Benefits of Zettelkasten

Last summer a friend of mine introduced me to something called Zettelkasten. It’s a bit difficult to grasp and not the easiest thing to get started on, but once established it confers many amazing benefits. I won’t talk here about what exactly it is or how it works, though some of that will come out in my remarks; if you’re interested to learn more, you’ll have to do some digging, I’m afraid. But I wanted to spend some time reflecting on why it’s become one of the habits that I’m most excited about lately.

There are three interconnected things that together have made me really happy with Zettelkasten and interested in doing more with it.

The first thing is the Zettelkasten itself that is generated as a result of the habit, the network of usable bits of knowledge that will be available to me for the rest of my life (or for however long I have access to the Obsidian app, at least). It’s different from taking notes for a single time-limited project that will disappear once it’s finished (like an essay or a thesis), because such projects can offer only short-term incentive and short-term benefits.

It’s also not like reading for pleasure or for interest and hoping (futilely) that later on I’ll basically remember what I read, or at least remember where I read it so that I can go back and refresh my memory. Doing that isn’t completely pointless, but sometimes it feels like trying to fill up a bottomless hole.

Working on Zettelkasten, by contrast, feels more like attempting a giant paint-by-numbers picture. It’s still a daunting task, but you can focus on one corner of the picture for a while and fill it out and it’ll look pretty good, and once it’s done you can go back and enjoy that section whenever you want. And if you get inspired to wander around and fill in other random bits of the picture it might not look so impressive in the moment, but that’s still getting you closer to filling in the picture as a whole, and you can always go back later and work on the stuff around those bits when you want.

The second thing I like about Zettelkasten is that it gives me more reason to find and to read good research. Having the confidence that what I learn in my reading will still be there whenever I need it later on, makes it less difficult to find the motivation to search for the sorts of things that belong in my Zettelkasten. They’re the things I’d want to be reading anyways, but before now I would have found it impossible to make the time to find them and read carefully through them (and the process of digesting them into the Zettelkasten certainly does force me to read them quite a bit more carefully than I otherwise would, which is another benefit).

And then the third thing, the least of the three but still an important one, is how Zettelkasten gives flexibility for being able to move the individual bits of knowledge around and make connections between them. Everything else I’ve said so far would be just as true if I was only reading articles and writing down what I learn in a notebook, but while in some ways that would be a lot easier, it wouldn’t be as satisfying or as useful. Being able to move bits around as needed and to draw connections at will, means that when I come back to all this work a year later or five years later it will be more convenient and workable, and less of a chore to refamiliarize myself with my notes and find my way around them.

If you’ve never heard of Zettelkasten, I encourage you to check it out. If you have heard of it but weren’t sure whether it’s really worth the effort to get it up and running, I encourage you to give it a shot.

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