The zettelkasten method of note-taking and personal knowledge management is undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately. There have been a spate of articles, blog posts, and even an entire book about the method in the last year or so, as well as the release of several new software tools specifically designed with the zettelkasten method in mind. As a longtime user of the method myself—a topic I’ve discussed here before—I’m happy to see an increase of interest in the method. However, I do find some of the advice floating around out there to be of marginal quality. So, I thought it time to offer my own take on zettelkasten method from the perspective of an academic researcher, which is, after all, where zettelkasten got its start.
In what follows, I will lay out my thinking on the what, why, and how of the zettelkasten method. I’ll start be giving a brief description of what the zettelkasten method is, followed by why it is a sound approach to addressing the problems that researchers and knowledge workers have faced for a very long time. Finally, I’ll describe in general terms how to implement and use the zettelkasten over the long term. Of course, what I describe here is my own take on the issue. There are differences in approach and in specific implementation that are equally as valid. I am not claiming that what I describe below is “the way” and certainly not “the only way.” But it is one way of approaching zettelkasten that I have used for almost 15 years and it has helped me to produce books, journal articles, news and commentary pieces, blog posts, and more.
What Is The Zettelkasten Method?
Before we go too much further, we should probably pause to define, in the most basic terms, what we mean by zettelkasten. The word itself is German and means “slip box.” It is literally a box with notes written on slips of paper or index cards. So, a zettelkasten is a thing, a storage device.
But zettelkasten is also a method of taking notes and managing information. The method and the thing go hand-in-hand. As a method, zettelkasten involves creating those slips that will be stored in the box. And that zettelkasten method prescribes that each slip or card contains one main idea or fact. This has been called the “principle of atomicity” by the great guys, Chrisian and Sascha, over at Zettelkasten.de. These slips or cards are organized variously using some combination of categories, a keyword index, and direct links between slips/cards. The goal of the zettelkasten method is to facilitate the analysis and synthesis of ideas and information, as well as creativity and discovery of connections among seemingly unrelated ideas and information, over a potentially extended period of time.
The zettelkasten method can be thought of as a meta-method working on top of or alongside other, more specific or specialized methods of knowledge production and management. In some ways, one can think of it as a qualitative method similar to grounded theory, a topic to which I may return in a future post. However, there’s no reason that zettelkasten method can’t be used by quantitative scholars as well for managing their reading notes and evolving theoretical ideas and projects over a long period of time. Of course, though traditionally used by scholars, the method is seeing perhaps its greatest uptick in interest recently from designers, software developers, entrepreneurs, and other creatives and knowledge workers outside the world of academic research. That said, in what follows, I will focus my attention primarily on the use of zettelkasten method in academic research as that is the use case about which I am most familiar.
We are all bombarded with information. We read and take notes or highlight passages in books and articles. We watch tutorials or lectures on YouTube and listen to podcasts, about which we may or may not take notes. Sometimes we don’t even take notes because we don’t have a clear idea how to structure them and where to store them for later use. Even for the notes we do manage to take, it’s often hard to find and effectively make use of them later. They are scattered and in different formats. We have more information and notes than ever but less ability to do anything productive with them.
As scholars and researchers we also have the challenge of building and maintaining a coherent program of search over a long period of time. So we need a way of managing our project ideas, reading notes, and our own thoughts that will stand the test of time. Highlights and margin notes in hundreds of scattered books and articles and notebooks is not a great long term strategy. Luckily, there is a tried and true method for managing our knowledge more effectively over the long term. As I’m sure you can guess, the answer is found in the zettelkasten method.
Why Use Zettelkasten Method?
The general reason for using zettelkasten method is, as we said above, related to longterm storage and creation of knowledge. But the more specific reasons for using the method will vary from user to user. A traditional scholar will have different needs than an entrepreneur or software developer. In all cases, however, zettelkasten promises to promote a systematic approach to generating insight by encouraging us to make connections among the ideas and information in our notes.
The next promise of the zettelkasten is that these benefits to creativity and insight increase over time as we add more notes, tag them, categorize them, and link them together.
At least in the scholar’s original use of the method, it was meant to be a more systematic, even scientific means of generating new knowledge and interpretations of the world. For newer users of the method, the goal might be producing new products or business ventures. Whatever the case, the zettelkasten method is meant to help us create and contribute. Though it serves as a personal store of knowledge, it should not merely be such. We are not merely building up a private collection that never sees the light of day. This is another variant on “the collector’s fallacy.” The goal should be to make a contribution by creating something new.
