Zettelkasten

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Leave Breadcrumbs on Bookmarks for Your Future Self

A little trick from my desk: You can rarely process a book in one session. The question is how to continue from where you stopped the next time you pick up the book. If you use a slip card as a bookmark, there is a neat solution for you: Just write a hint on the slip card.

Take a look at this example (annotated because most of you neither speak German nor can read my scribbles comfortably):

Example of 4 “breadcrumbs” to pick up where I left off
  1. At the end of the first session, I planned to continue with the structure notes on rationality, reason and intellect. (Rationalität, Vernunft, Verstand)
  2. At the end of the second session, I planned to build the structure note on emotionality (as opposed to rationality). I didn’t screen my Zettelkasten for already existing notes on this topic. The “qq2” is a reminder that I already created this structure note and attached it to a saved search.
  3. At the end of the third session, I planned to review the sources “Schäfer2002” and “Bechara1995” in the next session.
  4. At the end of the fourth session, I planned to review the source “Berridge2007” and continue to work on note “201811081615” which I marked with a “qqq”

The process is super easy:

  1. Use a slip card as the bookmark for the book you process.
  2. Write at the end of each session what you want to do the next session.
  3. Continue the next session as previously planned.

Alfred Macro Collection for The Archive

Paul Ryley (@pryley on the forums) whipped up an amazing Alfred macro collection for The Archive. – Huuuuge thanks go out to Paul for taking the time to working with The Archive better for Alfred users!

That means you get a ton of macros to remote-control your Zettelkasten in general and The Archive in particular from Alfred. Alfred is a tool for application launching, global hotkeys, text expansion, and macro invocation. The macro stuff means you can bring up Alfred with a shortcut, then select e.g. the “Search The Archive” macro, and type your search term there.

With Paul’s workflow, you can create notes from templates if you have a recurring note format. Create a template by using the `#template` tag in a file, and that’s it.

Paul’s macro collection, called a “workflow” in Alfred lingo, comes with these actions:

  • Searching Notes is not actually searching with The Archive, but it’s doing a search in your Zettelkasten, and then offers a couple of actions:
    • preview the note
    • insert link to the note
    • open note with an external editor
  • Searching Tasks looks for checkbox-style lists - [x] like this
  • Searching Tags shows you a list of all used tags in all your notes, and lets you invoke a search for notes from there
  • Random Notes shows any note from your Zettelkasten
  • Creating Notes uses a form for title and tags, and it supports complex template files
  • Importing URLs is a web clipping tool to import articles as notes
  • Importing Images puts an image you select via Alfred (e.g. using it as a Spotlight-like file finder) into The Archive’s managed media folder – and provides a link for it right away
  • Text Manipulation is like a format menu add-on for The Archive to increase the heading level, for example

There’s a ton to configure if you want to adjust the behavior to your liking.

Paul’s macro collection comes with a comprehensive documentation, including examples and many screenshots. If you run macOS and want to dip your toes into productivity-enhancing tools like Alfred, make sure to check out Paul’s macros!

Welcome Visitors from Jooble!

Jooble, the job search portal, kindly reached out and offered to feature our site on their page. According to Wikipedia and their references, “Jooble is in the top 1000 most visited sites in the world” and “the second most visited job search site”.

So if you’re new to the Zettelkasten Method for creative knowledge work and came here from their page, welcome!

In short, the Zettelkasten Method is all about working with knowledge: you capture ideas, connect and interweave them, and thus facilitate coming up with new ideas. The process makes it easy to keep an overview of complex topics and also work on hard problems for a long time without getting lost even after week-long interruptions in your work.

At base, the principles are to create atomic notes and links between them. To find out what this means and how that works, have a look at our curated article overview, and make sure you visit the forum and get to know the amazing people there.

PhD Student Reporting What It’s Like to Use a Zettelkasten for Classes

This is a recent highlight from the forums: @jeannelking reported how the Zettelkasten Method and preparing for a PhD at university work together.


This is the first semester where I’m using my Zettelkasten for my courses (PhD program in humanistic psychology, creativity studies specialization). Now that I’ve got some reps under my belt, here’s how it’s working so far:

Feeding My Zettelkasten

  • I typically read in the mornings before the day starts. I take fleet notes as I read. (Oh my, do I now love taking fleet notes!!!)
  • Then I let those fleet notes sit while I work on other stuff throughout the day.
  • In the evening, I’ll review my fleet notes with Archive open and a stack of physical note cards. (I use both physical cards and Archive.)
  • With a bit of distance from when they were taken (hours), I’ll look for the things that speak to me or that I want to share with ZK on a Dear ZK card.
  • I’ll write up my physical cards as if they were postcards to my ZK (introducing the subject from my reading, then expounding on it with my own thoughts).
  • I use my Archive and physical ZK to find where these new cards build upon existing ideas for where to add them into my ZK brain.
  • The completed card goes into Archive (this system REALLY works for me).

