Zettelkasten Madness

09/24/21 • 07m

As some of you know (because, outside of social media it’s the only thing I talk about), for some time now I’ve been in a platonic relationship with that strange and incredibly helpful note taking system called the Zettelkasten method. A number of you have asked me to speak on what it’s all about, so here’s me, going on the record with what I’ve discovered. Brace yourselves. Taking notes has never been this sexy.

Made famous by German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, the Zettelkasten is a note organization system that doubles as a creative output generator, and just so happens to mirror the way our brains work. As such, it is not a system of folders. It is not a card catalogue in the library sense. It is, however, very weird, very effective, kinda scary, and kinda hard to comprehend if you have a lot of preconceived notions about how you think organization should work. (As I did).

A stack of Luhmann's Notes

Luhmann is considered one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century, and was a notoriously prolific writer, authoring roughly seventy books and four hundred scholarly articles. He credited his output to his use of a curious collection of 90,000 notecards shoved into as many card boxes as would hold them. Luhmann called his system a “zettelkasten,” which in English translates simply as “note box.” The term itself is quite apt as Luhmann wrote his notes on index cards and, you guessed it, placed them in a box. Notes + box = note box. Today, most Zettelkasten devotees reconfigure the note box system into a digital format, always trying to remain true to the vision and practice of Luhmann. And, I do the same.

What makes the Zettelkasten unlike any other system is what happens when you attempt to find a place for your new, freshly typed up note, as the Zettelkasten is no simple shoebox filled with slips of paper. Nor is the Zettelkasten a conventional filing system. Notes in the Zettelkasten are organized, not by title, not even necessarily by topic. Instead, notes are organized by context, the way each note relates to the notes around it. This is how a note on “spirit communication” may end up following a note on “how to better leverage your productivity systems,” which, by the way, is exactly the case in my own Zettelkasten [find the reveal on how this connection was made at the end]. For most of us a note on “productivity systems” might have found its way into a folder called “PRODUCTIVITY,” and a note on “spirit communication” into a separate folder called “SPIRIT WORK.” But, the Zettelkasten asks a different question: How can your Zettelkasten be enhanced by this note? What connections can you make between this note and other notes already in the Zettelkasten? If your “productivity” note enhances, challenges, or speaks to the note on “spirit communication,” then, according to the Zettelkasten method, that’s where the note should live. Weirded out yet? Good, cuz this is where the magic happens.

As you find points of conceptual intersection between your notes, placing them behind one another, adding links to other notes within these notes, you begin to see your thoughts and ideas speak to one another directly, which in turn inspires more thoughts and more notes. Over time, and with enough notes placed in the Zettelkasten, you start to see “thought-clusters” forming, bundles of notes building on a concept, long strands of sequenced ideas, that, when you are ready, can be pulled from the Zettelkasten, organized on a page, and turned into writing. Which is an important item to note: the Zettelkasten is meant to be used for creative output. That is its function, to get you to make enough connections between ideas that you can then produce articles, blogs, podcasts, books, whatever you’re into. As the book How to Take Smart Notes correctly states:

“[T]here is no need to worry about finding a topic to write about. Just look into your slip-box and see where clusters have been built up. These clusters are what caught your interest again and again, so you already know you have found material to work with.” (How to Take Smart Notes)

Coming to grips with the Zettelkasten method took literally weeks of my life, many 8-hour days of daily practice and research, with a lot of frustrated head-scratching and furrowed brows. I’m sure I’ve acquired more than a few wrinkles from unlearning old patterns, my eyes burning from watching what I think was every YouTube video on the subject. I had a hard time accepting that all the work I was about to put into recopying my old notes from books wouldn’t go to waste, that the new notes I was creating wouldn’t get lost in an abyss of disorganization as they found their way into what seemed like a madman’s insane system of storing captured information. But, then it clicked.

The philosophy behind Zettelkasten states that if the mind works by making connections—if we retain information, facilitate insights by making connections between seemingly disparate things—why would we do the opposite when it comes to making sense of the world through our note-taking? If our brain is conditioned to seek out patterns in order to make meaning of the world, why would we sabotage that patterning by organizing our notes into predetermined folders related to a specific topic? In doing so we literally break the connections that our brain is trying to make. We isolate information into autonomous silos that can’t speak to one another. And, we wonder why it’s so hard to convert the information we take in into our own unique expression.

Although I find the phrase “information age” to be a cliche at this point, the fact is we are bombarded by data. We are assaulted by “information.” And, we feel it, both in our bodies and in our minds. The emerging field of personal knowledge management (PKM) suggests that with a few reliable systems in place we can navigate this bombardment well enough to not only make sense of it, but to feel more at peace within it. The Zettelkasten method has been lauded by PKM-ites because it does exactly that. The Zettelkasten method, to use Tiago Forte’s C.O.D.E philosophy, helps us to Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express the world around us. And, as bat-shit crazy as this world seems to be, it actually makes sense to have something as weird as the Zettelkasten to navigate it.

AFTERWORD: I Know What You Did Last Night

A quick, final story: Last night I almost effed up. As the sun was setting I recorded about a half dozen notes from Sadie Plant’s book, The Most Radical Gesture, a phenomenal read on the French agit-theorist group, the situationists. I took these notes with the subject of social media in mind, but as they began to make their way into my Zettelkasten I realized I was falling back into old habits. I caught myself looking for other notes on the situationists, attempting to file my new notes by topic rather than context. While it’s true that these notes came from a book on the subject of situationism, and the notes themselves referred to concepts found in situationist theory, the context I was taking these notes in—the reason I was even reading the book!—had to do entirely with aspects of social media that I find disturbing. The old me was attempting to file these notes into a “SITUATIONISM” folder. But, the new me caught myself just in time. Instead, I filed these “situationist notes” behind a group of notes discussing how “social media changes the way we behave,” and watched how the notes on situationism began to light up. They had found their home among like-minded thoughts. They were happy, sitting around a cafe table in late-60s France with revolution in the air, and graffiti on the stone walls.

POSTSCRIPT: Why my “productivity” notes are filed among my “spirit communication” notes

I’m currently looking at the ways inspiration can be guided by knowledge management and productivity systems. To me, “inspiration” is merely a manifestation of “spirit communication.” In this way I see knowledge management systems that help a person “capture” inspiration as being spirit communication tools, modern day systems that can aid in the interpreting of spirits. 🌴

Bob is the author of Sitting with Spirits: Exploring the Unseen World In the Margins of Christianity; The House of I Am Mirrors: And Other Poems; Acupressure For Beginners; and The Power of Stretching. You can stay up to date on his doings and goings by signing up for his weekly email “The High Pony: Really Good Insights for Living an Inspired Life.” bobdoto.computer for everything else.