The essence of the Zettelkasten method, demystified.
And the reason behind the name of my newsletter
I woke up and had an epiphany about my note-making.
But first, I’ll need to explain to you why I got so obsessed with taking notes in the first place. Some of it is explained in my previous letter that introduces the concept of thought loss anxiety. The real reason why I’m so dedicated to the craft of writing and note-taking is because I’m busy doing the work required to have an opinion.
Anyone who knows me will know that I am very passionate and opinionated about things like cities, climate, education and arts. Those are some big-ass topics, and that’s not even all of it. While my opinions used to be based on intuition alone, I committed to using writing as a tool to help me understand where the opinions are coming from, whether my intuitions are valid, and how.
What I aspire to have is “strong opinions, weakly held”, meaning that whatever opinions I have formed can be changed based on accumulated personal experience and information that comes my way.
This is part of why my newsletter is called Subject to Change.
A lot of this work happens on digital paper. In the super-nerdy space where the fine details of digital note-taking are discussed, you’ll hear a lot about the Zettelkasten Method (ZK Method), popularized by a German professor called Niklas Luhmann who was incredibly prolific and famously wrote over 90,000 notes on index cards that were linked together. The magnitude of his connected thoughts on index cards blow away even the most elaborate depictions of conspiracy board you can find in pop culture today.
The promise of the ZK Method is that if you do ambient, bite-sized writing consistently, for weeks and months, it eventually adds up to a forest of linked insights that you can forage from whenever you need ideas to write papers, articles, and even books. And because most of the thinking has already been done, it’ll feel like having a blueprint of the end product already, and all you need to do is to build it out. Fill in the blanks.
For people who write to better understand the world, this is the ultimate dream tool.
There’s one problem though. We got the tool, but it came with NO INSTRUCTIONS.
While Professor Luhmann’s note-taking system looks simple from the outside, the process to get there is far from easy. Many have tried to decipher and clarify the ZK Method. There are continuing debates on niche aspects of the system. Still, I have yet to see an accessible explanation for how to replicate what Professor Luhmann did.
Most of the instructions can be summarized into a slogan for the duty-free at the airport: Think. Write. Connect.
These “just do it” instructions are just not enough for me.
We know we’re supposed to write one idea per page/card. What constitutes an “idea”? How do I identify what a good idea is? What does an idea that fits on one card feel like?
Once you somehow got your idea, there’s the task of placing and connecting your idea to your collection of existing ideas. What kind of connection am I looking for? What relationships are worthy of calling a connection? Do any connections work, or do some work better than others? Should I categorize the connections?
And the dreaded question for any beginner: How do I start when I’m, say, on my 5th card, with nothing to connect things to?
Rigorous thinking goes into every note, and where it is placed. What the rigorous thinking is, is anyone’s guess.
There are lots of unknowns about the Zettelkasten Method, but the one that stumps me the most is the “connecting the new idea to existing ideas” part.
I’ve been struggling with versions of this problem for almost a year now. The past week, I think I’ve finally cracked the code and I want to share the simple framework with you here.
I call it…
The Compass of Zettelkasten Thinking.
Use this method to discover the underlying context of an idea.
take one idea (X) and put it in the centre
imagine the four compass directions. each direction helps give definition to the idea in different ways.
NORTH: "Where does X come from?" what are its origin? what group/category does X belong to? what exists an order of magnitude higher? zoom out. what gave birth to X? what causes X
WEST: "What is similar to X?" what other disciplines could X already exist in? what other disciplines could benefit from X? what are other ways to say/do X?
SOUTH: "Where can X lead to?" what does X contribute to? what group/category could X be the headline of? what exists an order of magnitude lower? zoom in. what does X nurture?
EAST: "What competes with X?" what is the opposite of X? what is X missing? its disadvantage? what could supercharge X?
The Zettelkasten structure created around the idea could look something like this:
Here’s an example of an idea branching out in every direction, each answer creating context and structure around it. Imagine that each bullet is the title of a note that can contain further clarifying thoughts on that one bullet:
NORTH (a super-idea): Values that lead to an inclusive and fair society
THE IDEA: Housing is a human right because it provides the stability needed for an individual to function in society.
SOUTH (a sub-idea): Stability helps people access basic needs, keep their jobs, build relationships, accumulate wealth, improved mental health
EAST: Toronto is struggling with affordability. Are the goals of affordability and a housing market incompatible?
IDEA: An artificially-stable market is a heavily regulated market
SOUTH: This means that the market isn’t allowed to act in accordance to market forces anymore.
IDEA: The greatest hit on affordability is the price of land
SOUTH: Developable land is expensive in Toronto because it is scarce
The scarcity is artificially imposed by overly restrictive zoning
The scarcity of developable land leads to extreme development proposals that give Toronto its distinctive “Tall n’ Sprawl” urban form (coined by …)
EAST: Land Value Tax can solve this (Georgism), helping spread wealth and close the growing gap between rich and poor
WEST: Other project costs are largely fixed, such as hard/soft costs, and can only be reduced with subsidy i.e. outside of market forces
EAST: Can Ontario ramp up its lumber production/stewardship to create jobs and provide local material for wood constructed buildings?
EAST: Nomads and #vanlife live on the road. How do nomads and van life function? Can one be on the move and still be afforded stability?
EAST: What kind of cultural values are hindering us from providing housing for all?
As demonstrated above, the purpose is to use the compass directions and the questions to guide a conversation with yourself about what you know and don’t know. They are prompts to help our brains find where an idea belongs among other ideas, and related questions. Other things to keep in mind:
Any new bullet point that comes out of an idea could be the starting IDEA of another compass session
Something that appears in one compass direction could potentially fit in another compass direction of a totally new cluster of ideas. For example, the idea of “jobs” appeared in separate points of the exercise, and could potentially form another cluster of related ideas mostly separate from this, except for those two connections.
There is so much more I am not explaining with the Compass of ZK Thinking, but I have to stop somewhere. But in essence, that is the framework I’m using to build out my digital zettelkast.
For all you note-takers out there:
Whether you’ve tried implementing the Zettelkasten Method, or have never heard of it, I would love to hear if you’ll try the framework out, and what you think about it. Got questions? Ask them in a reply, or in the comments! Please feel free to use any/all parts of it, as long as you let me know how it goes :)
Give this letter a ❤️ if you enjoyed it!
And as always, stay safe and stay curious.
PS. And yes, after consulting with some writing friends I am letting go of finishing Ship30.
I ended up writing 22/30 essays.
I learned a ship-ton and I’m pretty happy with that result. 🚢
Have you tried integrating this into Breadcrumbs plugin for Obsidian? It seems purpose-built for this system. I have been using MOC to organise Zettels, but this system seems more specific.
Love the compass idea! I'm going to try it and let you know how it goes!