Zettelkasten, Roam, Obsidian, RemNote, Notion and Co
I am a professor, based in an institute of computer science. In addition to my regular lectures on data analysis and mathematical modelling, I offer three seminars helping senior students and young scientists with scientific writing, writing grant proposals and a seminar on productivity, time and project management. Taking “smart notes” did not play a role in my seminars, until the renewed interest in the Zettelkasten technique, evergreen notes, and apps like Roam Research, Obsidian, RemNote and Notion created quite a stir in the Internet. I decided to have a go at using those techniques and apps, some of the conclusions I like to share here.
A short history
The origin of the Zettelkasten technique is usually attributed to Niklas Luhmann, who had a system of small cards (Zettel) and slipboxes (Kasten) to collect notes and link them through a numbering system. He used this system quite successfully to write research papers and books. The key ideas of note taking using the Zettelkasten technique are
- the notes are short (“atomic notes”), focussing on one idea,
- rather than just copying things (e.g. from other papers), learning and thinking is supported by formulating the notes in your own words.
Sönke Ahrens published in 2017 the book How to take smart notes, which picked up on the Zettelkasten idea and discussed its value to boost writing, learning and thinking. In a 2020 YouTube video youtu.be/nPOI4f7yCag he describes the history and ideas behind the Zettelkasten technique. Andy Matuschak advanced ideas in Ahrens’ book by introducing the idea of “evergreen notes”. Instead of just having a blog post on the topic, Matuschak presented his idea with a webpage that implements and supports the Zettelkasten technique, using an web-based environment: notes.andymatuschak.org/Evergreen_notes
Matuschak’s Evergreen note webpage includes so called wiki style links, where pieces of text are marked and turned into a link to another note where the title is the marked text. The key is that one not only goes from one note to the other, but can easily navigate back, and is supported in finding other notes that link to the one under consideration. Rather than just implementing the Zettelkasten technique using a web-based tool, Andy Matuschak evolved Luhmann"s Zettelkasten by introducing the process of writing Evergreen Notes as “a fundamental unit of knowledge work”. In order to create notes that are worth developing over time, he stated the following principles:
- Evergreen notes should be atomic
- Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented
- Evergreen notes should be densely linked
- Prefer associative ontologies to hierarchical taxonomies
There is thus the idea of a writing process, and the tool to support this process. The key elements of Matuschak’s web-based tool, that set off the hype are:
- When hovering over a linked word or sentence, one can preview that other note.
- Clicking on the link, opens the other note, together with the previous note. One can view and edit several notes together.
- The linked note has at the bottom a list of other notes that link to the note.
The preview and “back-linking” supports easy navigation between notes and thereby supports finding links between notes and ideas. The implementation of these ideas were really a fantastic idea, taking the Zettelkasten approach back into a modern setting. Note long after Andy Matuschak’s webpage, the ideas led to the creation of new tools for note taking and learning, most notably roamresearch.com, www.remnote.io and obsidian.md
Back-linking has since been introduced in various other apps, including web-based all-in-one workspace Notion and the calendar-driven notetaking app Noteplan (iOS, Mac). More apps have emerged with support for back-linking, offering new experiences in note-taking. The ones I listed above have probably received most attention.
Other apps, like DevonThink and TheBrain on Mac has long supported the management of large numbers of notes and have also supported finding relationships between notes. The question is what these new new apps add, that the established ones don’t have.
Roam and Remnote are in their initial appearance apps for outlining, very similar to Workflowy and Dynalist. Outlining is an important strategy for researchers who draft manuscripts or their theses. Rather than starting to write down full text, one starts with small units - bullet points, then adds headings and only then fleshes out the text in full text paragraphs. The idea is that bullet point lists make it easier to rearrange things and thinking and writing in bullet points encourages you to be concise.
