Tinderbox Meetup April 23, 2023 Video: On ZettelKasten with Sascha Fast from Zettelkasten.de

Tinderbox Meetup April 23, 2023 Video: On ZettelKasten with Sascha Fast from Zettelkasten.de

Level Intermediate
Published Date 4/23/23
Revision 1
Type Meetup
Tags Note-Taking, Sascha Fast, T, The Archive, Tinderbox, Zettelkasten
Video Length 01:33:33
Video URL Tinderbox Meetup April 23, 2023 Video: On ZettelKasten with Sascha Fast from Zettelkasten.de - YouTube
TBX Version 9.5
Instructor Michael Becker
Chat chat.txt (16.4 KB)

In this Tinderbox Meetup, we had a special guest, Sascha Fast from Zettelkasten.de. Put simple, the session was fantastic. Sascha and the community explored the concept of Zettelkaten (a note-taking and knowledge management method developed by Niklas Luhmann. The discussion processed numerous insights and resources. For a detailed list of notes from the call and to join the community discussion, visit:


Zettelkasten Overview

A Zettlelkasten is a method/hypertext tool; it is an interactive thought environment for creating and managing notes (personally curated knowledge).

Zettlelkasten is a tool, a process, for:

  • Analysis
  • Stimulating creativity

The tools that use for the method include feature like

  • spaces to focus
  • a canvas (a workbench)
  • ability to link and curate notes and thinking
  • one place to craft (they are both the method and the tools)

Paraphrased Comments from Sascha

  • A Zettelkasten is a training tool for your brain, mostly text output.
  • Is a method that builds over time, “you can exploit several mechanisms over your lifetime,” “What you are writing now could be highly useful 10 years from now (the topic of serendipity)”
  • The methods will be highly personalized by what you bring to the table (e.g., the experience of a historian, musician, engineer, etc.)
  • The method is self-scaling, e.g., easily go from article to book.
  • “I use it purely for the output. I use it to enhance my thinking"
  • If I were to lose my Zettelkasten, that would not be that bad, as the “training already happened in my brain
  • People fail when their notes are not built to last, a note is a curated thought not just words jotted down.
  • Note-takers fail when they assume the context of the note will be available to you in the future. If you don’t capture context, you lose the feeling of clarity to aid your future self. The key is to put the context explicitly in a note to relevance, e.g., write down why this is relevant to a certain life of thinking.
  • Backlinks are created by the system and not contextualized by you, so their not very useful
  • Having everything in one TBX file is more Zettelkasten like, I feel I that awesome self-scaling property
  • An important utility in a knowledge management system is the ability to focus, ignore plenty of information
  • “a Zettlekasten is just a bunch of notes linked together; the magic of Zettelkasten is when you bring in what you can (your uniqueness on how you bring in the method)"
  • Success depends on what you bring to the problem
    • Can you distinguish between premise and conclusions?
    • Can you distinguish between an argument and justification?
    • Can you define an argument?
    • What is the evidence
    • What is the difference between theoretical reasoning and evinced-based reasoning?
  • Having a distraction-free environment is critical for success
  • Taking quick notes is a way to bridge the gap to processed notes; you can do the value-added stuff later; write down as much as you can in a good way when you can.
  • Zettlekasten is a tool to create better actions and text.

Three Primary Elements of Zettelkasten

  • Creating notes (unprocessed and processed notes)
  • Linking notes
  • Search the archive

Value-Added Properties of a Good Note

For a note to be considered “good,” i.e., for it to have value, it must have the following properties:

  1. Relevance, maintains context
  2. Truth, reliability (argues, evidence, rhetoric; it is value vying)
  3. Usefulness, ties to relevance, helps to further project, simplify a theory or model
  4. Beauty, seen as elegance in the movement, it is the intuitive beauty of efficiency and movement (e.g., big cats: hidden qualities, symmetry, charisma, health, power)
  5. Simplicity, information can be condensed without losing meaning, can transfer efficiently

“Bad note” lack these value-added properties.

Chain of value creation

From begging to end you need an unbroken chain to create something valuable. The end result is a change of process. Step 1, capture a note, step 2 process it (link it and refine it). The end result of value creation: books, articles, better management styles etc.

Concepts and Terms

  • Thinking canvass
  • Chain of value creation
  • Context, you want to maintain context with all your notes
  • Creative Engine
  • Zettelkasten
  • Note-taking
  • Thinking

On Luhmann

There as an interesting dialog on how Luhmann seemed to leave the process behind as he neared the end of his life.

Questions people raised

The following is a paraphrased list of several questions raised.

