The Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method
Are you new to the Method?
Read the Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method and learn what makes the Zettelkasten work as a system, how to create notes, how to connect notes to make a web of knowledge, and how to create structures so you stay in control of the growing knowledge web.
Using a Zettelkasten is about optimizing your workflow of learning and producing knowledge. The products are texts, mostly. The categories we find fit the process well at the moment are the following:
- Knowledge Management: general information about what it means to work and learn efficiently.
- Writing: posts on the production of lasting knowledge, and about sharing it with others through your own texts.
- Reading: posts about the process of acquisition of new things and the organization of sources.
- How many Zettelkästen should I have? The answer is, most likely, only one for the duration of your life. But there are exceptions to this rule.
- Don’t use categories. Use tags instead.
- “What should my first note be?” – it doesn’t matter. Just get started.
- Set links between notes. Full-text search on its own provides not enough information. Connections will do, especially in the long run.
“When should I start a new note?”
- Also read “Trust the process”, an essay.
- You have to interpret your sources and then rely on your own thoughts henceforth to get the maximum benefit. Collecting information does not increase your knowledge.
- Use outlines to start with the first draft of your writing project.
- Then ease into writing by adding Zettel notes to the outline, pasting their contents in.
- Everything you want to know about “Folgezettel”: a curated overview.
Principles are higher than techniques. Principles produce techniques in an instant.
- Principle of Atomicity: put things that belong together into a single note, give it an ID, but limit its content to that single topic.
- Our post about the Principle of Connectivity highlights how different techniques can implement the same underlying principle: links vs note sequences.
- There’s an expanded explanation of this argument from 5 years after the initial post about this principle.
- See the related discussion about Different Kinds of Ties Between Notes.
The building blocks of a Zettelkasten are the inbox, the note archive, and the reference manager.
These are the basics to get started with effective knowledge management:
- Use a real notebook to capture thoughts.
- Write notes for your note archive in a way you understand later.
- Add Identity to things in the system to make references possible.
Don’t use categories. Use tags instead.
- Good and bad tags explained: some tagging habits will get in your way eventually.
- Set links between notes. Search alone is not enough.
- Every Zettel has two forms: an inner and outer form.
And always keep in mind The Collector’s Fallacy: you have to work with new material to really learn it. It doesn’t suffice to bookmark websites or just read and annotate books. (Christian still has skeletons in the closet.)
To get you in the mood to grow your archive, read “Trust the process”, an essay.
Scaling your note archive
To cope with the constant influx of new information, use temporary “buffer” notes to collect stuff that you can later re-arrange.
With time, you’ll notice multiple Layers of Evidence emerge. This means your notes will have different kinds of content. The layers are:
- Data description and patterns.
- Interpretation of descriptions and patterns.
- Synthesis of patterns, descriptions and interpretation.
When your archive grows, you’ll add Structural Layers in your Zettelkasten through links. The levels are:
- Bottom Layer: Content
- Middle Layer: Structure Notes
- Top Layer: Main Structure Notes and Double Hashes (that is: special tags)
About learning and knowing-more in general
“Trust the process” (an essay) hits the nerve: thinking and memory retention are improved by working through problems.
- A Zettelkasten improves your thinking and writing because it surprises us when we search for something.
- A Zettelkasten extends your mind and memory because its structure mimics the way your brain works.
- Learn faster: get coverage with good reading techniques, get practice by writing Zettel notes, and gain insights by connecting notes to your web of knowledge.
- You have to interpret your sources and then rely on your own thoughts henceforth to get the maximum benefit.
- Make writing a part of your identity. This requires to schedule time for writing, and to create lasting habits.
- How to become a better writer:
- A daily writing practice will help lower the hurdle to get started, for example.
- How to track your writing progress – define metrics and find out how well you perform.
- Counting your words is motivating and helps you stick to the habit of writing daily.
- Christian also wrote a Mac app for this: the Word Counter.
- Getting started with writing projects:
- Buffer files in your Zettelkasten are great to store writing ideas.
- Use outlines to start with the first draft, and then
- ease into writing by adding Zettel notes to the outline, pasting their contents. This works without you trying so hard.
- Divide composing from editing your texts to reach a state of flow and get faster at finishing your projects.
- Publish iteratively.
- Field Report: A PhD About Writing with His Zettelkasten. Henrik talks about his process from draft to submission, to revision, to being accepted in a journal.
- Create a bibliography as part of your toolkit. It’s a permanent companion and keeps track of your sources of information.
- The Barbell Method of Reading explains how to get most out of any text. Read thoroughly and invest more time (risky investment) when necessary, stick to quickly skimming (low risk) for the rest.
- Reading for the Zettelkasten is searching: next time you tackle a long text, try to look for very specific kinds of information that lend themselves to being extracted.
- Reading on paper
- Make proper reading marks instead of leaving annotations in the margin.
- You should take reading notes instead. Get the stuff out of the book. (This is closely related to the Collector’s Fallacy.)
- Create Zettel from reading notes afterwards.
- Reading online
- How to read on the web efficiently, using and managing RSS feed subscriptions.
- Zettelkasten for fiction writing is a collection of articles on how to apply the Zettelkasten Method to fiction.
History of the Zettelkasten
If you want to know more about the history of the Zettelkasten Method, check out the ongoing research on Luhmann’s Zettelkasten by Johannes Schmidt at Bielefeld University. Johannes is the Guardian of the Godfather’s Zettelkasten, and his work is genuinely interesting for knowledge work nerds.
We cover the relevant bit of history in our introduction to explain how the Zettelkasten Method works.
Read our translation of Luhmann’s Communication with Zettelkastens to get to know his original approach. Then check out the translation of Luhmann’s own Zettel about his Zettelkasten.
Since 2018, we offer our own app, The Archive for macOS, to manage your Zettelkasten. Since then, we stopped reviewing commercial tools because of a clash of interests. We honestly think The Archive is great, and that you should check it out.
Since we don’t review paid apps anymore in accordance with our software review principle, if you are interested in apps for other platforms and other tools, check out our forum about software and gadgets for tips from the community.
Get to know the app better:
- How to Use Tabs, a short demo video.
- How to Capture Images
- How to Use Wiki Links for Saved Searches in The Archive, a “hack” of sorts to use links to restore your searches.
Extending The Archive’s functionality with scripts and other apps:
- We have a Collection of 3rd Party App Macros where we curate macros shared on the forums.
- There’s a cohesive Alfred Macro collection with complete workflows.
- Interoperability with the Markdown preview app, Marked 2, supports streaming note previews (YouTube)
Use cases and demos for inspiration: