Interest in Personal Knowledge Management Systems continues to grow as people—particularly knowledge workers—grapple with how best to filter, organize, and synthesize the oceans of data at their fingertips. One increasingly popular approach to this problem is the Zettelkasten system. Despite its humble analog origins, the system is easily adapted to the digital medium. At its most basic, a Zettelkasten is a tool for memory, thinking, and creativity: first you record your ideas; then you develop, explore and expand on those ideas; lastly you connect and synthesize those ideas with other ideas in new and interesting ways.
Those new to the system may be daunted when confronting the task of setting up a personal Zettelkasten. For instance, what exactly constitutes an effective note? How should it be formatted? How atomic should it be? How should I manage bibliographic references and citations? These are all legitimate questions.
Getting the answers is easy if you know where to look. Fortunately, if you’re curious about Zettelkasten, there are more English-language resources than ever on the topic. What follows is a curated collection of the best Zettelkasten resources I’m familiar with; it offers a solid foundation for the motivated learner.
Where to Start
- Overview from Zettelkasten.de (zettelkasten.de): The Zettelkasten blog is comprehensive and well organized. This article serves as a helpful index for core concepts of the system as well as FAQs. Update Oct. 27, 2020: The team at Zettelkasten.de has published a new "Introduction to Zettelkasten" that may serve as a better springboard into the system.
- The Zettelkasten Method (lesswrong.com): Abram Demski’s excellent overview with particular attention to the analog origins of the method.
- Zettelkasten: How One German Scholar Was so Freakishly Productive (writingcooperative.com): One of the best article-length introductions.
- Organize Your Knowledge with Zettelkasten (youtube.com): If you prefer video, this is a good overview: clear, concise with zero marketing B.S.
- How to Take Smart Notes by Sohnke Ahrens (takesmartnotes.com): The only English book (presently) about the Zettelkasten method is an excellent resource.
If you prefer, there are helpful summaries Ahrens’ book:
Seeing actual implementations of the system is instructive. A number of generous individuals have made their repositories public. Mind you: there can be significant stylistic and substantive variance from one archive to another owing to idiosyncrasies between practitioners.
- Andy Matuschak’s Working Notes (andymatuschak.org): The author of this collection calls his collection “Evergreen notes”, which is heavily inspired by Zettelkasten with a few key differences.
- Christian Tietze’s Sample ZK (github.com): Demonstration of how to start a Zettelkasten (in this case it’s notes for a college thesis).
- Niklas Luhmann Digital Archive (niklas-luhmann-archiv.de): Publicly available digitized archive of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten. Use in conjunction with Google Translate to view some of the content in English.
- Public List of Zettelkasten (github.com): Massive list of public note archives. Some more “orthodox” Zettelkasten examples alongside wide spectrum of other note systems.
- Obsidian Zettelkasten (obsidian.md): An experimental Zettelkasten that cleverly uses interlinked public forum posts.
- Soren Bjornstad’s ZettelKasten (sorenjbornstad.com): “A place for collecting ideas and letting them collide and build up over time.”
Places to ask questions and explore specific topics among peers.
- Zettelkasten Forum (zettelkasten.de): The best place for Zettelkasten-specific discussions in English.
- Zettelkasten Subreddit (reddit.com): Not as active as the above forum, but does offer helpful content.
- Tool-specific forums: Many of the popular software tools have discussion forums. While much of the conversation is tool-specific, you will find threads about general note-taking strategies.
More Zettelkasten articles as well as adjacent thinkers in the note-taking space.
- Baseline for Zettelkasten Software Reviews (zettelkasten.de): This article includes a very clear definition of what is included in a standard Zettel note along with a sample note.
- Building a Second Brain (fortelabs.co): Tiago Forte’s approach to note taking (which shares some features with Zettelkasten).
- Note Writing Systems (andymatuschak.org): Matuschak’s public archive includes instructive notes on the topic of note-taking.
- The Notecard System (ryanholiday.net): Prolific writer Ryan Holiday’s note taking system and how he uses it in non-fiction book writing.
- The Opposite Collector’s Fallacy (wordpress.com): Thoughts on collecting, navigating and processing notes.
- Take Notes as Online Help for Your Creative Future Self (joepairman.com): Considerations on the granularity and context of notes.
- Taking Note Blog (blogspot.com): Philosopher Manfred Kuehn’s magisterial blog dedicated to all dimensions of note-taking. Despite being inactive since 2018, the archive contains 1000+ posts on the topic (including a large number on Zettelkasten).
- Zettelkasten for Writers (eadeverell.com): Practical tips on how to use the system for fiction writing.
- Why Take Notes (medium.com): On the mindset needed for effective note-taking.
- Zettelkasten.de YouTube Channel (youtube.com): The Zettelkasten.de team regularly posts videos illustrating core Zettelkasten concepts.
A final word of advice: pick and choose the techniques and ideas that work for you. As you read through the Zettelkasten literature, you’ll no doubt encounter those who insist on the “one true way” of doing something. I reject this kind of thinking. Instead, I adhere to two principles: (a) TMTOWTDI, a Perl programming mantra that means “there’s more than one way to do it” (a great general axiom when applicable), and (b) adapt and modify ideas to your needs. Orthodoxy and slavish adherence to other people’s systems is a poor substitute for individual exploration and discovery. And this final point is the most important one: merely reading about the topic is insufficient. At some point, the best advice and most productive use of your time is to simply dive in to the process itself, make plenty of mistakes, and learn through first-hand experience.
Naturally, there are many other Zettelkasten resources on the web. If I’ve missed any that you find particularly useful, please let me know.