  • Is Zettlelkasten about collection or output
  • How do you distinguish between the initial note and a processed note? When does it happen?
  • How do you teach people to create good notes
  • How do you create a track of notes from five years ago?
  • Do I make one file (TBX) or multiple file
  • How to create nesting of notes
  • Why don’t we simply write rather than take notes?
  • is Zettelkasten a process or a tool?
  • Is the toolbox the tool and or the tool embedded in the process
  • In a complex concept that has a high level of abstraction, how do you organize your thinking?
  • Is Zettlekasten just about text?
  • What other tools do you use?


Please comment

Please help with the development of future sessions by answering the three questions below.

  • What were your top 2~3 key takeaways from this lesson?
  • What do you want to learn next? Learn more about?
  • What exercises would help reinforce your learning?

Dear Tinderboxers,
I’d like to add some universals of note-taking, which are at the basis of all endeavors that include using any external representation of thoughts and ideas. I mention them as a highlight. The reason for that is that these are where the domains are interacting with each other and can inform each other. In this case, these two domains are:

  1. Tinderbox as a tool with a specific set of incentives to assist your knowledge work.
  2. The Zettelkasten Method as a system of techniques and methods geared towards knowledge production.

The leading question was: What can you bring in from the Zettelkasten Method to enhance your personal application of Tinderbox?

It is not: How can you create a Zettelkasten using Tinderbox?

The difference between those two questions is important because both question have hidden premises.

Example: If you try to use Tinderbox to create a Zettelkasten you might feel incentivized to just have one Tinderbox file since the Zettelkasten asks for a single container for all notes. The first question, on the other side, is more open.

A question is a line of thinking, similar to a line in chess. At least, this is how I try to tinker with questions as the beginning of my thinking.

Given the premise that the leading question was indeed “What can you bring in from the Zettelkasten Method to enhance your personal application of Tinderbox?”, these are some useful aspects of the Zettelkasten Method that you can bring in to enhance your application of Tinderbox:

  • What do you want to build for your future self? The ability to store a note quickly, for example, is for yourself right now. Possessing a valuable note is what your future self will be grateful for. Since the Zettelkasten aims to be a lifelong partner, it is a future-oriented tool. This orientation is methodologically correct, since you are not keeping notes for yourself, but for your future self. Your actions should be therefore not aimed to making it easy now but valuable, but first and foremost to create value in the future.
  • What is the nature of a good note? One of the core ideas of the Zettelkasten Method (in my personal opinion) is this question. There are two parts: External like title, tags etc. and internal, which is the actual content. I put a heavy emphasis on this issue because of experience. All too often, I felt betrayed by my past self creating a bad note. A more meta-perspective of the difference between bad and good notes is: A bad note is a task for your future self (therefore increases your future pressure). A good note is an accomplished task which your future self then can build on.
  • What are the tools you want to create within your system? In my opinion, there is too much emphasis on retrieval in the domain of personal knowledge management. Yes, sometimes you just need to retrieve a piece of information from your system. But the bigger and more complex your system is the less you know what you retrieve. Imagine you are searching for a new pair of shoes because your old ones are giving up. You cannot retrieve information. You also shouldn’t just do a search for shoes and try to filter through a big list of all shoes. Likewise, you also don’t want to filter through a list of specific shoes (e.g., hiking shoes). The best way is to find a page that discusses what makes a good hiking shoe and then offers you a limited amount of options. So, you don’t want to have any kind of big list but an entry point that gives you a limited amount of options guided by condensed information. When I, for example, want to think about the heroe’s journey, I don’t want to just retrieve my notes about the hero’s journey. I want to have an entry point that informs me at the same time on what the most important lines of thinking are. The Zettelkasten shouldn’t just offer a set of notes but offer a space of notes (mathematically speaking). Why? Because it is way more valuable and scales to large sets of notes. That is the reason I ask myself during processing notes into my Zettelkasten: What structures can I build that serve me as a tool for my future self. I don’t just store notes but create entry points to topics, thinking canvases, spines for later lines of thinking.
  • What am I doing that is scaling to an infinite amount of notes? This is a very essential question since the amount of notes will be very big is you stick to one system for the rest of your life. Using tags to create connections, for example, doesn’t scale. The more you use a specific tag, the more you dilute the already existing connection because of the increased uncertainty. Connections through tags are basically pointers from a specific note to a growing tag cloud. Direct links are not changing. However, if you make it a habit to leave the links unexplained, you burden your future self with the explanation. You will forget why you connected these notes, and your future self will have to always put in the additional work of (re-)understanding the connection when it follows a link. Therefore: To manage the uncertainty, you should create direct links with a diligent explanation/description of the connection of the ideas/thoughts on the notes.

Live long and prosper


I think this is a crucial point, and one that is not often stated so well.

One key point is that links/references are really important, and that it’s essential to provide a sufficient number of good links. If you do, when in the future you encounter this note again, it will give you places to go even if the note itself was not what you wanted.

In practice, that means 2-7 links per note — links that are neither obvious nor purely bibliographic, but also links that, in the future, you will not find arbitrary or enigmatic.


