What is Zettelkasten?

Jun 02 2020

"Zettelkasten" is a German word that literally translates to "note box". It is a system for developing thoughts that was develoepd by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann decades ago.

Zettelkasten has garnered a lot of hype in recent years, especially in tech circles and among productivity enthusiasts. This post is a brief introduction on this topic.

The system of a remarkably prolific scholar

Luhmann was very productive, having published about 600 publications (including over 60 books). He was also known for his works that would span vastly different topics: sociology, law, administrative science, philosophy, art, you name it.

He attributed much of his success to his note-taking system Zettelkasten. It is a system streamlined towards writing and idea generation. It was so effective for the job that it kept publishing even after Luhmann himself had died, as if it were a living creating on its own.

In his lifetime, Luhmann has created:

  • 90000 notes
  • Index with 1250 entries
  • And one extra box for literature notes with 15000 notes
  • Sounds like a lot, right?

    But it comes down to just ~6 notes per work day - much more achievable than you may have assumed!


    The building block

    Luhmann's original Zettelkasten was very simple in terms of components involved.

    It consisted of stacks of wooden drawers, and paper notes that go inside them:

    Image source: Universität Bielefeld

    Each note has a unique ID, a title, and a body containing the idea it describes. It would look something like this:

    Image source: Niklas Luhmann-Archiv, Universität Bielefeld

    That's about it in terms of the physical components. What made the method powerful though is how to use them to hold ideas.


    Letting the structure emerge

    Perhaps the most notable feature of the Zettelkasten method is how ideas are structured.

    In traditional notebooks, you have a hierarchical taxonomy or a topic structure, where categories are compartmentalized and siloed.

    In the Zettelkasten method, it is "bottom-up". You add new ideas one Zettel at a time, and link them to existing ones.

    Structure simply emerges from the interconnections of individual notes. Each note is effectively a building block of idea that is connected to other notes via references.


    Following the principles

    While the original system may seem like a laborious task for modern workers, the essence of the system can be captured in a handful of principles that are easy to follow:

  • Each note should contain one idea and one idea only. This makes the linking of ideas easy.
  • Each note should be self-contained and comprehensible on its own. This allows notes to be mixed, moved around, rearranged.
  • Link each new note to existing notes. Luhmann said that (in German originally) “each note is just an element that derives its quality from the network of links in the system. A note that is not connected to the network will be lost, will be forgotten by the Zettelkasten”
  • Don’t worry about the structure: As mentioned in the above section, the structure organically emerges.
  • Don’t delete old notes. You may reivist old ideas later. Also, this way your Zettelkasten can reflect how your thinking has evolved over time.
  • A Zettel doesn't contain all the content related to one subject, but rather an entry into a line of thoughts - entry points to get into the relevant as quickly as possible.


    A digital version

    You may realize that the reference and grouping functionalities are quite similar to the web tools we are used to today: hyperlinks and tags.

    Given the general nature of note-taking apps, many software tools can be adapted to enable the Zettelkasten method. After all, the analog counterpart consisted of not much more than papers and boxes.

    Or you can consider using Rumin , which is designed to accommodate a similar structure, along with powerful features. One thing that makes Rumin stand out is the AI engine that helps you automatically link to existing notes, as opposed to you doing that manually. This saves you lots of time while you just focus on learning and growing your knowledge base.


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