Zettelkasten, The German Secret for Better Organization

Take lots of notes to remember the most important aspects of a topic and link them to other ideas. This is the foundation of the Zettelkasten method.
Zettelkasten, The German Secret for Better Organization

Last update: 05 September, 2022

Have you ever tried to implement the organization guidelines you read in a book, watched a video, or heard about at work without any success? If you have, it’s because you surely didn’t know about the Zettelkasten method.

This way of structuring ideas can be used as a system for study, personal planning, and work efficiency. That said, don’t let the name lead you to believe that it’s a difficult process; in reality, it only requires a little bit of attention.

Although this system has been around for quite some time, the validity of this modality has recently resounded due to its usefulness for people dedicated to research, learning, and content creation. Here’s what it’s all about.

What is the Zettelkasten method?

Zettelkasten is a theory that suggests taking, ordering, and using notes. The aim is to use the notes for the mental organization of ideas and the assimilation of concepts, so that old and new writings can be connected.

This system originated in Germany and was created by sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who used his own tactic to write 400 academic articles and over 70 books.

‘Zettel’ means “paper” or “sheet of paper,” while ‘kasten’ means “box.” The union of the two terms refers to a “note box.” This is also known as a slip-box. While today there are multiple computer programs to fill a box with notes, at the time, Luhmann only used pencil and paper.

The essence of the system is to establish a useful link between the notes. There’s no point in having a pile of comments with no connection between them. The Zettelkasten has several interests.

  • It allows for refining objectives
  • It’s the root of new ideas
  • This method works as an assistant
  • It serves to link and connect thoughts
  • It works as a type of organization
  • All notes lead to a purpose
  • It helps to reflect and reason about a topic
Zettelkasten
The Zettelkasten method allows you to shape your ideas, weave them together, and make use of them.

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The keys to putting the Zettelkasten theory into practice

The creator of the Zettelkasten wrote each note on the fourth part of a page, marking a sequence of numbers to identify them in the upper left area. In addition, he added divisions and branches to these notes.

Whether in the traditional way or using software, handling the German-style binder requires following certain criteria, which we will explain below.

Keep it together: One note per idea

This is known as the “atomicity principle.” The right thing to do is to have one idea per sheet, because keeping them apart makes it easier to link them precisely. The key is to write brief notes and specify their origin.

Make sure each note can be understood on its own

Autonomy means that each annotation needs to be understood without depending on other observations. You can move it, separate it, link it, or process it, but the note must always be able to be understood on its own.

One characteristic of autonomy is what you highlight. This will preserve the usefulness of the note, even if the initial source of information disappears.

Use simple words

Don’t use fancy words, since we digest simple content faster. Write in your own words so that when you read the topic you will understand it no matter how long ago you wrote it down.

The relevance of links is that if a note doesn’t have a connection, it will lose its usefulness in the slip-box. While independence is essential for understanding the annotations, linking them makes them more beneficial material.

It’s crucial to explain the reason for the link. Otherwise, over time, it’s easy to forget why the link exists. 

Don’t establish categories

A slip-box shouldn’t be organized by hierarchies or categories so as not to condition the material and instead be able use it as a basis for free thinking. If you feel like it has to respond to an order, then it’s best to use themes. The best way to differentiate the annotations is by number and letter codes. For example: 1, 1a, 2, 2a, 2b, 3.

Don’t delete or throw away any notes

Even if you think a comment is obsolete, don’t delete it. The best thing to do is to attach another note justifying the loss of validity. From the archive, you will later be able to realize how your thoughts were transformed.

Make summary notes

As long as you gather topics, construct summary notes. That is, create an annotation that covers the sequence of links to the other annotations. All of them should reference where they came from, whether that be from a note or a related idea.

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The advantages of getting organized using the Zettelkasten method

Organizing with the Zettelkasten method contributes to efficiency, memory, scheduling, and stress elimination. In general, it’s difficult for someone wh’s organized to forget details and that person is more likely to achieve success thanks to this ability, highlights Forbes magazine .

In addition, a study reported by the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity states that organized individuals have a lower risk of mortality. The argument is that personality traits influence the levels of interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein, two fundamental elements of the immune system.

a women with notes and disorganization

Final recommendations to get the most out of the Zettelkasten

Patience is a virtue of value internalizing the note box system. Don’t give up if you find it complicated at first; little by little, you will click with the technique and build up a large database.

However, if you want to apply the method with up-to-date tools, you can try mobile note-taking applications. Another secret is not to wait too long to enter new ideas. Act fast and respect the principles of atomicity, autonomy, and linking.

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