Zettelkasten/Org-roam/Org-brain Is Crap

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First, I'd like to apologize for the rude title. I used this rhetoric trick to get the right kind of people into reading these lines: People who care about the Zettelkasten-method and who are able to express the usefulness of it for themselves.

Now that I have your attention, I'd like to write down my personal concerns about the Zettelkasten method which may not reflect your reality. I then would love to read about your arguments why my prejudice might not be valid in general.

My pile of Org mode data is huge. There are certain costs attached to migrating my data to a Zettelkasten method, even if this would only affect my notes.org file which contains my general knowledge base.

At this moment in time, I doubt that I will move to a Zettelkasten approach. Nevertheless, I'd love to read your comments that try to falsify (or confirm?) my worries on that topic.

Zettel, Zettelkasten, Zettelkästen, Umlaute

If you do not know about Zettelkasten method, you might want to check out this brief intro with a non-Emacs tool or the Wikipedia article.

My mother language is German. Since I've noticed that non-German people are confused about those terms, I would love to add a brief explanation here.

For practical reasons, I'm using an "US international no dead keys" keyboard layout. Therefore, I'm able to tell you how to write German umlauts with it: Combine " with any other character to get something like "ä": " + a → ä

See? You're now able to type those funny looking characters on a non-German keyboard layout.

Multiple Zettelkasten-Domains

I'm not sure how difficult it is to run a setup that consists of:

  1. Normal Org files that contain my TODOs and data that does not relate to knowledge-base
  2. A Zettelkasten for my personal non-research knowledge-base
  3. A Zettelkasten for my personal PIM-research knowledge-base
    • This might be merged with my non-research knowledge-base
  4. A Zettelkasten for my business knowledge-base
    • This definitively needs to be separated from my personal knowledge-base Zettelkasten.
  5. Potentially even more Zettelkästen with different/distinct knowledge-bases for absolute separated domains


As far as I understood, besides navigating via links, searching within Zettelkästen is mostly based on tags and titles of those Zettel. However, I prefer the body text being part of the search space.

Currently, I usually use tags when normal search results return too many candidates to skim. In recent months, I learned to love helm-org-rifle-* for searching the current file or all of my agenda files.


With any Zettelkasten implementation, setup and usage complexity seems to be significantly higher. Some even require a non-Emacs-based server or data-base.

Especially when multiple computers are involved (personal desktop, personal notebook, business notebook), I'd love to keep the same, synchronized setup among those devices. Currently, I share a common Emacs configuration which is easily set up on a new machine.

Mobile Usage

Normal Org files may be used on my Android smart phone with Orgzly. I don't think that usage patterns, especially search, is possible with synchronized Zettelkasten files on my phone.

No Radio Links for Glossary

There can not be a common glossary: automatic links of known "concept" to their definition by radio targets. I learned to love this feature for my business files. Whenever I stumble on a new term, I write down its definition and add those radio targets. All occurrences of this term are now automatically linked to its definition. This has tremendous value to me.

With a business Zettelkasten, I'd have to add links to definitions or concepts manually. I'm afraid this is almost impossible for multiple reasons. First of all, I'd have to remember about their existence by heart which I don't, given this large amount of terms. And if this would not be the limiting factor, I guess that would be too much effort for me.


With having that much data in Org files, I do face various performance issues. With switching from "few but large Org files" to "many different smaller Org files", I do have a gut feeling that several operations might be affected in a very bad way.

Split Brain Issues

Currently, I don't have to care where I'm adding new TODOs since all of my major Org files are part of my agenda. With Zettelkästen, I don't think that this can be continued.

I could add all Zettelkasten files to my agenda but this most likely would have a dramatic effect on performance. Therefore, I would have to change my set of mind. Before adding a new TODO, I'd have to think twice if I'm within a Zettelkasten file or in a normal Org file. If

I'd like to add a TODO when reading/writing a Zettel, I'd have to spot a non-Zettelkasten heading that is suited as a parent node for my TODO.

I'm not certain how much this would affect me since my knowledge-base tends to hold less TODOs than the other files. However it bothers me a bit.

Same holds true for my blog. I wrote the lazyblorg blogging software so that I am able to define blog entries everywhere. This would not be valid any more for blog articles within Zettel.

Surfing Concepts

I'm not sure about the usefulness of browsing the links, which seems to be one of the central advantages of Zettelkästen.

