The Good Try Rule

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.