a label is too context-dependent and liable to shift over time. I.e. "architecture" could refer to either systems architecture or building architecture. And I frequently don't think that I'll have a conflict until some day I decide I want to learn about Napoleonic architecture for some reason. And then when I separate them, I'll end up forgetting what I called the label (was it systems-architecture? tech-architecture? application-architecture?) and I end up futzing around to figure out what the label was, breaking my flow of thought.

In the book "How to take smart notes" by Sönke Ahrens, there's a lot of thought given on the real value of tags. I'd say the problem you describe happens because you are trying to create a taxonomy using tags. Classifying the notes using tags can feel rewarding in the short term, but it's not useful in the context of a linked notes system.

When creating tasks, the main question that is answered is "in which contexts would I like this note to show up?". The answer to this question is completely subjective. If, for instance, you were doing research for game level design, it makes sense for the systems architecture notes to be tagged with "game engine", "achievements", "quick save", or anything else that you will want to look up later on. The Napoleonic architecture notes could be tagged as "level design", "gameplay cues", or "side quests".

As you can see, these tags would be different for every person, and that's kind of the point. Two people can read the same content, and take the same note from it, but the intended purpose could still be completely different, and that would show up in the tags.

that’s why I have tags, I summarize info in multiple places, and I add aliases for sources

I'm thinking of a similar approach with text files and collections of other file types like pdfs, images, etc as you note.

For tags, there are some packages for tagging I've come across like TMSU [1], taggo [2], dantalian [3]

I'm thinking of tagging by just having a tags folder with a txt file for each tag. You could just stick the path to files you want to "tag" in there. Then if desired, have a script to create a bunch of symlinks for a browsable tag file structure. Maybe even have some custom grep code to find specific keywords in my notes and "tag" them automatically

[1] https://github.com/oniony/TMSU [2] https://github.com/xeor/taggo [3] http://darkfeline.github.io/dantalian/

I use NoteSelf, which is a variant / add-on / expansion of tiddlywiki. It requires an accessible CouchDB backend hosted somewhere on the internet, but once that bit of infrastructure is setup it's almost universally accessible.

I've barely scratched the surface of tiddlywiki's features, but linking ideas together is easy, in that you can link individual "ideas" (in the form of individual articles, referred to as tiddlers) from each other, and it also supports tagging, and there are built-in scripts for iterating tiddlers with chosen tags.

No affiliation, just a very happy user.


You seem to be half way to implementing Zim Wiki.

It deals in text files and folders structured the way you describe. Cross platform and simple with some powerful plugins.

It has integrated tagging, journal, to-dos.

I have tried vim-wiki but keep coming back to Zim every time.

> I searched for hours for a viable Zettelkasten method: org-mode, vim-org, TiddlyWiki, Roam, Notion, Joplin, Notable, Obsidian, Zettlr.

Org mode works well, but honestly what works the absolute best in my experience are actual slips of paper in a slipcase — or 'index cards,' to use the colloquial term. I find that physically writing words with a pen aids memory, and the little notebooks that I form over time (I punch a hole in each slip, and bind them together with a metal ring, and split bundles by topic when they get too unwieldy) seem to help too.

Maybe it's a variant on the method of loci?

yes, but how would you link notes, then?

> how would you link notes, then?

I number each slip when I create it, and when I need to reference it I just write [$NUMBER].

I started with a slip numbered 1. I add a new numeral whenever the topic is sufficiently different from any other topic. When a slip fits in with an existing topic, I insert it between cards, giving it a letter. So if 1 were programming languages, maybe 1a is Lisp. Then if I need to move a level down I just go back to numerals: maybe 1d3 is some notes on a Lua interpreter.

But I don't get too hung up on the numbers: as long as similar slips are just somewhat near one another, that's good enough. The goal is to accidentally run into similar thoughts (otherwise one could just number them sequentially, and not worry that card 1,467 is a Lua compiler and 1,468 is a recipe for mutton).

The problems with tags last time I searched were that they weren't really that robust, some file systems don't support them and the applications that manipulate files may erase them. Have you ever encountered such problems ?

I was concerned about that too, but I believe Macs at least guarantee tag syncing between other Macs. I may experiment with putting tags on the first line, but for now, I’ll have to rely on folders and my summarizations.

I may just settle for org-mode if I end up doing a PhD because, as the top commenters pointed out, Zettelkasten is meant to be a system to link ideas within the humanities.

However, I’m focused on my professional life right now. Most of my reading material is quantitative, so my current system is fine.

If privacy concerns you, you may want to take a look at: https://twinkle.app/ macOS download is less than 10MB, so it should be a very quick evaluation.