Finally, the atomic, recombinable nature of notes in the zettelkasten promises to make writing up and sharing our insights an easier (though by no means easy) process. There seems to be a misconception among some zettelkasten proponents that we add notes and links and then, one day, the creative insights just emerge and the essays, books, products and businesses write, make, or form themselves. As a longtime user of the method, I can say for certain this is not what really happens. Creating is still hard work. Zettelkasten is no get rich quick scheme. That said, it absolutely does make the hard work easier than it otherwise would have been and, I believe, can improve the creativity and quality of the product in the process.
How To Implement Zettelkasten Method?
So let’s say you want to give the zettelkasten method a try. How do you get started? Well, it’s deceptively simple. First is to take notes as you read. Whether you take a quote or not, always write a short summary in your own words of the source overall and of any key passages that are of particular interest to you or relevant to your ongoing research. In doing so, place one idea, argument, or fact on each slip or card. A slip or card is more a metaphor these days. It could be a note in a note-taking application like Evernote, a single text file on your computer, or even a line or paragraph in a document that you plan to break out into an individual note of its own later.
Whatever the case, be sure to include a full citation to the source from which you got the idea or information. This should be the case even if you are taking your notes in a single document. Again, each note in that document should ideally end up becoming its own, “atomic” note later. So, we have to make sure we’ll know the source of the ideas and information once they are broken apart into small notes that end up going their own way and perhaps even being recombined with notes from many other sources later.
If appropriate, you can also include a short comment containing your thoughts or reactions. If your comment is longer than a few sentences, however, it should probably be its own standalone memo–more on those below–that includes a link back to the reading note that inspired it.
Next, at minimum you should categorize and tag your notes. I prefer to categorize a note for what kind of note it is (more on that later) and tag it with keywords, concepts, people, organizations, etc. as appropriate.
Finally, if possible and appropriate, directly link or reference other related notes. These links may not always be obvious when you first start adding notes. That’s OK. You will begin to see and add more links as you add more notes and work with your zettelkasten over time. This is a marathon not a sprint. What I have just described are “reading notes”–though our sources could include audio, video, etc. rather than just written works. Whatever the case, each each reading note should include:
- Summary in your own words
- Quote (optional)
- Full citation
- Comment (optional)
- Categories and tags
- Links/references to other notes (optional)
As mentioned above, our ultimate goal is to produce something of our own. We can’t do that effectively without taking in information and ideas from the world around us. But we also can’t just jump straight to the final product (e.g. blog post, book, tutorial video, etc.) from taking in information. We need an interim step between reading notes and final product. We need a place for our ideas to start to form out of our reading and thinking and in a way that makes our ideas accessible and useable later when building our final products.
This is where what I call “tag briefs” or “topic briefs” and “memos” come into play. The first is a kind of note that aggregates all or select other notes on a given tag or combination of tags (which might represent an emerging, higher-level topic or theme). These are similar to what Nick Milo calls “maps of content” and the guys at Zettelkasten.de call “structure notes.” I call them “briefs” mainly because my own prior experience competing in and coaching debate. Combining all the “cards” we had cut on a particular topic or in support of a particular argument into one document was referred to as making a “brief” on our team.
The next type of note, “memos,” contain your own emerging thoughts and analysis based on your reading. Here I borrow the term “memo” from qualitative research methods. Memos are similar to what Andy Matuschak calls “evergreen notes” and Sönke Ahrens calls “permanent notes.” These can be based on writing up, in narrative form, what you find after reviewing all notes aggregated into a tag/topic brief, for example. Or, they can be based on noticing a new connection in your notes and writing up a few paragraphs about it. Memos are where you begin to write down and work out your own ideas. They are often still rough, preliminary, subject to change. But this is where your own thinking really starts to take shape.
Like reading notes, briefs and memos should include a summary or title. They should cite sources. They should be categorized (i.e. as briefs or memos) and tagged with keywords, etc. They should also include links or references to other reading notes upon which they are based or memos to which they relate. When it comes to briefs and memos, linking to other notes is no longer optional.
