Note-taking gluttony will kill you

Oct 16, 2023

Don't blame Zettelkasten

One of the major criticisms of methods such as Zettelkasten is that they encourage "information hoarding". Where notes are made for the sake of making notes, to boast about who has the bigger graph.

But in actual fact this is far from the case. I'm not a convinced evangelist of Zettelkasten but spending time exploring it has shown me that actually it emphases avoiding taking too many notes:

In practice, you need to compromise between taking broad notes and focussing on your current projects. You cannot just take random notes on what you are interested in and expect to get anything done. So, use your current projects as golden threads to guide your work while allowing a bit of deviation from this path. The amount of deviation depends on what your deadline is.

-- Zettelkasten Introduction

Zettelkasten is not about creating a web of thought so big that it becomes unusable. It is about creating a web of thought big enough that it allows you to understand a topic, but small enough that it provides focus.

Blame the influencers

So if the system itself isn't to blame, then who? The predictable answer is the "productivity influencers". I'm not going to name names but you can already probably guess who I'm referring to. The people who churn out endless content on note taking systems, tools and productivity advice. They are the productivity fast food that is making us obese.

Rather than presenting an approach to focus our attention they are presenting ways to hoover as much information up as possible. Then comes the kicker, there is far too much information to turn into useful knowledge.

The parasitic nature of many content creators means that, paradoxically, the more productive they claim to make you be, the less you actually will be. Meaning when they release their video on the next productivity strategy or tool you're desperate to watch it.

You'll always find it again

So how do we avoid our information overwhelm? Really, it's up to you. In the past I've found Feynman's open questions to be a useful way to narrow my focus on what to capture.

Ultimately I think it's an exercise in self-control and telling yourself:

If it's not useful now, I don't need to capture it. If I need it in the future I'll be able to find it again.