Using a Zettelkasten in a Bullet Journal

In my last post I explained the concept of the Zettelkasten. Many of the articles that I linked to in that post suggest using digital tools to implement the Zettelkasten.

Zettelkasten. Image Credit: Kai Schreiber via Wikimedia Commons.
What the bullets in a bullet journal stand for. Image Credit: BulletJournal.com

I have had a history of not trusting digital tools. This is because I have used many of them and move to the shiny new object when I find one. This has led to my information being stuck in various digital tools like Evernote, Notion and now some on Roam Research.

The idea of a second brain requires something that we would trust we would use. Else, we just keep our ideas and thoughts in our head.

I needed something that I would trust I would use and would be analog.

This is where the Bullet Journal comes in. I have used this analog tool for the past six months. I am starting to build enough trust in entering information there knowing that I will use it. The physical presence of the written word also dispels fear about losing ideas in various silos.

Moving a Zettelkasten into a Bullet Journal reduces the clutter of index cards that it leaves behind. While, Zettelkasten enriches the practice of reflection in the Bullet Journal. It pushes us to link the ideas we jot down in the Bullet Journal with each other in a way that our brain does. This also helps us remember these ideas better.

Zettelkasten in its original avatar is analog. It uses a sort of threading system using boxes and alphanumeric references to each idea. The word threading reminded me of the practice of threading used in Bullet Journal.

Zettelkasten in it’s original avatar is analog. BuJo is also analog. I thought there must be a way to tie both these practices together. Threading is used to refer to a previous section as a way to provide continuity to a post. The video explains threading:

I want to extend the concept of threading to use it more than just for providing continuity of a collection or notes within the Bullet Journal.

A latitude or longitude is expressed in degrees, minutes and seconds. Similarly, a bullet can be referred to as volume, page number and line number. This means that each bullet in your notebook can be linked to another bullet within the same notebook or even another notebook.

This threads similar ideas together in the course of writing your bullet journal. I would suggest using the Index to collect tags related to a similar idea together. This would give you an index that would collect the page numbers on which ideas are being discussed. You can take a minute to go through these tags during your weekly or monthly reflection. You can also refer to the index when you are struggling with an idea related to the tag.

Zettelkasten

Zettelkasten is a way to organise notes.

When you get any information (via a book, an article, a podcast episode, etc.) that you think is important for you, it suggested that you write it down. In the process of writing it down, it is essential that you write it down in your own words. Later, it is essential to consider where this idea fits into your understanding of the world. This helps to retain and apply the information that you obtained.

Eugene Yan summarises the process succinctly:

  1. Write each idea you come across on a card.
  2. Link idea cards to other relevant idea cards (idea -> idea link).
  3. Sort cards into broader topic boxes (idea -> topic link).

Before I talk about my personal experience, I would like to record how I discovered this process.

I stumbled upon the Zettelkasten in March 2020 when I read this piece on the process by David Clear on the Writing Cooperative. This is the most comprehensive write-up I’ve seen on the Zettelkasten.

I found Roam Research during a Twitter conversation I was having with a friend who mentioned it as a note taking app that he was using.

Twitter conversation on March 19 with Saurabh Garg where he mentioned Roam Research.

There are a bunch of videos that have been put out by it’s founder Connor Sullivan-White. But, those did not make any sense to me. I tried taking notes on two days of April. I could not figure out what people were going crazy about. Hence, I dropped the whole Zettelkasten experiment there.

Roam Research then found mention in a Thomas Frank video. I subscribe to his YouTube channel for tips about productivity. This was where the tool started to make some sense.

Thomas Frank’s video about Roam Research app.

I agree with Thomas that the major drawback of this app is that it does not have a mobile companion app. It is a good tool to research a subject.

Then two days ago I found these two blog posts on Eugene Yan’s blog which I found through Twitter again. I liked his writing style which is short and to the point.

  1. Learning an Easier Way to Write: 3 Simple Parts
  2. Stop Taking Regular Notes; Use a Zettelkasten Instead

Shu Omi’s YouTube channel has two videos that explain both the Zettelkasten method as well as the way he takes notes. The method is similar to the one that Eugene Yan uses. So, you can watch the videos if you like to watch this method work.