OneNote's Linked Notes Taking does exactly this. You can combine it with the "Dock to Desktop" / Docked Window feature which makes it hijack a part of the desktop space (to the RHS, typically) so that you can continue to take notes while reviewing stuff on the LHS. The window on the LHS can be another OneNote window (or one of the other Office applications), and as you type in the RHS, docked window, sentences are automatically linked to the page and line on the LHS.

Unfortunately, I didn't find a single video showing the power of both Linked Notes AND Dock to Desktop, but these two show the usage of these features separately:



Linked notes are amazing because they instantly give you context to your notes.

OneNote is easily the best note taking app out there.

Does OneNote generate back links? If I pull up a note, I'd like to see not just the notes it links to, but also the notes that link to it. It's probably the one thing I wish Evernote would add.

Unfortunately it doesn't, but I haven't seen a need to have that functionality for my workflow.

i'm using "OneNote for Windows 10" which seems to have lost a lot of the power features. It looks like both Dock to Desktop and Linked Notes have gone.

Ah yes. Use OneNote 2016 (or OneNote 2010), which is free to download and use, not the Windows App.

there are so many power features that were removed after OneNote 2016 - it makes using Onenote obsolete nowadays - hate to start using another note taking method now

I don't think one should suggest Zettelkasten to anyone who is looking for a simple to-do list or note taking implementation. Regular notes are perfectly fine if one wants to take regular notes.

Luhman's zettels weren't random thoughts or casual ideas that popped into his head during a stroll with the dog., but rather full, jargon-laden sentences that were close to publication-ready in quality, sometimes highly abstract in nature. He would take a couple dozen related zettels, arrange them on a table in sequence, rearrange them and eventually have a rough outline for an article or the chapter of a book.

Here's a random zettel from Luhmann's archive, translated by deepl.com. This is 1 out of 90,000 total:

1.6c1 "About an activity, at one time, central and centralization." -- In some ways comparable to the view of Mary Parker Follett, Dynamic Administration, p. 183ff., e.g. p. 195: "Unity is always a process, not a product." -- But she confuses unity and unifying, and says below quite correctly (p. 195): "Business unifying must be understood as a process, not as a product." -- Except, of course, that the word unity does not mean process, this dynamic view is that the process can be described as valuable and characterizes the organizational view, from the finished fake unit to the unification unit process.

Source: https://niklas-luhmann-archiv.de/bestand/zettelkasten/zettel...

Goodness, that random zettel is hard to grep.

My own zettelkasten of random thoughts and casual ideas that pop into my head certainly aren't going to be compiled into a chapter of a sociology book, but I still find value in being able to connect ideas from HN posts and YouTube videos.

The products of those types of notes for me are just blog posts and interesting dinner conversations.

See also, for your Zettelkästen needs:

4 months ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22085837

7 months ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21208196

Definitely a trend, as 2/3 of the posts have been in the last year: https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&que...

I find it very funny that all of my nerd friends are all suddenly using an archaic German note-taking system.

I started a simple system myself after reading the thread about them here a few weeks ago, and I have to say that it's already been useful. It reduces the lookup times from O(all of the internet) to O(just my notes).

This was also an incentive for me to adopt a similar system. As the web gets bigger, it feels as though search engines are losing the SEO arms race and it’s harder to rediscover things I remember reading online in the past. As well as writing more notes, I’ve been making more of an effort to bookmark articles on the web if I think there’s the slightest possibility I’ll want to return to them later. This makes my Firefox omnibar suggestions more useful.

>reduces the lookup times from O(all of the internet) to O(just my notes).

This ^^

I use a combo of Pinboard [1] to save URLs I think I'll want to refer to in future, plus NValt [2] stored on my Jottacloud [3] for recording snppets of info and more free-form notes and for making that info available from any of my devices.

Nine times out of ten [if not 99 out of 100] however, I'll just StartPage or DDG whatever info I'm looking for, since I always have a browser open anyway.

It's also quite common that, having thus found such a nugget of info, I go to add it to my Pinboard or NValt notes for future reference, only to find it was already stored there [often years ago], if only I'd thought to "shop locally" in the first place.

[1] https://pinboard.in

[2] https://brettterpstra.com/projects/nvalt

[3] http://jottacloud.no

I do sometimes wonder though; if there's an inverse correlation between "complexity of ideas preparation" and "actually getting stuff done" and if all these systems are the procrastinator's equivalent of the instant weight-loss diet.

Many's the time I've been about to embark on some actual "thing" I need to do [producing a piece of art, writing an article, building a web page, fixing something round the house] only to get completely sidetracked by the thought that if I just; tweak some software settings... re-organise some folders of files... dismantle and clean some piece of equipment.. first, I'll get the job done so much more efficiently. And, of course, I then spend the rest of the day doing that, instead of actually accomplishing the "thing" I set out to do, in the first place.

