I’ve gotten really interested in Zettelkasten recently, and spent last weekend setting it up and organizing my writings. Zettelkasten is a note-organizing and knowledge management system invented by German sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann. Well, not ‘invented’ per se — the file catalogs have been around for hundreds of years. He applied this sort of cataloging to note-taking, arranging and evolving his ideas. The method means, essentially, gradually building a set of interlinked notes on various subjects. On paper, the notes are indexed and referenced to and fro. Digitally, things are made so much easier. Each “Zettel” is a card of its own, with content (an idea, as simple as possible), metadata, and references. Cards can use a numeric-alphabetic system of IDs. E.g., a card 1a2 can link to 1a3 and to 1a2a: going from more general ideas to more specific ones. As a whole, “Zettelkasten” is a file cabinet, with notes grouped together not chronologically, but by the themes or ideas they represent. This is a key difference between Zettelkasten and more linear notebooks.

I read up on Zettelkasten in the past couple of weeks — you can follow the links at the bottom for more information if you like.

What I have now after my weekend efforts is this. On paper, I’m keeping the good old chaos of a notebook. Digitally, I’m going with Zettelkasten. Evernote was my first tool, it already has a system of tags and cross-referenced notes (it as internal links that work really nice for me), but from a couple of days ago, I’m switching what used to be my “topics” folder to iA Writer, a tool that I’ve used before but have fallen off track lately. It’s my favorite word processor, and since I last used it, it has grown a little bit of functionality, while at the same time allowing for a software-agnostic approach for the notes. I can keep everything in iCloud and move the notes to my computer anytime I feel like it. 

There is no apparent need to keep indexing the “Zettels” digitally (should be “Zetteln” I guess, we’re in Germany after all!), but I prefer to keep the indexing (for now), so I’ll be adding a date-time ID to each note that I have, thus keeping the ability to link to it in case all notes get ported elsewhere in the future. YYYYMMDDHHMM is the format I follow to create unique IDs: for example, 202004270853.

I really like to dig into my archive (currently on Evernote) and follow tags down the rabbit hole, to see how I thought about this or that at different times in the past. Zettelkasten seems to be a logical step in this direction. Something that’s yet too early to bring fruit, but at least it kept me happily busy over the weekend, and seems like a good way to organize my otherwise chaotic note-taking.


Overview about Zettelkasten: https://writingcooperative.com/zettelkasten-how-one-german-scholar-was-so-freakishly-productive-997e4e0ca125 

Zettelkasten and the Archive: https://zettelkasten.de/posts/overview/ 

Niklas Luhmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niklas_Luhmann

Some notes on how to keep a Zettelkasten: https://trms.me/some-thoughts-on-how-to-keep-a-zettelkasten/

Less Wrong: The Zettelkasten Method: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NfdHG6oHBJ8Qxc26s/the-zettelkasten-method-1

Somewhat similar, Building a digital garden, by Tom Critchlow: https://tomcritchlow.com/2019/02/17/building-digital-garden/ 

iA Writer: https://ia.net/writer