Starting a Zettelkasten for academic research can feel like a daunting task. Where do I start? Should I try to import all of my existing notes and papers? When am I supposed to find the time for this on top of all the writing?? Fear not, we are here to help you build and maintain your academic Zettelkasten!
Start Where You Are
Researchers tend to accumulate stacks of notes, stashed across the home and office, and years of digital drives. Frequently cited articles, key pieces of literature, mental models, scribbles, and general ideas of future papers tend to multiply. Rather than devoting numerous productive procrastination hours to inputting all of these files into a brand new system, we recommend starting with whatever project or paper is currently in progress.
Where are you starting?
Writing a grant proposal for a study?
Outline the research design within your new system, include the methods, new references, and connect everything to the research questions you want to answer. Why do we say new references? New references will kickstart your Zettelkasten with a useful externalization of your knowledge.
You likely already have a solid internalized understanding of the older references you will be citing, but the new references that have yet to solidify is where writing in your Zettelkasten can shine. This process keeps your momentum focused on the grant proposal, rather than playing with categorization and note migration.
Revising an article for a resubmit?
Start by making a brief outline of your paper in your second brain. The key research outputs and research questions become foundation notes with literature themes, methods, and results connecting the two. Next, look for themes in the reviewers’ comments (ignoring the outlandish recommendations from Reviewer 2) and compare them to your outline. Are there missing connections based on the reviewers’ remarks? If so, fill in those connections and add to the article accordingly.
You will likely see these missing connections in the flow from one section of the article to another (e.g., literature not supporting the methods) or in difficulty connecting the results to a more widely applicable research contribution. If the reviewers’ comments don’t reveal a missing connection or flaw, then you can use this high-level outline to politely communicate why their feedback is not applicable to or has already been addressed by your study.
Collecting data and starting initial analysis?
So many insights come from the initial data analysis. It is easy to lose one thought just as three others pop up. Capture these fleeting thoughts in your Zettelkasten for easy future reference. The simple act of storing and reviewing will help to highlight common themes.
You might start to see the results that need to be discussed together and possibly lonely insights that need to be further examined. Usually, further questions will arise based on these pieces; store them for future research plans and allow yourself to focus on the study at hand.
Halfway through an article that needs to get out the door?
Ah, the meandering timeline of article writing. The initial momentum is great, the deadline-defying final editing is fierce, but often we run into the middle of the methods slump where many articles languish in the in preparation state.
How do you revitalize (and often reprioritize) that manuscript to prevent rolling it over to a new year of in preparation on your CV?
The classic in preparation “stall” is often the result of three things:
- Lack of novelty
- Lost direction
- Lack of time
Both 1) and 2) type stalls are addressed by revisiting your manuscript at a higher level and starting from the bookends. The key is to return to the start of your research. What are you trying to answer? What is the final research contribution you are presenting to the world? What structural components are needed to guide another researcher from start to finish?
The goal is to lead your reader on a streamlined journey to your research outcome. A clear success indicator is the ‘ah yes’ nod as readers move from section to section. These cues indicate readers follow (and support) your reasoning and the logic laid out in your manuscript.
Working with a peer reviewer helps handle problem number three: lack of time. As researchers, conflicting bids for attention constantly war with each other. External deadlines provide inherent motivation and are a great tool for making time to write. Commit to sharing a portion of your work with a colleague on a specific date: choose someone you respect, and who will also keep you to the deadline.
Plan on delivering small piece of work (state what it will be ahead of time), an outline, or even an extended abstract. This process will both force prioritization of work, and lead to new insights and course corrections, which will save revision time in the future.
Why You Shouldn’t Add Everything At Once
Building an academic knowledge management system is an ongoing process. Avoid the temptation to transfer everything at once; this isn’t a check-the-box type of project. Think of this as part of the research process. So pace yourself! The process prevents notes from getting stale, sparks serendipitous insights, and prevents research fatigue.
1) Notes get stale
Just like the ‘does it spark joy‘ Marie Kondo movement, not every note will bring joy to your academic life. Attempting to collect all of your old notes into a new system will quickly add clutter and reduce the efficacy of your new second brain. Old notes may lose relevancy, or, *gasp*, your new knowledge and insights may have superseded the old information.
Are you the same brain as your first year in grad school? Probably not, so be a little picky when migrating thoughts into your second brain. For example, does that intro stats course handout spark joy? If not, create an updated stats note when needed in the future. It will synthesize the idea in your mind and create deeper connections to your current work.
2) Serendipitous revision
Have you ever reviewed your previous work and happily rediscovered an idea? Did the idea spark the concept for a new study and then before you know it, 17 google scholar searches have added dozens of papers to your ‘To Read’ pile?
A serendipitous discovery is a great way to form new connections with old knowledge. If you allow yourself this time by migrating a small set of relevant notes, you will not be trapped by the sense of urgency of completing everything. This removes that feeling of guilt for exploring the thoughts when you feel you should be doing something else.
3) Research fatigue
Research is an ongoing process. Don’t let yourself fall into the mental trap of thinking there is an end goal of being ‘done’. You will of course finish projects, grants, etc. (and these milestones are important to celebrate!), but as the curious researcher you are, the research process will continue throughout your career.
As a result, if you try to enter everything into your new system with the goal of completing your Zettelkasten, you will never be fully satisfied. This will take time away from exploring your thoughts, which is the point of this whole system to start with! Over time your system will grow larger, just as your own sphere of knowledge expands. Preserve some of that mental energy. The system is meant to be your second brain, not your only brain.
Quicks Tips for Continuing Your Zettelkasten Over Time
Acknowledge that your system will evolve
Your first set up is the first draft. And as we know, the first draft is never the final draft that goes out for submission. An aha moment may change the entire structure of a paper or a new piece of literature may take you in an entirely new direction for your research methods. Resist the urge to cling to a system that is restricting or slowing down your thoughts.
Tags for articles and organization
As your system grows over time, you’ll find that navigating and exploring can be challenging without some filtering. This is where #tags come in. By adding a tag into a note relevant to your project, you are able to see what is connected and what might be missing. You may want to create a tag for each paper within a project.
Use (some of) your system to communicate with others
Not everything needs to be understandable by another person, this is your system! But it is good to spend some time on understandability because often your primary collaborator is your past self. Be kind to your future self (and your other collaborators) and clarify your notes and connections when necessary. This can force you to pause and consider why things should be connected or included.
If you haven’t given RamSync a try yet, go ahead and jump in! It’s fast and easy to use, and can immediately help with organization and staying on top of projects. Create your personal account here and take the first step to building the ultimate Zettelkasten!
As always, we’d love to hear from you! If you have questions, comments, or thoughts, send us a note, we love notes!