Being Fed By My Zettelkasten

  • I’ll look at my writing topics and needs for the week in my courses.
  • I’ll open Archive and search for tags related to the topic (plus a few random searches just to see what novel ideas want to show up)
  • I’ll pull the physical cards that seem relevant and physically play with them, laying out possible ideas for my paper/discussion on my desk.
  • I’ll land on an order with the physical cards and pull the digital content - included my references which I already listed on my zettels - into a draft Word document.
  • I let it sit for a bit and come back to it for more edits. If other ideas want to pop up from my Zettelkasten, back to the Archive I go.
  • When it’s ready, I submit it as appropriate and thank my Zettelkasten for making it SO. MUCH. EASIER OH MY GOODNESS!!!!

Seriously. It’s like Ahrens said in How To Take Smart Notes: with a Zettelkasten your paper is basically written as you read. All you have to do is pull it forth when it’s time.

If you are a student and are wondering if it’s worth starting a Zettelkasten - it is!

Don’t Dehorsify the Horse

The Zettelkasten Method seems to get more and more popular. With popularity of methods there always comes a problem: Overzealous Orthodoxy. Some people, for various reasons, try to state what a Zettelkasten is and what not.

A good example is the use of categories: Do you have a Zettelkasten if you use a Zettelkasten? Some people argue that you wouldn’t have a Zettelkasten if you use a Zettelkasten and the very point of a Zettelkasten is to ditch the categories.

I personally agree, that your Zettelkasten will benefit a lot from ditching categories. But there is a technical problem with stating that X is not Y if some trait is missing.

We will dip our toes in the cold water of what I call concept work. The goal is not to find the true and only definition of a Zettelkasten but to become more competent with the usage of concepts. After all, how can you process concepts which are one of the main knowledge structures you find in texts when you don’t know anything about their nature?

The difference between the dead and the living concepts

In contrast to other approaches, Luhmann decided against making his Zettelkasten stiff and opted for an organic approach. There’s a reason his own manual is titled “Communicating with Slip Boxes”, and not something like “A slip box as a writing and thinking tool”.

Our starting point to understand the nature of the Zettelkasten Method is that it is an organic and non-linear, – even alive ,– approach on note-taking. This is not a clear-cut definition, because, in real life, there cannot be clear-cut definitions.

Take a look at the following way to define a horse: A huge animal with a head shaped like this and that, with four legs and so on and so forth.

Even if we expand this definition to a point we all would agree on it, what if we amputate a horse’s leg? Do we de-horsify this poor animal? No.

Even concepts need a life of their own. We can use the concept of horse without ever encountering a clear-cut – but lifeless – definition. Lively concepts work by the concept of sufficient familiarity. The horse with the amputated leg, which has fully recovered from the operation and goes by the name Eagle’s Wing, if you worry, is accepted as a horse because it is sufficiently familiar to our general concept of horses. But if you alter too much of its traits, you will not be able to call the result a horse and keep a good conscience. Then it might be a griffon.

Bye-bye leg, but not bye-bye horse!

Hard definitions are dead concepts. If you change one part of it you change the whole thing. But most concepts are alive. Nobody with the right mind would think that the poor three-legged animal is dehorsified.

Nassim Taleb calls the this fallacy “platonification”: you are of making platonic what is not platonic by nature. Or in layman’s terms: To mistake some dead abstract theory about reality for reality itself. (One could argue that the main message of his Incerto is: Do not platonify, live in the real world.) This abstract thought can be illustrated by a quite funny example: Never cross a river that is 50cm deep on average. Why? It might be mostly shallow creek of 10cm depth, followed by a nice deep hole for you to fall into.

The Zettelkasten Method lives

The Zettelkasten Method is a living concept. Although there are traits that are more important than others, the Zettelkasten Method is more a set of useful principles and a spirit that came to being in Luhmann’s wooden demon he called his communication partner.

If someone tells you that your Zettelkasten is not a Zettelkasten, just refer him to the late Wittgenstein and send him a three-legged horse. It might not solve the issue but bring some peace to your mind.