Zettelkasten, Linking Your Thinking, and Nick Milo's Search for Ground
Linked thinking and the many "tools for thought" apps that have been released over the past few years, have changed the discourse on how we take in and process information. Bolstered by the subcultural success of Sonke Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes, a self-published polemic on the benefits of using Niklas Luhmann's zettelkasten methodology, the PKM world has since become googly-eyed smitten with all things "linked."
Presented as both a "publication machine"1 and a way to write books "effortlessly"2, the zettelkasten has understandably been the subject of much discussion online, especially for note takers and writers interested in upping their creative output.
Consequently, this spike in popularity has introduced the methodology to note takers from a myriad of different intellectual backgrounds, each with their own agenda on how they'd like to use it, many wanting the system to be more than what it is; do more than what it does. Some want their zettelkasten to double as a project management system. Others, a life operating system. Still, others want their zettelkasten to function as a comprehensive second brain, while others hope to turn it into a "digital garden." It's when these questions arise, that I find myself referring people not to the beloved "ZK," but toward Nick Milo's flagship PKM methodology, Linking Your Thinking (LYT).
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of taking Nick Milo's LYT course and recently had the chance to speak with him about his system in the hopes of teasing out what distinguishes our respective PKM systems from one another. Based on what I learned and have implemented for myself, I can say with confidence that the two methodologies are distinct, in some ways compatible, but in no way interchangeable. Both have something wonderful to offer the modern note taker. But, Linking Your Thinking and zettelkasten remain two different ways to achieve similar, but ultimately different goals.
The Zettelkasten is a Writing Tool
The most well-known slip-boxes in the world have been employed by writers in service of their writing. Variations of the system date back to the 17th c.,3 and modern writers such as, Umberto Eco, Arno Schmidt, and Hans Blumenberg are all known for employing some version of the slip-box to capture, collect, organize, and transform notes into published work. Of course, today, the most famous zettelkasten is the one used by Niklas Luhmann, who, through "communicating with his slip box," published more than seventy five books and five hundred articles.4
Luhmann's system was specifically designed to save and link ideas, in an effort to make those ideas useful for future writing projects. Contrary to popular belief, Luhmann's zettelkasten was not designed to help Luhmann become a better thinker. Although the zettelkasten may in some ways replicate the way our brains work, Luhmann felt that writing—not his zettelkasten—was the only way to think with any sense of complexity.5
In fact, what many people don't realize—or possibly don't want to realize—is that the zettelkasten is rather narrow in scope. Despite its rhizomatic nature developed through an ever-expanding network of linked ideas, a zettelkasten is designed to help people do two things: link ideas and convert those ideas into creative expression. For many, a system that can help with the sometimes arduous, sometimes discouraging act of writing, is worth all the money in the world. For others, the limited scope of the zettelkasten has led to the development of other, novel ways of turning information into knowledge.
Nick Milo's Search for Ground
Nick Milo developed the LYT methodology6 during one of the most tumultuous political climates in recent US history. It was 2016 and the US was plunging into social and political polarization. Many of us, especially on the left, felt that Trump winning the election, along with the appointing of vocal white nationalists, was a wake-up call-to-action. It was also a time riddled with anxiety. To balance the confusion that came with social upheaval, each of us created our own version of stability. For Nick, that stability was found in the ancient, Western philosophical tradition.
Looking for a through-line based not on the latest news cycle or feverishly typed early morning tweet, Nick leaned into two-thousand-year-old written works in order to orient himself. Thanks to a combination birthday/Christmas gift from his mother, Nick now had a subscription to the complete digital Loeb Classical Library, and quickly realized that he needed a way to capture, connect, and retrieve the new wealth of information at his fingertips.
Unlike many who Nick was in communication with in the zettelkasten scene, Nick was not looking to convert his newly found knowledge and insights into public content. His primary focus wasn't writing for an audience. Instead, Nick wanted to create a world that made sense, a world in which he could ground himself. It was this impulse that led him to create Linking Your Thinking.
LYT is a Life Operating System
The system Nick built has grown beyond his initial desire to orient himself within a rapidly changing time. LYT is, to use Nick's words, a "life operating system" based in "a love of wisdom." Its primary function: to provide the note maker with an "SOS," a "system of sensemaking."
Nick never intended to be as prolific a writer as Luhmann. For Nick, linking thoughts and engaging with how ideas "collide," "cleave," and reform has power in and of itself. It's this cosmic drama that draws Milo into his knowledge management system day after day. And, it's one of the fundamental divergence points between LYT and zettelkasten.