> Though it’s still early days, adopting a Zettelkasten has been one of my most productive habits.

If productivity is measured against the volume of notes taken, sure. Otherwise probably not. Notes are an intermediate step to build something else, which is the real output on which productivity is usually measured.

Your comment pretty much perfectly captures what I haven't been able to articulate when it comes to how productivity and the methods by which to achieve it are constantly fetishized. It really makes me wonder if every Joe Shmoe touting the benefits of method X or tool Y really is productive in the "classical sense" or just seems that way because in their own microcosm the only way to measure it is by the volume of notes.

The only note taking approach that's ever worked for me:

1. Read/listen/absorb

2. Write down (or tweet) ideas it creates while you're absorbing

3. Wait

4. Create

Your mind (or at least mine) finds connections you aren't even aware of and when the time comes, when the right prompt sparks, there it is. The knowledge is ready to be used.

Use search and half remembered stuff to find direct citations and brush up on details when necessary. The internet-as-extended-noosphere metaphor works great here.

Zettelkasten is exactly what you wrote here, with one addition. It not only offloads querying for detail (i.e. search) to the machine, it also offloads some connection-making. Search and lookup is internet-as-extended-memory, links and backlinks are internet-as-serendipitous-thought.

Ah I thought you had to explicitly create connections. That part seems like a lot of work that my subconscious seems great at on its own

He used the notes to output a small article.

> Zettelkasten is German for “slip-box”. It originates from German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.

Should this implicate that Luhmann invented Noteboxes? Because this is absolute not the case. There are many famous Zettelkaesten from famous people. The most famous might be the Mundaneum, a kind of wikipedia in noteboxes, from around 1900.

What Luhmann did was adding basic hypertext-principles to a common note-taking-tool.

Wikipedia says it was Conrad Gessner in the 16th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten

"Zettelkasten" is a terminus technicus for the specific method Luhmann used. Nobody claims that Luhmann invented rectangular paper.

That word isn't in general use in German, and it's certainly not in general use in English. So I don't see any confusion.

> Zettelkasten" is a terminus technicus for the specific method Luhmann used.

No, it is not. The term was already around decades before Luhmanns birth.

> That word isn't in general use in German


Believe it or not, but I'm a native speaker and I can say that I've never heard the word in any other context.

Despite the fact that the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitner_system was pushed by just about every teacher.

The usual word is "Karteikasten", "(Lern-)Kartei" oder "Vokabelbox".

> Believe it or not, but I'm a native speaker and I can say that I've never heard the word in any other context.

How is your own lack of knowledge relevant for this? Did you even bother to at least visit https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten to educate yourself first?

> The usual word is "Karteikasten",

That is a modern synonym, but not quite the same. This is more specific for organized indexboxes.

> "(Lern-)Kartei" oder "Vokabelbox".

Those are not even the same. They are special purpose-tools with specific meaning which just happen to use index-cards and boxes in their analog version. That's like saying notebook is not a word because diary is widely used.

You’re defending the claim that Zettelkasten is a commonly used word. You do that by smugly telling GP they need to go to Wikipedia to educate themselves about it. I guess that nicely proves their point?

He is correct though, just because the GP has not heard of it doesn't mean it isn't commonly used. I'm also a German native speaker and I agree the term Zettelkasten is more common than Karteikasten. I encountered Zettelkasten when I was in high-school a long time ago. That said the way I've encountered it was always more as a study tool (like flashcards, or the vokabelkarten/box the GP mentioned ) not so much for note taking, but then that's what you do in high-school.

I’m also native (NRW), never heard of Zettelkasten before here, we just say Karteikarten (not even -kasten). Same for a Bavarian friend of mine. Where are you from?

No, because nobody can know everything. Even common knowledge is not so common that everyone knows all and the same. And the mention of wikipedia was more to show the usage and origin of this, not how common or uncommon it is. Because that's not really mentioned there.

There is a certain point where few enough people know something that it can’t be called common. Maybe GP is not the exception for not knowing but you are for knowing?

IIRC, Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) described pretty much exactly this method of taking and organising notes on index cards in Lila, his 1991 follow-up to Zen ....

Does anyone know whether Pirsig got the idea from Luhmann, Luhmann from Pirsig, both from someone else, or if both invented it independently?

hah that was my first thought as well; I've always been tempted to try it, but I was dubious about whether I'd have the discipline to keep the cards organized, and I feared that if I tried to make myself a piece of software to do it that I'd get so distracted by writing the software that I'd never write any notes. So I'm curious to give it a whirl now with someone else's software :)

At least Luhmann was trained in German public administration after the Second World War. The general ideas or seeds for his invention of the Zettelkasten stem from there.

