Have you come here looking for knowledge? 🧠 That's perfect timing as we're just about to take a closer look at another interesting system for collecting and organizing information. A brainchild of a German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the Zettelkasten method can make you (and your team) smarter, more productive and effective at work.
While the Zettelkasten was originally created to support Luhmann's scientific research, we decided to look at it from a slightly different angle. In this article, we answer the questions:
- 👉 What is the Zettelkasten method?
- 👉 Why is it still so popular?
- 👉 How can you create your own Zettelkasten?
- 👉 Can it be used by teams and organizations?
- 👉 Can you create a decentralized, collaborative Zettelkasten?
Since most of the available material on Luhmann's system is in German (*Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof... 🦄), we included a handful of extra resources in English for further reading. You'll find them at the end of this article.
Let's start with the basics, shall we?
As you know by now, the elegant term zettelkasten(zettel=note + kasten=box) comes from the German language and means a "box of notes," just like this one: 👇
Luhmann's Zettelkasten via Kunsthalle Bielefel.
As a concept, the Zettelkasten method involves capturing, storing and organizing information using a simple (yay!) system of index cards. Luhmann, an accomplished academic and prolific author, created the Zettelkasten to catalog information he could later use in his writing.
As noted by Manfred Kuehn(1) who's an authority on the Zettelkasten: "Luhmann (...) described his system as his secondary memory (Zweitgedächtnis), alter ego, or his reading memory (Lesegedächtnis)."
To some extent, the Zettelkasten was meant to imitate the way the brain works and effectively take over "memorizing" all the information Luhmann collected during his research. You can think of the Zettelkasten as an early version of the "second brain" concept we discussed in "How to Build a Second Brain for Distributed Teams."
Luhmann's headshot composed of Zettelkasten cards via Luhmann-Archiv.
According to Kuehn (1), Luhmann's system used "small (slightly larger than 5 x 8 cards, or Din-A 6, to be precise)" index cards. Every time Luhmann took note of something he found particularly interesting or connected to a book or article he was working on, he would transfer that information to a card, code it with a unique ID and file in his Zettelkasten.
🗃 Zettel Trivia: Many famous authors and artists used index cards in their work. The Russian-born American novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote his last novel The Original of Laura (subtitled A Novel in Fragments) *on a set of 138 cards that were put together and published after his death. He also used index cards for his (in)famous *Lolita. (4)
The size of the cards was important for several reasons, the most practical being storage capacity. Over the course of 50 years, Luhmann filed 90.000 notes so it wouldn't be practical or even remotely possible to store larger sheets of paper in the same volume.
The other reason why compact, crisp notes work best is the atomic nature of the system. Each note represents a single thought or idea. Even if it does connect to a broader concept or field of study, the connections happen on a higher level, beyond the notes themselves.
Here's one of Luhmann's index cards digitized by Bielefeld University. Notice the index number in the top left corner of the note. The numbering pattern is visualized below.
A digitized Zettelkasten note via Luhmann-Archiv.
🗃 Zettelkasten Tip: As it is the case with most knowledge management systems, there's no one right way to implement the Zettelkasten. While Luhmann used paper index cards and physical boxes to store them, you can pick any medium that works best for you. The same rule applies to naming and categorizing your notes.
One of the most popular indexing methods recommended by the Zettelkasten community is to correlate note IDs with the date and time they are created.
For instance, the ID of a note created on January 25, 2020, could look like this: 25012020. When we break it down, we get the following format (DD/MM/YYYY) or 25/05/2020. This approach can be further refined by adding hours, minutes (HH:MM) and optional suffixes for more granularity.
Date-based indexing is great for a number of reasons. It gives your notes additional context of the time they were created. It also makes it much easier to "decipher" individual notes at a glance. Last but not least, it prevents any duplicates or inconsistencies in the numbering.
The power of Zettelkasten lies in the connections between individual notes. Depending on whether you decide to use a pen-and-paper or a digital system, you can mesh your Zettelkasten by:
- Inserting a note ID of one note to another
- Using hyperlinks to create direct connections
- Keeping a master index with a list of all your notes
- Adding granularity with tags, categories or areas of interest
Some Zettelkasten purists say the system doesn't need tags and categories to be effective, but it really depends on personal preference. If you're planning to create a collaborative Zettelkasten for your distributed team (more on that in a moment) we recommend adding as much granularity as possible.
