Starting to Build a Zettelkasten

An update on my work-in-progress research system, using

December 05, 2018Filed under blog#notes#research#writing#zettelkastenMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: people broadly interested in reading, writing, learning, and research systems.

As I’ve been slowly mulling on a number of things over the last few weeks, it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to invest a bit more in my research system. I’ve asked before how people manage their own research, and I’ve noted how I use my blog as a note-taking tool of sorts. As I’ve started digging into a couple larger problems—one of which is likely going to take me a decade of work—I’ve come back to this question, and I find that I still don’t have great answers.

Something like the Zettelkasten approach seems like it probably does what I need it to. So this week I’ve started organizing notes in Bear that way. I’m not taking the tack sometimes advocated of intentionally having no hierarchy whatsoever for my notes, though I’m eschewing any particularly deep hierarchies. I consistently find that I need some kind of project or “notebook” level of organization when I’m digging deep on something, and it’s always nice to hear that I’m not alone in that. Alan Jacobs, on the same topic:

Well, I thought, why not have a collection of Zettel that is based not on a lifetime of research but on a single project? So I tried that. And it worked wonderfully.

Unlike Jacobs, the notecard system doesn’t work for me. I enjoy writing notes by hand, but in a lot of cases I’m writing down code snippets, which is very hard to do on notecards unless the code snippets are very brief. Instead, I’m so far making heavy use of Bear’s ability to link between notes, and even heavier use of Bear’s tagging system for adding keywords to notes.

In line with my comment about hierarchy, though, I’m only allowing myself one level of hierarchy: the “project” or “notebook.” Everything in that “notebook” is a single keyword/tag deep, structured like <notebook>/<keyword>—never <notebook>/<keyword>/<another keyword.. I am also freely including tags across these “notebooks”: something might be in A/q and also C/z. That gives me the best of both worlds: project-level organization, but also the ability to see associations that play out beyond an individual project.

We’ll see how this plays out, but so far I’m liking it a lot.

Amusingly, it’s forcing me to clean up my existing set of notes in Bear: things tagged “writing/ideas” are now getting pushed over into a corresponding bucket in Ulysses, which is my preferred application for actually writing. Miscellaneous/non-project notes are currently going in a top level “notebook”—a top level tag in Bear—called z (for Zettelkasten). Under it I have things like z/pedagogy, but once again, I’m intentionally allowing myself only one level of nesting here. I am still logging my work in a work tag. And I also have notebooks for things like food, gift ideas, etc., since Bear is currently my go-to notes app. (This is part of what forced me to the project/notebook mentality in the first place: having dozens of top-level tags in that sidebar was just going to break my brain.) But hopefully having all these notes around and in a just-structured-enough form will be useful as I work on these larger projects.

I’ll report more as I keep going with this!