Operation failed successfully: writing with a Zettelkasten.

The Zettelkasten method is reasonably good at storing and retrieving information, but this is not its core purpose. The real power of a Zettelkasten is in its ability to act as a thinking partner, especially in writing. It’s a complicated relationship, however, and the risks can drive both growth and paralysis.

A Zettelkasten, often translated from German as “slipbox,” is an ever-evolving collection of highly interlinked notes. Practitioners of the method write their notes onto physical notecards or into note management software. As they learn, they capture notes relevant to their interests and link them into indexes and higher-level discussions of the ideas at play, as well as other more distant notes that notionally interact with the new content.

Building a Zettelkasten can be a lot of work; the note collection arises from a rigorous habit of learning, distilling information and observations, and relating this together across time. With enough networked knowledge, the Zettelkasten becomes a rich source of insight by allowing ideas to come together to contrast or build on each other in a way that would have been highly unlikely alone. It also resurfaces previously discovered relationships between ideas for use in writing.

How a Zettelkasten helps an author (and then gets in the way).

There’s an ironic juxtaposition here, however: a Zettelkasten contains an infinity of connections, but when using it for writing projects, its creative nature can be a siren song that pulls a project away from its goals. Holes in connections and knowledge in the notes are attractive distractions that can take an author away from making progress on their writing projects, even while providing the ideas that drive the project forward.

Learning is a function of failing.

To write using a Zettelkasten, one must shift from the motions of a Zettelkasten maintainer into those of a writer working with a co-author. Standing with one foot in an endless creative realm and the other in a project with a specific end goal and timeframe produces tinkering on one side and poor progress on the other. Notes must become read-only during drafting to avoid these downsides.

Roguelike RPGs provide an excellent model to follow, according to a recent article on the matter1. “Roguelike” describes a game style in which a character ventures into ever-changing landscapes to gather the game’s story while making choices about upgrading skill trees, dying, and resurrecting when taking on challenges outside their ability. The player overcomes each challenge, either by advancing far enough in the skill tree or by learning how to make it through a situation alive.

This analogy boils down to two recurring stages that resemble the Zettelkasten drafting dichotomy.

In one stage, we have gathered knowledge from our experiences and need to put it to work. We venture into the world to fight our enemies and produce our draft papers. Where our existing knowledge is not enough, we discover our shortcomings and eventually fail to complete the mission.

In the other stage, we go back to our knowledge, and we incorporate the new experience by adding connections and codifying details of the attempt. The Zettelkasten grows whatever insights occurred during the writing session and likely incurs even more understanding due to the integration process. Holes in the Zettelkasten’s knowledge and sources (and, by extension, our own) are laid bare by incomplete arguments or newly uncovered questions in the draft. The deficiencies may lead back to another round of research for further synthesis.

Focus improves effectiveness.

What does separating drafting away from note integration save? The Zettelkasten still evolves alongside the drafts, and the drafts still get written and rewritten. These are rarely the only concerns in play, though. The main difference is focus—or, more specifically, the elimination of multitasking.

Extensive research has been done into multitasking, conclusively showing that split focus leads to poorer and slower results. In writing, many sorts of tasks occur throughout the project. Each of those tasks deserves full attention. Research, writing, editing, and associating notes require different mental resources, each moving at different paces with unique focal points.2

Not only does multitasking make us slower and less effective, but it also grinds us down. Keeping ideas warm while switching focus requires specific types of energy-inefficient brainpower. Each switch of focus further exacerbates those expensive processes in a way that rapidly depletes the ability to restore focus, make effective decisions, or even control our impulses. Allocating time to different types of writing focus, and scheduling those blocks of time with an awareness of the difficulties of the respective tasks, is necessary for effective writing.4

By separating the writing process into multiple modalities, one produces more timely results across each contextual space without the disruption of context switching and increases the quality of work performed by virtue of mental resources being more available to just the task at hand.

Focus is concurrent, not parallel.

One way to interpret these limitations is through the lens of concurrency. Multitasking assumes to some extent that our attention supports parallelization. In parallelism, multiple tasks can happen simultaneously—as many jobs can occur in parallel as there are executors. Two people can do two things simultaneously; a CPU with 16 cores can do 16 tasks. Since the number of executors involved constrains parallelism, almost every system that manages many units of urgent work also has to figure out how to progress on more tasks than it has executors to support. Concurrency then comes into play, where any given executor has a way of owning multiple activities simultaneously, making some progress on each of them alternatingly. Two people can build seven hamburgers at the same time by rapidly switching between each of them, and CPUs schedule tasks such that they can perform some units of work for many ongoing tasks, so all of them progress together rather than getting blocked by other tasks in the queue. Concurrency must pair with fast-access or short-term memory, which is much more expensive to use than longer-term memory in both computers and biology, to support rapid focus-switching. Executors must maintain context across all tasks to switch between them to progress their processing. If that context gets relegated to longer-term memory, which is invariably significantly slower, the executor becomes ineffective and wastes most of its time waiting for context to come back so it can continue processing.

Focused human attention is a singular executor. We process significant amounts of information in parallel at all times—which does happen in parallel—but lower-level mental processes filter out most of it. What does surface to our consciousness must replace what our brains hold at attention, however temporarily. Because our active attention is so limited—three to four ideas, two points of decision, or only one new idea4—concurrently attending to multiple tasks renders us particularly ineffective. We keep our mental space loaded with each task’s context, which leaves very little room for actually performing the cognitive task.

Zetteling is disruptive.

To illustrate why growing a Zettelkasten and writing a draft need separation: integrating information into my Zettelkasten is a tumultuous affair. In one moment, I’ll have a clear and relatively uninteresting point written on a card. Beside that card usually sits the argument or concept that provoked this point. In many cases, I will end up with another seven cards plucked from my file cabinet while considering where this thought could use more color or influence some other existing notion. In considering how to relate the bunch, I’ll pull a few more threads, each carrying with it another five cards. I’ll have never considered these groups together before, which means I’m no longer working on integrating the original thought but am instead swept away by all of these secondary links. Before I know it, incorporating a passing comment on Mondays and Fridays being bad days to schedule one-on-ones5 has me figuring out how feedback timing relates to ego depletion6. This usually peters out as I grow dissatisfied with my progress in integrating the notes I’d initially set out to merge.

This isn’t to suggest that it wasn’t enjoyable or outright beneficial to have fallen into the side quests: the adventures to-and-fro are part of what makes this system such a joy in which to work. Trying to do even a disciplined subset of note integration while writing a draft has often sent me so far from freeform writing that I never was able to return to it.

My attempts at writing anything long-form from my Zettelkasten have so far failed. Before I started it in January 2021, I bought into the process suggested in Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes which implies that papers are written mainly in the slipbox before being pulled out, organized, and edited3. My interpretation of this process was that draft outlines were to emanate from the slipbox, like Athena bursting from Zeus’ forehead fully formed7. I’d never tasked the Zettelkasten with solving the problems I wanted to write about, however; I only knew it had things to say about the topics. With such an incorrect expectation in mind, the natural reaction was to work on the notes until such a draft could be found. The creative chaos that is my writing in the slipbox never gave me the drafts I wanted but did manage to inspire massive outlines that would grow out of control. These would break into smaller projects that would, in turn, do the same like so many public administrators in Parkinson’s Law8. I was never getting anywhere meaningful and became saturated with drafts that discouraged me from completing any of them.

Integrating drafts into the Zettelkasten.

With the benefits of roguelike modalities in mind, I archived my drafts and began comparing them to my permanent notes. Where the slipbox notes did not demonstrate my argumentation, I added links and abstractions that pulled together the set of ideas. Where ad hoc research had generated new supporting points, I wrote and integrated new notes. As a more concrete example, while reporting on the topic of velocity measurements in scrum, I went down a branch of novel thought that explored how velocity is ineffective to measure if a team cannot focus its efforts on specific goals—existing notes on velocity needed to add this thought and link it to notions of goals and purpose. In a splinter draft, I had taken this idea further, picking apart the aspects of velocity as described by physics. I had recalled that velocity and speed differ in that velocity entails heading straight toward a point B, where speed alone can take you anywhere, irrespective of any intended endpoint. Fascinated by this analogy, I’d worked toward identifying what mass, acceleration, and inertia might look like when described in terms of teams. I migrated these equations into a relatively nascent physics section of notes.

Tying it all together, in theory.

Follows is a proposed workflow for learning processes through to writing completed drafts. As I have little experience in successfully producing a final draft using my note box as a writing partner, some aspects of this are more theoretical than others. I have been following this process recently, however, and anticipate refining it further as I see what’s helpful and what other distractions it hasn’t eliminated.