Shu Omi explains the Zettelkasten method.
Shu Omi explains how he implements the Zettelkasten in Roam Research

I have now started using the Bullet Journal and have found it more useful as a tool that I want to use. I have not had success with digital tools and I seem to keep replacing them when I find a shiny new thing. This, is why I prefer to keep things in a bullet journal. In the next blog post, I will go into the details of how I incorporated the practice of the Zettelkasten into my BuJo practice.

Why journal?

I have been keeping a bullet journal (BuJo) again since I moved to Pune in July. Although, I still have not completely migrated from mind to BuJo, I have been lately trying to figure out how to keep a diary within my BuJo.

Ryder Carroll posted an online tutorial today on YouTube about how to do this. From the website, where there is a companion blog post, Ryder goes into why he thinks we should journal, that I think is worth sharing here:

It’s often hard to understand what we’re feeling, or why we feel the way we do. Though we can’t  will  ourselves to change the way we feel, we can change the way we think. Journaling provides a powerful way to unpack our mind and our hearts. There, with it all laid out on the page, we’re granted the clarity, context, and distance that we often lack when things get rough. It can shift our perspective enough to change our mind, and with it, the way we feel.

Journaling can also be a great way for you to explore ideas, and deepen your appreciation for the good things that come and go so quickly. By putting pen to paper, you get to relive the good times and preserve them in loving detail so that you may revisit them for years to come. 

Ryder Carroll, Long-form Journalling, bulletjournal.com

If you do not write a diary or keep a journal, I think this is a good reason to keep one and maybe to begin today.

Jack & Jill

[This story is the fleshed out version of the outline I created at the STC Pune’s Storytelling lesson. I presented a short version of this to the audience there as part of one of the sessions. – Pradeep]

Jack had just finished his morning run. He was listening to a podcast on childhood memories. Something they said had struck a chord in him. They were discussing how entertainment had moved from video parlours and circuses to Netflix and TikTok. They were nostalgic about the old times.

The interviewer had asked if circuses could still be experienced. The interviewee had answered yes. But, he had said something more important. One of the last travelling circuses in America had just moved to his hometown and would be performing in his home town. He had left his home town when he was 18. He was now 32.

He showered and then cycled to work. He walked into his office mechanically. Swipe in, security check, took the elevator to the seventh floor, swiped in to his office, went to the coffee machine and then sat at his terminal. He powered up his terminal and the first thing he rechecked was the route to his hometown. Then, he sent an email to his boss. His first paid vacation in three years. One month long.

He didn’t wait for the day to get over. He rode into his home town that afternoon and reached on the morning after. He stayed at a motel overnight.

As he drove in to his hometown, only one word came to his mind. Desolate. The town had old unoccupied houses, overgrown lawns, no kids playing in the playground and the playground itself was desolate.  There were only a couple of shops on Main Street that were open. They too had seen better days. It had been so long that no one recognised him. He passed by his old home and saw that the new occupants had done little to keep up the look. The weeds were taking over his old house and the swing set in the garden out front was rusted and broken.

He pulled into the pump and walked into the store. He asked if there was a place to crash for a few days. The owner looked up. He said he had a place upstairs. It would be basic but had a bathroom and toilet attached and a bed. Jack said that would be enough.  In the evening he had a basic sandwich and was driving around town.

The town once supplied auto peripherals and had three or four industries to some of the big auto companies in Detroit. They had a coal mine and a thermal power plant. The thermal power plant was the only one that existed now and provided some sort of employment for the people there. The managers all lived 30 miles out in a new suburb that the company was building. There were global warming protesters at the gate.

He saw that the circus was pitched on the outskirts of town. He enquired when the next show would be. The girl at the ticket counter told him it would open this Friday. He went back to Main Street and went to a coffee shop.

