Zettelkasten PKM. Learning how to learn in a VUCA World

In this post, I am laying an introduction to Personal Knowledge Management Systems (Zettelkasten) and principles to make them work. The post is inspired by the ideas I shared with my talk at Unlimited Agility Conference UACon 2022 Spring and my previous post about Knowledge Activism last January. But what problem can be solved with a Zettelkasten?

Why should you need a PKM?

Basically, the world is changing so rapidly that we need to become better in growing, updating and refining our knowledge in a structured, yet flexible way. Most of our attention time is wasted, does not create any value, and it wastes our most precious resource, our time. A Personal Knowledge Management Systems is meant to do that. Grow our knowledge and our sense-making ability leveraging our time in a valuable and fun way.

Musicians and athletes continuously improve and refine their skills in a structured way.  We, as knowledge workers in a fast-changing world,  should be no less than that, but, we rarely approach our knowledge that way.  The vast majority of the information and knowledge we consume quickly becomes waste. In Lean thinking, you should constantly aim to reduce and/or eliminate waste. But how do you do it in learning? Well, we can fight back the information overload and lack of focus, if we have a disciplined system for recording events to create ideas incrementally in short cycles, allowing for fact-checking our mental models, linking them in an overall system that becomes our sense-making view of the world. Sounds too good to be true? Well. Let’s talk about Niklas Luhmann.

Zettelkasten Personal Knowledge Management Systems

Niklas Luhmann was a German Social Scientist who wrote 70 books, and hundreds of academic papers and articles in thirty years of activity, averaging 2 books and tens of articles per year! That’s monster productivity for an academic! How comes, he was that prolific? He always credited the Zettelkasten system, which was later described in the book “How to take smart notes” by Ahrens Sonke.

The Zettelkasten is a note-taking system. It’s a tool for the gradual, incremental, and iterative accumulation of knowledge. The difference with other note-taking methods, is that You do not simply collect notes, you connect them, and you make them part of a system that you can navigate, update and refine. That allows you to constantly check and refine your logic and your mental models. Plus, it’s FUN!

So, the promise of the system is that by making a habit of regularly taking and connecting notes in a structured way, you change the way you make sense of the world. You frame your knowledge into a system, as opposed to having a bunch of isolated notions. You become more productive and innovative, with a  better thinking process, greater ease in remembering things you learn, and Fun!

Now, the system used by Luhmann was made of paper cards and physical archives. Digital zettelkasten are often referred to as PKM- Personal Knowledge Management systems, I use the two terms interchangeably. Please refer to the book for further details if you are going to create a physical version of it with paper cards. In general, Ideas and notes can be taken, organized, and linked on about any aspect of our personal or professional life: training, Ted Talks, conflicts with colleagues, Conversations, meetings.

I use three main  types of notes, based on completion status, and function

  1. Draft notes, are taken from the source, rewritten in my own words using the bullet points form
  2. Ideas are fully elaborated and linked notes, in full prose, my own words, built upon my drafts. They become basically my understanding, my view on a specific concept, connected to all the other mental models I use to make sense of the world. When a new idea is in the system, I have now created a new increment of knowledge, a new bit of value.
  3. Hub Notes. These are made mainly of links to other notes. So they are like an index, grouping notes around a topic in a consistent way. MOCs are Maps of Content, notes made mainly of links to other notes, clustering notes around a specific topic. TOCs Tables of Content have the same function but they are pre-built from external sources, like the table of content of a book, or the index from a video lesson.

Let’s see my typical workflow for creating ideas from a book.

  1. While reading a book, I highlight interesting passages
  2. Then I create a draft, rewriting the highlighted passages, in bullet points, in my own words. I add links and references to the original source
  3. Then I extract the main idea from the draft, also considering similar ideas, supporting/contradictory facts, and hypotheses. That’s now in full prose my own words. I also add the draft to the bottom of the new note
  4. I now link to other ideas in the archive and I also link to hub notes, when appropriate

The workflow is iterative, I often get back to “done” ideas, refactoring and refining them. Anyway, when an idea is in a “done” state, it means I just added a small value increment to the PKM. The idea is there, connected to other ideas, to be further navigated and refined if needed., but already in a “complete” status.

