To watch the video on YouTube, click here.
In the video I released before this one—you should be able to see a link to it up here—I explained why it’s a good idea to put addresses on your Zettelkasten cards and showed what those addresses look like in the Zettelkastens of five different people.
In this video, I’m going to show you how to decide where to put a new card and what address to put on it when that card amounts to a continuation of a card that already exists in your old-school Zettelkasten.
It’s going to be amazing—times one hundred.
I’ve heard from some people who have wanted to get started with an old-school Zettelkasten that the reason they have yet to do so is that they are worried about putting the wrong addresses on their cards and think that if they slip up early on, then their Zettelkasten will be become total crap, which I guess would make it a coprokasten.
Here’s what one person wrote to me about the worry he had with starting a Zettelkasten:
I guess part of the fear of getting started is I’ll never create the right categories and everything’ll get loosy goosy and I’d perpetually be in a state of starting over.
Worrying about messing up one’s Zettelkasten early on in the process of building it is something Scott Scheper talks about in his recently released 63-page guide called “Getting Started with an Antinet Zettelkasten.”
You can find a link to that and other resources mentioned in this video on the webpage that is linked to below. Scheper writes,
you might think that how you set up your Antinet is critically important to its success. You might have the feeling that if you make a single mistake in the beginning, the whole system is doomed forever. Unfortunately, this is the case... Just kidding.
Now, as Scheper goes on to explain in his guide, it DOES matter how you set up your Zettelkasten when you’re first getting started.
It also matters what addresses you put on the cards in your Zettelkasten. Concern about putting the wrong addresses on cards is what prevents a lot of people from building a Zettelkasten.
Again, this is a point that Scheper makes in his recently released guide. Referring to the alphanumeric addresses that are to be placed on each Zettelkasten card, he writes,
This, by far, is the top roadblock. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: Do not get hung up on numbering. You’ll make mistakes. That’s fine.
Is it really, though? It is, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some rules to follow, as Scheper would fully acknowledge.
In my own case, the roadblock Scheper speaks of—a roadblock that kept me from starting a Zettelkasten for quite some time—is something I was able to overcome only after reading a passage in an article written by Johannes Schmidt.
Here’s that passage:
Luhmann opted for organizing [cards] based on the principle that they must have only some relation to the previous [cards].
This passage provides us with the first rule to follow when it comes to figuring out where to place new cards in relation to cards that already exist in our Zettelkasten.
That rule is this: place a new card next to an already-existing card that it has some relation to. In some cases, this relation will be one of similarity.
It seems that Scheper thinks this is the most important kind of relation to focus on since he says, “Place each card closest to its most similar neighbor. That is the golden rule.”
However, there are other kinds of relations that two cards could have to each other that could justify placing them close to each other.
For instance, an idea on one card might be similar to another in that they are about the same issue, but one of those cards could state one position on an issue and the card right next to it could state an opposing position on that issue. Or it might be that an idea on one card explains or is explained by an idea on another card. Or perhaps what’s on one card represents the cause of, or is itself caused by, what’s on another card.
Since similarity is just one kind of relation we might have in mind when placing cards next to each other, I think we will be on surer ground if we have our golden rule be the one I just presented: place a new card next to an already-existing card that it has some relation to.
Now you might be wondering, “Place it next to any card it has just some relation to?” No and kind of yes.
I say “no” for this reason: if a new card and an already-existing card have some very remote relation to each other, whereas that same new card and another already-existing card have a closer relation to each other, then you should put the new card next to the one it has a closer relation to.
However—and this is why I said not just “no” but also “kind of yes”—your aim should not be to find the supposedly one and only perfect place to put each new card.
To the extent that you make this your aim, you’ll be trying to do with your Zettelkasten something that the Zettelkasten method is not really about. As I said it in an earlier video, the Zettelkasten method is about developing ideas, not building a system where every idea has one and only one place it can reside.
It can be easy to forget this if you start your Zettelkasten the way I recommended in an earlier video, namely, by coming up with subject areas that your notes will be about and building out branches from those areas one or two levels deep.
Scheper makes more or less the same recommendation, advising beginners to use the outline of academic disciplines Wikipedia page as they come up with areas to focus on, and he recognizes that starting out this way can lead people astray. He writes,
…one of the downsides of using academic disciplines as a classification system [is that it] implies that there's some perfect and correct place for a card to be placed.
Despite this downside, there isn’t anything wrong with getting started with a Zettelkasten the way Scheper recommends. You just need to keep in mind that just because it is often the case that there will not be one and only one perfect place to put a new card in your Zettelkasten doesn’t mean that some places will not be better than others.
But don’t mistakenly think that you shouldn’t add a new card to your system because you’re worried you might put it in the supposedly wrong place. Put differently, don’t worry that “everything’ll get loosy goosy” if you don’t come up with some elaborate and supposedly perfect way of organizing your Zettelkasten.
Just as we need what the British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott called a “good-enough mother” or caretaker, not a supposedly perfect one, so you should be content with having found a good-enough place to put a new card.
And a good-enough place for a new card is simply one where you can find an already-existing card that the new card has a strong- or good-enough relation to.
Don’t worry about things getting a bit messy in your Zettelkasten. After all, Luhmann spoke of his own Zettelkasten as a “combination of order and disorder.” Yours will be the same.
Let’s modify Rule #1 before moving on, replacing the word “some” with the words “a good-enough.” That is the rule to follow.
With Rule #1 and the various considerations related to it that we have just run through, we know what to do when we’re looking to place new cards in relation to cards that already exist in our Zettelkastens. But what addresses should we put on new cards that relate to already-existing cards?
The answer to that question is Rule #2 for this video. If you create a new card (we’ll call it Card #2) that “continues”—which is to say “has some relation to”—an already-existing card (we’ll call that one Card #1), then look at Card #1 and if it ends with a NUMBER, then the continuation card (Card #2) should end with a LETTER, and if Card #1 instead ends with a LETTER, then the continuation card should end with a NUMBER.
Now that we have the instructions to follow in all cases, let’s look at some particular cases.
The sample cards that we’ll be looking at in this video can be seen in a mind-map representation of the Zettelkasten that I’ve been maintaining in Miro for a philosophy course called The Examined Life that I am teaching this semester, a course in which I am teaching students the Zettelkasten method. You can find a link to that and other resources on the page of my website that I have linked to beneath this video.
Here are the cards we’re going to look at.
Let me start by explaining what the first three numbers on these cards mean. I’m going to do this by having us look not at this part of the mind map as it exists in Miro but instead in an app for the Mac called MindNode, since that will make it easier to see in a single screenshot the various branches that make up the Examined Life Zettelkasten.
As you can see here, the main parent node is O.Z., which stands for old-school Zettelkasten. The first—and in this course I’m teaching, the only—branch stemming from the parent node is the name of the course. As you can see, the first number in the cards over here—the number 1— represents “The Examined Life.” The second number represents “happiness.” And the third number represents “money and happiness.”
In the course I’m teaching, I have my students create what I call “folder cards” for the second and third of each of these first three numbers and their corresponding subjects. [UPDATE (October 23, 2022): I no longer recommend that people create "folder cards." While I think it's still a good idea to decide on several subject areas before getting your Zettelkasten started, creating folder cards can result in (a) unnecessarily long card addresses and (b) using your Zettelkasten for something the Zettelkasten method isn't really about.]
I put the titles of those folder cards in pink so as to distinguish them from what I call “idea cards,” the titles of which are written in blue. The other thing that distinguishes idea cards from folder cards is that idea cards have a hyphen in them—at least they do in the sort of addresses I put on my cards, as I pointed out in the video before this one.
Let’s go back now to the three cards we were looking at before.
The first of those cards—here on the left—is an idea card, which is signified by the hyphen seen towards the end of that card’s address. The idea on this card is that “Money CAN make you happy if you spend it the right way.” This is an idea expressed on p. 173 of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book The Myths of Happiness.
I believe that pretty much anyone who were to see what’s written on this card would raise at least the following question: what is the supposedly “right way” to spend money? You can think of the next two cards we’ll be looking at as responses to that question.
The first one, on the top right, says, “give money to others to be happy.” Actually, that statement’s ambiguous—it could be interpreted in two different ways—so probably it would have been better to give it a title like “if you want to be happy, give money to others.”
As you can see, the idea written on this card amounts to a response to the question about what is the “right way”—or I guess I should say “one of the right ways”—to spend money if you want to be happy. According to Lyubomirsky’s research, one way to spend money if you want to be happy is to spend it on other people.
The third card here is also about a right way of spending money: spend it in ways that satisfy your basic psychological needs.
Okay, having gotten clear on how these two cards on the right relate to the one on the left, we need to consider why it makes sense for the card on top to end with 1a and the card beneath it with 1b.
The 1a at the end of the card on top signifies that the idea on the card is in some sense a continuation of the idea that’s on the card that ends simply with the number 1.
The 1b at the end of the card on the bottom also signifies that the idea on the card is in some sense a continuation of that idea that’s on the card that ends simply with the number 1.
If the card on the bottom were instead a continuation of the one on top, then the card on the bottom would end with 1a1, not 1b.
Let me make that point slightly differently: let’s say you have these two cards in your Zettelkasten and you’ve just created a new, related card. If that new card is more so a continuation of this card than it is a continuation of this one, then it would go here and have an address that ends with “1b.”
If the new card instead is more of a continuation of this card than the other one, then it would go here and have an address that ends with “1a1.”
For some, the point I’m making might be easier to grasp if we look at these three cards not as they are arranged on a mind map but instead in an outline.
Here inside the yellow box you can see the three cards. Both of the cards nested underneath the one titled “money can buy happiness” are continuations of that card. If the bottom-most card see in this yellow box were a continuation of the card right above it rather than a continuation of the “money can buy happiness” one, then that card would instead be tucked underneath the second card the way it is here.
I think that if you look at these three cards, you will agree that it makes more sense to see the one that ends with 1b as a continuation of the one that ends with just the number 1 rather than being a continuation of the one that ends with 1a.
However, it wouldn’t be the end of the world—or rather the end of your Zettelkasten—if this card that ends with 1b were instead to end with 1a1—again, as you see it here. That’s because in either position, this card has some relation—and in each case an adequate or good-enough relation—to either of these two cards.
I hope that with what I have gone over in this video you now feel like you have a better idea about how to add good-enough addresses to your cards and thus to insert them in good-enough places in your Zettelkasten.
If the three cards that I used as an example in this video aren't enough, go to the Miro mind map that you can access from the webpage linked to beneath this video and look towards the top of it for what you see on the screen here, which is an explanation of why even after realizing that I had wished I had placed a certain card in a place other than where I initially put it, I decided to leave it where it was because it was basically in a good-enough place.
That’s it for this video. If you found it of some use, consider hitting the “like” button below. You can also hit the “subscribe” button, which will ensure that you see the videos I plan on releasing after this one. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to put those down in the “comments” section.