What is a Zettelkasten?

Zettelkasten has come up in productivity discussions here and elsewhere in the Macoverse. I didn’t have a good handle on what a Zettelkasten is until I found this explanation:

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) conceived of Zettelkasten as a simple but powerful way to take and use notes. Sort of a personal wikipedia, based on index cards rather than computers.

MK, writing at the blog Taking Note, says Luhmann’s index cards system rejects alphabetical organization, or hierarchical categories. “Luhmann’s notecard system is different from that of others because of the way he organized the information, intending it not just for the next paper or the next book, as most other researchers did, but for a life-time of working and publishing.”

Instead, he opted for organisation by numbers. Every slip would receive a number, independently of the information on it, starting with 1, and potentially continuing to infinity. Since his slips were relatively small (slightly larger than 5 x 8 cards, or Din-A 6, to be precise), he often had to continue on other slips the information or train of thought started on one slip. In this way, he would end up with Numbers like 1/1 and 1/2 and 1/3 etc. He wrote these numbers in black ink at the top of the slip, so that they could easily be seen when a slip was removed and then put back in the file.

Apart from such linear continuations of topics on different slips, Luhmann also introduced a notation for branchings of topics. Thus, when he felt that a certain term needed to be further discussed or the information about it needed to be supplemented, he would begin a new slip that added a letter, like a, b, or c to the number. So, a branching from slip 1/6 could have branches like 1/6a or 1/6b, up to 1/6z. These branching connections were marked by red numbers within the text, close to the place that needed further explanation or information. Since any of these branches might require further continuations, he also had many slips of the form 1/6a1, 1/6a2, etc. And, of course, any of these continuations can be branched again, so he could end up with such a number as:

21/3d26g53 for – who else? – Habermas.

These internal branchings can continue ad infinitum – at least potentially. This is one of the advantages of the system. But there are others: (i) Because the numbers given to the slips are fixed and never change. Any slip can refer to any other slip by simply writing the proper number on the slip; and, what is more important, the other slip could be found, as long as it was properly placed in the stack or file. (ii) This system makes internal growth of the Zettelkasten possible that is completely independent of any preconceived ordering scheme. In fact, it leads to a kind of emergent order that is independent of any preconception, and this is one of the things that makes surprise or serendipity. (iii) it makes possible a register of keywords that allow one to enter into the system at a certain point to pursue a certain strand of thought. (iv) it leads to meaningful clusters within the system. Areas on which one has worked a lot are much more spatially extended than those on which one has not worked. (v) There are no privileged places in the note-card system, every card is as important as every other card, and no hierarchy is super-imposed on the system. The significance of each card depends on its relation to other cards (or the relation of other cards to it). It is a network; it is not “arboretic.” Accordingly, it in some ways anticipates hypertext and the internet.

Luhmann claimed his Zettelkasten system resulted in surprise insights - he referred to it as his collaborator.


Luhmann was the Tim Berners-Lee of the index card.
I did some research on this system, but ultimately didn’t take it up.
Ryan Holiday is big on note cards too.
Maybe one day… I do like the physicality of using notecards.


I like writing things by hand … in theory. I like the idea of being the guy who carries around a notebook, like Indiana Jones’s father, and writes down all my brilliant thoughts.

In reality, thumb-typing ftw.

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Look here https://zettelkasten.de/
Find a lot of good ideas and content here. The better nvalt version is quite nice and is a post about a sublime text plugin. That works quite well for me


Glad to see someone is keeping the torch burning. Looks like a great website. Thanks for posting!

In theory, I would use a fountain pen — in practice, a rollerball is more practical.

I’d recommend (and have in my RSS) the Taking Note blog linked above. The author is on Windows and can be quite opinionated but has clearly given a lot of thought to notes and their relation to cognition and creativity.

This intrigued me as a science researcher, so I gave The Archive a test run, and found that I used it the same way I used nvAlt: a place to quickly dump info for later keeping. But I soon found that the things I like to do when keeping notes (dropping in a quick picture or link, PDF, etc.) never really seemed to work as well for me as Evernote. Plus I really missed having a filing system that I could set up like EN, with stacked folders and whatnot.

I used to think that, would use a fountain pen for about a week a month until I got tired of it. Now I write with fountain pens every day. What’s not to love?

Agreed (now). I have a small collection, Pilot Vanishing Point, Sailor 1911, Waterman, Pilot Prera, and a few others.
I’m still not big on shading and line width variation in normal daily use (note taking and what not), but can see how people could like it.

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Let me guess, you heard McSparky discussing the Pen Addict podcast in Feb 2018, and thought “who has time for that nonsense,” then one week you were one podcast short for your commute and it all went downhill from there?

No, that was me… :joy:

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I`ll start calling it “my Indiana Jones organizer”. :smiley:

Is that a meisterstück? :thinking:

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Liking that seasoned leather

You don’t think it’s too skeuomorphic ?

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Apologies to all for hijacking the thread with the fountain pen diversion. Back to Zettelkasten.

I use Windows OneNote at work and nowadays Apple Notes at home, and thought my system was a digitized version of Bullet Journaling. After a while I heard of Zettelkasten and wanted to see what that had to offer, which led me to this thread. I now see that my notetaking method has something in common with Zettelkasten as well. Maybe it’s a kind of Bulletkasten.

I stopped handwriting work notes years ago when I realized I never read them again and couldn’t search them easily. After reading about Bullet Journal I found a way to replicate it in OneNote. OneNote has lots of user configurable bullet types. Instead of hand copying one day’s unresolved tasks to the next day, in OneNote you can just duplicate the page and delete whatever you have done, leaving the unresolved tasks with empty checkboxes. It’s also great for screenshots and web links.

The key to Zettelkasten appears to be the unique id for each card. I already do this by titling each note with a date stamp plus unique identifiers. OneNote allows you to link cards by entering their names between square brackets. However, OneNote also has instantaneous search, so unique IDs are not the only way to find information. I keep a personal OneNote plus a shared one for each project.

Altogether I think electronic notetaking is essential for information that must be kept and referenced in future.

So, once you get back into pens, how do you build a daily writing habit? I went back to keeping a paper notebook for transitory notes, the day’s priorities, sketches, diagrams and, more recently, a grid of colored squares for time tracking.

I find writing essential to learning, so my original motivation to get back into pens was for study.

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