I LOVE this! Thanks.This is exactly what I’ve been trying to implement with the 5Cs of Learning and Knowledge Management ideas, i.e. bring the method to the tool and the tool to the method. As you said last week, they go hand in hand. My other takeaway from last week is this. Good note-taking requires:

  • Method
  • Tool
  • You (what you bring to the table-experience: open or closed mind, flexibleness)

Then, when at all possible, a community.

Let’s not forget that links need not only to be there for visual or associative significance. In Tinderbox, the links are a mechanism for building context; they can be used to permanently or temporarily pass and transform values up and down the chain of linked notes. Taking advantage of this requires a high degree of abstract thinking, but once you get it, the whole process blooms.

@Sascha I think this is one of the most valuable posts I have read on the subject of “knowledge management” because it cuts away so much of the jungle that has grown up around it. In particular, I think the clear-eyed statement of what the real goals are – or probably should be – has led me to stop and think about what I was doing in the past, and what I might do in the future.

In the past, I think I have been too restless and too constantly shifting in my interests for it to be worthwhile thinking much about what my future me might want from any notes I created. That might be changing now, but unfortunately I have now reached an age at which there is not too much future left!

Thanks for the post.


Paging @dominiquerenauld…your Tinderbox files are always so gorgeous. Would you be able to elaborate on the structure that you previewed during this meetup? I’m specifically intrigued by what the intent behind the Atelier, Bureau and Jardin sections of your Map are.

Thank you in advance.


That Robin Sloan article is interesting. After years of viewing other people’s notes that were written with various software; different syntax, metadata formats, etc. it’s so strange…but cathartic to see this guy have a bunch of notes that are just plain text…no # Headers…no #tags. No [[WikiLinks]]. Very inspiring. So quaint.

Thank you for your kindness. I try to use MapView as a spatial metaphor: what are the places I’d like to be to do what I have to do (read, write, accomplish tasks…). The garden (jardin) is so called by reference to its cultural symbolicity. I gather in that place every “fleeting notes”, notes “on-the-fly” that come to my mind and that I could “garden”. L’atelier (workshop) is a place where I need to process some urgent or some hard tasks. I write down on the desk (bureau) every piece of writing I could put in my own desk table. It is tempting to use MapView since, for me, it is very close to the feeling I experience while using paper. For instance, when I open a note to rewrite it above my planner, I really feel as if it was paper.

But, sometimes, the more I endeavour to set up a fine file, the more I think I do not need to work this way. If we weren’t at a digital era, in the necessity of keeping a track of every interesting weblink, I think I’d keep my own old note-taking style with paper cards. I think too that the last Tinderbox meetup convinced me — if I was not already — to use the Outline view without too much visual complexity, with no multiple containers, but by filing my notes by attributes which is, upon reflection, quite similar to use alphabetic index cards. Regarding this, the Attribute Browser and the Tinderbox export possibilities are very exceptional tools.


Thank you for this. It’s been a joy browsing your posts here over the years and watching your workflow evolve.

I do recall you mentioning the Outline view in the meetup video. I understand that you’ve been a proponent of the Attribute Browser for a while as well. These two features combined could do a swell job at simplifying work in a TBX document. On the other hand, I can imagine the context-driven map view being useful to spark enthusiasm when needed.

Thanks again and I look forward to what you have to share with us next.


This is actually an overlooked aspect: Making things beautiful.

Seeing Tinderbox as an outsider, I think that might one of the hidden gems of using this tool: You can merge function and beauty since Tinderbox is highly versatile.

I am reminded of Jurassic Park I:

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My current opinion is that we expect too much beauty and polish from things link note taking tools — things that in their nature are private, ephemeral, and backstage.

And yet: it never hurts to have things look good, and it can be positively helpful to change their appearance from time to time, if only for the Hawthorne Effect.

I agree. In fact, when it is “too beautify,” it is often difficult to find fault and provide feedback, both internally and externally, as so much is invested.

With this in mind, in marketing, we have conscious stages of design:

  • Concept, this is when you take tons of notes, craft ideas, talk to people, and get feedback (the first 4Cs). Once you start getting a feeling that your “baby,” or a part of it, is ready to see the light of day, you move to the next step.
  • Low Fidelity, in this step, you create a low-fidelity design (map, outline, table, graph, UI, UX, user flow…); it is absolutely critical that this step not be too polished. It consists of hand drawings, black and white sketches, and rough outlines. It is used to get a sense of where you’re headed. You show people and get their feedback. This way to, you can create, fail fast, and re-create. This step may go through a handful of cycles. In a LoFi environment, people (including you) are more prone to give honest feedback because it “feels” like that has not been too much investment and that changes can be made without causing too much havoc or chaos. In other words, if it is too pretty, people don’t give feedback. You are searching for understanding.
  • Hi Fidelity, in the least phase, you go add colors and images, tighten up the experience, look and feel, make it interactive, and build out the flow. People will give you feedback, but often it is on the flow and the surface elements, not the design. They will be more hesitant to provide criticism as they see that you’ve put a lot of work into it. You’ll be less inclined to hear it as well since you have put a lot of work into it.