Maybe that'd change with getting personal experienced within lots of connections. So far, I highly doubt it. Maybe this is different for scientific notes such as organizing and annotating papers?

Your Turn

If you do have experience with the Zettelkasten method, please do tell me your thoughts on my concerns. If mine are wrong, partially wrong of even when you find that I do have good points where Zettelkasten does have some disadvantages that might be mitigated or not.

Please do mention briefly what Zettelkasten implementation you are using and probably link any setup reports you might have authored somewhere.

Comment by Alan Schmitt

So I discovered the Zettelkasten (singular) method a few months ago, and I've been trying it. I currently use Org-Roam, with deft for full text search (but I don't need it that much) and org-journal for the TODO integration and ease of input.
What I like about the approach is that I don't have to think about where to store something when I have an idea. I just need to think about something related, and link to it. I cannot say whether this will work out in the long term, but I'm currently finding things faster than with my monolithic brain.org file. I'm also writing down more things, and revisiting them more often.
I have not migrated my old notes. What I do is put links to them, and when I revisit them I migrate them. But I don't do this much.
I only have one Zettelkasten. I don't feel like having to compartmentalize things, otherwise I'll get back to the "where do I put this" question. So I have a huge toto.org file, a huge brain.org file, and many tiny org file in my Zettelkasten. Agenda uses the daily Zettelkasten files (through org-journal) and the big todo.org file.
Searching is easy using deft or rg (for instance through projectile, it's all part of the same git repo).
I don't use multiple computers. If I did, I would run org-roam-db-build-cache after a git pull. I'm not sure it's necessary, I have not tried it. I also don't use org files in mobile (I have a write-only approach where I use orgzly to input ideas, but they get processed on the computer).
Radio target are nice, but with company enabled I have links created automatically to entries in my Zettelkasten (I get to choose them of course).
I have not encountered any performance issue for the moment, but I've only been using the method for a few months.
Regarding split brain issues, one does not need to use the approach for TODO items. It can only be used for reference/diary, and TODOs can still live in a monolithic agenda file (with interlinking when necessary). I'm experiencing with the org-journal TODO approach, but it's too early for me to give feedback.
I have found Zettelkasten very useful to explore complex ideas, such as taking notes learning category theory. I also follow some of [[https://rgoswami.me/posts/org-note-workflow/][this workflow to take notes when reading scientific articles]]. It works particularly well.
To sum up, I'm happy with it, maybe because it fits well with my way of working. I won't be advocating for it until I've used it for a year… so if you want to ping me around January 2021, I'll tell you it stuck.

Thanks Alan for your comments! I've added a few links here and there.

