Zettelkasten Wasn’t Built in a Day

Reader beware. This is a long and wonky article about writing process and tooling; basically, a review of Roam Research and a summary of a book I’ve been reading How to Take Smart Notes cobbled together. I wish I’d come across this learning manual years prior—maybe 5th grade. I mean that, studying proved hard for me. Despite this guide being focused on writing non-fiction research style journals vs fiction, I found key takeaways to help improve my own reminder-based workflow, make writing a consistent journey with no preconceived notions, and create a thread of learned knowledge from a constant stream of random ideas. And, the tooling and workflows also help at work with tracking one on one meetings, projects, and other daily diversions.

Since college (and earlier), like most, I’ve jotted down a plethora, my favorite word from the movie Three Amigos, of notes. I always hated ruining a good book and when libraries ruled the earth one never returned a borrow marked up. Sometimes… those librarians charged me nickels and dimes for my transgressions, which was meaningful to a kid with one hand steadying the BMX bike and the other clutching a stack of books.

Also, the institution founded by Ben Franklin wants to prevent wear and tear. Hey, libraries loan these out 20 times annually on average. Besides, your own notes can taint the learning and joy of the next. If you imprint what you learn on a page, how will someone else find their own connections?

Taking my local library’s lessons to heart, I avoid the inline and mark down ideas in a notebook, with pen in hand, while reading and then go back to review. Some notes are cherished while others trashed. Most sit in a strange purgatory of never being looked at again. As technology changed, I moved on from paper to using WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Notepad. When mobile phones burst onto the scene, many more tooling options emerged. A plethora. Again, I’m not sure it means what I think it means.

What is Zettelkasten?

If you’re unfamiliar, this is a personal knowledge management system for study. In olden times, I used flashcards for notes as I traversed in the winter cold at old Mizzou from mundane 70s style architecture at Middlebush to worse 70s style architecture at GCB. Marketing 101—The Power of Solid Copywriting. History 1—The Lives of Plutarch. Most professors dropped hints–remember this with big, bold lettering for the first test. Of course, I took note.

But the key learning from this book, Don’t be constrained; let the mind fly. So, I now bullet my notes and let the mind wander Take the following:

  • “There is an obscure office in the white office that tracks each record the President keeps … When he left office, the National Archive asked for the return of this information. All due respect to the previous President, they should only have to ask once to receive the material back.” Karl Rove. Paraphrased.
  • The perfect egg salad needs Duke’s mayonnaise.
  • Let’s cancel student loan debt using an obscure footnote in a law designed to help wounded veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nah, Congress isn’t needed to speed another trillion. And then, I will go on television to berate the other party for not respecting the rule of law. Eye roll.
  • Black bears can reach speeds of 30 MPH.
  • Apple orchards near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The next day; find time to review. On average, I often compile thirty-plus random thoughts. Then, I categorize these into topics. One idea may relate to the development of low-power nuclear energy while another is the simple task of picking up bread from the grocery store. Or, an idea from the heavens may hit to solve world hunger or start the next great LLC. Just keep writing or typing. But don’t skirt the review at the end; this is where the magic happens. Move the index cards, or cut and paste in your tool of choice, or rewrite the idea. And then tag or categorize.

This is important. Or key.

Hard to describe the power behind the technique. Don’t memorize flashcards. Instead, make connections, sort, and once a rhythm is discovered joy emerges. Write pages of notes, not caring about the topic. The mind is funny. It often jumps. And let it! And don’t worry about forgetting anything because the note will reappear if you are consistent with the process. It’s freeing, in an odd way.

More importantly, when reviewing the connection one can find out if it’s indeed meaningful. If I’m writing an article or chapter in a book, I’ll review my stack of cards. Keep some. Throw others away.

As a side note, I found myself disillusioned when I realized the same thought kept reappearing. But that’s the point, you are supposed to notice where your mind keeps coming back to, contemplate the connection, and then come up with a new idea or plow onward.