  1. Scan: Take a cursory look at relevant books and articles. Scan through headings, images, etc.9
  2. Read: Add marginalia of some sort to annotate the literature for future use.10
  3. Copy: Review what was identified as necessary while reading11, rewriting and summarizing the points into personal notes. I do this by hand in notebooks.
  4. Wait: What was interesting while reading is not necessarily relevant. Waiting some days or weeks before revisiting may suppress interest in points that mainly contribute noise.
  5. Review: Decide which points are important enough to continue distilling into permanent notes. I use a pen to highlight the issues that I want to move forward.
  6. Distill: Write notes for the permanent collection. I do this on physical notecards. I’m currently in the habit of picking where the note will fall within the collection before writing it, which is an unnecessary distraction in a digital collection.
  7. Cite: Update the Zettelkasten index with the new topics if they are high enough level to warrant inclusion there, add any new reference material to the bibliography, and add citations to the cards to track the ideas’ provenance.
  8. Integrate: Ponder which other notes and indexes need to be updated to reference the new notes. Link into the notes from those, and link out where the identified relationships are also significant in the other direction.
  9. Explore: When an idea becomes attractive enough to write about more completely, explore the note collection to pull together the points that might be valuable to include in a draft.
  10. Outline: Organize the notes and ideas into an outline. Alongside that, track a list of new questions and research topics for later visitation.
  11. Write: Produce a draft, updating the list of questions/research topics as needed.
  12. Proofread: Review the draft, especially with an eye toward points that need more research.
  13. Edit: Where beneficial, revisit the draft to make any immediate changes.
  14. Regroup: Depending on what has ended up in the questions/research topics list:
  • The process may need to start again at step 1 to bring in more material.
  • Where new points and relationships have been added to the draft, going back to step 6 to incorporate these back into the Zettelkasten may be desirable. Doing so will further refine and associate those points to help during the subsequent draft phases.
  • When the drafts are nearing completion, it won’t be as necessary to jump so far back in the process. Iterate from step 10 onward.

Keep it separated.

A Zettelkasten can be a powerful ally when using it as a writing partner—but it can also be a dangerous distraction. What makes it enjoyable to build readily leads one down a path of procrastination and irrelevance during drafts when not separating writing projects into distinct focus modalities. Those modalities interact iteratively, where the draft learns from the Zettelkasten for a time, and then the Zettelkasten takes its turn learning from the draft.

The modalities of focus benefit writers in contrast to the caustic effects of multitasking. Doing only one small part of learning or writing at a time requires less context switching, allowing deeper focus, and resulting in higher quality and faster production. A hidden benefit of rejecting multitasking comes from energy and motivation. Every change of direction makes focus harder, and all outstanding tasks require exceptional energy to keep on standby. Produce higher quality, faster, and more sustainably by adding boundaries to work.

  1. Allen Wilson, “Playing the Zettelkasten RPG Through Arbitrary Constraints,” Zettelkasten Method (blog), April 2022, https://zettelkasten.de/posts/playing-zettelkasten-rpg-through-arbitrary-constraints/.

  2. Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017), 23–26.

  3. Ahrens, Smart Notes, 58–63.

  4. David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, 1st ed (New York: Harper Business, 2009).

  5. Camille Fournier, The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change, ed. Laurel Ruma, First Edition (Beijing: O’Reilly, 2017), 53.

  6. Ahrens, Smart Notes, 72.

  7. “Athena | Goddess, Myths, Symbols, Facts, & Roman Name | Britannica,” accessed July 9, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Athena-Greek-mythology.

  8. C. Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s ,”Law The Economist, November 19, 1955, https://www.economist.com/news/1955/11/19/parkinsons-law.

  9. “T.H.I.E.V.E.S. - Reading Technique | Kent State University,” accessed June 19, 2022, https://www.kent.edu/writingcommons/thieves-reading-technique.

  10. Anne-Laure Le Cunff, “Interview: Using Books to Navigate Life with Juvoni Beckford,” Ness Labs (blog), November 3, 2020, https://nesslabs.com/juvoni-beckford-interview.

  11. Sascha Fast, “The Barbell Method of Reading,” Zettelkasten Method, 2018, https://www.zettelkasten.de/posts/barbell-method-reading/.{:target=_blank}