a free form note taking and organising system to facilitate understanding and production of creative work.

Created: by Pradeep Gowda Updated: Oct 10, 2023 Tagged: writing · zettelkasten · note-taking · pkm

ZettelKasten(ZK) method is a method of optimizing workflow of learning and producing knowledge.

Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive is a good introduction to the method.

Here is twitter therad by the creator of roam research. See also these two essays by Niklas Luhmann who was the originator of this method .

Talk How to take smart notes by Sönke Ahrens.

  • Feynman – “writing is thinking”. Notes are not records of our thinking. we think in our notes.

Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)

  • publications ~600, 60+ books.
  • Luhmann wrote a thesis, rehabilitation and got a degree all in one year when he was offered a professor’s job and he did not have any of these pre-requisites. > I’m not doing that on my own, i’m doing it with my zettlekasten. I never force myself to do anything that I don’t feel like.
  • Zettelkasten = slip-box. 90,000 notes, index with ~1250 entries. about 600 notes as manuscript outlines. one extra box for literature notes with ~15,000 notes.
  • 6 notes per workday (excluding weekends).
  • day starts with reading
  • simple notes on a sheet paper of the form “on page X see Y
  • at the end of the day write the notes on a card
  • every note would get an index, starting at 1.

  • nothing like a topic structure. everything builds from bottom-up.
  • “entries into a line of thought”

Specifics / core features:

  • what kind of workflow this kind of note taking enforces?

  • note sequences for developing ideas (instead of storing)

  • links and indeces are helpful, but not central features

  • the workflow is streamlined towards writing. Turn notes into writing. The time consuming part is not the writing, but finding the right order

  • three main types of notes:

    • Fleeting – daily, reminders of what you have in your head. you chuck it after a day
    • Project Related
    • Permanent notes – main notes. Understandable even if you forget where they come from
  • one idea per note / all notes have the same format.

Status quo of higher education / writing:

  1. Find topic / research question (brainstorming)
  2. research / find literature
  3. read and take notes
  4. draw conclusions / outline text
  5. write
  6. hit or miss your deadline
  7. start all over with the next project.

“the above makes sense intuitively” (subtext: but does not work very well in practice)

ed: invert, always invert!

Status quo: note taking

  1. collect notes for each course in one place, in sep notebook or section of a notebook… this only arranges the material in chronological order.

The difference between the methods makes the difference:

If you can’t explain it your own words, you have not understood it – Richard Feynman.

What happens when you use the ZK system:

  • thinking, connecting and understanding become concrete actions… people tend to want to “do things”, ZK helps you to convert vague notions into concrete things.
  • focus on the process – and not on the outcome.. making connection happens on the paper, not in the brain.
  • writing broken down into reasonable steps (one note at a time). “Write 3/4 notes a day. because that’s the outcome of reading something, thought about it and made some connections”.
  • the value of each idea compounds – the more notes the better
  • clear distinction between permanent and temporary notes

Mentions “Inbox” by DavidAllen’s GTD. difference is, this is not goal oriented, but “insights”.

What works What doesn’t
Spacing Cramming
Interleaving One thing at a tie
Connecting Compartmentalizaton
Self-testing Underlining and cpying
Elaboration Re-reading
  • spacing is the technique of “spaced learning”.. problem: they dont come with context.
  • “self-testing” can be frustrating because you feel the gaps in your knowledge. many students go back to re-reading because it feels like progress.

Recommended books:

  • “make it stick” by peter c brown, et al
  • “how to take smart notes” by sonke ahrens (speaker).

“real experts dont make plans, they become experts in making informed decisions in the context they are in”.


5 main features of Luhmann’s slip-box:

Category-free notes
Atomized ideas
Note Sequences
And an index


How to Take Smart Notes | Zettelkasten Method in Roam Research - YouTube:


GitHub - nobiot/Zero-to-Emacs-and-Org-roam: Step by step guide from zero to installing and setting up Emacs and Org-roam on Windows 10

My ZettelKasten setup

(NOTE: not doing this anymore; using voodoopad instead)

How I would like to use zettelkasten:

  • use “daily notes” to make note of things I read on twitter/books/blogposts, thoughts, questions, “nice to know/do” etc.,
  • remember something “SURPRISING” as Claude Shannon said (something along the lines of the information content in a message is the “surprisingness” in it).


Some comments by lobste.rs user MordecaiMalignatus need further thinking on how to use ZK:

Seeing these Zettelkasten-management systems pop up recently has been very interesting to me. Being German, the Zettelkasten was known to me earlier than for most Americans, so I’ve been stewing on the idea for quite some time (and wrote my own software to support it, as one does)

Most of the now-available Zettelkasten have the following things I see as flaws these days:

1.Titles for cards. These, to me, are an error and lead to ideas being discarded that have value in context. Often it’s much easier to have an idea in context and to write it down. Forcing titling of ideas leads to ideas being discarded that would otherwise (in context) be valuable. 2. The use of meaningless numbers/dates/hashes for file names. If you look into how Luhmann used his Kasten, he made heavy use of ad-hoc sequences and branched ideas based on ancestors, hence his tree-like notation for card IDs. This is a completely ignored aspects in many of the modern implementations. My own Kasten started out this way, too, until I found that it encouraged bigger individual notes - every note tends to be an island, and groups don’t actually form. 3. The treatment of the Kasten as a graph, rather than a tree. The Kasten is not meant to be an arbitrary graph - it’s a tree, where later nodes relate to their ancestors and build on them. Cross references are possible and encouraged, but need to be explicit.

> This leads to many people treating a Kasten like a local-hosted wiki with fancier/more integrated interface - everything that was already possible with a directory full of markdown files and some editor support. In writing my own emacs-based solution for this, I’ve fallen into all of the above pitfalls, repeatedly re-writing my kasten into something that I will actually use and converse with.

For further reading, the Kasten is partially transcribed/digitized by the university of Bielefeld. The project can be found here (in German), and it might give some insight into how the person that invented it used it. The common literature that introduced the idea was How To Take Smart Notes, which was targeted at academic writing. Since then it seems the idea has taken off since Roam became a thing. I’m curious as to whether or not my personal conclusions will be replicated in other people’s experiences, or if I’m just a weirdo here.

Examples of Zettelkastens / Evergreen Notes