Tool Choices and the Methodology

Now, despite having stacks of them, I don’t use flashcards anymore. Like I said before, technology has built many options:

Evernote. The original tool that I’ve played with since it launched on iPhone eons back. My elephant brain. Yes, the logo fits. Running across all platforms, it has fulfilled that purpose. I used to clip from websites. Document meeting notes. And leverage it to remember things I know I’ll forget. Places to stay. Packing lists. Travel lists. Writing project lists. I like to think this piece of tech is the kingmaker of lists.

Bear. I tried converting all of my Evernote notes and giving this a go. I’ve always thought there could be a better path than the elephant tool. I also love the concept of local storage and leveraging iCloud encryption to protect how my mind works. However, this beast doesn’t do lists well. Sure, the tool can make them at ease but the cross-out feature and visualization implementation of markdown was only passable. I still check back in on the development but never could make the leap.

Notion. A contender.

Roam Wasn’t Built in a Day

I used to store my meanderings in a host of places–the above tools and other spots. Then, Roam Research entered the market and changed the paradigm with something simple that, reflective of the human mind, builds in a certain complexity. And because of its flexibility lets one leverage Zettelkasten surprisingly well.

Despite start-up challenges (this is not an easy tool to use), I watched a lengthy video class and became a believer. Nobody follows instructions these days; yet, one should to save time. But note, that this is also an expensive endeavor. There are other free tools on the market with similar functionality that work including Obsidian–an open-source tool of sorts built on text files and Notion. But, I love Roam because I can pour my notes out on my daily page in bullet form, and then use backlinks to make connections. This is a simple yet powerful adjustment to the Zettelkasken method.

Once one is going, the flexibility of the tool in using the PAAR method to manage goals, archive, and manage projects, and changing the background layout with CSS templates is the cherry on top. This sells the tool short because one can also track workouts, write queries to build and find to-do lists, and more. Being built on top of a searchable database makes a tremendous difference. Also, I like to leverage multiple devices so being a web service goes a long way in managing the regular grind. Review notes on iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, etc.,

The Magic of [[Backlinks]] and Weeding the Garden

I now have many … But once my bulleted notes are completed, I categorize my current projects using backlinks to create unique pages in the tool. These can be experiments, grand writing projects, or simple posts. The ones I’m currently driving or thinking about I often leave in the tool’s sidebar for easy access. So, take the above-bulleted list now categorized:

[[Dumb Things Presidents Do]]

  • “There is an obscure office in the white office that tracks each record the President keeps … When he left office, the National Archived asked for the return of this information. All due respect to the previous President, they should only have to ask once to receive the material back.” Karl Rove. Paraphrased.
  • Let’s cancel student loan debt using an obscure footnote in a law designed to help wounded veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nah, Congress isn’t needed to speed another trillion.

[[Great Recipes]]

  • The perfect egg salad needs Duke’s mayonnaise.

[[Blue Ridge Mountains]]

  • Black bears can reach speeds of 30 MPH.
  • Apple orchards near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Here, I categorized these topics on the pages. As I continue to bullet, I’ll come back to these ideas. I can choose to write on Great Recipes, craft a new article on how an egg salad sandwich makes stomaching awful leadership easier, or throw both in the trash can. Freeing.

One can add pictures, integrate Tweets, etc.,

And again, the brain scans vs thinking deeply, looking for smaller details. This is why I often see myself on a Zoom call and notice a change on someone’s shelf, the matching color of the books, or displayed gun for lovers of the second amendment. The ability to ponder a topic, come back and scan, and find connections is what leads to creativity. Yes, random discoveries might have been connected on a long walk in the woods, but the earlier work allows for the idea to be conjured from the ether realms.

And frankly, notes are a medium we think in, not something we think about, and how we consolidate and make these connections matters, depending on the context of where we want to go.