What does all this spell “incremental formalization?” Premature formalization can be a killer of any effort; we need to let things take their natural course to evolve.

The “puppy mill” software and consumer devices have lulled us into thinking everything needs to be polished; it does not. The Japanese really understand this. Nothing is perfect; everything has flaws. Often that is where the beauty is to be found.

My above statements are based on the connection of elegance and beauty. They have a connection to working memory pressure: Everything what we currently see (or are in our hypothetical view)* tries to invade our working memory. So, my approach is to unclutter what I see on my screen as much as possible. This reliefs pressure on the working memory and frees up cognitive capacities. That is one reason why I write in a distraction free editor.

To remove the cognitive performance reducing effect of a smartphone, you need to put it in a different room.[1] The same is for your browser, I think. It is not enough to just have it in the background. It needs to be closed or better: The internet connection to be shut down. So, “view” means more the horizon of your perception or something like that.

So, the main connection is that beauty is connected to elegance. Elegance is connected to minimalism. Minimalism frees cognitive capacity.

  1. Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos (2017): Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, 2017, Vol. 2, S. 140-154. ↩︎

I’d query such a zero-sum assessment. One person’s minimalism is another person’s sensory deprivation, and the same in reverse. I think this is why over-veneration of process causes so much confusion and distress when success is not forthcoming. It’s because we’re often following somebody else’s notions of what makes sense which actually don’t work for us but assume the failure to get results is failure to follow process tightly enough rather than allow ourselves space to interpret the meaning of the process in a way that makes sense for use.

Linked to this is an interesting observation, over years of looking at and discussing Tinderbox maps with other users, is that—counter-intuitively—elegance and tidiness do not generate the most insightful and informative maps. Fiddling with a map to make it pretty is nice, if it gives us pleasure, but we do well to remember the effort likely doesn’t give anything beyond visual pleasure. IOW ones time might be better spent on actions that increase understanding, unless a pretty picture is the intended aim point, in which case fine (qv point about different perceptions and tolerance/pain of minimalism).

A.A. Milne’s poem “The Dormouse and the Doctor” neatly sums up the perils of a one-size-fits-all approach. In this context, minimalism is a bed of chrysanthemums in which the dormouse is forced to sleep. :slight_smile:

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Speaking as someone with some training in psychology, I wonder if there is a cultural component in this assumption regarding minimalism and cognitive capacity. I just looked at a well-known article on culture and cognition, and I quote from the abstract here:

It seems increasingly clear that human thought develops in a cultural context, and that cultural processes markedly affect the functioning of minds. The evidence reviewed in this chapter highlights the complementarity of psychology and anthropology and questions the assumption of the independence of cultural and cognitive processes.

In other words, whether minimalism helps might depend not only on your individual psychological makeup, but also on the culture in which you have grown up.

You can find the pdf of the article here: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/91934/culture_and_cognition.pdf?sequence=1

Another article states this in the abstract:

In the past decade, cultural differences in perceptual judgment and memory have been observed: Westerners attend more to focal objects, whereas East Asians attend more to contextual information. However, the underlying mechanisms for the apparent differences in cognitive processing styles have not been known. In the present study, we examined the possibility that the cultural differences arise from culturally different viewing patterns when confronted with a naturalistic scene. We measured the eye movements of American and Chinese participants while they viewed photographs with a focal object on a complex background. In fact, the Americans fixated more on focal objects than did the Chinese, and the Americans tended to look at the focal object more quickly. In addition, the Chinese made more saccades to the background than did the Americans. Thus, it appears that differences in judgment and memory may have their origins in differences in what is actually attended as people view a scene.

Source: Cultural variation in eye movements during scene perception - PubMed

Make of that what you will!! :slight_smile:

PS: I haven’t addressed the possible moral associations that might go with being brought up in a country where the Protestant ethic might have some influence :wink:


And just to take up the issue of religion again, here is the abstract from another article:

Despite the abundance of evidence that human perception is penetrated by beliefs and expectations, scientific research so far has entirely neglected the possible impact of religious background on attention. Here we show that Dutch Calvinists and atheists, brought up in the same country and culture and controlled for race, intelligence, sex, and age, differ with respect to the way they attend to and process the global and local features of complex visual stimuli: Calvinists attend less to global aspects of perceived events, which fits with the idea that people’s attentional processing style reflects possible biases rewarded by their religious belief system.

Source: Losing the big picture: how religion may control visual attention - PubMed

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