“Zettelkasten” is the German Secret to a Super-Organized Life

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While the internet is full of techniques that promise to help you get more done in a day, few of them also grow your creativity at the same time. Possibly the best productivity method you’ve never heard of, Zettelkasten might be an exception.

German for “slip box,” Zettelkasten is a note-taking method pioneered by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist, who, over the course of his career, wrote more than 70 books and 400 academic papers. According to Luhmann, this extreme productivity was directly linked to Zettelkasten. 

What is the Zettelkasten method?

At the most basic level, the Zettelkasten method is nothing more than a box (“kasten”) that holds slips of paper (“zettel”). Each slip of paper contains a piece of information (i.e., an idea that just occurred to you summed up in a few sentences) and an index—such as date and time or number.

The effectiveness of the Zettelkasten method is based on having an effective index. A good index will allow you to insert new slips of paper into your existing system, while at the same time maintaining order. For example, let’s say you wanted to expand on an idea that you put down on a slip of paper indexed as “1.” In this case, you’d label the next slip of paper “1a.” Then, you’d continue with “1b,” “1c,” and so on, but only if your ideas extended on the topics in the previous slips of paper. On the other hand, if you have a different branch-off thought from “1c,” you’d label the next slip of paper “1c1.” Similarly, if you have a new, unrelated idea, you can give that slip of paper a new number in the sequence (i.e., “2”).

This system, which is used by writers, researchers, and entrepreneurs the world over, makes it easier to document, develop, and expand on ideas. Perhaps more importantly, it also makes it easier to connect them with other ideas in new ways, thus boosting your creativity. By linking ideas together, you make room for serendipity, which can spark new, exciting thoughts. 

The Zettelkasten Method” by Abram Demski explores the analog method in greater detail. However, if keeping notes on physical index cards isn’t that appealing to you, you’ll be happy to know that there are plenty of apps that make it super easy and convenient to start your very own Zettelkasten. Below are three, but zettelkasten.de, an online project dedicated to researching and developing the technique, has a list of software compatible with Zettelkasten and how to set it up in each one (including Trello!). 

Roam Research

Described as “a note-taking tool for networked thought,” Roam Research is a popular browser-based app that lets you connect and group your thoughts with bi-directional links in the form of “daily logs.” Thanks to these links, you can move between ideas in a fluid way. 

Say, for example, you’re using your daily log to take notes on a book about productivity and the author mentions the 10/30 rule. Wrapping the term in a set of double square brackets ([[10/30]]) will create a separate page for this concept and will reference the page about productivity. Alternatively, if you’ve already made a page for the 10/30 rule before, it will link to that existing page. 

These are just a few features offered by Roam Research. It also comes with a task manager and a graph overview of all your pages where you can visualize how they’re linked, besides much, much more. 

The Archive

The granddaddy of digital Zettelkasten, The Archive is a plain text note-taking app for macOS. Built by the people behind zettelkasten.de, The Archive automatically assigns a unique ID (in the form of year, month, day, hour, and minute) to every note you create. You can also add a title to your note to give your future self a better idea of what that specific note contains. All of your notes are saved as a plain text file in your chosen folder. Although The Archive doesn’t have bi-directional links by default, you can add them manually. 

Obsidian

The new kid on the block, Obsidian wants to be your second brain. With Obsidian, you can create connections between different pages and see what other pages a specific page links to. Like Roam Research, Obsidian also boasts a graph view that shows you how all of your notes are connected. Moreover, the tool comes with plenty of plugins, like an audio recorder that lets you record a voice memo and add it directly to your notes.

However, unlike Roam Research and The Archive, Obsidian is folder-based, which is great when you need to take down notes about specific things.  On the other hand, the tool might fall short if you want to take notes about general stuff or brain dump. Nevertheless, if you want to give it a go, Obsidian is currently free for personal use. It’s also available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.