Post-it notes on the fridge. Emails to yourself. Phone reminders. It's hard to remember even half of everything you have to do in a day, and when it comes to creativity, the ideas that arrive in your brain unbidden can be lost forever if you don't capture them. Fortunately, the Germans have come up with an ingenious method for remembering and connecting thoughts and brainstorms. Let’s take a deep dive and see how utilizing Zettelkasten can help you become more organized and stop losing ideas.
In German, ‘Zettel’ is translated as ‘paper note.’ It’s the way that these small units are organized and tied together that creates the Zettelkasten – which means slip box – method. The evolution of its present form can be traced back to social scientist Niklas Luhmann. Zettelkasten helped Luhmann become truly prolific as he published 50 books, more than 600 articles, and over 150 unpublished manuscripts. Somehow, he also found time to lecture students as professor emeritus at the University of Bielefeld.
According to a German website on the topic, “Luhmann’s Zettelkasten is a collection of notes on paper slips with a special twist: It is a hypertext that he could navigate the drawer cabinet containing all the paper slips with a reasonable amount of time and energy.” Even though it was an old-school, manual, and paper-driven approach, this allowed Luhmann to tap into decades of ideas and make them usable in whatever article or book he was working on at any given time. The only pop culture reference I can find to anything like this is Charles Augustus Magnussen, the slimy Sherlock Holmes nemesis whose mental “vaults” allow him to store dirt that he uses to blackmail his adversaries with seemingly obscure details that he retrieves at will.
Explaining the Principle of Atomicity
Today, e-ink devices like Supernote’s A5X and reMaarkable 2 recreate Luhmann’s paper note-based system by allowing users to link like documents for easier retrieval and organization. Luhmann advised, “It is not important where you place a new note as long as you can link to it.” He went on to suggest that there are three elements to all useful Zettelkastens:
- A) It’s hypertextual
- B) It adheres to the principle of atomicity
- C) It is personal
Wait, the principle of what? Let’s return to Luhmann to explain himself: “That means that each Zettel only contains one unit of knowledge and one only… One thought.” In a commentary on the article, the editor of this website stated, “In order to connect individual thoughts, give each thought an address to refer to. In the words of us ‘Zettlers’: Create one Zettel per thought.” The address is a reference point that allows you to precisely locate each thought and then relate it to the other notes on the page.
Before we learn more about the Zettelkasten concept as a whole, let’s explore each individual component – the Zettel mentioned earlier. Luhmann believed that every paper slip – think a mini Post-it note – must have:
“1) A unique identifier. This gives your Zettel an unambiguous address [think a map reference].
2) The body of the Zettel. This is where you write down what you want to capture: The piece of knowledge.
3) References. At the bottom of each Zettel, you either reference the source of the knowledge you capture or leave it blank if you capture your own thoughts.”
Connecting Zettels to Improve Pattern Recognition and Memory
If they were left separate, Zettels would be in danger of becoming like three thousand Lego bricks scattered across a rug. Sure, you could build them into something, but it’d be hard to know which piece went where without the instruction booklet that thankfully comes with each pre-packaged and thoughtfully designed set.
“The true magic of a Zettelkasten, when compared to ordinary note-taking systems, comes from the heavy emphasis on connection. Each new Zettel needs to be placed in some relationship to another Zettel,” the Zettelkasten website asserted. “The main benefit from connections is their effect on you and your brain: When you relate pieces of knowledge to others, you create relationships between pieces of knowledge. Knowledge relationships significantly improve recall, and forming them also trains your mind to see patterns.”
Why Zettelkastens Can’t Be Replaced By Online Encyclopedias
The writer who commented on Luhmann’s method went on to contrast a Zettelkasten with Wikipedia, which “is not a web of thoughts, because you can only link to articles and sections within them, but not to individual thoughts inside the text. In contrast, referring to an atomic note is unambiguous: when you reference it, you will know what the ‘thought’ is. There should be no room for guesswork. That is what the rule of atomicity means: Make sure that the layer of content and the boundaries between notes match and are well defined. Then and only then can it be a reference to an address identical to referencing a thought.”
One of the biggest pluses of Zettelkasten is that it lets you record your ideas in real time and then link them to previous and future thoughts. This facilitates a kind of network effect, whereby you join seemingly disparate notions – the kind that come to you in the bath or while on a walk, for example – and these connections cause creative sparks to fly.
Personal and Private Ideating
A lot of modern tools, such as AI-driven content platforms like Notion or Miro boards, pride themselves on being collaborative and letting multiple people mold, shape, and iterate your best ideas. While it can inform such team-wide creativity, a Zettelkasten is personal and, unless you decide to air the information it contains, private – much like a journal, diary, or planner.
The commenter on Luhmann’s method explained: “A Zettelkasten is a personal tool for thinking and writing. It has hypertextual features to make a web of thought possible. The difference to other systems is that you create a web of thoughts instead of notes of arbitrary size and form, and emphasize connection, not a collection.”
What Does a Completed Zettelkasten Look Like?
As I was writing this article, it dawned on me that the 960-something words to this point explained the concept in detail, but I was finding it hard to visualize the finished product. Which means that maybe you are too. So let’s look at what a Zettelkasten comprised of keyword-enabled thoughts looks like, courtesy of the fine folks at Supernote (see image below). If you can start doing likewise, you’ll be better able to record your ideas as they come to you, connect them to each other, and use this association to increase the originality and cohesion of your creative process.