Roam looks neat. I wonder if anyone has tips on how one could use org-mode to achieve some similar results?

There's already an Emacs package which has become quite popular over the last few months! :-)

See "org-roam" [1,2] (and several blog posts and youtube videos by now)

[1]: https://github.com/org-roam/org-roam [2]: https://blog.jethro.dev/posts/introducing_org_roam/

Love org-roam. I've been heavily using it for a few months, and not looking back.

Don't miss these additional packages, which build on org-roam:

org-roam-server: better graph visualization and navigation [1]

org-roam-bibtex: Reference management in your Zettelkasten [2]

The latter, combined with org-ref and org-noter, is the most effective way I've found for taking notes on PDFs. Beautiful demo at [3].

FWIW RoamResearch has yet to implement a useful graph view, PDF annotation, or reference management. OTOH, tending to a setup like this in Emacs can easily become a time-sink, and it's single-player only.

[1]: https://github.com/org-roam/org-roam-server

[2]: https://github.com/org-roam/org-roam-bibtex

[3]: https://youtu.be/Wy9WvF5gWYg

> tending to a setup like this in Emacs can easily become a time-sink

I've started to wonder if the Emacs community should put together versions that are ready for different kinds of users out of the box. Say, a version for scholars with everything Auctex, org/org-roam, spell check, email, rss, etc already there, and a walkthrough to boot. Like a distro or spin, basically.

There are a few projects that do this, but I think there's certainly room for more. I'd love to see one focused on using the Zettelkasten method.

Here are three I'm aware of:

Scimax: https://github.com/jkitchin/scimax

Emacs Speaks Statistics: https://github.com/emacs-ess/ESS

Frontmacs: https://github.com/thefrontside/frontmacs

So long as these approaches expose the full power of Emacs to their users, I can't imagine the UX being as rock-solid as we might expect from modern purpose-built tools (e.g. PyCharm, Overleaf, Obsidian, ...).

It might help to hide/disable most default interactive functions, which provide a huge surface area for non-Emacsers to break things. Emacs actually does this by default for a few functions: https://www.emacswiki.org/emacs/DisabledCommands

Also relevant here is wakib-keys: https://github.com/darkstego/wakib-keys.

Thank you! Good pointers indeed.

The rising popularity of Emacs “starter kits” (Doom, Spacemacs, Centaur, Prelude, etc) is exactly in this spirit. While not segmented by audience, each of them aims to provide sane defaults and package collections for a varied set of common use cases.

Yeah, I hear that. I still think segmenting by audiences - especially non-programmer audiences - would make it possible to really pitch it as an alternative to tools like, for academics and writers, Scrivener and Word. An audience-segmented starter kit based on other starter kits, perhaps.

There's also Notion (https://www.notion.so/), RemNote (https://www.remnote.io/homepage), and Trilium (https://github.com/zadam/trilium). All can be used as a note-taking system similar to what's outlined in the blog post.

I tried roam research and org roam only to find out that the overhead of managing notes quickly started preventing me from taking notes in the first place.

Why? Because now instead of just writing down a note I started thinking about what terms do I want to make links and maybe go through previous notes to do the same. Of course you don't have to do that but the whole promise of the system is that the more you connect the more value you get.

I've dealt with this problem a lot (for example it's the same with going through lot's of rss feeds to categorize articles for later reading) and it's always about book keeping taking more time than an actual action.

After that I started thinking what was the most important about note for me. Actually it wasn't connections it was about the sole fact of taking a note (it has a higher chance that I'll remember it) discovery and ability to take a not from any where. A laboratory journal of sorts.

In my particular case discovery is easily covered by git grep and since I use plain markdown files I can always edit it offline with vim or online via github/gitlab web ide. Since it's only one file I don't even need to think about file names. The structure of notes is pretty well defined so it shouldn't take too much to write a script that would generate a digest for some term.

The part about "just write it down" is the most important. Connecting information as you go can add value to the knowledge base, but writing down everything that's important is the first step and the tool you use should support that. I think the book keeping part is more of a personal thing and some people feel that they need to do it and others do not. I for myself "separate" notes into problem domains (when I think about them I have a broader topic in mind) and connect all the notes that belong to the same topic when I see fit. That greatly reduces the book keeping part and I can add connections as I go.

We build Emvi [1] to support that idea if you're interested.

