The Zettelkasten: Improving Workflow and Creativity

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Jul 21 2020 | Productivity

This year, I discovered a system which has significantly changed the way I think about and approach work. This system is called the Zettelkasten method.

Since my discovery, I have spent much of my free time applying it to my own workflow.

I now use the Zettelkasten method for most of my note taking. As a result of this, I've seen my productivity improve threefold.

The Zettelkasten allows you to:

This article is a high level overview of what the Zettelkasten method is, why it's a powerful system and the tool I use to create my Zettelkasten.

It's my hope that more people learn about the method and use it for their own workflows.

If you are willing to spend the upfront time and effort in understanding the method, then you'll see benefits for your growth and learning.

Who is this for?

Writers, founders, creators, developers, researchers, designers, and students.

Basically, if you are a knowledge worker, and the value of your work depends on the quality of your thoughts, judgement and decision making, then this article is for you.

Now let's dive into what the Zettelkasten method is.

Background on the Zettelkasten

The Zettelkasten method is a powerful system for thinking and writing.

It's known for its applications in knowledge management, by way of facilitating connections between thoughts and ideas.  

The word 'Zettelkasten' is German for 'slip box' or 'box of notes'.

One individual famous for his extensive use of the Zettelkasten method is 20th century German sociologist Niklas Luhmann.

A prolific writer by the sheer volume of work produced, Luhmann published more than 70 books and 400 academic articles over the course of his 40 year career.

His Zettelkasten contained some 90,000 index cards to support his research and writing. Luhmann credited his Zettelkasten for allowing him to write prolifically.

Now, Luhmann built a physical Zettelkasten - an impressive feat in itself. Luckily for us, we have the software to create a digital system, sparing us from having to write out all our notes by hand as Luhmann did.  

Luhmann's Zettelkasten via Kunsthalle Bielefel

The Zettelkasten Principles

At its core, the Zettelkasten is made up of notes and links that connect notes together.

If you have the time and want to dive deeper into all the mechanisms of the Zettelkasten, Christian Tietze has an overview section dedicated to that on his website.

I have modified the principles slightly to fit my own workflow.

Principles

1) Write new notes in your own words.
Extract concepts or ideas from the text you are reading instead of copying sentences word for word.

2) Notes are self-contained and fully independent from one another.

3) Create links between new notes and existing notes.
Write down why you have linked them together.

Alternatively, create a third note to explain the connection between two notes.

4) Create 'Meta' notes to explain the connection between connection notes.

5) Each note is unique (partly to make it search friendly).

6) Keep your references.

7) There can never be too many notes in your Zettelkasten.
Luhmann had 90,000 notes!

Unlinked notes will just sit quietly in your Zettelkasten until they show up in search, which they can then be made useful by being linked up to other notes.

Ultimately, it's up to you how you decide to build those connections. You want to build notes and links within your Zettelkasten that your future self will be able to make sense of.

Why the Zettelkasten is powerful

Having a second brain

The Zettelkasten is akin to having a second, digital brain. Its structure even mimics the brain's neural network.

We already know that the purpose of the Zettelkasten is to facilitate connection amongst ideas and thoughts. This makes it powerful in a few ways:

1) Linking ideas together allows for serendipity to happen, sparking new ideas.

2) Macro themes and relationships amongst ideas and thoughts can be observed.

3) Metacognition - the act of thinking about thinking is encouraged.

In academia, Connected Papers is a mapping tool based on the same concept of networks. As the name suggests - Connected Papers links up similar academic articles in a visual way so that researchers can quickly see relationships between articles, enhancing their research and analysis.

Hierarchy versus network

The typical way of note taking follows a linear, hierarchical structure.

It usually looks like this: You take notes for the books or articles you read. All of those notes are separate from one another. Eventually, a collection of notes stack up, some of which you'll probably never bother looking at ever again.

The problem with taking notes in a linear fashion is that you can't see the connection between ideas that you've come across several times, or link up the ideas that might have been sparked. This makes it a highly inefficient method of learning and retaining knowledge.

In contrast, the Zettelkasten method allows you use all the notes you have to build an interconnected network that grows over time.

The compound effect of accumulating knowledge

The benefits of adding notes to your Zettelkasten accumulate over time, like compound interest.

The more notes and links you create within your Zettelkasten, the more you grow your Zettelkasten, the stronger it becomes.

Enhanced lateral thinking

Most ideas we come up with aren't that useful, or are even absurd.

Since no thought or idea is ever 'wasted' in a Zettelkasten, as long as you connect it to another idea, the tendency to fear or resist ideas is put in place.

Personally, I have seen a threefold increase in my ability to generate new ideas. Naturally, this has given me plenty of article ideas.

On top of that, the quality of my writing has also improved.

I've applied the concept of idea generation to drafting and editing, which has made those processes more creative and bold.

If you want to reap the benefits of the Zettelkasten, you have to put in the effort to grow it by creating more notes and links. You want to avoid creating a static Zettelkasten that sits in a corner and is forgotten.

Applying Zettelkasten to Roam

Roam Research is by far the best software for implementing the Zettelkasten, unless you know how to code your own Zettelkasten from scratch, which is what Simon Eskildsen did.

On its website, it says it is a 'notetaking tool for networked thought'.

But I believe Roam has the potential to be much more than what it currently sells/markets itself to be.

There are similar tools that are built on the principle of enabling networked thought - Obsidian, Workflowy, The Archive and Stroll. But I've found Roam to be the most intuitive and user-friendly tool.

Roam isn't free, however, charging $15 per month for its professional monthly plan. Personally, I see Roam as a long term investment in my learning and growth, so it was a no brainer.

Nat Eliason has an excellent article on the benefits of using Roam and how to use it. Check it out if you want see a detailed write up on the software.

I use Roam for:

A few reasons why Roam is the ideal tool to use to create your Zettelkasten:

Bi-directional linking

Creates links automatically on both the pages you are linking up.

Graph view

Lets you see an overall image of all your pages and zoom in all the way to see individual ones.

Sidebar

Allows you to open up two pages simultaneously, so you don't have to go back and forth.

Search function

A highly specific filtering system that lets you see every page that has a reference of the idea you are looking for.

I've only used Roam for a short time period, but I can see myself eventually only using Roam to manage my personal life and work. That means no more Trello, Google Drive, Notion or Evernote.

My Roam Graph: Dots represent notes and lines represent links between notes.


If you decide to apply the Zettelkasten method to your workflow or use Roam, I'd love to know how it goes.

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