My experience with a Zettelkasten

Published: Mar 11, 2023
1114 words, 6 min

The most difficult part of building a Zettelkasten is that you never know if it is going to work. I started to build mine around a year ago, and it is still not functional at all.

In short, a Zettelkasten is a method capable to store basic units of your knowledge, interconnect them, and produce new ideas. It is slightly different than a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system in its depth of processing the incoming information. It adds a layer of creation, so the information entering the system is not only meant to be stored, but ideally stored with the intention to have a useful purpose in building something new.

Although you can see all YouTube videos, read all books, and follow every blog about this topic, actually making it work is very difficult. In fact, I think doing all those stuffs is the biggest barrier one can face to success in building an effective Zettelkasten. In the beginning I watched countless videos on how to build it in the “perfect” way, tried several methods of organization and work-flows. However, nowadays I don’t use either of them. It was wasted time, and as a justification we could say it was a necessary road to get here today.

I have come to learn with time that you cannot expect to create something great with small effort and in a blink of an eye. Everything requires time, effort, and lots perseverance. Implementing a functional Zettelkasten is, of course, no exception. This blog post shows the road to my actual work flow, which in my opinion is quite minimalist and complete.

Where did it all started

I always had all the tricks and tips downloaded in my hard drive, because where I lived the access to the internet was bad and scarce. So every time I searched for how to do this or that, I just downloaded the webpage or make a small note and put it in a dedicated folder. Someday between one and a half or two years ago I must have heard about the idea of PKM and Obsidian in YouTube, and started writing all new tech notes there.

With time, I got myself searching for the perfect work-flow and Application to manage my PKM system, and spent a lot of time seeing YouTube videos on the subject and tweaking the apps. I remember seeing all videos of Linking your Thinking, and other gurus the algorithm suggested me. Spoiler alert, I am not using anything of that.

The perfect app

Changing the PKM system app was my sport. I changed from Obsidian to Logseq, and back, and forth, all in one day: there times in one single day.

In one hand, Obsidian was rock solid, it had many functionalities, and you could customize your work-flow from scratch. But, on the other hand, it is proprietary software. Logseq is free software, has a great built in work-flow with the journal pages, is an outliner app which makes easy to cross reference small ideas, has cards, etc. Nevertheless, the same outliner feature was uncomfortable for writing atomic notes, everything is a page making you end up with pages in your graph for each tag, and the most annoying for me was the graph. If you pick a node and try (tried) to get it close to another, at some point the graph went crazy and started to delete the nodes. Yes, I know, this is ridiculous, but I need everything working like a charm, and knowing that was happening disturbed me.

As I already used Emacs for coding, I tried Org-Roam for a while, and it was great. However, I got influenced (by the YouTube gurus) and bored, and started changing again, but this time not only between two, but three applications.

As you can imagine, during this time (actually months) my PKM had zero growth. Focusing on the application to build the system is always a waste of time. There are people successfully building theirs in all kind of apps, proving the app does not matter. The only thing you have to bare in mind all the time when starting is not to listen to those people already have succeed. Flip a coin and pick an app, read “How to take smart notes”: you are all set. Build functionalities when the need for them growth organically from your everyday use.

Atomic notes

In theory, a note entering the system should be atomic. This means that it is self contained and represents one and only one piece of knowledge. As the number of notes growth, and because of their interconnection, when looking for an idea into the system you will see what is related with an entry note, and following the rabbit hole you will face thought you had time before. This should help refreshing the memory on those old thought, apply them into current projects, and building new ones.

Achieve this is no easy task. When you are doing some work, you have to stop it to create the notes, which may need additional research, and many times triggers the creation of other notes. I have found myself working for ours in what was supposed to be a simple note.

Additionally, there are divided positions on what should enter the Zettelkasten. Some argue that writing everything that came to your mind in a day into a PKM system could become counterproductive. It may add noise to the notes, and make them superficial, not really units of knowledge you internalized. This is preferring quantity over quality.

On a similar direction, let’s take as example the approach suggested by Logseq. It has a journal which is really convenient to record what is being happening all along the day, it is awesome for that part. The problem here rises when you dedicate too much of your time to record what has happened in your day into your PKM system. It is true that some of that information will be valuable in the future, but it is also subtracting effort to the current projects you are working on, and adding noise to the system. Projects get done by dedicating time and energy to them, not by recording thoughts. Although the notes are a great tool for achieving the projects, focusing too much in the note taking process may also become counterproductive.

To be honest, I do not know if there is a correct or incorrect side here. Use common sense and a bit of both approaches. Collecting knowledge around the projects you are currently on should take most of your time, but maybe allowing to get out of that scope could be helpful on the future for other projects.