[1] https://emvi.com/

It might sound kinda weird, but I see Azure DevOps Boards (or similar) as an ideal system for implementing this. Why: 1) Small notes via User Stories (or tasks) 2) Has linking capabilites 3) Has TAGs 4) Visual representation of LINKS 5) Most of the grind associated with doing this via other systems is removed 6) Free & you can download the data in .csv if needed

Thoughts? It is something I wanted to try out for a while ( I currently use onenote with #(tags)).

I used to do all my notetaking in Tomboy. It had very few features (no embedding of pictures even) but it was lightning-fast and you could add links on the go just by typing them. One of the big benefits was that there were keyboard shortcuts for literally everything.

However the application was deprecated and the "NG" version of Tomboy didn't have the same performance. I moved to OneNote for the pictures which didn't help.

I find snapping screenshots of meeting is much less helpful to memorise them than trying to filter them down to a few lines of written summary during the meeting itself. It requires more active listening rather than the practice of "let's snap all the slides in case I ever need to look at them later"

Unfortunately all the recommended apps here seem to be Electron which tend to be slow and wasteful and have poor keyboard control. I don't think this will work for me.

But in general, the practice of notetaking itself is in my opinion more important than the linking and method of storing them. It helps store information in our brain which is the fastest database we have :)

Another former user of Tomboy here, back from the GNOME 2 era. I think I ran it for a good while after the .deb was removed from official repositories. I'm just using paper notebooks now.

I think it's important to identify what your goal is, before deciding which note taking system works for you.

Regular notes are a spoon, this method may be a fork. Until you know what type of dish you're going to be eating, it's hard to advocate one utensil over another, although when in doubt, a spoon is a pretty decent universal.

99% of the notetaking tools I've tried were completely inaccessible for screen readers.

In the end, I went with a much simpler, zettelkasten-like approach. All my notes are stored in a single wiki.txt file, stored on Dropbox for easy editing and in Git for history and as a backup. The file has very little formatting, two blank lines to separate notes, a line surrounded by single blank lines for headings and a "-" for lists. New notes are always appended at the end, and my journal for the current day is always my last note. That makes it very easy to append stuff there.

I use hashtags for organization. If I consider a note relevant to an idea, i just put #ideaName in there, wherever it fits. I find connections by searching for #ideaName via the search box of my text editor.

The system is very simple, very portable and works pretty well for me.

Raman uses org-mode with emacspeak, last I heard. He reports it's the first thing he's found that beats raw HTML for writing HTML.

One datapoint of a power user using this method https://braindump.jethro.dev/

Related, https://philosopher.life/ and https://sphygm.us/ may be worth checking out too.

It's completely possible to achieve the same connection with a git repo of simple markdown files if you make sure:

* each file has a descriptive name that starts with an iso date

* each file is on a specific topic or idea

* you are using a text editor/IDE like vscode that has good search tools

You can search a keyword across your whole notes database and you can see immediately when the note was written to get some chronological context and see, of course, the note itself. You can scroll through the list of results to see other places where you're using that keyword.

The visual graph part the author is using is just a toy.

TLDR: any full-text-search notes database is functionally a Zettelkasten, don't stress about it, just start taking notes

A CRUD system where every post is a page, and every post can link to other posts in form of (look: topic) can help tremendously. I think that this is an improved form of Zettelkasten. For every topic there will be a timestamped post, unlimited.

That's how I'm using Tiddlywiki basically.

I have no idea what system they used (if any) but this reminded me a lot of how 'Every Frame a Painting' [0] described their note-taking when watching films.

One of the best parts of their videos was that every technique they were describing had multiple examples from often very different genres, or directors, or periods. The assumption was that they managed to keep all those connections in their head, but the reality was excellent note taking!

[0] https://www.youtube.com/user/everyframeapainting

Best channel ever. Miss them so much.

I think most of these 'advanced' note taking features (even interlinking when used pervasively) distract more than it helps.

> Regular note taking sucks

It sucks the least, I tried some of note taking apps and software, then settled at some lines of shell script.

    notes () {
        cd ~/notes/$1

    note () {
        vim $@
This works surprisingly well for most purposes, along with syntax highlighting for markdown. I sometimes wish it had interlinking and images, but I haven't come across a situation where I needed it.

I'm building a knowledge-base / note-taking platform[1] built around digital notecards rather than documents. One of the things we found is that Zettelkasten is great, but it can shoehorn you into a certain organization method when sometimes it doesn't make sense. So we also allow multi-parent nesting and tagging as powerful ways to organize your notes.

[1] https://supernotes.app

I will most certainly not hand something as vital to me as my notes to some unrealiable cloud provider that advertises "no commitments" and provides no guarantees for persistence!

A colleague fell for this kind of thing and lost everything when the service went bust.

That's fair. Our platform is built around markdown, and you already have the ability to export all of your cards at once in that format. Of course, you lose the structure that we provide between those notes (whether nesting or zettelkasten), but that is also something we are actively working on to make sure that your data stays portable and accessible forever (also working to include more export formats in general). It is difficult though, as no one else supports both multi-parent nesting and zettelkasten like Supernotes does, so your data does lose some functionality if taken off the platform.

One of our long-term goals is actually to try to make data ownership better than the status quo by integrating with other providers that would normally hold on to your data and instead get it back to being owned by you, all in one place.

Might I ask which service went bust? Want to make sure we don't follow in their footsteps! We're also very much trying to directly charge our users rather than relying on an additional business-facing offering to pay the bills, as we think the result is a more sustainable business (if everyone that is actively using the platform is paying for it, hypothetically we will not go bust). All of my notes (1000+) are on Supernotes, so I'm fairly invested in making sure they're always available.

This reminds me of a piece Stephen Johnson once wrote for the New York Times called "Tool for Thought", which described his process using DEVONthink software.


"The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me[...]Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I'd then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head -- I'd forgotten about the chimpanzee connection -- and I'd select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me."

That process eventually turned into a startup around 2010 I helped found in NYC. Good times.

By the way, what I hate about most of the note-taking apps is they usually require or push you to give every note a title. C'mon, people, do you invent a title for every note you would write on a paper or a sticky?

The same is relevant to e-mail subjects: i many cases the subject is wide, volatile or plain lacking. It often happens the actual contents of an email I receive has nothing to do with what's there in the subject field.

I share your frustration. However, it makes sense, if you think about it. Having to give a note a title makes you think it through, and with Zettelkasten you can easily split it into many atomic notes, each covering their own thing.

As a workaround, you can have one note dedicated to all your random notes, which you can periodically review and reorganize.

I would say if your workflow is not research-centric where you only implement software, these kinds of methods are not necessary. Only simple note-taking would suffice to ease your brain.

On the contrary, if you are reading papers and doing research, taking notes in a meaningful way is more helpful than you would realize. The human brain tends to skip information while reading and you only realize you didn't actually understand that part when you try to write it yourself. The note-taking part doesn't actually take that much brain resources. I am not a native English speaker but I am taking my notes in English. While taking my notes I don't care about grammar or anything, I just read and write what I understood. When I finish the paper and I am comfortable with the topic, I return to my notes, fix grammars and, link them with my other notes. For example, sometimes I come up with a research idea, I make a note about it. In the future, while reading a paper, I realize some of the techniques that are described in the paper might be beneficial to that idea so I link them together.

In conclusion, it really depends on your area of work whether to take regular notes or Zettelkasten notes. Forcing your workflow to these methods might hurt your productivity but if you are a researcher I can say, it will be beneficial.

I recommend reading "How to take smart notes" book if you are interested in the topic.

I am using https://github.com/org-roam/org-roam to take my notes, https://github.com/org-roam/org-roam-server to visualize it.

Thanks for sharing this. I had not heard of Zettelkasten, but it is just like the site https://mathlore.org I created to help people collect math knowledge to study, learn, and explore mathematics.

That is, just like in a Zettelkasten, mathlore.org is a collection of items where each one is a self contained piece of mathematical knowledge that links to other items. It is designed so that the more you add to the system, the more interconnected things are, and the more useful it is.

I also decided to use tags instead of categories too. It is really cool to see the creator of Zettelkasten decided the same.

Again thanks for sharing this because I tried to find others that had researched a similar approach for storing information that I was thinking of, but I couldn't find any. Now that I know about Zettelkasten I can gain a lot of knowledge in what works well and what doesn't in this approach.

It is really cool to know that there are others that like this approach.

Interestingly, the same thing happened to me when I was designing my note-taking system. I made most of those design decision only to find about Zettelkasten later. It definitely feels like it is some sort of design space minimum.

I've found that as a software engineer, the best note-taking medium for me is just one massive GitHub repo. It takes a bit of extra planning and oftentimes a bit of reorganizing to keep things in the right place, but I feel like as a software engineer it's the one place I can truly keep all my relevant notes in one place. I can keep code snippets along with markdown notes files along with little hello world apps I build out.

notes - OS -- mutexes -- concurrency - architecture -- microservices --- serverless --- MOMs

etc etc... I think it's very useful to me to keep high-level notes next to actual executable code. But perhaps most importantly is the ease with which I can replicate and reference other notes. While I'm writing out notes on concurrency with Go, I can easily reference or fully copy over my high-level concurrency notes.