LYT is a way to take in, process, and link captured information in order to turn that information into knowledge, with the expressed purpose of bettering one's life. Though, a zettelkasten regularly benefits the user in the same way—far beyond its expressed purpose—LYT comes with a much taller order. What are beneficial byproducts in zettelkasten are centered in LYT. And, it's what's centered in LYT that drew Nick into new note-taking territory.
Nick's path away from zettelkasten was partly inspired by Andy Matuschak, the writer and thinker behind evergreen notes.7 Matuschak's ideas came from a desire to give himself space to explore the language and practices we employ in note-taking outside those prescribed by zettelkasten discourse.8 In doing so, Andy inadvertently inspired many who wanted to enjoy the benefits of linked thought without having to embrace the particulars of zettelkasten methodology. Andy's ideas, themselves inspired by Niklas Luhmann, have also been inspirational for Nick Milo.9 And yet, while the core concepts of zettelkasten methodology are largely embraced, both Matuschak and Milo have taken the ideas into areas the zettelkasten tends not to go.
In short, a zettelkasten is not a life operating system. LYT is. Though a zettelkasten can include notes on literally any subject a person has an interest in, these notes are intended to yield something tangible. LYT is not bound by output, and thus includes more. People, projects, calendars, ephemera, the stuff we manage in our day-to-day lives, all of it can have a place in LYT. So, while both methodologies deal with the same "stuff"—knowledge—and both engage notes as their primary units for knowledge exploration, each has a different expectation as to what should be done with it all.
Both zettelkasten and LYT are note-based systems. Whereas in zettelkasten the single-idea note is the driving force, Nick defines a note more broadly. To Nick, a note is a "container of thought." A piece of information captured on the page.
The creation of a note in the zettelkasten sense, especially in regards to Luhmann's practices, tends to be a bit more considered, and abides by a few key principles: Notes should be atomic; edited and refined (that is, not "fleeting"); as best as possible constructed and imported with a consideration as to what's already stored in the zettelkasten; and dynamically linked to one another. In short, zettelkasten notes, often simply called "zettels," are not only created, but curated.
What to some may seem like a rigid and formulaic approach to knowledge capture, functions more like the gestural protocols of Zen Buddhists. The way you remove the bowl from your robe; the way you place it in front of you; the way you eat and drink from it; the way you clean it. These behaviors are far from arbitrary, and instead serve as a way to help bring the spiritual aspirant into greater presence.
In zettelkasten, just as in a formal spiritual practice, the way you do things informs what you get out of the things you do. Through the use of eufriction, the act of slowing down the process of note importation, a person actively, and repeatedly, engages with their ideas. These Zettelkasten protocols, which are, of course, loosely defined, personal, and intentionally unenforceable, give guidance. There's a reason why we do the things we do. And, the resulting output of those who truly work the system is proof of its efficacy.
Note-making in LYT, though equally effective, can be a much looser affair.
One of the beauties of the LYT methodology is that it provides the note maker with a platform to quickly and creatively develop notes with almost no friction. There is little in the way of a "requirement" that the note be anything other than itself, whatever that may look like at the time of creation.
Note-making in LYT is an almost stream of consciousness affair. As ideas come up, they are typed into the note maker's platform of choice.10 New notes can be created on the fly, off the cuff. They can remain unfinished for long periods of time, some existing for months only as names. There is a sense that new notes will eventually be linked, but, unlike with zettelkasten, linking is not something that needs to take place the moment the new note is created (though it often does). Linking happens everywhere in LYT, but on a need-to-link basis.
Conversely, the zettelkasten method suggests that new notes be written with connections to other notes already in mind. Luhmann did not see the ideas he was collecting as independent and autonomous. Instead, Luhmann read with an eye toward what was already stored in his zettelkasten, often making new notes as if they were continuations of other notes already captured in the zettelkasten.11 Doing so allowed him to develop trains of thought at the moment of import, which in turn allowed him to become a veritable publishing machine.
In LYT, this level of consideration may be regarded as good practice. But, it isn't required. What's most important is making connections between what's in front of you, in the moment, as needed. There is no assumption that what you take in will be converted into writing for an audience. What you do with what you capture is wide open. And, the LYT system reflects that.
One of the most recognizable features of the zettelkasten method is the emphasis placed on making (and linking) what have been dubbed "atomic notes." Being a writing companion, and one designed to level-up productivity, the zettelkasten method privileges the principle of atomicity.12 The zettelkasten's use of single-idea, atomic notes makes connections between even disparate ideas easy to establish. This robust, dynamically-linked network of one's own ideas leaves writers with seemingly infinite writing prompts to take advantage of.
In contrast, Nick describes himself as having a "laissez-faire" relationship to the atomic note. Without writing being its primary concern, in LYT, notes are atomized on a basis of necessity. There is no rule requiring atomicity, which is sometimes only achieved through the "collision" of two larger notes.
