Drinking the Productivity Kool-Aid

Years have passed since I first encountered the Zettelkasten method, the latest craze in note-taking hipsterdom. I suspect much of its resurgence is driven by the hype around Roam Research, a shiny new platform that will set you back at least $100 a year.

As far as I understand, a Zettelkasten is merely a specific approach to creating a wiki or knowledge base. It's basically a big box of notes (think index cards). Each note contains a discrete, 'atomic' idea. Notes contain links to other notes, including backlinks ("what other notes link to this one?"). Notes aren't sorted in any kind of hierarchy, which reduces the friction of making them and enables easier connections.

Do I really need a Zettelkasten?

All my permanent, archival notes are stored as a bunch of lists in Org files. Searching them to find specific items to reference is a breeze, but although I love the simplicity, the problem lies in periodic reviewing and extracting useful insights. My current reviewing method entails going down a list of entries rather haphazardly; I tend to be put off from revisiting larger lists for this reason. That's fine for notes related to personal interests, but I worry it's holding me back in my work-related pursuits. Plus, linking notes can be tedious in vanilla Org mode. Simply put, I need more structure.

I could use a conventional wiki, but I get the idea that a Zettelkasten may be more useful for generating and developing ideas. Most of all, I'm intrigued by the idea of atomised ideas that I can reuse and shuffle around freely to discover interesting connections.

In that case, why not just use a mind map or concept map? Mind maps impose a tree structure, which I find too restrictive for complex topics. I've also explored concept mapping software in the past, but found them extremely clunky. I prefer the 'box of index cards' model of Zettelkasten.

My aim is to start with adding notes related to my research projects (clinical neurosciences), along with other areas I'm interested in personally.

What I'm not using it for

My Zettelkasten is not a catch-all knowledge base. I intend to be extremely selective about the types of information I add to it. Notes that are trivial (recipes, fiction reviews, hobby stuff), personal (reflections, life stuff), or 'how-tos' will stay in my Org files.

I'm not using it for medical school knowledge. It's not worth the effort, especially since there are many high-quality, up-to-date, and professionally maintained sources of knowledge and synthesised evidence. Related to that, my Zettelkasten is not for memorising facts; Anki is perfect for that.

My Zettelkasten is not for productivity in the usual sense, like to-do lists and scheduling. I don't see the value it provides over literally any other tool, not to mention the startup cost of learning a new system.

Lastly, this is not a capture device for unfiltered thoughts. I record those either directly in my Org files, or on paper or mobile. Notes must undergo some degree of refinement before entering my Zettelkasten.


It seems like there's new Zettelkasten software born every week. I initially planned to stick to an Emacs/Org mode-based implementation, but then reminded myself that I still barely understand Emacs. As impressive as packages like org-roam are, I'm certain I'll drown in the whirlpool of madness that is my Emacs config.

At the same time, I want something that works on plaintext files, and if I can't use Org mode, then Markdown is the next best bet. No need to worry about vendor lock-in or cross-platform availability and all that.

In the end, I chose Obsidian, a months-old Markdown knowledge base with a pretty active community. I can point it to any existing folder of notes on my machine, so I lose nothing if I decide to switch away. The built-in features are very conducive to a Zettelkasten-based system, with automatic backlinks and link updating. It can even generate a graph for a visual representation of my network of notes.

This better not be a case of Working on the Tooling for the Thing Instead of Doing the Damn Thing. If you see more posts about Zettelkasten here, it means I've failed.


Day 17 of #100DaysToOffload

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