It's a little bulky, and requires a bit more overhead, but I think for a software engineer it's one of the best ways to keep all your thinking in one place.

To me the most important thing in notes is to find what you want easily. Because of this I think having some sort of online system is needed, otherwise if you have the notes at different places you will in the end give up on it and also tags and search is a huge advantage. But in the end I don't think there are one system that fits all, Zettelkasten might work for some people while others want it another way, this hypothesis is strengthened by the continuous output of new notes software. For this reason I created my own system, fitting _my_ needs. As a coder I chose markdown to also have the functionality to add snippets and search those snippets. The markdown documents stays in a folder type structure to organize the content and be able to use the vs code command cmd+p that I'm very used to. This works for me, https://www.theorylog.com.

That looks good.

Thanks, have worked out so far.

I have invested a lot of time and thought in organizing my notes, including writing an Evernote mini-clone in Clojure and Clojurescript (with a Javascript Firefox plugin for capturing stuff on the web) many years ago.

I settled instead on Google Keep because at the time I didn't have a way to backup Apple Notes. I then saw a reference to the macOS Exporter app, it works OK, and I moved to Apple Notes because I slightly prefer Apple's privacy policies.

Now, on any device (use web app for Linux) I can get to my notes and search them. I especially like the interface on iOS and iPadOS: doing a global search on everything on the device shows results for the Notes.

I do a lot of research, writing, and development and I really need an extended digital memory. I also need the process of saving information to be as fast as possible so I don't avoid doing it.

The Zettelkasten systems, like Roam, seem like there is too much up front effort.

Just starting out with Obsidian.md for note taking, going well so far. Love the link connections.

Is there a note taking tool that fully separates taking the note from the organizing (filing) and auto-archives everything? After using any tool, e.g. OneNote or even just a text file for a while, I get overwhelmed every time I open it to take a note as it is littered with stuff that I no longer need. I want a tool that only shows me what I'm working on. I don't want to build a collection of notes. I want to record my thoughts and be able to retrieve them later, optionally organize some things for easier access. The rest should be auto-archived by default. I use a college notepad this way, but found no tool that lets me just start on a blank page and ignore the history.

I've used personal wikis for many years. It's easy to link between notes, it's searchable. I used camelcased words as hashtags. I had several thousands notes in it, personal and work related.

Then the smartphone came and took over, and there was no good wiki-app and in the browser didn't really work. Since then I've switched to Evernote. Again more than 1000 notes without transferring the wiki to Evernote. I can get lost sometimes, and then it needs some work to clean up tags and notes.

> OneNote or even just a text file for a while, I get overwhelmed every time I open it to take a note as it is littered with stuff that I no longer need

I don't understand your problem. Evernote can be sorted on date of last access, so you always see the most recent notes on top. You don't want a collection of notes, but you want auto-archive? Isn't auto-archive the collection?

> but found no tool that lets me just start on a blank page and ignore the history.

In evernote and probably any note taking app you can open a new note and start clean.

You could use Tiddlywiki.

You create entries (called tiddlers) and you can hide them. Then, you won't see them by default, but you can search for them.

You can also set it to show you a specific tiddler when you load the page.

Maybe something like devonthink? It’s not really clean slate every time, but it links notes automatically through use of word vectors and similarity.

DevonThink doesn’t really do it for me. I’ve been using it for the past few months and find it immensely useful for organising documents and other media, but it’s a very average note taking experience.

There are too many things like folder structure, tags, and even the format of the note (plain, MD, rich) to consider during the note taking experience. There’s also an annoying separation between note editing and viewing.

Creativity is just connecting things together.

Consider paper and pencil or ink when away from a computer.

Consider the simplest notes application that supports a wiki linking system when on a computer.

For the latter I like [nvAlt][n] which lets you write [[this]] to create a link to and a note titled ‘this’, and I hope Simplenote [implements wikilinks functionality][s] at some point.



In terms of an actual product, this is a note with clickable hashtags ?

This seems like an evolution of an idea that originated in the days before free text search.

If you have a personal diary which supports free text search (most hug trackers), why would you need to build structure?

That's kind of like asking why one needs hypertext when a single text file should suffice. The fact that one is linking adds structure, and a simple text search will not be easy.

ZK is mostly a Wiki, with some guidelines on how to decide when to link things, etc.

hyperlinks are relevant for navigation. here hyperlinks (as hashtags) are used for discovery.

I can understand the first...but not the second if full text search was available.

> hyperlinks are relevant for navigation. here hyperlinks (as hashtags) are used for discovery.

Hyperlinks in Wikis are very much also structural/semantic. They are not primarily for navigation.

