Zettelkasten, Evergreen Notes, digital garden, second brain, ...
I've been busy with these productivity topics about learning and note-taking lately and as I look at, this topic is becoming more and more interesting for many. Although I exemplify possible solutions with TiddlyWiki, keep in mind that Zettelkasten was originally implemented on paper, so the topic of this post is an implementation that can be implemented anywhere, regardless of software.
The purposes of Zettelkasten and similar knowledgebases are:
- Easily recall your long-forgotten thoughts
- Clarify your knowledge of a particular topic
- To notice contradictions and shortcomings during the dialogue with the Notes
- Create new ideas from your existing knowledge
I think TiddlyWiki empty edition is exactly the software you need for a Zettelkasten-type note collection:
- Displays "physically" separate notes that we can handle as if they were made of paper: you can leave all of them on "the desk" that you want to manage right now and you can put the rest in "the drawer"
- It basically works by not support for renaming tiddlers, which fits the Zettelkasten mindset (permanent titles)
- Backlinks can be easily displayed in the tiddler info bar
- It does not include table of contents, which may be due to link-based navigation
- Tags are basically only used for grouping (if ToC-type usage is ignored)
- The selected text can be extracted into a separate tiddler and replaced with a link (refactoring of notes)
The main principles of the "second brain" kind of knowledgebase in my opinion are:
- Write notes about everything to make sure that thoughts and experiences are not lost, in addition, the wording helps to understand the topic
- Add a unique ID to your notes so you can clearly identify them even with a text search (so you get a list of backlinks)
- There should be only one well-defined idea on a note
- Because of link-based navigation, use links instead of text search to look for a topic
Wording helps with understanding, thus instead of copying someone's writing, opinion, solution, describe it in your own words, because only then will you become aware of what you actually understood while you have to articulate, "have to say back".
If you just copy, you gather the information without actually interpreting it, but while writing the text, you need to interpret your thoughts so that you can put them on paper in a meaningful way. This will shed light on the dark spots, points you don't really understand yet, and it will encourage you to gather more information on that topic (even during a dialogue with your own notes), so it will lead to real understanding. It will become your habit that instead of scanning and reviewing the text quickly, you will actually start reading the text, interpreting what is described, so your reading efficiency will also improve.
It is necessary to use IDs in paper form to identify the notes because you have no other option. In digital form, each of your notes actually has a unique ID (path, in-database ID, URL), but if you use this, you will depend on the implementation (vendor lock-in): if you want to migrate to another system where links are marked differently (e.g. the title identifies the note instead of a generated ID), it will be difficult to migrate (if it can be solved at all). Therefore, it is worth using a notation system that works in all circumstances (even with a simple text search), e.g. the form "2020-09-19_20-24". There is no line break in the unique ID (which would make it difficult to find with a text search), it does not depend on character encoding (so it even works in filenames, it does not need to be modified in URLs because it does not contain accented letters), so it is a universal solution.
However, since this name is not verbose, it is a good idea to display the title of the note along with its ID. It is a software-dependent solution, but the best solution is, for example, if the note can be identified by an ID, but we also display the title in the text in the search results.
A note should be on a signle topic and be as short as possible; if it's already too long, it probably includes more topics.
When you put headlines in a note, it is a clear indication that the note is about multiple topics (e.g., a Mammal note has a Dog and Cat headline). Put these paragraphs in a separate note and just place a link in their original location (note refactoring) so that if you use text search, you're sure to find what you're looking for - if the text you're looking for were under a headline within a note, you wouldn't find it in the search results (e.g. you would search for the word "dobberman" and only Mammals would appear in the results, you probably wouldn't consider it, but you would already notice the title Dog).
Creating connection between notes requires nothing but links and backlinks (see details) because they can be used to implement tags (details), fields (details), and table of contents (details). It follows that when using a wiki-like annotation method, we can search for a topic by following links instead of text search, because we can find more accurate results that we think are as opposed to having to search a list of notes that contain those words (must to read details about the weakness of full text search).
Backlinks are only useful if they show really relevant content. For example, on Wikipedia, the list of backlinks to Wiki page contains a bunch of unrelated information:
- The Aeronautics page mentions "Wiki" in the footnote in connection with a link
- Batman also mentions it in the footnote
- I could list, but this is the case in most places
So I think we need to choose when to refer to a word and when not. We need to stick to the Zettelkasten principles to first describe what we want, but don't place links in it until we're completely done with the note: we visit the related notes and only link to the really relevant places. For example, if I write a note about squirrels, it would not be worthwhile to link from that note to the note about mammals itself, but only to the note that collects rodents. While this is more time consuming than linking to key words on an ad-hoc basis, a list of backlinks will be really useful if you don't have to sort between them because they are all really closely related to that particular note.
One of the advantages of this kind of note-taking, for example, is that it took me about 15 minutes to write it all down. In fact, all I had to do was translate my previously written and thought-out notes into English and make small changes to it.
See https://groups.google.com/g/tiddlywiki/c/2yRiVsbAv9g/m/vKBIC5CjBQAJ for the original thread and https://zettelkasten.de/posts/overview/ for more information about Zettelkasten.
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