Comment by John Barkwell

Your argument against Zettelkasten, for your purposes, is convincing.
There is one additional reason why Zettelkasten is completely unsuitable for your use. I have read a multitude (greater than 10) of articles, comments and posts by people who are using Zettelkasten despite its unsuitability for their purposes.
Most people seem to want to keep track of their notes by tagging them and clumping them into groups. In taxonomical terms these results are often obtained by pre-coordination or by post-coordination.
In pre-coordination, groups and tags are created in advance of data entry. Groups and tags must be chosen from the pre-existing words. Post-coordination delays the creation of groups and tags to the point of data entry. As a post-coordination system grows it tends to behave more and more like a pre-coordination system. Automating the assignment of groups and tags means that the software behaves as if it is utilizing a pre-coordinated system of groups and tags.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both pre- and post-coordination but the tendency in either case is for the system to become more and more rigid as time goes by.
In addition the natural tendency of humans to seek patterns tends to result in the creation of hierarchical structures using groups and tags. Think of two groups, personal and business. Within each you may have categories for expenses. Within each you might group expenses such as auto, insurance, entertainment. The resulting structure is hierarchical.
Zettelkasten was designed to avoid both pre-coordinate structure and hierarchical classification problems. The notion is that notes should be added chronologically without categorization or grouping until a critical mass of notes is accumulated. The creator of Zettelkasten said that it would probably take three years to reach that point. At his rate of 6 notes per day one would gather 6570 notes before making any attempt at organization.
The creator seems to envision that you would begin to go through the cards chronologically, one at a time, comparing each note with all the other notes, one at a time. Only at that point would you begin linking cards; the basis for each link would be a comparison with a single card without any attempt to create tags or groups.
He did envision creating an index to access the first note in a line of sequential notes. Those entries look much like tags but are not meant to create structure, only access.
Only after going through the cards and creating links could you go through the cards again, in search of clumps. The purpose of his method was to prevent you from missing connections which do not flow naturally when you group and tag too soon. That is, to prevent you from classifying or tagging before the links were made. He spoke of being surprised by clumps of connections which he only discovered by working his way through his paper slips after creating links. Thus he was not aware of the existence of a category or connection until it revealed itself to him; he did not realize that the category existed while he was creating it.
He insisted that everything had to be done manually because the thought process of making or discovering links was what gave power to his system. His emphasis on thinking (as opposed to “collecting” entries) was the basis of his insistence that the original notes had to be hand written and that they had to be the reader’s own wording.
Almost every article I have read on the implementation of Zettelkasten focuses on the techniques for creating the notes and the methods of recording links; almost all talk about how the idea can be instituted in digital form; the notion of making notes for years before trying to organize them appears nowhere; the notion of making note by note comparisons appears nowhere.
People have probably been making notes on index cards and organizing them in piles for as long as there have been index cards. I see Zettelkasten as a means of revealing concepts rather than a means of organizing notes into categories. Notes linked by tags can only reveal which notes fit into a category which pre-existed the creation of that note. Filtering by tags can never reveal a connection which you had not consciously thought of before tagging.
You are correct in asserting that your system is not compatible with Zettelkasten. That does leave unanswered the question of whether using Zettelkasten would cause you to discover new connections or ideas which your system does not.
I cannot imagine that there are many people who would seriously contemplate implementing Zettelkasten as it is described.
All of that said, I confess that I have neither read the original book in German nor found an English translation. The one translation I found (of a short summary article) was of no assistance. I don’t know if the fault was with the translation or with an academic writing style designed more to impress than enlighten.
You would do a great service to the Zettelkasten community by reading those chapters discussing how the notes should be dealt with after they are made, and reporting your understanding.

Reading the book is on my long-term reading list. I can't promise quick results since with the decision of not using Zettelkasten myself, its priority is low.

Comment by Christian Tietze

So I have way fewer (12) and smaller (512097 word in total) org files than you do, but I quite like the distinction between org for TODOs and taking note of research ideas and paths to check out next (also as a kind of TODO) to solve a problem. I write to think and to program using org.
But the results of my research and thinking, if I want to have them available at a later date, reside in my Zettelkasten. I don't want to mix working memory and long term memory, so to speak. My Zettelkasten notes are like small blog posts to be read by myself, and I didn't get any benefit from adding unfinished thoughts to my Zettelkasten at all. It just adds noise and clutter. I cannot build upon these things.
So a separation is beneficial, I found. For people who live, write, and breathe inside their org files, this might all become tedious, though: Currently, I have around 6000 notes with 850k+ words in total in my Zettelkasten. I doubt org can handle this when you rely on org for TODOs and use agenda. That's a bit too much to lift in a comfortable time, I think. It's a bit sad, because I can see how org's features would make for a great Zettelkasten implementation, but apparently you currently cannot have your whole life in there without suffering some consequences. - For example, ignoring your Zettelkasten org files when building the agenda. From what I gathered about your blogging workflow, though, you like to mix things a lot and blog "in place,, and that's probably going to be a problem. Maybe not for a while, but eventually, as the archive grows, it could mean trouble.

Comment on "The life-changing magic of not tidying up"

Somebody sent me the link to "The life-changing magic of not tidying up" (The Imperfectionist). While the whole article is worth reading, I just want to give you some quotes here:

Inspired by the online popularity of Zettelkasten, a system for taking and connecting notes, I resolved to separate out my book notes from my ideas and my collection of quotations, then categorise and cross-reference the whole thing in an elegant fashion. Whereupon the quality and quantity of my creative output would (obviously) skyrocket.
That's not what happened. What happened was the opposite. The more order and organisation I imposed on the system, the less useful it became; the life just seemed to drain out of it. It started to require more work to maintain, but also that work started feeling like work. And it actually got harder to find new ideas, or quotes to illustrate things I was writing. A few weeks later, I abandoned the effort, and returned with relief to the mess.
In hindsight, one way of understanding what went wrong here is rather specific to note-taking: impose too much order on your notes, and you eliminate the serendipitous connections that are how ideas arise.


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