The Zettelkasten Method: A Beginner's Guide

September 27, 2023

Ever had a eureka moment at a random point in time, and forget to write it down?

Are you tired of one-off notes that never seem to make sense when you go back to them? 

If you’re looking for a long-term note-taking method that’s going to help you capture and organize your knowledge, the Zettelkasten method might be the solution you’re looking for. 

Here’s a guide to using the Zettelkasten note-taking method.

What is the Zettelkasten method?

Despite being a tongue twister, the name Zettelkasten makes a lot of sense. First off, a 'zettel' in German translates to a “piece of paper”. Think sticky notes, index cards, or just a good old-fashioned notepad. A Zettelkasten, then, means “note box”. 

The method was made popular by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, as he used it to collect and organize all his research notes in boxes. 

With that said, the basic idea is a note-taking technique where you write one idea per note, and store it in one place (a box, for example). You label and connect related ideas together using tags. 

Basically, a Zettelkasten helps you organize all your knowledge on a certain topic, in a way that's easy to reference and build upon. 

When should you use the Zettelkasten method? 

Unlike Cornell notes or outline notes, Zettelkasten notes are living documents, not one-off. So this isn’t the note-taking method you’d use for lecture notes or to keep track of what’s going on during a meeting.

Like a personal wiki, you’re constantly adding and removing notes in your Zettelkasten to create a home for your knowledge. 

When the Zettelkasten method was originally created, it was meant for index cards sorted into boxes. You’d have one Zettelkasten with all your ideas, research, and knowledge. 

For a busy student or the average Joe, we’d actually recommend having a Zettelkasten for individual topics. 

So for example, while you wouldn’t use the Zettelkasten note-taking method during a biology lecture, you could create a Zettelkasten at the beginning of your degree and continuously add your learnings about biology throughout the four years. 

Types of notes in the Zettelkasten method

Image drawn in Goodnotes

There are several different types of notes that you can add into your Zettelkasten. Here’s a quick overview: 

  1. Fleeting Notes: These are for quick, temporary notes that capture in-the-moment ideas and learnings. They're not meant to be comprehensive or polished, but are meant to capture your thoughts so that you can refine them later.
  2. Literature Notes: When you learn something from reading, create a literature note. These notes capture the key points and ideas from the books, articles, or other sources that you're studying. Remember to keep each literature note a single idea, as opposed to a collection of learnings from what you read.  
  3. Permanent Notes: These are the notes that you want to keep for the long-term. They’re made up of the notes you’ve grouped and connected together. Think of it like a summarization of your ideas. 
  4. Reference Notes: These notes act as “connectors” within your Zettelkasten. Think of them as the table of contents or legend that tell you where to find what information, or which notes connect with which. For example, if you’re using a star to mark notes that came from the same book, you can define that in a reference note. If you’re using a digital Zettelkasten, you might not need to create reference notes.

How to take Zettelkasten Notes

When it comes to how to set your Zettelkasten up, you have a number of options.

If you’re looking to create a physical system, some people opt to use index cards that they then sort in physical boxes. You can also use index cards or sticky notes and organize them within a binder or photo album. 

If you’re more of the tech-savvy approach, you can also create a digital Zettelkasten using apps like Obsidian, The Archive, Mem, or Zettlr (or even with a huge mind map). 

Here are the basic steps to follow when using the Zettelkasten note-taking system:

  1. Capture: Whenever you come across a new idea or piece of information, write it down. Each Zettel should contain a single idea, and should be labeled with a unique identifier.
  2. Organize: Once you have a collection of notes, you can start organizing them. Consolidate your fleeting notes, and turn them into permanent notes. Create reference notes to keep track of everything. 
  3. Connect: One of the key benefits of Zettelkasten is the ability to connect related ideas together. Look for ways to link your individual notes together, either by creating new connections or identifying existing ones. If you’re using a digital app for this, you can use tags. If you’re doing this physically, you can mark a corner of the note (with a color, symbol, or code) to connect them.
  4. Review: Regularly review your Zettelkasten to ensure that it remains organized and up-to-date. Look for new connections between your notes, and add new ideas as they come to you.
  5. Apply: Finally, use your Zettelkasten to generate new insights and ideas. By combining and recombining your notes in new ways, you can gain a deeper understanding of complex topics and generate new ideas.

The Benefits of Using the Zettelkasten Method

  • Improved organization: Zettelkasten allows you to organize your ideas and information into small, easily manageable notes. Each note contains a single idea, making it easy to find and retrieve information when needed.
  • Increased productivity: With a Zettelkasten, you can quickly capture ideas and information as they come to you, without worrying about organizing them immediately. This reduces the cognitive load of trying to remember everything, freeing up your mind for other tasks.
  • Enhanced creativity: A Zettelkasten encourages creative thinking by prompting you to combine and recombine ideas in new ways. By connecting related ideas, you can generate new insights and connections that you might not have thought of otherwise.
  • Better retention: By breaking down information into small, easily digestible units, the Zettelkasten helps you remember more effectively. The act of summarizing and synthesizing information also aids in retention.

Tips for Making Better Zettelkasten Notes

Here are some tips for making the most out of your Zettelkasten notes:

  • Add visuals. Doodle, draw, or make diagrams. It helps make your notes more engaging, definitely incorporate it into your system.  
  • Don’t be afraid to use multiple tags on a single note. This makes it easier to find the notes you need when you need them. For example, you can do a broad tag like “Research” and then refine it by also tagging your notes with specifics. For example, if you’re writing a paper on climate change, you could add tags like “rising sea levels,” “air pollution,” and “biodiversity.”
  • Browse your Zettelkasten regularly. As you learn more, you may find new connections between ideas that you didn't see before. 
  • Be brief. The Zettelkasten method was originally created for index cards. Even if you’re not using a small note card, imagine you’re trying to fit your information in a limited space.

Overall, the Zettelkasten method is a fantastic way to organize your notes and make sense of all that information. Give it a shot and see how it works for you! You never know what kind of insights and connections you might uncover.

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