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(A Blog by Sam Marshall)

The Zettelkasten System is a Superset of the Feynman Technique

2022 04 23

The Zettelkasten System is a holistic system for constructing a series of well-connected notes and ideas, with the goal of developing an understanding - and new ideas - around any subject you decide to dedicate time to. As the notes remain connected and on your hard-drive, it also acts as a handy aide to memory.

The Feynman Technique is a strategy for developing an understanding of new information you come across. This is achieved by examining the new information and trying to explain it to yourself .

I believe that by learning and working through the Zettelkasten system, you are effectively performing the Feynman Technique at every step of the way. I’ll try to draw comparisons between the two here.

Self Explanations

An often emphasised part of Zettelkasten is that you write notes in your own words. By doing this, your notes become your own explanation of the subject, meant only for you and tailor-made for your own areas of interest.

This works out well, because a Zettelkasten is a personal thing (which is good, because it likely wouldn’t make much sense to anyone else).

The Feynman Technique is all about developing your own personal explanation on a subject - so your Zettelkasten notes are little atomic Feynman Technique experiences.

Developing Context

It also helps to build understanding (and memory) to build connections between what you already know and the thing you’re trying to understand. You’ll find that guides on the Feynman Technique often emphasise examining the context of the knowledge you’re trying to understand, ideally connecting it to existing information. The fact that it helps both recall and comprehension is why this emphasis exists.

The Zettelkasten System covers this too. Practitioners often talk about connected notes and linking your ideas - it’s a core part of the practice.

Because every single note in a Zettelkasten is written by you in your own words, each is a piece of information that you already understand. This is where it becomes important and interesting that a Zettelkasten is entirely personal - it represents an externalisation of your current understanding of a subject.

Linking to one of your existing notes is defining a context for your new note - the new knowledge - to exist in. Each link should include a semantic trigger to describe the purpose of the link, and in this way the knowledge is connected both in your notes and in your head with things you already know.

Incidentally, this linking step also helps to create new ideas. You might recognise a link between notes which you haven’t read elsewhere and create a note for it connecting to the related ideas. The connections will still make it easier to remember and understand.

Because this is a personal project, you can skim things you already know and dive deep on things that you wish you knew more about too - it’s scalable to the extent that you want to employ it.

Externalised Understanding

Your zettelkasten begins to form an external representation of a subset of your current understanding. This is powerful in its own right, and can support the Feynman Technique idea. As your understanding grows and changes while you interact with your zettelkasten, you can follow links and update your notes to reflect your current understanding.

Some notes may expand. Some may split into several smaller notes. Some may even be routed around as they become less important, losing incoming links from other places. This all reflects how you think and can even enable forms of metacognition - thinking about how you’re thinking.

Ultimately, I think that these two ideas support each other, and understanding how the two are related has helped my approach to taking notes and working to understand new material. Although I do think you form self-explanations of concepts if you work through creating zettelkasten notes well, understanding this can help you figure out how you’re supposed to take zettelkasten notes well too.

Hopefully this might be helpful to someone else, too.

Sources You Might Find Interesting

There’s a few books and articles about these and related ideas, and some of the ideas here come from these sources. If you found this blog interesting, you might enjoy these too.