What we end up with are a collection of memos containing our evolving thoughts that are grounded in, and link back to, our research and reading through their links to individual reading notes or collections of reading notes in tag/topic briefs. What’s more, the memos begin to build on one another over time as they are linked to, and reference, one another. We can then use these memos as a foundation for creating our more polished, final products. But we can always trace our thinking back to its building blocks in our memos and reading notes.
“Using” The Zettelkasten
Ultimately, we want to produce something that is a more polished, final product to send out into the world. Zettelkasten can aid in that process. One might say that this is what the zettelkasten is “for,” that we “use” it for this purpose. This is only partially correct.
C. Wright Mills, in his essay, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” offers an interesting, seemingly contradictory view, on the purpose of one’s file in relation to intellectual work. He identifies the file, the zettelkasten, as both a means and an end, and necessarily so in both cases. The creation and maintenance of the zettelkasten is intellectual production in its own right. Our final, public products, he says, are merely “organized releases” from our ongoing work in the zettelkasten. But we must make those releases, especially if we strive to be a scholar or scientist. There is no private or secret knowledge in science; our job is to create and contribute to the store of collective human knowledge.
Most all of our products, our organized releases, will start in the zettelkasten. But they won’t necessarily end there. We will rarely have everything we need already in the zettelkasten to just compile, edit, and send our product out into the world. We will often find that there are gaps in our knowledge or flaws in our thinking that require us to do more focused research, reading, and analysis. This is OK though. Again, the point is not that zettelkasten makes the production of final products automatic or effortless, Rather, it greatly smooths the process, makes it easier, makes it so that we’re never totally starting from scratch or staring at a blank screen.
So, we do “use” the zettelkasten. But we can do so effectively only to the degree that we do not treat it as merely a tool to be used but as an end in and of itself. To use it as a tool we must let go of the idea that it is a tool to be used. We see a hint of this kind of thinking, I think, when Niklas Luhmann says that his zettelkasten was a longterm communication partner.
To use our zettelkasten for production of organized releases, we will go through an iterative process of
- Searching our zettelkasten for relevant reading notes, briefs, and memos.
- Creating additional briefs on important topics for our project.
- Writing more refined memos based off of our previous reading notes, briefs, and memos.
- Identifying additional research needs.
- Conducting that additional research, doing the reading, taking and integrating addition notes and memos into our zettelkasten.
Eventually, we will reach a point where we feel that we have enough. This can vary widely based on your project and its goals. If you’re writing an argumentative essay, for example, you might have “enough” when you have memos addressing each main supporting point and sufficient reading notes to cite in support of each of those points. If you are trying to answer specific research questions, you might have “enough” when each question can be answered convincingly with supporting reasoning and data.
The important point is that our zettelkasten will serve as a vital foundation from which we will build our final products. We will likely have to add materials as we focus in on that final, specific release. But the materials in our zettelkasten are our starting point.
In this post, we’ve looked at the what, why, and how of getting started with the zettelkasten method. We’ve said that zettelkasten focuses on taking notes and writing up our thoughts in a more “atomic” way that mirrors the longstanding practice of scholars using index cards or slips of paper stored in a box. The reasons for taking such an approach are just as compelling today, when we can implement the method digitally, as they were at a time when when paper, pens, and wooden boxes were the only available option. The method allows us to combine and re-combine our reading notes and thoughts in a way that makes the production of “organized releases” from our work much easier (though, again, not necessarily easy and certainly not automatic).
The best way to get started is, well, to just get started. Take notes as you read with an eye towards including one idea or thought per “card” or “slip,” however you plan to implement that. Tag, categorize, and link those notes as appropriate. Then, when it comes time to put together a more finished, final “release” on a topic, you can find all the reading notes on that topic by querying based on categories and tags (e.g. all notes of type “reading note” tagged with a particular “topic” or a combination of topics). You can do the same for existing briefs and memos too, of course. Finally, you can follow the direct links you have made among your notes, briefs, and memos. In the end, these individual notes of various kinds serve as the foundation for your more refined outlining and writing of an essay or book, or the production of some other creative product, like a piece of software, an online course, etc. Remember, however, that building and maintaining a zettelkasten is a longterm process. Enjoy the process of reading, thinking, writing, tagging and linking, and one day you will find that you have built an amazing resource for yourself that will allow you to make your own contributions to the discussions that are most important to you.