Towards my Zettelkasten-system

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The way we create knowledge is through reading (seek), thinking (sense), and writing (share). In my PKM journey, I had so far concentrated a lot on reading, quite a bit on re-reading (& thinking), but definitely too little on writing. Here’s why and how that is about to change.

A while ago, I’ve written a bit about my PKM journey and my renewed interest in #PKM since I followed Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Management Course in 2020. Part of that journey has also been the objective of reading more – and longer works (part of the “seek“ in “seek > sense > share”): longform articles, books, or scientific articles; in short, moving away from the too short morsels I came across in my Twitter (& LinkedIn) diet.

Reading more, knowing less#

During that process, I changed from using Pocket for reading & highlighting articles on the web to hypothes.is as an open annotation system, and from just a bunch of PDFs somewhere on my Computer to using Zotero as a sort of inventory manager (The beta has a slew of new features, including a new PDF reader which keeps annotations outside the PDF, making them accessible programmatically), and to using Readwise to somehow keep track of all those highlights and (so I hoped), retain better what I read through repetition. I also built some custom scripts to bring my hypothesis annotations into Zotero as notes (to have a backup), and I wrote a custom script to sync PDF annotations from Zotero into Readwise automatically1.

This worked quite well it seemed: as can be seen from my Readwise statistics, I read more and highlighted more.

My Readwise statistics

I also set up an export of my Readwise highlights (and the few notes I added) to Roam and, later, Obsidian. But beyond the pure numbers, I found myself (still) struggling to remember a lot, if not most, of what I’d read. Although it was now easier to come back to the highlights, and while I was encouraged by others’ re-discovery of reading, something felt amiss. There was too much information, but too little knowledge.

Return to the basics#

It was probably when going through Tiago Forte’sThe Throughput of Learning” for the n-th time when I remembered Jens-Christian Fischers mention of the Zettelkasten:

While digging deeper into these (rediscovered) ideas of the Zettelkasten, the idea of the permanent note, and obviously many references to How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens, I came across two things that unlocked two “Aha”-moments:

  • an additional perspective on the “seek > sense > share” and the value of writing while re-reading; and
  • the idea of the Reference/Literature note;

The way we create knowledge is through reading (seek), thinking (sense), and writing (share).#

The first2 “Aha” occurred when I read Sascha Fasts’s article on The Barbell Method of Reading. In it, he describes a very practical and – if you think about it – very obvious approach to reading and note-taking:

Reading is the most efficient way to create an influx of information that can transform into knowledge. […] True reading is not a passive process in which you just create an influx of information. It consists of deep processing, thinking and writing on what you have read and interconnecting it with [what] you already know. […] Only the three parts combined, reading, thinking, and writing, produce a true change in your brain and make you a better thinker. To write about what you read is important even if you don’t aim to write books on something. Still, you have to write if you want to think properly. Still, you have to write to process information properly.3

A key element here is the difference between #information and #knowledge. Reading and highlighting creates the influx of #information. Knowledge is only created once this information is processed and anchored in our #PKM.

In other words: the way we create knowledge is through reading (seek), thinking (sense), and writing (share).

With my approach, I was creating a lot of information (highlights), and also re-reading a lot (by gong through the highlights with Readwise’s spaced repetition). But I only occasionally created real knowledge (writing about what I read). This is in principle OK: not every highlight deserves a note. Yet, the way I moved information around lead to a system where the knowledge (my notes and thoughts in relation to the highlights) became entirely buried in the sea of information I’d created.

The concept of the Reference/Literature note (and how many of the tools get it all wrong)#

The second insight and “Aha” moment was when I came across a number of articles that talked about using Zettelkasten with Roam or Obsidian (or other) tools, and the many ways we can get our highlights into these.

In the Zettelkasten method, a Reference and/or Literature note captures your thoughts about a piece of literature you’re reading. In its most basic form, it is just about highlighting and adding some notes and maybe adding some tags as well4, and obviously a reference to the original source. You could create separate notes for every highlight/note combination, but you could also create one big literature note per book/article with all the highlights (and note) in one place.

With my setup (annotations synced to Readwise and then moved to Roam or Obsidian), a literature note would be based on a highlight (e.g., in Zotero or hypothes.is), and an additional note I wrote.

It could also be a note I add to a highlight in Readwise while reviewing, and it can obviously contain tags as well. But it would never just be a note with a highlight.

The problem was: all these (practical) tools5 for getting highlights and notes into a Zettelkasten naturally take the highlight as the “atomic” piece you would want to capture. Again, an obvious revelation in hindsight, but something that actively impedes you from realizing the true value of knowledge work.

Putting it together, for now …#

Some people are impressed if someone reads three or four books a week. They think “Wow, he surely knows a lot.” I don’t share this opinion. To me, it is just a testimony of their shallowness in processing. This is fine if you don’t care. If you read for fun, go ahead and do it. But don’t try to impress anyone with things you don’t have invested energy into. – Sascha Fast, The Barbell Method of Reading

Obviously, one can not simply say that “reading—thinking—writing” equals “seeking—sensing—sharing.” Both the activities and the framework are much richer than that. Yet, looking at the two together helped me uncover the deep flaws I’d built up in my #PKM habits.

  • While I regularly reviewed my highlights, I had concentrated on re-reading a lot (review 10 or even 15 highlights per day as a means of memorization) instead of re-reading less but with the intent of creating knowledge by systematically adding my thoughts (or discarding useless highlights);
  • I was lured by the easiness of moving my highlights from Readwise to other tools for further processing and had drowned the scarce knowledge I had created in a vast sea of (mostly useless, because unprocessed) information.

While I’m still far from having changed my habits as much as I should have, there are a few changes I have implemented already:

  1. I reduced the number of items I review per day in Readwise to four. This allows me to concentrate on either adding/expanding the highlights systematically with a note or discarding the highlight quickly if it doesn’t “ring a bell”.
  2. To make my emerging Zettelkasten more useful while I build up a habit of going from a collection of “Literature notes” to “Permanent notes”, I added a “Zettelkasten” mode to one of the Readwise ↔ Obsidian plugins which will only mirror Readwise highlights that have a note associated to them, decluttering my Zettelkasten Archive6 and allowing to more easily discover connections between my reading.

Interestingly, since implementing these changes, I have already found that I

  • More often create links to existing concepts and ideas in the notes of Readwise highlights I review;
  • even start adding more notes while reading altogether;
  • more systematically go back to articles and even books to re-read and annotate the highlights I’m puzzled about while reviewing in Readwise; and
  • was encouraged to write down this journey as one way to strengthen the habits and the knowledge found while implementing these changes.

  1. I might publish these some day, right now, they’re quite rough, built on existing scripts from others, and not really production-ready. ↩︎

  2. Actually, the second, but it’s the more important one ↩︎

  3. The Barbell Method of Reading ↩︎

  4. If you’re interested, the Zettelkasten community has extensive discussions about the practical aspects. ↩︎

  5. Readwise’s export functionality is the most prominent here, but even the community built Obsidian plugins (as one example) just blindly assume that one would want to have all highlights in a Zettelkasten/Obsidian/Roam/Notion database, irrespective of whether they have a note associated or not. ↩︎

  6. The great thing (in my view) about the Readwise Mirror plugin is the fact that one can set it up in a way where it’s possible to refetch all the Literature notes into a subfolder while keeping any other notes outside this. ↩︎

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