Do you take notes that end up unorganized, scattered, and of no further use?

A young soccer player throws a bunch of unorganized notes in the air.

There's a better way!

With the Zettelkasten method of notetaking,you'll take organized notes you can alsokeep building on in your lifetime and connecting to new ideas!

A girl has a light bulb moment, which is shown with a blue blinking bulb.

What does Zettelkasten mean?

The word Zettelkasten has German origins:

  • Zettel = note or slip of paper

  • Kasten = box

  • Zettelkasten = slip-box

That's why it's also called the slip-box method of notetaking. In its purest form, it looks something like this:

A wooden Zettelkasten with six columns comprising of four drawers each.  Some drawers are open, filled with notes to the brim Photo by University of Bielefeld

What makes the Zettelkasten method unique?

Introducing Niklas Luhmann:

  • the godfather of the Zettelkasten method

  • a remarkably productive German social scientist

Luhmann's Zettelkasten was his collection of paper notes that he could easily "surf" for information or ideas.

Imagine being able to navigate through tens of thousands of physical slips of paper just like you're browsing the internet!

Niklas Luhmann, in his study, going through his notes from his Zettelkasten. Photo by Detlef Horster

Luhmann did this by connecting his notes using a unique combination of numbers and letters.

Connections between ideas lie at the heart of the Zettelkasten method!

X González, an American activist, pointing to a web of notes and saying,

How can you implement this method?

So, do you need to buy a slip-box to get started? Not really! Get started with these options:

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1. Paper-based

For a paper-based implementation, you'll need:

  • A box (shoe box or similar)

  • Paper or index cards

  • Pen or pencil

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2. Digital-based

For a digital-based implementation, you'll need to:

Catherine O'Hara as Moira Rose in Schitt's Creek saying,

This paper-based example will help you get started:

Images below by David B. Clear, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Step 1

Create a separate note for each new idea/information.

Three small note cards with Idea A, Idea B and Idea C written on each respectively.

Step 2

Assign numbers to each note (1, 2...).

Idea A note card is numbered as 1 on top-left corner. Similarly, Idea B note card is numbered as 2 and so on. Step 3

To add further context/ information/ comments to existing notes, create new notes if you'd like and identify them as 1/1... or further as 1/1/1...

Additional idea note cards D and E are inserted between idea note cards A and B and are numbered as 1/1 and 1/2 respectively.

Step 4

Create connections by writing the identifying numbers of the connecting notes on a note.

Idea card B numbered as 2 connects to idea card E numbered as 1/2, so 1/2 written on bottom right-corner of idea card B. Step 5

Add relevant tags/keywords on a note if you'd like.

Tags/ keywords written on top-right of each note card. Tag 1 is written on card A, tags 1 and 2 written on idea B and so on. Step 6

Create a separate note to maintain a list of notes for each tag.

A note card with a list of tags and note card numbers. Tag 1 has numbers 1, 2, and 1/1 written next to it.

At first, your Zettelkasten will just have a few notes.

The connections will happen as you keep building your Zettelkasten!

Dan Levy as David Rose in Schitt's Creek saying,

Quiz 1: Jasmine's project

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Jasmine is a high school student. A seminar on climate change has sparked her interest in further exploring and researching this topic.

This research project on climate change will help her in the end-of-term assignments and also in her career options moving forward.

She's looking at ways to better organize her notes for this project.


Could using the Zettelkasten method of notetaking benefit Jasmine?

4 steps to start building your Zettelkasten

In his book How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens recommends the following:

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1. Make Quick Notes

  • Take quick notes on ideas that come to your mind during the day.

  • Document these in some form so you don't forget what they mean.

  • Don't worry about the structure and details!

  • Collect these in 1-2 ways like in notebooks or apps to manage them better.

  • Process them at the end of the day or as soon as you can. More on this in Step 3.

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2. Make Literature Notes

  • Take notes on content from different sources you're referring to (books, articles, seminars, or videos).

  • Ask yourself: "Is this information useful/relevant for my current research/project?"

  • Write in your own words to understand the information.

  • Keep direct quotes little to none.

  • Note down the bibliographic details of the source.

  • Maintain a separate filing system for these notes.

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3. Make Permanent Notes

  • Identify the most important notes from (1) and (2) to add to your Zettelkasten.

  • Ask yourself: "How can I further develop this idea or connect it to existing ideas/arguments/discussions?"

  • Rewrite notes to have one idea on one note to connect ideas with a greater focus later.

  • Write like you're writing for someone else, in complete sentences and mentioning the references, if any.

  • Add the permanent notes to your (digital/ physical) Zettelkasten.

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4. Let the Magic Happen!

  • Connect as many notes to one another and explain the connections so you don't forget!

  • Identify these connections with unique identifiers like numbers, keywords, or those supported by your application.

  • Create an index note similar to the index section in books that can include tags/keywords and their respective note card numbers for easy future reference.

  • Do this a little each day to keep building your Zettelkasten and so as to avoid a huge pile-up of notes!

Tip: As you become a pro at taking notes, you'll be mainly using steps (3) & (4).

Jesse Lee Soffer as Jay Halstead in Chicago P.D. telling someone in front of him,

Benefits of the Zettelkasten method of notetaking

But...that looks like a lot of work! 😅

Like everything, once you get the hang of it, it will keep getting easier and more fun. Imagine having your own personal web of knowledge!

Erika Conway as Nyx in Necessary Evil (TV series) saying with a straight face,

With the Zettelkasten method of notetaking, you'll...

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  • Keep chasing new and interesting ideas or information to add to your box, be it while reading, listening, watching, discussing, or thinking on your own!

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  • Keep taking notes for life and store them in an organized way for current and future reference. No ideas go to waste in this method!

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  • Keep thinking with your notes and not just collecting them. You'll take notes to understand, connect, and generate new thoughts and ideas across subjects and disciplines.

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  • Keep learning and growing with this knowledge base in your personal, academic, and professional work. Your Zettelkasten will be a witness to your evolving thoughts and ideas!

A woman excitedly saying,

Quiz 2: Jasmine's Zettelkasten

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Jasmine decided to use the Zettelkasten method of notetaking for her climate change project. However, she has a lot of schoolwork. She also commutes back and forth to school by public transport for about an hour each day.

Which practices below will help Jasmine build her Zettelkasten on climate change during her commute?

A. Take brief notes on her phone while listening to a podcast on renewable energy.

B. Review notes taken on her phone during the week and edit them like permanent notes ready for her Zettelkasten at home later.

C. Take audio notes on her thoughts and ideas about climate change.

D. All of the above


Which practices above will help Jasmine build her Zettelkasten on climate change during her commute?


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