So, we basically organize our notes into three layers, each meaning a different access point to our knowledge.

  1. Starting from the bottom, we have basic notes. They are linked together, and they can link to the layer two MOCs and TOCs
  2. On level 2, you see two kinds of hub notes. We have MOCs and TOCs. As already mentioned, They provide an entry point to a knowledge area. and are mainly made of links to other notes, clustering them around a specific topic.
  3. At the higher level, you have a homepage, that includes the overall basic knowledge domains the zettelkasten is about. You could also have, a group of first level MOCs, grouping other MOCs

My strong suggestion is that you don’t use folders as content taxonomies. Folders hide information, they are difficult to navigate and strictly tied to a rigid logic. Instead, you use them to track the status of ideas in a short learning loop, from start to “Done”.  For instance, you could use the Kanban-style folder structure you see in the picture, resembling my own PKM setup
I use a Draft folder for draft notes, and an Ideas folder for Ideas, MOCs, TOCs, Home.

I also use an additional TEMP folder for fleeting notes, and keywords about ideas that I have no time to elaborate on but I do not want to forget. And finally, I have a support folder for images and an X-files folder for sensitive notes. Sorry, I couldn’t help but quote the X-files series 🙂

Now, I want to be clear this is not a magic pill. You must put effort and commitment into it, to make it works. But if you do it, you end up better than you started. Here’s the list of principles that I follow to make it works.

  • Writing. We have been taught that writing is a consequence of thinking. But writing has been demonstrated as a tool for learning, because it helps us think critically and actively organize our thinking, thus leading to better thinking;
  • Habit. You have to create a habit. It’s like a gym membership. It works if you show up regularly and you do your workouts. There is no free lunch. you have to put the effort into it, but if you do it, you will get stronger than you started;
  • Connect. You must link notes, and connect them because this way you create stories, and navigation paths. And you don’t do it relying on a search algorithm, you do it based on your mental associations. And the associations could be just the idea of a moment, a temporary association that you solidify in time, and that would get lost otherwise. That’s at the core of the PKM ;
  • Atomic form. Stay true to the «one concept, one note» principle. This way it’s easier to evolve your notes in time, refine them, and re-read them. And you habilitate a fast, incremental, iterative value creation knowledge lifecycle;
  • Tailor it. It’s good to find the workflow that works best for you, experiment with it;
  • WIP. Fleeting notes and draft notes are WIP Work in Progress, meaning they are waste. Give yourself a limit on the maximum number of fleeting/draft notes waiting to be elaborated.
  • Folders hierarchy. Do not use folders as content taxonomies. Use them to track the statuses of the notes (as we have already seen)
  • Borges Paradox. In the library of Babel, a fantastic novel by Jorge Louis Borges, the universe is made of infinite books with all the possible random variations of all the letters of all the alphabets in the world. This way, all the knowledge of humanity is inside the library, but you cannot access it, because it is hidden in an ocean of meaningless books made of random variations of random letters. So don’t creat a zettelkasten of babel! Be selective, only create notes with meaningful and quality content.
  • Project. Finally don’t  take care of your pkm only when you are in need fr specific projects. Do it regularly, and it will be easier to leverage it when you will be in time of need

That’s the end of this quick introduction to zettelkasten/PKM systems. I hope it results useful, I also attach a list of digital tools commonly used as pkm systems.

  • LogSeq https://logseq.com/
  • Notion https://www.notion.so/
  • Obsidian https://obsidian.md/
  • Roam https://roamresearch.com/
  • The Archive https://zettelkasten.de/the-archive/

My last suggestion is : just start taking notes now. Follow my suggestions if you like it, or find your own, but do not overthink, just start and learn by doing.

It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish

– Sam Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings