Zettelkasten anyone?

A bit off the beaten path, but thought I’d give it a shot, as there are lots of thinkers here…
Anyone using the zettelkasten system created by Luhmann?
A program is available, although the docs are written in German and translated, and ultimately…lacking.

More software at this location, along with ways to use e.g. DEVONthink to maintain a zettelkasten.

I’ve been drawn to zettelkasten for a couple of years and the potential that seems to lie within.
Anyone using the system? experiences? thoughts?



See Commonplace/Zettelkasten app

The method has been helpful but not ground-breaking for me over the last two years or so. I don’t pretend to be following it exactly, but it has led me to review linked notes on material I would have forgotten otherwise. I think it makes most sense if you’re doing ethnographic or historical research, esp. with grounded theory, with an interest in discourse, multivocality, that kind of thing – for a body of notes that are primarily factual, I don’t think it would offer a lot of advantages over more conventional search.

1 Like

Manfred Kuehn has written about Luhmann and Zettelkastens frequently on his blog. Kuehn also translated Luhmann’s essay on “slip boxes” (Zettelkasten). I am not a persistent user of the technique – the investment in time never proved worthwhile for my work.

I know on the Mac many folks use Tinderbox for their zettels. Christian Tiezte produced a Zettlekasten app – I find it clunky, personally. (The philosophical debate on zettel technique between Kuehn and Tiezte is interesting.)

Many zettlers find wiki software to be a good fit for their zettels. VoodooPad or Trunk Notes on Mac. The premier wiki software, IMO, is ConnectedText on Windows. Unfortunately, the author is slowly abandoning support for CT.

The keys to an effective Zettlekasten are persistent attention to the technique of encoding the reference numbers for the cards (real or virtual), and curation of the individual notes to ensure links are recorded. The technique is more about managing a deck of notes in whatever physical or virtual format you choose, and less about how to take notes.

1 Like

I’m using The Archive by Christian Tietzte. It was recently improved and I’m finding it a worthy successor to nvALT which has been my go-to for a long time. https://zettelkasten.de/the-archive/help/.


Found a great book on zettelkasten, in case anyone arrives here from a search:



Read the intro & saw this important point: “Unfortunately, David Allen’s technique cannot simply be transferred to the task of insightful writing. The first reason is that GTD relies on clearly defined objectives, whereas insight cannot be predetermined by definition” (11)


After looking at Sublime_ZK, and Zkn^3 (both infinitely complex), The Archive is looking pretty good. Apparently, I bought it in July too :slight_smile:

I should be able to point DEVONthink at the folder(s) where the notes are, and have the magic hat functionality. This will be nice as DT is also pointed at my PDFs stored in Bookends that are on iCloud. This should give me the magic of zettelkasten as well as DT’s AI.

I could have really used all this info when I started grad school. Glad to be finding it now though.

When you say pointing DevonThink at the folder, you mean having DT index the folder, correct? And then you have to index it again if the contents of the folder changes?

I’m still ignorant of that aspect of DT.

I’m curious about the context of that comment. Writing isn’t magic, it is a process requiring physical steps like any other work that GTD helps manage.

It’s worth downloading the first chapter of the linked book (free) above.

Here’s the longer passage that follows that quote:

We usually start with rather vague ideas that are bound to change until they become clearer in the course of our research (cf. Ahrens, 2014, 134f.). Writing that aims at insight must therefore be organised in a much more open manner. The other reason is that GTD re- quires projects to be broken down into smaller, concrete “next steps.” Of course, insightful writing or academic work is also done one step at a time, but these are most often too small to be worth writing down (looking up a footnote, rereading a chap- ter, writing a paragraph) or too grand to be finished in one go. It is also difficult to anticipate which step has to be taken after the next one. You might notice a footnote, which you check quickly on. You try to understand a paragraph and need to look up something for clarification. You make a note, go back to reading and then jump up to write down a sentence that formed itself in your mind.

Writing is not a linear process. We constantly have to jump back and forth between different tasks. It wouldn’t make any sense to micromanage ourselves on that level. Zooming out to the bigger picture does not really help, either, because then we have next steps like “writing a page.” That does not really help with navigating the things you have to do to write a page, often a whole bunch of other things that can take an hour or a month. One has to navigate mostly by sight. These are probably the reasons why GTD never really caught on in academia…

This fits my experience. For tracking Service and Teaching tasks, as well as personal logistical stuff, I find using a loosely GTD-based system in OmniFocus works great. For writing projects, especially longer ones, I have tasks in OF but in practice they are more along the lines of block out an hour or two to work on XXX. I then have TaskPaper files corresponding to the structure of the writing project with lots of finely detailed tasks that would just clutter up OF, with tags like @nextAction @lit @review @surveyXX (where XX is one of several longitudinal data sets that needs analysis) @openQ @structure etc. I used to keep these in inline comments in Scrivener but have been working to separate the task lists from the mss. In practice, these are more things to keep in mind at the next writing session rather than tasks per se.


Sounds like we have a similar process, even though you are an academic (I think) and I’m a tech journalist, doing 5-8 articles a week.

