How to make time for your Zettelkasten
I remember the thrill I felt when I discovered the Zettelkasten method and, above all, how eager I was to start my own Zettelkasten to… solve the chaos of my notes! :^)
Eventually, I discovered that the Zettelkasten method is more than just a way to order notes. It is often advertised as a “knowledge manager”, but I prefer a more straightforward description: it is a tool for thinking1.
The problem is that learning the Zettelkasten method requires you to overcome several obstacles. One of the most common is feeling you have lost control over what is inside your Zettelkasten. Overcoming this obstacle requires you to:
- Improve your techniques. For example, improving your use of structural notes or folgezettel.
- Change your mentality. In this case, accepting that a Zettelkasten is never completely under control and… that it is a good thing!
Overcoming these obstacles allows you to improve your understanding of the Zettelkasten method and develop the full potential of your Zettelkasten.
However, another obstacle that often goes unnoticed but directly hinders your ability to make progress is not investing enough time in your Zettelkasten. Does the following sentence resonate with you?
“I feel that following all the steps of the Zettelkasten method costs a lot of time. How can I make that time for my Zettelkasten?”
In this post, I explain:
- the reflection that helped me make the mindset shift needed to overcome this obstacle
- two techniques to put this change of mindset into practice.
The Zettelkasten method is a tool for thinking
First, let’s get some perspective on what we do when we follow the Zettelkasten method.
The Zettelkasten method consists of a series of formalities. Some examples of its formalities are:
- using timestamp (or folgezettel) to identify the notes
- creating links using wikilinks
- writing titles for the notes.
My question is: What is left in the Zettelkasten method when we remove all its formalities? What is left are the following steps:
- Read interesting things.
- Save the good ideas you find.
- Write down the best ideas in your own words.
- Find connections between what you know and what you have learned.
- Reflect and use your knowledge.
What is left is thinking.
When we follow the Zettelkasten method, what we are doing is following these steps systematically and thoroughly. What we are really doing is thinking systematically and thoroughly.
In other words, a Zettelkasten is a tool for thinking.
You do not need extra time for your Zettelkasten
If you are already investing time in your life to think systematically and thoroughly, using a Zettelkasten does not cost extra time: all you have to do is to use that time—which you are already investing—to think «inside» your Zettelkasten.
(The only extra time a Zettelkasten costs is the time you spend on its formalities. This is why the formalities should only cost you as much time as is strictly necessary).
Therefore, the challenge is not to find time for your Zettelkasten.
The real challenge is to invest time in thinking, whether with or without Zettelkasten.
The Zettelkasten method makes it evident that you don’t spend time thinking
So, why do I feel that using a Zettelkasten costs so much time? When we learn the Zettelkasten method, we are learning two things:
- to follow its formalities
- to think systematically and thoroughly.
If you already think this way, learning to use a Zettelkasten is just a matter of modifying your workflow to incorporate these formalities.
However, usually, you are learning to do both at the same time. This leads to the feeling that you need to spend a lot of time following the Zettelkasten methodology: you are starting to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. For example, maybe you didn’t process your readings in depth before, or perhaps you didn’t look for connections in your knowledge.
The Zettelkasten methodology makes it obvious when you are skipping steps or directly when you are not spending time thinking.
Solution: Use your Zettelkasten for thinking
So, to overcome this obstacle, I recommend the following two techniques.
1. Invest time to think.
What works best for me is to follow David Kadavy’s first-hour rule2: devote the first hour of your work to thinking. In this way, you make sure that—regardless of the problems and urgencies you will have during the day—you spend at least one-hour thinking.
2. Use your Zettelkasten for thinking.
Once you have invested time in thinking, the next step is to use that time to think «inside» your Zettelkasten, whether for work tasks or for your personal life. This way, you will have reason to use your Zettelkasten: it will be a tool you will use in your everyday life to think.
Conclusion: Don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal
Finally, here’s a metaphor to ground the ideas in this post to something much more mundane :^).
“Thank you for recommending that I use a bicycle. I love the idea of using it; the benefits are amazing, but… I feel like it takes a lot of time to use it. How can I make time to use my bicycle?”
“A bicycle has an ultimate goal: to boost your ability to get around. In your day-to-day life, you are already spending time getting around. For example, to get to and from work. So you don’t need to find extra time after work to use your bike: use your bike to get to work!”
I like the bicycle metaphor because it shows the importance of understanding why we do what we do. If you don’t know that a bicycle is a tool to get you around, you will hardly integrate it into your daily life. The same goes for your Zettelkasten, which is a bicycle for the mind.
And you, why do you want to spend time thinking systematically and thoroughly?
In my case, because I feel it is a path to a good life.
You can answer me in the comments or directly to this email. In both cases, I will answer you :-)
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