Remember, It’s important to curtail your bulleted notes and categories when using the system … because if you don’t the world will nag at you. Or, oh, it’ll gnaw at you like a rabbit with no morals in a garden full of carrots. Peter Rabbit vs the Farmer. Or, remember Kevin McCarthy (minority leader)? That poor soul is like Kang at the end of Season 1 of Loki, he doesn’t know who he is supposed to be, so he’s everyone all at once. Use your backlinks. And ponder if you need the notes or not.

Thinking Like a Database

Another advantage of Roam is that it’s built on a database. The drag and drop function makes moving ideas from header to page extremely easy; a function that excels here instead of using a text file. As a student of the database wars–I used to sell this stuff–it may be the modern invention that changed the world. Not the internet. Or, the discovery of RNA. Don’t believe me? Think again, consider how every application uses some form of the technology.

Rows and columns allow simple mapping of ideas, which exponentially becomes a means to map human thought, the web, and creates online stores. Lego blocks. But more powerful. Thank you, IBM.

To-Do Lists

On the action item front, I look to Roam as a tool for goals vs the daily GTTRD methodology. I started this journey while testing Notion. Most of their templates have this concept, or standard pages, for, “Where do you see yourself in three-year goals? Or one year? And six months?” This is a question we often kick down the road. For myself, I somewhat split the difference with where I see myself in a year (Long Term) and six months (Short Term). For each, I listed my top three projects, which in turn support said goal. For each project, I break down dates for check-ins. Roam has this Date Picker function that tags your Daily Notes so the check-in shows when I get to the said day on the calendar. A simple; yet, powerful reminder.

On my Goals page, I highlight weekly action items. I try to keep this high level. What do I need to accomplish this week to keep the ball moving?

There are some great tutorials on Roam setup relative to daily action items. I’ve been a believer in task management/reminders for years. And I’ve created a significant amount of workflow reminding me to change the furnace filters to check on my kid’s homework assignments. I tried to migrate this function into Roam using a number of tutorials but couldn’t find a format I enjoyed. Call this a work in process. Between filters, embedded pages, etc., it’s workable but not where I see myself taking this forward on a day-to-day task management basis.

Future reminders are somewhat of a weakness in to-do list functions. Could be Things is the Gold Standard. However, checking lists can become an awful slog so maybe this works better? Goodness, I hate lists. Maybe, I should just scrap that. With Roam, you can do to the flexibility of the tool.

Ulysses and Scrivener, Integrating Writing Tools of Choice

Despite the shortcomings on daily and grinding tasks, Roam shines in detailing out Projects I’m working on from long-form books to shorter articles. By leveraging metadata and page referencing, I can plan outlines and flows on individual pages by jotting down snippets as they come to mind. This is why Roam is a writer’s delight. I can just write. I don’t have to open a certain tool. As inspiration comes, I can take down the idea or write out a scene. Heck, I could even describe a leaf, noting the veins and green. And this incredible recall comes back. Based on its nature, this tool is not a dumping ground like other, glitzier tools on the market.

Then, I can move from Roam’s slip box and working with Scrivener.

Often, I break a larger section into smaller more manageable blocks. The process of creating a folder in Scrivener, using the function to see multiple documents in a chapter and then merge works magic. Another reason why Roam works with multiple writing tools grant the wonkiness of the formatting does show its ugly head but that’s easily fixed using features in Scrivener. It’s built to compile snippets into long-form books. They work well to together.

I like this quote from an author, “People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.” Books aren’t hammered out in a day. But if you break down the problem, magic can happen. For shorter works including this post, I leverage a markdown editor called Ulysses. Specifically, the function to pull text from the iPad is an amazing cross-over feature that works well in Roam. Note, the clean-up tools are superior in Scrivener but you don’t have use to the same hammer for every nail.

