We have access to more information than ever before. While this can be good for reducing the amount of time we spend searching for something, it can also leave us buried in a mountain of information with no way to organize and make sense of it.
If you’ve ever had to manage a large volume of information for your job, a term paper, writing a book, or even planning content for a blog, you know how frustrating it can be to slog through useless information to find what you need. It wastes an immense amount of time and ruins your train of thought.
At the Paperless Movement, we talk a lot about modern inventions in hardware and software that make our daily tasks more efficient overall. But what if there’s a solution to this information overload that isn’t a modern tech invention?
Before electronics arrived, people created systems for taking notes and organizing information. (You can read about some of these methods in my ebook, Paperless Note-Taking Like a Pro.) These methods solved problems so well, many of our modern electronic solutions are just e-versions of those original systems.
One of these systems that has stood the test of time is called the Zettlekasten Method. Zettlekasten is the German word for slip-box—a box used to hold slips of paper or notecards.
The Zettlekasten Method is revered for its ability to store and organize information in a unique way that makes the info easy to locate, but also sparks creative thinking.
It was most famously used by a German sociologist and prolific writer named Niklas Luhmann. Similar to the old library card catalogue method, Luhmann’s personal Zettlekasten contained 90,000 index cards which he used to help inform his writing of over 70 books and 400 scholarly articles in his lifetime.
He used the Zettlekasten Method to organize his ideas into a web of knowledge that allowed him to not only store information for future use, but also to develop ideas and find connections among topics.
What is the Zettlekasten Method?
Zettlekasten is one of the most efficient personal knowledge management methods. With this method, notes are taken on 3×5 cards and given special labels or tags to make them easy to locate and easy to cross reference with other note cards.
This cross-referencing feature means any number of cards can be connected or cross-referenced to other cards that have relevance. The connections and tagging of the cards are all decided by the user, making the system unique to the person using it.
This way of taking and organizing the notes allows you to use them dynamically, meaning you can arrange and rearrange cards to form thoughts, connections, and ideas.
With typical note-taking, you are putting all of your thoughts or research into one document based on a topic. This document already contains a complete line of thinking with a proposal, supporting detail, and a conclusion. This makes forming new ideas and associations difficult, and it is hard to isolate one important piece of information when it is locked inside a larger, hard-to-search document.
How to use the Zettlekasten Method
Now that you have a broad overview of the Zettlekasten Method, I’ll go into more detail on how to use it.
First, you need supplies. To start, you’ll need index cards, a pen, and two boxes to store your cards in. One of the boxes will store your main notes, ideas, and theories. The other box will store the references.
Now, on to the steps!
Step 1: Take notes – one per card
The idea of this method is to have a way to take notes anytime you run across an idea worth saving. So when you’re reading, doing research, attending a lecture, listening to a podcast, etc., keep a pen and some index cards with you. Keep one thought or idea to each card. If the card has more than one idea on it, the organizing system won’t work. When you find ideas you want to save, try writing them down in your own words. Writing in your own words causes you to really think through the idea. You may come up with new insights. If you want to save direct quotes, reference the source you got the idea from at the bottom of the card. After you’ve taken your note, you may want to refine or develop it before you consider it final.
Step 2: Label the notes
Before your note is ready to add to your file, you need to label it. While there are different ways you could label your notes, Niklas Luhmann had a method that was scalable and can be used by anyone. First, he assigned a number to the note. (And since there are an unlimited amount of numbers, you’ll never run out of labels.) For our example, we’ll start with number 1. If your next note has an idea that is not related to note #1, you assign it the number 2. And so on. But let’s say that your next note card is related to card number 1. Since you’re only keeping one idea per card, your card with the related idea can be labelled 1a. This way, it has its own label, but it’s easy to see it is an offshoot of card #1. You can continue to add to the ideas to group 1 by using b,c,d and so on. If you have a side note to card 1a, you label it 1a1. This method can continue indefinitely, and produces a volume of notes that build out into a web. Like a mind map made of index cards. The beauty of this method is, you can isolate one idea and build on it, or study it, or you can take the whole web into consideration at once for a broader view. And with the reference card box, you can rearrange the web to create new associations and ideas. (More on how to do that below.)
Step 3: Make reference cards with keywords
Look at your note card. Decide on some keywords you would use to find that card again in the future. One card could be related to many different ideas, for example, if you had a card about tomatoes, you could use red, fruit, and disgusting (if you hate tomatoes) as keywords you’d associate with that card. The keywords are unique to you. They don’t have to be standard. They’re more like words that would spark your memory. In your index box, you’ll have cards with keywords listed on them. After each keyword, you list the label of the card that is associated with that keyword or keywords. For example your index card might look like this: Abstract 12, 54a, 242b Buoyant 24, 101a Chemicals 2, 32c, 1a12 Disgusting 1a, 122c Energy 62a, 62b, 524 This way, whenever you spark an idea and you want to find information related to that idea, all you have to do is go to your reference box and find the cards that match your associated keywords. Voila! Ultimately, you can use this collection of notes to create a piece of work by pulling out cards that relate to each other and arranging them in a way that flows. Also, you’re not limited to information you hear or read. Zettlekasten is very useful for developing your own ideas. After you’ve found a topic that intrigues you, you can make notes based on how what you just learned fits into what you already know. This is where the system truly becomes a product of your thinking. Now it’s time to answer the question you’re all dying to ask. “Hey Tom, is there a way to use the Zettlekasten Method electronically? This is the Paperless Movement after all.” Why, I’m so glad you asked. The answer is yes. Yes there is. This wouldn’t be the Paperless Movement if we didn’t have a way to do this work without paper.
How to use Zettlekasten electronically
- Make sure you understand the Zettlekasten method as outlined above.
- Take your notes with a note-taking app that has a built-in search function, such as Evernote or Noteshelf 2, using the same principles that are spelled out in the instructions above for handwriting your Zettlekasten.
- Give your notes the same labels as you would with the written method.
- Identify keywords in your notes you want to use for organizing and searching.
- Create a master reference sheet with your keywords and labels, as in the written method.
- Now you can use the app’s search function to locate the notes you want by using the reference sheet to guide you to the keyword or label you want to search.
A simpler version of this would be to label each note, but don’t create keywords or a reference sheet, and just do random searches for terms that will help you locate notes on the topic of your choice. Another option many people use is to take your notes in a note-taking app, and then import those notes into a program that will help you organize them into a Zettlekasten format. Examples of this type of software are roamresearch.com and remnote.io. One of the downsides of using Zettlekasten electronically is your search will only bring up one note at a time. You won’t be able to lay all of your notes out in front of you to get the overall view. If this feature is important to you, you could create a mind map with Miro and use each card in Miro as a link to your Zettlekasten note cards, although this seems like a lot of work to go to for what you’ll get out of it. Another option would be to use Miro itself to house your Zettlekasten. (More on how to use Miro here.) Ultimately, it is personal preference that will shape your Zettlekasten. Actually, that is part of the beauty of this system. It is so customizable, that once you understand how the method works, you can come up with your own unique way of implementing it, whether it’s with note cards or software. In closing, I’d like to share a bit of advice. Nearly every seasoned practitioner of the Zettelkasten Method mentions one thing again and again. Mastering this method takes practice and time. Nothing big and crazy, like learning a language. But for this system to work for you, you have to use it. And to use it means you need to collect a fair amount of information and organize it so it’s easy to locate and easy to make associations with other pieces of content. This takes time. But to those who love this method, it is time well spent.