The Zettelkasten Method. What is it and is it right for you?


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.

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