Listening to Nick describe how atomicity is achieved in LYT, I can't help but think of the 80s Atari game, "Asteroids." In LYT, notes "collide." When a note-maker attempts to link two notes, the notes either do so easily or find themselves cleaving, splitting into multiple, smaller notes. Nick calls this process the "collision of ideas," which typically occurs when a note is too big or when an idea is not yet atomic. The note initiating the linking process finds its potential mate consisting of too many thoughts, making for a weak connection. When this happens, the too-big note splits into two or more smaller ones. In effect, the too-big note simplifies itself in order to be linked. This is how atomicity is achieved in LYT. Through necessity and collision.
Structure in Zettelkasten and LYT
Both zettelkasten and LYT eschew the use of folders to organize information, choosing instead to link ideas out in the open. With zettelkasten, single-idea zettels are linked to other single-idea zettels, creating an ever-expanding network of ideas. In this way, structure emerges from the ground up. Trains of thought are later revealed in manually updated hub notes, indexes, or structure notes, all of which help note makers navigate their system.
Structure in LYT also manifests "bottom-up," although in Nick's system, navigation is aided through the creation of Maps of Content (MOCs). MOCs are "higher order notes" built to give access to notes and provide context as to how certain notes relate to one another. MOCs bring information out from behind the digital walls of folders and squares it in front of the note maker.
Zettelkasten's counterpart to MOCs lies somewhere at the intersection of hub notes, project notes, index notes, and structure notes. In theory, a zettelkasten could incorporate MOCs as a way to help note makers navigate their system, but doing so limits their potential. In zettelkasten, connections between ideas are first established at the level of the note where contextualized links to other notes are often found. Consequently, in the context of the zettelkasten method, MOCs would function as a map of already apparent connections between ideas, a record of what's already been established. This, however, is only part of how MOCs are used in LYT.
In addition to being maps, MOCs behave as work stations, places to examine how notes interact. They're far more than records of already established connections. Instead, MOCs are places to challenge notes, to see whether notes need to change, cleave, or resolve. Rather than being a representation of previously made connections, MOCs are where connections are made anew.
The current fever over "linked thinking" is due in large part to a renewed interest in Niklas Luhmann's zettelkasten practices. Expansive, emergent, bottom-up structures; note-based knowledge management systems; linked ideas—the fact that we're talking about these concepts today is because of how and why Luhmann did what he did. But, the principles on which Luhmann's practices were built are not bound to the system of knowledge management that he created.
Today, Luhmann's principles show up in writings on evergreen notes, digital gardens, Linking Your Thinking, and any number of newly created systems, each choosing to center some aspect of Luhmann's practices and ideas while downplaying others. What's important is understanding where the splits and forks occur and for what reason.
When note makers are better informed as to where and why different systems split from one another, these note makers are able to make informed choices as to what systems they want to employ, while at the same time better orienting themselves in the online discourse.
Although based in similar ideas regarding knowledge management, maintaining a zettelkasten and working with Nick Milo's Linking Your Thinking system are different practices. Each one amplifies different aspects of how we externally link ideas, and suggests different trajectories as to how these ideas can be used. In short, the zettelkasten method and LYT offer different deliverables. And yet, these differences are not points of weakness. They are neither blind spots nor missing pieces. The things that differentiate zettelkasten from LYT are the very things that make each system truly work.
Schmidt, J. (2016). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine. In A. Cevolini, Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe, (pp. 289–311). Brill.↩
Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.↩
Aldrich, C. (2021, July 3). Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains. https://boffosocko.com/2021/07/03/differentiating-online-variations-of-the-commonplace-book-digital-gardens-wikis-zettlekasten-waste-books-florilegia-and-second-brains/↩
Meyer, S., Gibson, B., & Ward, P. (2015). Niklas Luhmann: Social Systems Theory and the Translation of Public Health Research. In F. Collyer (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Social Theory in Health, Illness and Medicine (pp. 340–354).↩
Luhmann, N. "Communicating with Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account." http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes↩
The earliest iteration known as "IMF" or "Indexes, Maps, Fluid Systems." https://hyperbolic.cloud/Knowledge/Knowledge+Management/IMF+(Index%2C+Maps+of+Content%2C+Fluid+Systems)+or+LYT+(Linking+Your+Thinking)↩
For Nick and many others, that platform is Obsidian↩
Schmidt, J. (2018). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity. In Sociologica. V.12 N.1. (pp. 53–60).↩
The term "atomic note" is a common term derived from C. Tietze, Create Zettel from Reading Notes According to the Principle of Atomicity https://zettelkasten.de/posts/create-zettel-from-reading-notes/↩