I do most of my initial outlining by drawing a mindmap, using Mindnode on Mac, iPhone and iPad. The user experience of Mindnode is fantastic, and the fact that one can easily switch between iPhone, iPad and the Mac to edit and visualise the mindmap, makes a difference to quickly view and edit the map/outline. Mindmaps are ideally suited for editing with touch surfaces. In parallel to the actual mindmap, one can also have a conventional outline. I even use mind maps for my seminars, instead of Powerpoint. The one thing that Mindnote is not particularly good at, is the handling of notes attached to elements in the mindmap. The text is just plain text, no formatting, or links possible. All elements of the map are thus things that fit into a single sentence and there is a point when the size of these maps work against the idea of an easy navigation. There is also not the support to connect elements in the map, in the style of backlinks.
Roam, Remnote and Notion also support outlining in an excellent way. It is very easy to collapse and expand lists, and move units of text/lists around. The calendar-based note taking app Noteplan has recently also introduced the collapsing of elements in notes. Noteplan also supports backlinking and thus the Zettelkasten approach. Because Noteplan stores all notes as markdown files on the computer, some users use Noteplan together with Obsidian. Apart from the graph view, I am not sure what the motivation is behind this combination. To summarise the first observation about these new apps, including Roam and RemNote, is this feature:
The ability to collapse and expand lists and paragraphs, and to easily rearrange elements in those notes or lists, are key elements in helping to organise thoughts through outlining.
Support for outlining relies on a WYSIWYG experience, so it does not make sense to outline in markdown directly. Overviewing elements of an outline, to possibly color-code and tag elements and then rearrange things quickly does not work well if you have to switch between the markdown text and its preview, I feel. Apps like Agenda and Bear (iOS, Mac) are markdown-based but the writing experience is WYSIWYG, really very well done and user focussed.
On top of my wishlist for Agenda (iOS, Mac) are the collapse and expand feature for elements within notes, and a corkboard view of notes. The backlinking between notes would not be the highest priority for me, despite the hype :).
While DevonThink has, in principle, many of the elements that create a hype with other tools. This include links in markdown documents and an ai tool that identifies related notes. The main strength of DevonThink is clearly its ability to handle a vast array of documents, not just notes of a particular type but almost any document. It provides you with databases, that you can also carry around and access from the iPhone and iPad. The reliability and flexibility have not competition in my view. However, when it comes to note taking, the app takes some “getting used to”. I have to admit that I was not really aware of some of these features until I looked at Roam, Obsidian and RemNote. The company also offers a search tool, Devonagent, which I purchased but for some reason I find difficult to describe, I do not really use. The fact that wasn’t aware of some features, despite using the app daily, suggests that there is something with regard to the user experience.
We all know that once people are sufficiently in love with their app, they will adapt to limitations, or find ways to address these for themselves. It does not make sense to then argue with them over usability etc. and I not experienced enough or qualified to judge these issue properly.
Roam and Obsidian have been very clever in creating a user fan base that helps with the development of plugins to overcome limitations and expand the apps to their needs. It would not make sense to argue with them that the many plugins themes and customisation is not only a blessing. I guess, I personally prefer a native Apple app, with a well worked out user interface, so that I do not have to resort to plugins other users have created. It is great if these tools, like DevonThink offer css styling but if an average user tries to figure out how to do that, one can spend easily days and week learning about css styling. The experts in the forums keep saying there is plenty of training material in the Internet … only that this is not user friendly. Ulysses and Obsidian at least offer a gallery of themes that one can easily try out without learning the supposedly simple css. I enjoyed Obsidian and also enjoyed tailoring the appearance to my preferences, only to realise that I spend a lot of time adjusting the tool, rather than using it …
Another key element of Andy Matuschak"s evergreen note webpage was the ease with which to view and edit multiple notes simultaneously. Here Scrivener still stands out with their corkboard. In Scrivener, every section of your project is attached to a virtual index card. Scrivener’s corkboard lets you step back and work with just the synopses you’ve written on the cards—and when you move them, you’re rearranging your manuscript at the same time. Scrivener also supports outlining. Scrivener is targeted at writing long text, similar to Ulysses, and of course Word and Pages. With the corkboard and outlining support, is a major advantage over Ullysses and it puts Scrivener much closer to notetaking apps like Agenda and Noteplan (which set themselves apart with the integration of calendars and reminders). One key idea from the Zettelkasten techniques are atomic notes, i.e. short concise notes. As a result viewing a note, its heading, tags and a few lines of text, does not take much screen estate. This brings me to another observation how note taking can support research:
The ability to display several notes together, side by side and seeing at least parts of the content, is a key element in helping to relate ideas in different notes.
Finding relationships in and between notes
An outstanding feature of Roam, RemNote and Obsidian in particular, is the support the discovery of relationships between concepts and ideas through a visualisation of notes and tags in a graph. While Roam and Remnote are cloud based, Obsidian and Noteplan store all notes as plain text (markdown) files on the computer. In Obsidian one user has taken this a step further and developed a Neo4j plugin that streams the notes in the Obsidian vault into a Neo4j graph databases, thereby providing a serious tool for research.
Turning a collection of notes into a Neo4j graph database, could open up an enormous set of tools to use for the analyses of documents. This is an example how community-driven plugin development pushes new ideas.
TheBrain has long supported a visual approach to organise and link notes. It supports markdown and in its last version also introduces backlinks. While writing notes, the app recognises words that could be linked to other notes and supports the process in a very intuitive way. It terms of visual exploration of notes and linking of ideas, TheBrain is excellent. A challenge TheBrain and Devonthink share is that there iOS versions of the apps are somehow reduced versions of the Mac apps. One reason why note taking and To Do apps like Agenda, Noteplan, and Ulysses are popular, is the fact that using these app on the iPhone, the iPad and on Mac is essentially the same, in terms of the interface and functionality. The complexity and functionally of those Mac apps is probably very difficult to realise on a smartphone.
One thing that clearly sets RemNote apart from all other apps, is the excellent (easy to use and comprehensive implementation) of ANKI style flashcards. Spaced repetition is key concept in learning and something that is very attractive for students.
Almost all apps discussed so far, also some task management through to do lists and reminders. I am on of those people that hopes to eventually have only one app, to write notes, manage documents, which can also be used for task and project management. At present, I cannot see how these apps can replace dedicated apps, like ToDoIst (cross platform, including collaboration) or Things for iOS and Mac. The big challenge is here to offer the experience users of iPhones, iPad and Macs are used to. As I write these notes and realise various spelling and grammatical errors, but can’t be bothered to correct them, I am reminded that Ulysses, has a built in language correction tool, which not only corrects spelling and is very useful for non native speakers who do their research in English.
I forgot to discuss Drafts and Craft, and of course there is also Microsoft OneNote, and Evernote. While testing Drafts, I had this amazing experience of using my iWatch to dictate a note. I did not take such fancy feature serious, until I was walking my dog, iPhone at home and it was the easiest thing to just dictate a note that was then on my Mac when I returned home. I never needed this again but I was surprised what is now possible, how easy note taking has become. I keep looking at Drafts but somehow its appearance and principles have not work for me … yet. The search for a perfect most-purposes app will probably never end
I use DevonThink on a daily basis, but mostly to collect and archive information. It supports note taking with Markdown, it has Wikilinks and it has tools to find relationships between notes. For some reason I do not use these features in the way they are attractive in those other apps. Inspired by the apparent success of Roam and Co, I will try to explore these features more.
I like the ideas that are generated by the Roam and Obsidian communities. Turning a collection of notes into a graph database is only one of those examples. The hype is therefore something we all can benefit from and I found watching Sönke Ahrens talk on YouTube and Andy Matuschak’s Evergreen note webpage inspiring.
Like many of us, I am still on the lookout for changes to my workflows. From my perspective, the key components that define the competition at the moment are:
- The support for outlining by collapsing and expanding units in notes.
- The ease of entering and editing links in texts.
- The preview of notes by hovering over links.
- The cork-board view of several notes together.
- The simultaneous side-by side and WYSIWYG markdown editing of notes.
- The similarity of the experience on iPhone, iPad and on the Mac.