While every note in the Zettelkasten has a unique ID, branching makes it possible to connect notes together using their reference numbers alone.
Let's say you just read about an interesting passage in a book and want to add it to your Zettelkasten. Following the date/time convention, that note could be indexed as 080620201600 (depending on when you're adding it to your Zettelkasten).
So, what happens if another book expands on the concept and adds key details that complete what's already inside the catalog?
Of course, you may add the ID of a new note to the original, higher-level entry and do the same the other way around. But you can also branch off the original note and create an offshoot ID that would naturally lead to the original concept.
Take a look at the following tree diagram and see how you can branch one unique ID like 080620201600 into 080620201600A, 080620201600A1, 080620201600B, 080620201600C...
So, putting it all together, here's a simple, 5-step Zettelkasten recipe:
- 🔎 Find an interesting piece of information. It can be work-related or personal, tied to a specific project or just trivia you think is worth keeping. If you're using a digital Zettelkaten, your notes don't have to be limited to text only. They can include images, videos, bits of code or even audio recordings
- ➡ Transfer the information into your Zettelkasten. Stick to Luhmann's format and keep your notes crisp. Keep only the essential information and dump the rest. If you're not sure what to keep, you can use Tiago Forte's progressive summarization technique we described in our "second brain" article
- 🎰 Create a unique ID for your note. Creating note IDs is THE thing in Zettelkasten. You should create a progressive system that will let you number notes without limitations and help establish connections between them (read on to learn how)
- 🔗 Attribute the source. Including a link or a bibliographical note on the source will let you trace the original material in case you need it in the future. Attributions can include the author's name, book title, particular chapter or page number
- ⛓ Build connections. Your Zettelkasten may not look like much at first. But as you continue to add new entries and connect them to existing notes, it'll grow exponentially and eventually become indispensable. Building a Zettelkasten is a marathon rather than a sprint
As you can see, the Zettelkasten method is really simple. Even as your Zettelkasten grows, the rules for storing and organizing entries don't change that much. But that's not all.
Here are five more reasons why the system is worth your time:
- 🧠 It acts as your second brain. Thanks to the Zettelkasten, Luhmann didn't need to rely on assistants during his academic career. The Zettelkasten acted as his second memory he could rely on and interact with as he would with a conversation partner
- 🌱 It can grow. Over his lifetime, Luhmann wrote down and filed around 90,000 paper cards. As long as you can come up with a long-running indexing system, your Zettelkasten isn't really capped in terms of capacity
- 🔐 It's fail-proof. Unlike human memory, which is extremely fallible, the Zettelkasten is always there for you. No information is lost or fragmented. And if you use a digital Zettelkasten, extracting information happens instantaneously, either with full-text search or direct links between notes
- 🥳 It can surprise you. Opening your Zettelkasten is like returning to a great book you read many years ago. It's a wonderful feeling to rediscover nuggets of knowledge you didn't know were there in the first place. The more information you feed into the system, the more remarkable it becomes
There's no doubt that the Zettelkasten is an overly personal system that works best for, well... personal knowledge management (PKM). After all, it's meant to double as your second brain and, to some extent, mimics the way your pinky friend meshes bits of information together.
Ready for a plot twist? Let's see if we can answer the following questions:
- Can you use one Zettelkasten for a group of people?
- If so, what are the benefits of applying the system on a wider scale?
- Can it be used in 100% distributed organization where teams collaborate remotely?
Collective, collaborative approach to knowledge management is something we discussed some time ago in our article on Past, Present, and Future of Outlining Software. Tl;dr: It's perfectly possible. And there are many good reasons why you should consider creating a collaborative Zettelkasten for your distributed team.
In order to make the process of creating a collaborative Zettelkasten easier, we'll adopt the set of three principles---mobility, stability and combinability--- suggested by Professor Sean Lawson(2) (originally from Bruno Latour's Science in Action).
🔄 Mobility. Adding bits of information to the Zettelkasten has to be quick and intuitive. Whether that means saving digital "cards" into shared cloud storage or a collaborative note-taking app, it's really up to you and your team. The same applies to searching the contents of the Zettelkasten and pulling up the information. If it's too complex, nobody's going to use it anyway, so err on the side of simplicity.
