I didn't really try the Zettelkasten Method. I jotted a few notes on cards, complete with indexing designations, over the course of a day. Then the notecards migrated to a back corner of my desk, and eventually made their way to the bottom of the Big Bin Of Office Supplies. Such has always been the fate of my paper journals.

I reverted to my habit of jotting ideas into LessWrong draft posts. The best camera is the one that's with you. Perhaps the best note-taking system is the one you actually use. If a post catches fire and I publish it, I may remember and pursue the idea in the future. If not, I'm fine with forgetting about those half-baked ideas. Zettelkasten is for letting you write freely and link ideas together without the structure imposed by a page. Instead of having a huge number of linked notecards, I have a web of published ideas that are accumulating over time. Maybe I don't need a new system.

But what would have happened if I'd really invested in Zettelkasten, even though it didn't grab me at first?

Some people don't do enough experimentation. That sounds like akrasia. Others let failed experiments drag on too long. There's the sunk cost fallacy, perhaps, or just sheer force of habit.

I tend to start experiments impulsively, with no firm commitments, and give up when the new habit doesn't catch on. With Zettelkasten, I bought the note cards after I finished reading the how-to post; jotted in them for an hour or two; and forgot about them. It was only a few dollars and a few minutes: guess it wasn't all it's cracked up to be. 

The gears of symbolic experimentation

This is symbolic experimentation, and it's worse than doing nothing at all. I can feel as though I've explored many ways to optimize my life, when in fact I've been accumulating failed attempts to change my habits. The anecdotal opinions I gather from these experiences are worse than sheer ignorance. They're a bunch of fish stories.

Symbolic experimentation starts with a suggestion. Try Zettelkasten! Try running! Try art!

Next, there's an action you can easily take to "get started." Buy notecards! Go for a run! Smoke weed and get out your colored pencils!

And that's it. A suggestion and an immediate actionable step are the gears of symbolic experimentation. It's a motivational machine just stable enough to crank out some of your money or attention before the gears fall apart.

To turn symbolic experimentation into real change, I'd like to define the notion of what it means to give something a good try.

Defining a good try

Let's take a few stabs at loose definition, from a few different angles. A good try is:

  1. A meaningful threshold well beyond the minimum. If buying a set of ring-bound index cards and jotting a few notes is the least you can do to try Zettelkasten, a good try is something more. Perhaps it's committing to use that note-taking system every time you write, for two months.
  2. Disruptive. A good try requires you to alter your schedule, adapt your flow, impose restrictions, overcome challenges. Zettelkasten might not interface well with your old system, and might feel cumbersome at first.
  3. For its own sake. You can't know what the long-term outcome will be; that's the whole point of experimentation. Form a relationship with the thing itself, rather than insisting it immediately help you achieve your ends. Don't assume you can come up with a meaningful metric for whether Zettelkasten has been useful before you've spend a significant amount of time with it.
  4. Respectful. You're coming to an idea you don't understand, trying to wrap your head around it, and accepting confusion as you work to gain knowledge and experience. Try to appreciate a new idea, like Zettelkasten, the way you'd appreciate an interesting stranger who might become a friend.
  5. Committed. Pay money. Tell your friends. Imagine before you invest. Schedule it. How is Zettelkasten, or running, or therapy, going to fit into your life? What does it mean to you?

Lock-in vs. a habit vs. a good try

Some systems control your behavior by creating barriers, inconveniences, or punishments for changing or quitting: national borders, enrolling in medical school, buying a mattress. That's lock-in.

Some behaviors impose themselves on you through hacking your reward mechanism, such as spending too much time on video games, or staying at a job for the money and status. You give them more than the minimum effort, they're disruptive, they're done for their own sake. Often there's a learning curve that you accept, and there are commitments involved, like buying a new video game system. That's a habit.

A good try is most relevant when there's no big, externally-imposed or externally-generated punishment for quitting or staying.

You don't have to try everything

I have a long list of behaviors I've decided never to try. I have a list of others that I've given up. Others are habits I want to break, or forms of lock-in that channel my life.

A good try is costly. You can't dabble in everything, and you can only give a select few things a good try.

Defining a good try is different from setting an intention. Maybe it's a precursor. You can define a "good try" for a certain activity and ultimately conclude that it's not worth it. You can attempt a "good try" only to conclude that you didn't carry it out.

