So what is a Zettelkasten?

The Zettelkasten, also known as a slip-box or note-box, was originally designed by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist of the 20th century. He created this analog box of notes that would cross-reference itself allowing him fast access to ideas relating to other ideas. If he was looking at his thoughts about one aspect of society and it reminded him of some completely different paper, he could link them. From that point forward, any time he had a thought about one, he could quickly pick up the other through his connections.

There is a distinctly wiki-like nature to that description. But there is more, especially as the Slip-Box is a process, more than an application or static tool.

With it, Luhmann was able to write 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles. Now I have no interest in writing so prolifically, but I love the idea about having my thoughts and their associations not only well-archived but easily accessible.

Similar to GTD, the process is tool agnostic. Luhmann originally built his notes using a pen, some notecards, and boxes to hold them. Obviously, he didn’t have any digital tools to help him in the process. Thankfully, here we are in the 21st century. We can use technology to make the process work a bit more smoothly.

In our next post, we’ll look at the process behind a Zettelkasten.

The Zettelkasten Process

In the last posts, I’ve noted a bit of the history of the Zettelkasten. But what of the process itself? As I mentioned, there are several interpretations and this one is my own. Feel free to argue with me in the comments.

The mechanics begins quite simply:

  1. Write a single idea per note card.
  2. Link related cards.

While there is definitely more, these two ideas compose the central engine. Again, some readers may recognize a parallel to a “wiki”, and in many ways, it is quite parallel. A wiki holds notes that link to other notes.

However, there are also several major differences. I’ve listed six, in order of most concrete to most conceptual:

The first difference is the use of what is termed an “Index”. The Index is a relatively small subset of cards that are, more or less, central. They can also act as keywords and concepts as well as useful entry points into the system.

The second is its use of a reference system. Whenever you read something or have an idea, you immediately document the source. That way, when you link to it from your notes, you will immediately have a way to get back to your source, be that for a refresher or for use in a bibliography.

The third is the invitation to think deeply. With a note-box, we have the opportunity to actively engage in a discussion with our notes. At our own pace, with a light touch or aggressive pursuit, we distill ideas, gathered or inspired, into our own words. We wonder, find the essence of ideas, and connect them together, giving them context. And sometimes, as we do so, we find new questions and ideas to pursue or set aside until we’re ready.

Through play and creation, we find what ideas mean to us, engaging in an excellent form of learning. By clarifying our thoughts, we make them more accessible to ourselves and others. We discover ideas and inconsistencies that were not first apparent.

A fourth major difference is the sense that our notes evolve over time. As we visit our notes, seeing them in new contexts every time, thinking with our new selves at every visit, we subject the note-box to evolutionary forces. We remove ideas that don’t make sense and strengthen those that do. The note-box increasingly reflects how we think, but enjoyably challenges us along the way.

A fifth major difference is the focus on developing meaning. It is a subtle but important matter. To illustrate, I’ll give an example with writing a task.

When we would like to work on something, but something else is nagging at us, we can write the “something else” as a task. That way, we set aside a competing interest so we can free up some of our precious attention for what we would like to do right now.

Meanwhile, with a note-box, we document connections. By doing so, we free up some of our precious working memory—that worktable of the mind we use for the now. By separating the work of creating connections from content, we can focus on the idea in front of us and its context in our own time.

Meaning, after all, is inherently about connectedness. The more connected an idea is throughout ourselves, others, conscious, and unconscious, the more meaningful it is. In this way, we actually work with meaning. We take ideas found in our surroundings and then integrate them into a context that is personally meaningful. By taking care with the notes we write, clearly considering what is relevant where, we discover and develop meaningful ideas for ourselves and perhaps others.

When we see previous ideas we’ve had and compare them to our current ones, we often find inspiration for new ideas and questions. We build an iterative process to develop thought.1

Finally, a sixth major difference is how we can now use our notes for developing our thoughts for presentations, such as papers, lectures, and the like. Too often, when in a position of having to develop a topic, we look to do so from scratch. Especially, if we are given a deadline and a minimum page count, the blank canvas can appear quite daunting. Instead, by having a solid set of interconnected notes, we have something to work from. We can rest on ideas we’ve already had and have a guided path to organize them, filling in blanks where needed.


Interested in learning how to organize your ideas, spark creative inspiration, and find your stuff easily? Check out Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink:

  1. Ahrens. How to Take Smart Notes. Createspace, 2017. p20