How to Build a Zettelkasten in Notion? A Guide for Beginners

A Zettelkasten (often also called a slip-box) is a decentralized system for note management. Instead of relying on folders, this system uses tags and internal links to connect relevant notes with each other.

This is quite similar to how the World Wide Web works. Here too, web pages are connected to each other via hyperlinks and form a network. The better a website is linked to the World Wide Web, the easier it is to find. The same principle applies to your notes in the Zettelkasten.

This system was invented by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who worked in the second half of the 20th century and published over 70 books and 400 scientific articles throughout his career. His original Zettelkasten did not require any digital aids: links from one note to another were noted on the slips of paper. If Luhmann wanted to find a note, he had to go through his closet full of notes.

No an easy task, as Luhmann created about 90,000 notes in his lifetime, some of which have now been made digitally accessible in the Niklas Luhmann Archive.

How could you benefit from a Zettelkasten?

On the one hand, the box serves as a knowledge store. On the other hand, due to its decentralized structure, it also promotes your creativity, as often unexpected new connections between notes come to light. Therefore, this system can be useful for various professions: scientists, researchers, writers, authors, and journalists, but also artists.

However, I recommend relying on digital tools and not copying Luhmann’s analog system, as the decentralized linking of notes is much easier to implement with digital tools like Notion or Obsidian.

At first glance, setting up a Zettelkasten seems complicated. When I first researched this method myself, I was completely overwhelmed: People talked about identification numbers, literature notes, fleeting notes, and similar strange terms. The concept seemed to me something overly complicated that would take years to set up.

In reality, you can set up a Zettelkasten within a minute: All you need are 2 or more notes that are connected to each other by links or tags.

Of course, you can expand the system and, for example, create literature notes that contain information about the author or a source, or you can write keyword notes that summarize the most important notes for certain topics.

Keep in mind, you don’t need all those extra notes to start, in my opinion, it rather prevents you from starting.

How to create a Zettelkasten in Notion?

It’s best to store notes in a Notion database. In our example, we simply call it Zettelkasten, but of course, you have the freedom to choose any name you like.

Each entry in this database is a new note. The name of the entry is the name of the note, and you can write the additional text either in a text box or on the entry’s page.

What do I mean by that?

Well, when you click on an entry in a database, a page opens up. Here, you can write text, insert images, or even embed videos.

However, I would also write information in the properties of the entry. These are the columns that are visible when scrolling through the database. At least the following information should be visible:

  • The name of the note
  • A brief summary
  • A reference to the literature
  • Tags or categories

How do I create new notes in Notion?

Notion works better on the desktop than in the mobile version. The challenge for us is to make adding new notes as simple as possible so that you can also create notes on the phone.

For this purpose, we use a Notion button that creates a new entry in the database when clicked. To create a button, type /button on the Notion page, indicate that the button should create a new page in a database, and finally select the Zettelkasten database. Optionally, you can also label the entries with “@today” so that new notes are always marked with the current date.

I would also filter the first view of the database to only show new entries. You can do this by, for example, only displaying entries that were created on that particular day.

With that, the Zettelkasten would already be complete. If you don’t have many notes yet, the current structure is perfectly sufficient.

The following steps are only for a better overview if you already have a Zettelkasten with several hundred or thousand notes.

Adding a status to notes

To better filter your entries in the Zettelkasten, we can add a status. For this, you create a status property and specify various categories like:

  • Fleeting Note
  • Literature notes
  • Permanent notes
  • etc.

I would by default label new entries as Fleeting Notes. They first need to be revised and linked with other notes. Only when that is completed would I change their status to Permanent Note.

How are notes linked to each other in Notion?

For classic linking, we have 2 methods available:

  1. We can use a Relation property.
  2. We can set a link on the page of the entry.

I prefer the second version since we will need more relations later, for example, to link literature or tags to your notes. Since too many linkages via relations can make the database slow, I would advise against resolving the backlinking of the notes using this methodology.

So we open the page of an entry again and set the link there, either in the running text, like in a Wikipedia entry, or as a reference to further notes at the end of the text.

Not always are links possible between new and existing notes, for example when it is the first note about a new topic. In this case, I recommend setting tags.

Again, we have two options available:

  1. We can create a selection property and set the tags there.
  2. We can create a new database. Each entry there is a category. Using a relation, we can link these categories to our notes.

I recommend the second option again, as this allows us to assign a separate page to each tag. On this page, we can write a concise summary of the respective topic. This also allows us to directly link from the page to the central notes of the respective category, which significantly improves clarity.

Where do we store references to sources or literature?

For this purpose, I would also create a separate literature database.

Here, we save all studies, articles, books, or videos that serve as sources for our notes. When we now create a new note, we simply link this note using a relation to the corresponding literature.

How do I keep my Zettelkasten clear and avoid chaos?

A big fear of new Zettelkasten users is that they only use the system to drop notes that are never looked at again. I think this fear is unfounded as long as new entries are continuously linked with old ones. If you are doing this, old entries won’t be forgotten but will be embedded deeper and deeper into the existing network.

To ensure a good structure, I recommend regularly reviewing the Zettelkasten. Update old notes, delete notes that are no longer relevant or duplicates, and create new links.

For me, it has proven useful to set a fixed date in the week when I work exclusively on improving my Zettelkasten.

How do I search for notes in Notion?

You can navigate from note to note using the backlinks, look up the tags, or simply use the search function in Notion. To do this, click on the magnifying glass icon in the database header on the left and enter the search term there. All matching entries will be displayed immediately.

Conclusion: This is how you create a slip box in Notion

You see, creating a Zettelkasten in Notion is no rocket science. All you need are 2 or more notes and a Notion database. All other databases for literature or tags are optional and can be added later if needed.

I hope this guide has helped you so that you are now able to create your personal Zettelkasten in Notion.

You are also welcome to use my Zettelkasten template for Notion: This template combines Luhmann’s system with other useful learning methods, such as spaced repetitions, incremental reading or the Feynman method.

Click here to purchase the template with a small discount.

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