Technical Challenges And Other Shortcomings

From a consumer standpoint, Roam is very much a work in progress. You have to create many of your own workflows, processes, etc., Yes, this takes time. But I felt the payoff is worth it. So much so, that I worry that this tool may die someday if it doesn’t gain mass market appeal. May the empire never fall; otherwise, I may have to go back to old pen and paper. Yes, you can make the process work that way too. A few shortcomings:

  • Themes, I discovered this way too late. As it uses CSS (and I’m somewhat of a CSS junkie, love to play but am not good at starting at scratch), you can change the font, background, etc., I love when other note-taking apps come out with a new design. And I enjoyed the simplicity of Bear. Well, you can have it all with how the user community has built their own. This is the power of GitHub. Clone someone’s repo to yours. Create your own CSS page. What’s even better is you can have multiple of these saved. So, I often troll the internet for new design ideas, copy the code to the css page, and filter on or off. Depending on if I want a magazine view, dark mode, or the original tried and true, a simple filter changes the mood. But, this should be much simpler. Coding CSS can be a slog for the uninitiated.
  • The Roam app is buggy. I wish it worked better than it does. External keyboard challenges using an iPad. Errors with large graphs. The list is long.

The High Level

And should you use this tool? Lordy, I’m not sure how to live without these days.

There are a number of open source competitors, none are quite the same to me. Still, there are pieces missing that turn the tide. Templates. The setup of said templates. CSS changes. But those I consider nice to have because once I started rolling decided never to look back. And that’s what makes it special, one can tailor Roam to use PAAR, GROW, or Zettelkasken. The systems are yours to define, from the simple to the complicated.

But definitely read the book, the process is far more important than the tools one uses.


Book Quotes and Notes:

  • Good students wrestle with their sentences because they care about finding the right expression. It takes them longer to find a good idea to write about because they know from experience that the first idea is rarely that great and good questions do not fall into their laps.
  • Writing is not a linear process. We constantly have to jump back and forth between different tasks. It wouldn’t make any sense to micromanage ourselves on that level.
  • The best way to maintain the feeling of being in control is to stay in control. And to stay in control, it’s better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea. It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be very different from the one imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do.
  • Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway.
  • If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head.
  • You need something to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head. Whatever you use, it should not require any thoughts, attention or multiple steps to write it down. It can be a notebook, a napkin, an app on your phone or iPad. These notes are not meant to be stored permanently. They will be deleted or chucked soon anyway. They only function as a reminder of a thought and are not meant to capture the thought itself, which requires time to phrase proper sentences and check facts. I recommend having pen and paper with you at all times. It is really hard to beat a notebook in its simplicity.
  • We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two.
  • But cramming won’t help you learn. As Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek put it: “If learning is your goal, cramming is an irrational act”

Other Thoughts:

  • Zettelkasken. The site also recommends software aligned to the method.
  • Apparently, the course I used to learn Roam is now gone. But There are some nice learning features in the wild. YouTube has a number of how-to guides. Thinking someone should really take the type to convert these into a LinkedIn Learning class. Noticed this in the comments, looked like a decent option I haven’t tried.
  • Roam. Evernote. Bear. Notion. Obsidian. Dynalist. Athens.
  • Scrivener. Ulysses. iAWriter.
  • Note, I do believe one should research who builds the products we use. Your thoughts are personal. Roam is a hosted option headquartered in California. Others are not but are based in all parts of the world. Pros and cons but buyer beware. And protect where you keep your data.
  • Zotero. I use this to keep track of references. It’s a beautiful tool described in the book. A must-have for those writing research articles.
  • Ed Codd invented the relational database.
  • Pictures were taken near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

1 Comment

  1. This is so cool. I love reading about other people’s productivity systems, so your comprehensive post was a treat. I myself have found that the simpler my system, the more I use it, so I’ve stuck to Apple Notes and Reminders (with the occasional Calendar). I don’t really use Zettelkasten, though I do capture my thoughts and categorise them respectively. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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