There was a power cut. Despite having a power plant in their background, the town was facing power cuts. In the dark, when he looked out of the window, the only lights he saw were at the circus in the distance. It probably ran on a generator. The huge Circus sign was on top of the tent. All around, there were parked campers. The campers were home for animals and performers. They too would soon be out of a job because the circus owner was planning to shut down the circus after this tour through the American hinterland. People didn’t come to a circus anymore. There were always better tricks on the internet. Setting up the circus in any town was too much of a hassle nowadays. Permits, permissions, local laws, angry neighbours, etc.

On Friday evening, Jack went to the circus. He was amazed to see a full parking lot. There were people who had come in from the company and from the towns nearby. When he got to his seat, the circus was full. There were mostly adults with very few kids in the circus. He got some pop corn, sandwich and a Diet Coke. He was enjoying the performance. As he was drinking, he got a call of nature.

He moved out of his row and took the closest exit out. There were no signs for where the toilet was. He wondered if there was one. A feeling of concern arose on his face. If he had to go to town to get to reach a toilet, that was a 3 mile drive. That would mean he might miss the rest of the show. There had to be a toilet here somewhere. It was then he saw her. She seemed equally concerned.

“Do you know where the restrooms are?” she asked him.

“I’m looking for them as well,” he answered.

Just then he spotted a bored security guard walking along the periphery of the circus on his rounds. He asked for directions and was relieved to hear that there was one close by. Yes, the ladies room was also there. He signalled for her to follow him. They rushed to the rest rooms and each went to the respective rest rooms. It provided very basic facilities but at the time it was a god sent.

After relieving himself, he combed his hair, tucked in his shirt properly and washed his hands and face properly. He made sure his shoes were knotted and ironed out the crease on his jeans with his hands. He then gave himself a general look over. He got a tissue and wiped his hands clean.

In the ladies room, she was giving her make up the final touches and making sure she looked good.

They both stepped out of the rest room at the same time and came face to face. Both looked at each other for a long time.

“Enjoy the circus,” he asked.

“That’s why I’m here,” she said.

“I’m Jack,” he said.

“I’m Jill,” she said and laughed. He knew then that he loved her.

After the circus was over, they went to a coffee shop nearby. As they spoke to each other, they realised just how much they had in common.  They both loved the Big City. They had grown up in opposite sides of the same town. Both had moved to the Big City for employment and lived just blocks away from each other. He was a technical writer in a boutique engineering services firm. She was a freelance features writer. He could see they shared a special chemistry. At the end of the conversation, Jack asked, “Will you marry me?”

“Yes”, said Jill.

Storytelling by Hemant Baliwala

Society for Technical Communication Pune arranged for a learning session on Storytelling by Hemant Baliwala on August 14, 2019 . I attended the session hoping this would help me improve my blogging skills a bit.

The first session had all of us (about 37 of us) introduce ourselves with our name, favourite food, favourite place, happiest moment of our life and the saddest moment of our life. 

While I shared the above information openly, the second session took my saddest moment and tore it apart. In Hemant’s defence, he asked for my permission on whether he could take this apart publicly in class. He also said that he would also try and help me to find closure on this life event. People in the room were encouraged to see the moment through various lens (sarcastic, best case or positive scenarios, negative scenarios like imagining a dead man as a bad man etc). The idea was to openly map everything about the event in details unbiased or with little of my own bias of this experience using something akin to a mind-map.

I did not know while agreeing to this that I would be submitting myself to relive the event through such excruciating detail. While for others this was merely an event, for me it was a lived experience. They were trying to come up with all the factors that led up to the event as a story. Hemant asked us to present the story as is without judgement. He said the audience would judge and that we need not judge on behalf of the audience. I can’t say this gave me closure. It disturbed me a bit and took me a nice lunch in the company of friends to find my balance again.

Answers I gave from the first and third session of the Learning Session on Storytelling. Image: Pradeep Mohandas

The third session used device prompts. We were divided into teams of six. We were given photographs as device prompts. We were given two photographs – one of a circus and another of a toilet sign. We were asked to prepare mind maps like we had for the second session. We were then asked to outline a story based on the same. 

In the photo above, I’ve shared answers I gave on the first session and the mind map and the story outline I created for the third session. I will flesh out the story here in a future blog post.