🗄 Stability. The information your team captures should always link back to the source. In other words, it can't be added to the Zettelkasten without a context or proper reference. For instance, if your Zettelkasten catalog includes statistical data you want to use in your marketing project, it should link back to the original research and provide a bibliographical note on that.
🔎 Combinability. Individual nodes of your team's Zettelkasten should mesh together into a network of thoughts, concepts and ideas. To better understand how notes relate to each other, you can use tags, categories and topics. While bundling notes is a contentious topic in the Zettelkasten community, there's no reason why your team shouldn't do so if it makes the system even more useful.
And now for the fun part. 🎉
In this section, we'll show you how to create a collaborative, decentralized Zettelkasten for your distributed team in Taskade. Since some of the steps described below are similar to the BASB methodology we mentioned earlier, you can follow up with that article once you're done here (click).
👩🔬 Remember: There is no one, right way to implement the Zettelkasten so feel free to experiment with your system any way you want.
As we explained before, the most intuitive method to index your notes is to use date/time coding and add optional prefix/suffix combinations if needed.
For example, a note ID created on June 8th, 2020 at 8:00 would look like this    . If a new note picks up on a broader concept or idea that's already in your Zettelkasten, you can branch into  or [1a] and continue ad infinitum.
But that's not the only way you can identify your Zettelkasten entries.
Another straightforward indexing method would be to use a keyword variation across several notes. For instance, a long-running series of entries containing quotes from books could look like this:
Notice how one keyword can easily branch using digits/numbers, letters and emojis. Each "core" element of a note title, including unique emojis, can then be used as an anchor in full-text search.
While this approach doesn't offer the element of "surprise" Luhmann found in his Zettelkasten, it makes identifying and pulling up particular entries much easier compared to the date-based indexing.
- By adding Zettelkasten notes as new Projects with unique IDs:
- Or by creating batches of notes inside specific Projects:
At first, you may want to encourage your team to experiment a bit and see what method or organization works best for them. In the long run, be sure to stick to one system so the identifiers, tags and categories (if you use them) are consistent.
Your team can cross-link associated notes in several ways, either by inserting note IDs into corresponding entries, linking notes directly or creating a master index that will list all the notes in the system.
If you decide to use tags or categories, Taskade's #tag functionality will help your team sort and filter out groups of notes inside specific Projects or Workspaces.
Tags inside Projects.
When it comes to extracting information from the Zettelkasten, the easiest way to do so is via a full-text search. In Taskade, you can run searches globally (across Workspaces, Subspaces and Project) or narrow them down to individual projects.
...or within the confines of specific Projects:
In order for the Zettelkasten to be really effective, encourage your team to make it a constant part of their workflow. Every time a member of the team comes across a valuable insight or key information that may (or may not) contribute to what the team is working on, they should add it to the Zettelkasten so others can also tap and curate that bit of information.
But that's not all:
- 🔒 Set user roles and permissions for specific users in your organization and decide who can add, modify and read the contents of the Zettelkasten
- 💬 Let your team discuss the contents of the Zettelkasten via unlimited chat, video or conference calls
- 📝 Open the Zettelkasten to curation through user comments
- 🎨 Add different types of media to your Zettelkasten. You can upload images, videos, spreadsheets, voice recordings and more!
A multimedia Zettelkasten note in Taskade.
And that's it!
Although the Zettelkasten is deeply rooted in the pen-and-paper age, it offers what many modern similar knowledge management systems lack: simplicity. It's surprising how a 100% analog process can be so flexible, intuitive and fit into basically any medium.
Granted, it takes time to build and mesh a really useful repository of knowledge, but it'll be well worth the effort. A collaborative, decentralized Zettelkasten is a great way to keep your distributed team connected, informed and always on the same page.
And if you're not sure where to create a digital Zettelkasten for your team, look no further. Jump over here to sign up for a free Taskade account today.
- Manfred Kuehn's highly informative blog on notetaking. (1) (click)
- Sean Lawson's take on Zettelkasten's implementation. (2) (click)
- A translation of Luhman's "Communicating with Slip Boxes." (click)
- On Nabokov's collection of index cards. (4) (click).
*life's no bowl of cherries