I use a loosely based GTD process to keep track of concrete next actions I need to do. I have a conference coming in a month; I need to lock down a hotel room for that. Meeting coming up later today; I need to double-check to be sure we set a location for that meeting. This morning I sent a final email to an interview subject who’s been hard to get in touch with and I crossed that item off my to-do list; at this point he’ll either get back to me or not and I’m done nagging him.

But the core of my work is actually researching and writing articles. Everything else is just “work about work.” And for that, my to-dos just consist of: “Work on open source article” (daily recurring), write article about Gitlab, and so on.

1 Like

Yes, that’s right.
When I said pointing, I did mean indexing.
When files change, you can update indexed files to see the changes.

1 Like

@MitchWagner you are correct whereas writing is not magic just a process requiring steps. However, I find it to be a non-Linear process where you can jump all around as the creative mind takes over. That is one reason I love Scrivener as it embraces this Non-Linear process.

The GTD Next action in writing should just be a verb aka WRITE 500 words, EDIT Chapter 1, RESEARCH new product, but I only write Non-Fiction and would not know anything to comment on writing Novels, Fiction, Scripts etc.

I have never experienced Writer’s block in my life but this may because I am writing about real stuff and not having to imagine a storyline or characters

I usually do 500-1500-word articles, and I write those very linearly: Start with headline, then first paragraph, second paragraph, and so on.

However, I’m working on a multi-sourced longer article now and doing it in chunks which I’ll move around later. For now, I’m just grinding through my notes and converting them to written paragraphs. I’m using Folding Text to organize everything, same thing I use to write my everyday, much shorter articles.

1 Like

I tried using this for a couple months early in the summer and it didn’t really click for my workflows (scientist/academic), but I can see the appeal for people that write a lot like Ryan Holiday (he uses a similar system, but his is purely on notecards written by hand)

1 Like

I would be interested in hearing your workflow, if you’re willing to share.
I’m a PhD student (cognitive motor control), and seeking ways to integrate and manage information.

I’ve read many papers, highlighted, taken notes in the margins, occasionally take notes on separate paper, but it seems there is no product of that reading. If I return to an article after a year, I am essentially starting over.

I’m not sure I will be able to use all the ‘threads’, etc. that are part of the zettelkasten system, but the rich and succinct artifacts (notes/slips) one creates while using the system should be helpful. The linking to other notes within a note should be helpful as well, and I can use DEVONthink’s magic hat for serendipitous discoveries that I might have missed in my linking.

I suppose every old scholar has had the experience of reading something in a book which was significant to him, but which he could never find again. Sure he is that he read it there, but no one else ever read it, nor can he find it again, though he buy the book and ransack every page.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wouldn’t call my workflow highly developed, but it works to keep me organized and on top of my craft.

Almost everything that I read as far as journal articles are pulled down from publisher websites as .ris files that include all citation information and usually a pdf of their publication. I have a Hazel rule set up to watch my Download folder that, after downloading the .ris file, opens Mendeley and moves the file into it. Mendeley then pulls down all citation info, etc. (Another Hazel rule then deletes that .ris file from the Download folder once it’s been in there for a day) I will often use citation manager software to read PDFs, but more often than I will open them in other apps such as Notability so I can read and write in the margins, much like you do. I may also type up some notes and thoughts in a Pages doc and save them with the citation as an attachment.

As far as reviewing materials often enough for them to stick in your memory, there’s a couple of ways to do this intentionally: if you’re an OmniFocus user, you can set a reminder to occasionally review these notes (drop an alias from the file location into the notes section of your task, if that works or simply put a copy of your notes there).

Something I’ve been doing recently (and I’m astonished with the profundity it’s having on me) is using Anki as I read things. Anki is more than a sophisticated flash card app, it can be used to put in questions about things that I’ve read, figures and facts, and keeps the details in my mind for as long as I review the cards regularly.


I’ve bought and been reading the book linked above – this is one of the central problems the method aims to avoid (and I am certainly guilty of the same). It’s all about writing down notes in your own words and with your projects in mind.

I have a lot of highlight extraction → markdown → Ulysses sheets linked to reference manager workflows in place, but the Zettelkasten method as described is implicitly quite critical of that approach - or at least it would see it as completely inadequate or only a very preliminary step.

Another observation…it really seems oriented towards reading of secondary literature. I’m not convinced that it’s necessary the right way to work with ethnographic or historical primary source data, transcripts, etc., where it’s often vital to have very detailed notes on content as well as the more conceptual kinds of notes that are advocated by the method.

Anyway if you’re serious about trying it, I’d spend the $9.99 for the book.

1 Like

@beck has released new videos on her Zettelkasten and Tinderbox workflow.
I’m looking forward to watching it!

1 Like

Niklas Luhmann’s Zettel has been digitized and placed online. There is a lot to observe and learn from Luhmann’s note taking / zettel practice by browsing his card sets, whether you read German or not.


Luhmann described his Zettelkasten practice in these essays, translated by Manfred Kuehn.