Linking New Notes & Fearing Lost Ones
A question that often comes up in zettelkasten forums is how to link a new note when no apparent connection can be made. This is usually asked in the context of both trying to understand the lack of folders in a zettelkasten and fears associated with potentially losing track of notes that are not linked to other notes. It's an understandable question and one I had when I was first starting out.
Responses to the question often suggest looking for notes that "spark joy," something about how a "zettelkasten is an extension of your mind," periodically revisiting old notes, and just plain not worrying about it. While all these are reasonable suggestions, the answer to "How do I connect this new note to other notes?" has more to do with the creation of the note itself.
With an Eye Toward the Zettelkasten
One aspect of the zettelkasten methodology that is often overlooked involves creating new notes in relation to other notes.1 In other words, when making a new note, you do so with an eye toward other notes already stored in your zettelkasten.
Luhmann did exactly that, only earlier in the process:
"[W]hen reading, I always have the question in mind of how the books can be integrated into the filing system."
Before making notes, Luhmann read with an eye toward making connections in his slip-box. His zettelkasten became a lens, the notes inside filters for capture. In light of Luhmann's practices we can see that the question is not: "How should I connect this note after I've already created it?" But, rather, when creating a note, or, earlier while reading, asking yourself: "How does this idea connect to other ideas already in my slip-box?"
Of course, not all ideas will have a parent or sibling already stored in your zettelkasten. And, that's ok.
If you love an idea, and there's no prior note to which it can be related, then you're basically starting a new line of thinking, in which case you'd just drop the note in. That's perfectly fine. If the idea begins a line of thinking that's got legs, eventually you'll link back to this note. At which point the line of thought will develop, expand, "swell," and leave you with some material to write off of in the future.
If, however, the line of thought is not particularly "sticky," then it will slowly and quietly slip back into the ether. This happens, and need not be considered a failure. It's simply an indication that the idea was not as interesting or relevant as you thought it might be. No judgment. You aren't expected to predict the future.
In fact, Luhmann seems to have been perfectly fine with notes falling to the wayside. From Schmidt on examining Luhmann's slip-box:
"[W]e repeatedly find sets of cards that have not, or rarely, been revisited since the time they had been created, which can be inferred from their condition and the fact that no later notes were added and no other cards refer to them."
Luhmman did not find a use for every note he created. And, the same will be true for you. In light of this, you want to be aware of capturing more than you're linking, as doing so will leave you with a very disconnected, dispersed collection of notes, providing very little in the way of linked ideas to be used for writing. And yet, no one but yourself can decide if you've fallen prey to the collector's fallacy. Having "enough" connections is for you to gauge.
This is why I prefer to call the zettelkasten a "practice" rather than a "system" (although, I do call it that, as well). With time, our zettelkasten practice becomes more refined. We become better attuned to what's working and what's not. In the case of linking and losing notes, we start to make connections more readily by consciously or unconsciously reading the world with an eye toward what we've already captured. In effect, our captures become our filters. And, when that happens, our zettelkasten becomes more useful and exciting.
See "Quotes are Not Notes" for more↩