I have been trying the Zettelkasten(Slip-box) method as my knowledge management system for a bit more than a month. I wanted to write about it later when I get more used to it. But there may not be a perfect moment to do so. I might probably forget the initial process, so I better start writing it down now.
How do I know about the method?
I have been reading a lot more this year. Up to now, I have read 25 books already(and reading another four concurrently). However, I realized I can not recall some of the information I have read when I want to use it. This frustration made me wonder if my current learning techniques are serving me well. My routine was to read through the whole book, highlight in my book, and “write” notes by merely copying them out word by word. Therefore I went researching about reading, learning, and writing notes. I came across some impressive materials and ideas, such as “slow reading”, knowledge management, and a book called “How to take smart notes”.
In conclusion, there are obstacles in my learning journey. First, I was probably reading too fast that I may not fully understand those ideas I read in books. Secondly, I do not have a reliable system for me to think in, easily refer back to and organize my information, which will become my future knowledge. At last, an essential part of learning is missing in my life, which is writing.
I was searching for how to take notes for reading on YouTube. The Zettelkasten method stands out to me, especially. Probably because I speak German and also I have been living in Germany for three years now. Germans are known for their organization skills(stereotype, haha!). That was how I met the Zettelkasten method, a system that caters to every aspect of my learning needs.
There are many resources available online already, so I do not believe it is needed to be repeated by me. I will list some resources I found useful at the bottom of this blog.
What system have I tried so far?
Zettelkasten method is a straightforward system. All you need are a pen, some paper and a place to organize them. As I have turned my notes digitally earlier, no doubt I would execute this system digitally too. Here are some mediums I have tried to run this system and how I feel about them.
Goodnotes is my go-to note-taking apps on iPad. Of course, I would try using it first. But I found it is challenging to organize and manage them on Goodnotes. Because we write one idea per note, the number of our notes will grow tremendously. I saw comments about how Goodnotes will get slower if the number of pages each file gets bigger. So I keep on searching for a better solution.
Notion is free, fancy, and powerful. It supports backlinks, which are very useful in the sense of creating connections between your notes. But your data is on their server. I’m not too fond of the idea of having my second-brain not in my full control.
- Deft in emacs
While I was struggling and suffering to find a free, manipulatable, and offline system for me to work in, my husband came to the rescue. (Yeah!) My husband has been using emacs for 15 years and counting. To me, he looks like a hacker typing super fast in a “matrix-like” environment. He taught me very patiently the basics of emacs (imagine how hard it is for him to teach someone who has no idea why you need to “learn” an editor!) and how to customize it to fit all my detailed requirements. After many hours of learning, it worked perfectly! Everything is clear and manipulatable. I am impressed.
After my husband showed me how to customize emacs, I went to learn more about it by myself. I tried experimenting with different commands and did a few more tweaks by myself. Suddenly I found someone already made a package, especially for the purpose of Zettelkasten, called “Zetteldeft” by Elias Storms. I was so happy and migrated all my notes under this package. It is clean and elegant.
While I was using Zetteldeft as my Zettelkasten, I did not stop researching about Zettelkasten method online. Some recommendations were using Roam Research as their Zettelkasten. It is a very powerful software. It has everything you can ask for, but it is not free.
Later I found out about Org-roam, a free and open-source replacement of Roam Research in emacs. With a tiny bit of experience with org-mode, I thought I could follow through. Unfortunately, the limited knowledge I had did not contribute much to using Org-roam. The documentation is not beginner-friendly. I turned my eyes to my husband again like the cat in “Puss in Boots”. With the help of my husband, Org-roam was finally installed. Then I moved on to other minor customizations to make it work smoothly, such as BibTex. Here I met my second obstacle; I could not make it work. After spending so much time setting this up, I could foresee more obstacles coming up. Therefore, I decided it was time to declared it a sunk cost to myself.
After the defeat by Org-roam, I went back to Zetteldeft. There was no trouble using it. The workflow was running well. Then my notes started to grow and have more connections between them. But I could not see the connections between them clearly, and maintaining an index is quite time-consuming for me. So, I went researching about it again.
This time I found Obsidian, a free, open-source, and offline software. It has the function I wanted the most: graph of connections between notes.
Switching from Zetteldeft to Obsidian takes some acceptable time. Learning Markdown language is definitely more comfortable than learning emacs! The way I can make notes connect with each other is much easier. I am pleased with the result.
During the last month, I experimented with different workflows. What sticks for now does not mean it will stick forever. I am still learning by doing. This process may change in the future.
What I found comfortable at this moment is using Obsidian as my Zettelkastern/second brain. First, I read on my iPad with questions I had regarding the topic I am reading in my mind and highlight the materials that I do not want to forget and found useful. After reading chapters or a day, I will write the highlighted materials in my own words with the page number(literature note). Writing in my own words would help me confirm if I really understand the idea. At last, I will type them in Obsidian and build connections with the notes. I don’t use the popular identical auto-generated timestamp as the note ID. I don’t like how it works. Now I use the same index method as the founder Niklas Luhmann, as I am more conscious about the connections.
I believe learning emacs from my husband is a privilege. There are not many beginner-friendly, attractive, and well-constructed resources available. Most people learn by doing. I kind of understand why people tend to give emacs a bad name since many people are not used to self-taught themselves. But emacs is a very powerful tool if you are willing to invest some time initially, which will save you unimaginably more time in the future. This experience taught me that I could not learn from discussion, reading, and watching videos alone. Some skills require a practical application to learning.
I believe in a growth mindset. Never say never. If there is an opportunity, I would definitely take it and try something new. People I knew don’t believe I would learn electronics or programming. I do not think I would use emacs like my husband. These kinds of expectations limit who we are capable of becoming. Try something first; if you do not like it, then leave it. It does not hurt. But if you do like it, then you find a new possibility in yourself. Isn’t it great?
Everything takes time. Changes do not happen overnight. Be curious and keep learning.
- Actual contents of the founder Niklaus Luhmann’s Zettelkasten
- Learning how to read by Niklaus Luhmann
- Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklaus Luhmann
- A blog dedicated to Zettelkasten
- How to take smart notes by Sönke Ahrens
- Zetteldeft by Elias Storms
- A video on Zettelkasten method by Shu Omi