In today's information age, it's increasingly important to not only organise our thoughts, but also protect them for future use. Our first interaction with the term “knowledge management” came from picking up Tiago Forte’s book, Building A Second Brain. Before coming across this piece of work, we rarely looked at our own note taking process. If anything, many of of us took pride in doing tasks and remembering intricate details on the fly. As we went through this book we came across a very interesting quote by David Allen that forced us to pause and reflect.
“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
It was a quote that sparked a “ah ha” moment for us and set us up on a journey into exploring different frameworks and models to unlock new possibilities through our thinking. One of the methods we came across frequently was the Zettlekasten system, leveraged by many scholars to increase their own personal productivity and quality of work.
Zettlekasten is a German word that translates into the following:
Referred to as the “Slip Box” method, The Zettlekasten system is a way of taking notes to create meaningful connections between ideas, whilst making the same ideas easily accessible for future use.
One German sociologist in particular, Niklas Luhmann, was a true testament to the Zettlekasten system. Over the course of his life, Luhmann went on to write over 60 books, approximately 400 academic papers and thousands of pages of unpublished work. To say that he was productive was an understatement. He himself credited a lot of his knowledge and efficiency to his personal Zettlekasten system.Luhmann referred to his Kasten as a “second memory.” A place where chaos and unordered information slowly takes form and crafts itself into something beautiful and valuable. He often encouraged the chaos, working on multiple pieces of work and manuscripts simultaneously, resulting in truly complex thinking. Luhmann’s analogue method relied on small slips of paper with unique ID references that were systematically placed in the Kasten to develop connections between ideas that otherwise may have not seemed possible.
A Zettlekasten system can be personalised to your own specific preferences. You can either opt for a traditional way of storing your informration, similar to Luhmann, or leverage modern software for a digitised experience.
You will need slips of paper/index cards to write your information and thoughts down. Remember for analogue systems you will need to give each card a unique identifier to help create connections between ideas in your Kasten.
You will also need a crate/box which can store your notes. We recommend using a organiser of some sort where your notes are stored vertically that allows you to flick through your slip notes with ease, opposed to just a box where the paper is stacked on top of each other.
There are a number of digital tools available to users to create connections between ideas. The two tools we normally recommend are Notion and Obsidian. Both not only offer free plans but have excellent capabilities to link between notes. Obsidian in particular offers a graph view which presents users with a visual representation of connecting ideas which we adore.
Now that you have selected a method of organising your ideas, you must consider the way in which you take notes. The most important thing to remember about Luhmann’s system is that this is a bottom up method of organising information. Accordingly to Luhmann, there are 4 types of notes you need to consider whilst building up your Zettlekasten system.
Fleeting thoughts that we experience throughout the day are often lost quickly as we do not make a conscious effort to note them down. Luhmann emphasised the importance of logging these ideas as they could turn into something valuable once they are built on. These are often random thoughts that should be reviewed, processed and deleted if not necessary.
Literature notes should be produced whenever one is actively consuming some from of media. Whether it is a podcast, article, book or even music, a literature note attempts to capture valuable nuggets of information whist aligning them accordingly with appropriate references that can be leveraged in future work.
The process of producing permanent notes includes a review of your existing fleeting and literature notes. A lot of the time, we come across notes and ideas that may be valuable, but upon examining, are hard to interpret and understand. Luhmann recommends that when writing a permanent note, you must rewrite the information in your own words, whilst providing clear context, to combat this issue. He also writes his permanent notes with an eye towards existing notes, assessing where a connection can be made.
Hub notes are Zettles that do not contain any notes, but a list of topics that can be linked to other permanent notes. They are designed to help organise the flow of your Zettlekasten system whilst maintaining a bottom-up approach to your ideas.
With over 16,000 records of references for his notes, Luhmann's daily habit of reading, writing, and condensing allowed him to nurture his Zettelkasten system into something that truly boosted his personal productivity and the quality of his work. From e-ink tablets to fresh new software, there are now many ways to turn Niklas' Zettelkasten system into something that is bespoke to your way of thinking and simple enough to incorporate into your daily workflow. If you currently use the Zettelkasten method or something equivalent and would like to share your story, our team at Rarepublic would love to listen. Contact us at email@example.com with your thoughts and experiences or to suggest a topic for us to explore.