The Good Try Rule

If a procedure doesn't test the phenomenon in a meaningful way, it's not an experiment. Buying a set of index cards on a ring and jotting a few notes one afternoon isn't a meaningful test of the Zettelkasten method. Although I have done that much, it wouldn't be honest to say that I've "tried the Zettelkasten method." But I don't feel any twinge of dishonesty when I write that I did try it.

That worries me.

It means there's a gap between my "sense of integrity" and my actual behavior, a disconnect between my "sense of personal experience" and my memory of taking specific actions.

To rectify that, I could follow The Good Try Rule:

Make it a good try, or you haven't really tried it.

Define what a "good try" is before the attempt.


Can you apply the Good Try Rule to itself? What would it mean to give the Good Try Rule a good try?

  1. Remember the concept. Think, talk, and write about it, daily if possible, for at least a couple months.
  2. Apply the concept. Go through memories, and redefine most of the things I've tried only once as things I "haven't really tried." Shift from thinking about life improvement projects in terms of what I "want to try" to in terms of what I "want to give a good try."
  3. Visualize what a "good try" looks like, and the effort it takes, for a variety of activities I've considered.
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The ability and intention to discard and change individual parts of a system as needed as soon as it becomes obvious what's working and what isn't is absolutely critical to the "good try". Keep what works, send everything else back.

Something I've learned from listening to many, many episodes of Productivity Alchemy: An important feature of a "good try" plan is the freedom to change the system you're testing in certain ways. For any given "solution", the exact method as presented may not be the best for your particular situation, but could certainly hold a gem of goodness for your life if integrated with something else (maybe even something else you're already doing). A good "good try" must include the power to iterate and fail relatively quickly on partial systems.

For example, Bullet Journaling is often presented as an artform. Just search for "bullet journal ideas" for literally thousands of examples of this. And there's something to that approach, even! Increasing the aesthetic value of your organizational system can decrease the friction of actually using it. Of course, you could easily find that you're spending more time prettying up your journal than actually getting stuff done. If you happen to find the "aesthetic cult" of Bullet Journal first, you might think that's the point of the system, and you may discard the whole system on those merits. But the core of the Bullet Journal system isn't the stickers and washi tape, it's the running to-do list with easy-to-read indicators on each item. If you didn't give yourself the freedom to explore and iterate on the system, you are likely to give Bullet Journaling (as stated) a "good try" (as stated) without ever discovering that fact. If that happens, you have not successfully evaluated the system, only one part of the broader culture that has developed as a result of that system.

This is symbolic experimentation, and it's worse than doing nothing at all. I can feel as though I've explored many ways to optimize my life, when in fact I've been accumulating failed attempts to change my habits. The anecdotal opinions I gather from these experiences are worse than sheer ignorance. They're a bunch of fish stories.

Now that you mention it, this is definitely a problem, at least for me. The times I've tried something, but haven't given it a "good try" versus the times I've actually followed through with that thing seem to be weighted too similarly than they should. It's good to distinguish between these two types of exploration.

A corollary for this realization, assuming this bias is common in the population, is that you should probably ask others how long they tried doing something they're recommending you do or don't do.

I'm skeptical about how effective "good tries" can be as a substitute for lock ins and creating habits. There's something to be said about having a pre-defined exit-condition & goal state you're attempting to reach though. In combination with TAPs, peer pressure, and monetary lock-in (using something like Beeminder, or a friend taking collateral and then destroying it if you don't follow through) the addition of a "good try" rule as an evaluation metric of how much you should update as a result of your experiments is probably a good idea.

... the addition of a "good try" rule as an evaluation metric of how much you should update as a result of your experiments is probably a good idea.


This is exactly how I imagined the Good Try Rule would fit into a life change plan, so thank you for articulating it so nicely. The reason I wanted to contrast a "good try" with lock-in and habits is that at any moment in time, a person already is subject to many forms of lock-ins and many habits.

As they take stock of their past efforts, they will find that they've done lots of things consistently in the past. I've been a citizen of the USA for my whole life, and have a long-standing habit of biting my fingernails. The former is lock-in; the latter is a habit. But I wouldn't say that I've been giving US citizenship or nail-biting a "good try." These are accidental or externally-imposed pressures driving my behavior.

So in going through our memories to question when and whether we've given something a "good try," we can't just use the behaviors where we've shown consistency over time. Instead, we want to look for examples of changing our behavior consistently over the long term, and we didn't face pre-existing external pressures to do so. That gives us a better sense of where we gave something a good try.

But an important part of giving something a good try is self-imposed lock-in and creating habits deliberately, as you point out.