Imagine reading Wikipedia without the links, and where you had to use the search box for every potential link. Imagine all the noise you'd get when you'd search.

BTW, I suspect your question is more about Roam then about Zettelkasten. Don't conflate the two. Roam is a general purpose product which utilizes the power of linking. This author is merely adapting it to the Zettelkasten methodology.

If you're asking about what makes linking special in Roam: Any thing you write as a link in your notes (need not be a hashtag) - Roam will create an empty page for that link - perhaps similar to Wikipedia. You can see what notes link to it.

When you enter a date in Roam, it will create a page for that as well.

Same with hashtags.

I suppose you get a fair amount of querying power. I'm not a Roam user, so I don't know.

I believe the other thing Roam users love is that each bullet/paragraph is an independent entity that you can link to/from. So if my paragraph links to "foobar", then on the foobar page I can see which paragraph (not just which page) linked to it.

I don't think the article does a good job highlighting why people love Roam - he was focusing more on ZK. If you want a better article about the strengths of Roam, see https://www.nateliason.com/blog/roam

If you have full text search you still have to know what to search for. With links the connection will still be there even if you forget about it.

You could see each entry as a function in a programming language. You don't want to repeat yourself. Instead, you implement that function and reuse it where you need.

Personally, I am a big fan of Vim-Wiki [0]. Provides basic note taking, can be reached anywhere from Vim. It is great for jotting down TODOs, while it is also suited for more substantial, longer thoughts. You can add links to other notes as references, or just for quick navigation. These internal links can then be visualised, to highlight the connection between your notes and thoughts [1].

[0] https://github.com/vimwiki/vimwiki

[1] https://github.com/maxvdkolk/vimwikigraph

Yeah, agreed about vimwiki. I've been using it as a knowledge base for years, for quick snippets, ideas, article/book synopsis and notes etc. And the fact that you can interlink them conveniently is a big upside.

A question about vimwikigraph while I'm at it - does it work with the markdown syntax? For instance, VimwikiCheckLinks doesn't work for me at all. And the HTML export isn't supported, although that's a minor issue since there are a million tools which can parse markdown into anything.

So far it does not support markdown syntax yet. I made it over the weekend, and as my vimwiki uses the vimwiki syntax, I started out with that.

I will add an issue to support markdown as well, I will probably get to it this week.

Added basic markdown syntax style support to vimwikigraph.

Agreed, I've been using VimWiki as the means for writing my Zettelkasten and I've really enjoyed it. Wrote a post about the experience on my blog here: https://jonathanbayless.com/2020/03/09/zettelkasten-vimwiki....

I personally found the archive[0] an excellent software to get started with a Zettelkasten. The forum and the blog posts on the site are great.

I'm also developing a CLI script to visualize your zettelkasten[1]. I mainly use it to print stats, like the number of connected components and find orphaned notes.

[0] https://zettelkasten.de/the-archive/

[1] https://github.com/BasilPH/vizel

One needs to find a note-taking tool that fits one's workflow. I do a lot of analysis using R and compose many documents in Rmarkdown using R-Studio. I keep a git repository with "tips" - one Rmarkdown document per subject area and master document that links all the others. I can access my notes from any computer and it is easy to keep them in sync. Like Zettelkasten's creator, writing (and editing) these help refine my thinking.

Interesting, I keep coming across the technique but have yet to give a a try, I enjoy the thought of linking notes especially cross concept/domain which I can imagine aids in learning and saving to both short/long term memory

But rather than fumbling with cards it seems like an interesting use case for AR/VR

I always thought VR/AR would be very interesting in the studying/notetaking space, are any of you working on something similar?

It looks like a simple tagging system with extra steps. Pretty much all modern blogs and social networks have tags/hashtags. You can also refer to other posts with links.

Here the same idea is applied to notes, and I'm pretty sure it's already been explored before (e.g. Bear app).

I feel like someone is trying to give a fancy name to an ordinary thing, so it would look like a fancy, innovative thing.

I found it interesting to consider that the people who leave lasting impact and legacy on the world, don’t have extensive note-taking or organisation systems (like I am anxiously given to do) or whatever else. That’s not what we remember them for.

Maybe a drive to “do” and “build” - and actually doing something about that - is far more important... I’m probably not articulating this properly.

If I think about writers and scientists, I think about their archives being homed at universities and such. I'm always kind of amazed that certain artists (writers, painters, etc) end up with volumes of letters that sometimes get published after they've passed on.

I don't know if we'll have that rich vein to mine with everyone doing things in computers. Sometimes you'll get some emails from a dead author, but letters and notes? It'll be interesting to see what variation of material gets preserved when we look back in 20-50 years.

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