How Progressive Summarization and Zettelkasten Get Along

12/19/21 • 04m

Let’s first get on the same page.

Progressive summarization, as it is taught in Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course, is an aspect of the “Distill” portion of CODE where distillation of a source (article, book, etc) happens over time, often on a need-to-use basis, as new projects come into focus.

This differs from the zettelkasten approach where distilling happens much earlier in the process, often close to the time of capture, and often without any project in mind. My conrade in productivity, Guia Carmona, made a great point recently that where progressive summarization uses the C.O.D.E. methodology, zettelkasten uses a C.D.O.E. methodology. In zettelkasten, Distill directly follows Capture but comes before Organize. This is an awesome observation on Guia's part, and in my opinion speaks to the differences between taking a project-forward approach vs an area-forward approach to getting things done.

Two Different Approaches

Both project-forward (progressive summarization) and area-forward (zettelkasten) are wonderful ways of approaching productivity. Each have their own benefits. Although most people will oscillate between the two based on the needs of their life at any give time, there are some differences worth mentioning. These can be summed up in how each approach is intended to be employed down the road, when inspiration strikes.

Let's start by looking at the project-forward approach, which often starts with a declaration:

"I want to write about PKM."

This is often followed by a query:

"What resources have I captured could be progressively summarized to help me do that?"

In the project-forward example above, the order of events looks like this:

  • Defining a project leads to...
  • Sifting through previously captured resources, which are then...
  • Progressively summarized to help with the project

Here, resources are distilled after a project has been decided on.
This order of events differs from working with a zettelkasten in one distinct way. Working with a zettelkasten often starts with a query rather than a statement:

"Dearest, Zettelkasten. What should I write about today?"

This is often followed by a declaration:

"Oh, here are a sequence of previously distilled and linked notes on PKM. Maybe I should write about that!"

Here, the project (ie. writing an article on PKM) comes out of the area (zettelkasten), which tells you what to write about. In other words, with a zettelkasten the project will often come last. With progressive summarization, the project will often come first.

To put it yet another way:

  • Project-forward = a declaration followed by a query
  • Area-forward = a query followed by a declaration

What Are the Benefits

There are also different, though equally rich benefits to be had from each approach. Because progressive summarization delays the distillation process until a project requires it, capturing and organizing can happen fairly quickly. A person may capture a note or article, organize it quickly within the PARA system, and move on with their life feeling confident that once a project comes to light, enough previously captured resources will be available for further distillation.

Zettelkasten flips this benefit. Because distillation happens early on, the area-forward, zettelkasten approach means there is more work up front. But, your future self will thank you, since you will almost never be without a writing project to work on. The distillation of ideas into highly refined, atomic notes, which are linked to one another, means that whenever you want to write a blog post, article, or book, you can rest assured knowing that you can always dive into your zettelkasten and be excited to find new connections that can easily be converted into writing.

Are Zettelkasten and Progressive Summarization Compatible?

Now that we see some of the ways zettelkasten and progressive summarization differ, one important question remains: Are zettelkasten and progressive summarization compatible?
The short answer: Absolutely!

First, zettelkasten is not in competition with building a second brain, PARA, or CODE. It serves a unique function (linking atomic ideas in order to enhance creative output), and fits neatly into your PARA system as an Area, where you will tend to your zettelkasten just as you would your relationship or your garden.

Secondly, progressive summarization and zettelkasten have different strengths and can therefore be combined to enhance one's writing. Progressive summarization is great for writing off of or through other people's work, commenting on articles, writing book reviews, giving a deep analysis of a resource, or coming to a greater understanding of the media you encounter. Maintaining a zettelkasten is primarily an output machine, forcing writers to link many of their own thoughts to one another so as to make writing an almost effortless task. While writing your next blog post, you could easily use progressive summarization to summarize and distill material you are citing, while surrounding it with your own ideas that have been previously connected in your zettelkasten.

In short, neither of these methodologies is at odds with one another. As any writer knows, you take inspiration as it comes. Neither Zettelkasten, PARA, CODE, progressive summarization, or even GTD are a substitute for the other. Just as PARA does not replace GTD, but rather enhances it, your zettelkasten will not replace PARA, but instead become an aspect of it. All of these methodologies have their place and purpose. The more fluent you become in each, the more skillfully you'll be able to employ them. 🌴

Bob is the author of Sitting with Spirits: Exploring the Unseen World In the Margins of Christianity; The House of I Am Mirrors: And Other Poems; Acupressure For Beginners; and The Power of Stretching. You can stay up to date on his doings and goings by signing up for his weekly email “The High Pony: Really Good Insights for Living an Inspired Life.” bobdoto.computer for everything else.