WNW - Two Kinds of Brains

How PARA and Zettlekasten compare and fit for me.

WNW - Two Kinds of Brains

The explosion of personal knowledge management is at present dominated by two schools of thought. The PARA method, promoted by Tiago Forte, and the Zettlekasten method, created by Nicholas Lumen.

Why It Matters:

Each system has its strengths and weaknesses. But in one sense they are designed to do different things. I combined the two, and that works well for me. But why bother?

Here's how I see it.

  • PARA is about organizing for productivity.
  • Zettlekasten is about organizing for discovery and insight.
Note: Zettlekasten means "slip box" in German, as in slip of paper. In English we would call it a note box.

Big Picture:

PARA stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. It is a way of organizing knowledge for action and it uses TIME as the great prioritizor.

  • Projects need to get done now
  • Areas will be done soon
  • Resources are for the future and,
  • Archives hold the past.

A slip box is all about surfacing knowledge to make it more discoverable. Lumen invented a paper wiki in the 1960s and generated an incredible number of academic papers and published something like 60 books in his career solo which is unheard of.

The secret to the Zettlekasten method is:

  • You have one idea per note
  • You cross link similar or relevant notes

A Zettlekasten is a kind of "thought train", where there is a lead idea (start card), and then little cargo wagons (note card) each holding an idea until you get to the caboose (end card). Because this system makes ideas atomic, the longer you use the system, the more connections you will create between cards on different trains. This is called linking your thinking. More than Forte's PARA, a Zettlekasten really does mimic the human brain's proclivity for association.

The Zettlekasten method became extremely popular with content creators and medical students. Why?

  • In medicine, everything is connected.
  • For content creation, if you "walk the path" of your "connections" you will generate a new insight, and a new piece of content.

A Zettlekasten is a tool for exploring your ideas and discovering new insights.

Def: An insight is an unexpected connection between two unrelated things.

My entire business was created by having one brilliant insight. For me it was this. Portable generators, video game consoles, a cargo trailer, and (at the time new large) flat panel screens could be combined to make a Dream living room on wheels for gamers. Hello GameTruck.

How To:

It is really challenging in one short not to explain how to put all of this together. But here's the top-level recipe.

  1. I replaced Lumen's "Master index" (the top or head) of his Zettlekasten with Fortes PARA structure.
  2. I created a set of macros and templates in Obsidian to allow me to link together my notes in sequences, making sure every note has a unique name, so notes don't conflict.

So in short, I use the Zettlekasten method to store and link my notes, but I organize the entire library according to PARA principles.


Why do I do this? Because I spend a lot of time and money reading, attending learning events, and listening to audio books. What is the point if that learning does not improve my life? I wanted a system to help me make the most of what I know. Using Zettlekasten dramatically increases my access to what I have learned. PARA helps me put it into practice. So

  • Zettlekasten method yields higher availability of knowledge.
  • PARA method yields greater productivity and lower stress.

Go Deeper:

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