Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash
The word Zettelkasten is a German word that means “slip box.” However, it is commonly used to refer to a system of note-taking, which was popularized by a German Sociologist name Niklas Luhmann.
During his lifetime, Luhmann created over 90,000 notes in his Zettelkasten which allowed him to publish over 50 books and over 600 articles. His estate also contains over 150 unfinished manuscripts, one of which is over 1,000 pages long.
So what exactly is a Zettelkasten and how does it work?
The Zettelkasten Method
Luhmann's Zettelkasten and note-taking method is rather simple which is what makes it so profound. Here is how it works:
- Capture a single thought, in your own words, in a single note. The goal here is to make sure that the note has all of the context you need so that you will understand it at a later point in time, without needing to look up the source of where it came from.
- Link this note with other notes within your Zettelkasten system. Herein, lies the key and the secret of the entire system and method. What makes a Zettelkasten powerful, is not the notes themselves, but their relationship to one another. You can think of this like hypertext on the web, where one page links to another. This system of linking notes mimics what our brains naturally do, i.e Neuroplasticity. The Zettelkasten becomes a “second brain” that you build externally to yourself.
Now let's learn how we can create one.
How to create your own Zettelkasten
I am going to be describing my process, which is not necessarily the “right way.” Truth be told, there really isn't one. The most important thing is that you find a process that works for you. You are building your own personal knowledge management system, aka a “second brain” for yourself, so feel free to adapt and modify the method to suite your own needs.
I will be describing my method in the context of taking notes on a book, but my process is identical for any medium.
Before I begin reading the book I will create a new note in Obsidian. This new note will be considered a “literature note.” A literature note is simply a note where I capture my own thoughts about something that I am reading in the book. The key here is not to copy and paste or write down verbatim, a passage or sentence from the book. The intent is to take the time to really think about this thought, internalize it, and write it down in my own words. Once I have captured the thought or idea in my own words, I move on and keep reading. I continue this process of taking notes until I finish reading the book.
By the end of the book I will have several notes of my own thoughts and ideas, from various concepts I learned from the book.
Confession & Full Transparency
There are times when an author's words are so well written and perfectly encapsulate an idea that I cannot possibly word it any better. In that case, I capture the idea as a quote, and make sure I know that it is a quote and not my own thinking. I will also make note of the page number to reference where this quote came from.
So now that the book is finished and I have a single “literature note” with lot's of notes, ideas, quotes, etc. I then review all of these thoughts and ideas and determine which ones I would like to turn into “permanent notes.”
Permanent notes are atomic.
Atomic means they contain all of the context necessary to understand the thought or idea, without needing to look up the source from which it came from. The meaning is self-contained within the note itself.
So which notes become permanent notes?
Permanent notes are thoughts or ideas that I feel are important and do not want to forget. Once I find a thought or idea from my literature note that I want to turn into a permanent note, I will create a brand new note for it.
I will typically expand upon the idea to make sure it encapsulates the context and everything it needs to be understood by me in the future. I don't write more than a couple of paragraphs typically.
The goal here is not to write a lot of words, simplicity and brevity are key. Write down the minimum amount of information needed to capture the idea so it can be understood on its own, by you, at some point in the future.
Here is an example of one of my permanent notes.
# We often mask our lack of understanding using complicated vocabulary and jargon The use of complicated and/or sophisticated language is often used to hide the fact that we do not fully understand what we are talking about. Being able to speak in simple vocabulary, use simple illustrations, etc., demonstrates our full comprehension of a subject. If we can explain our subject to a child, then this is a good indicator that we do not have any gaps in our understanding. > If you require complicated terminology to explain what you know, you have no flexibility. When someone asks you a question, you can only repeat what you’ve already said. > -- https://fs.blog/2021/02/feynman-learning-technique/ See: [[Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away]] --- Date: 2021-06-02 Status: #permanent
In the example above you will notice a link,
[[Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away]] which links to another note within my Zettelkasten.
This is what that note looks like:
# Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away > Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. --- Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Source: Airman’s Odyssey. https://www.goodreads.com/work/best_book/11753-airman-s-odyssey. Type: #quote
This is the power of using the Zettelkasten method. By linking notes together, you are creating new connections and pathways between various types of information and thought — and remember, these are your own thoughts.
As you begin to add more notes into your Zettelkasten the connections between those notes grows. The more you put into your Zettelkasten the more you get out of it. This is why Luhmann's Zettelkasten of over 90,000 notes allowed him to write as many books and articles as he did.
The Goal of a Zettelkasten is writing
I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it, if I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else – Niklas Luhmann from “How to take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens page 15
When Luhmann began to write a new article or book, he would simply open his Zettelkasten and follow the links between his notes. He would then take all of the notes that made the most sense for his subject and use them as his outline and first draft.
His Zettelkasten provided the framework for his new projects which meant he never started from a blank page. He had a vast collection of thousands of notes from which he could draw inspiration, insight, and inquiry — all of these insights from his Zettelkasten were his own thoughts. After writing his first draft, he would then do further research to fill in any gaps in his arguments and then publish.
Luhmann would typically work on several books at the same time, which is why he was so prolific as an author. Working on multiple projects also kept him from ever getting “stuck.” Listen to what he would do, in his own words, whenever he was felt stuck:
I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any blockages. – Niklas Luhmann from “How to take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens page 141
Resources for learning more
This article really only scratches the surface as the proverbial “rabbit hole” goes quite deep when it comes to Zettelkasten, Personal Knowledge Management, Building a Second brain, etc. If you want to take the “red pill” and go deeper, here are some great resources: