How does the Zettelkasten method work?

This is my second post about the Zettelkasten Methode. If you want to learn more about the philosophy of this method click here:

Is the Zettelkasten system the second brain you need?

Offer: If you wish to build your Zettelkasten with Notion, check out my Zettelkasten Template. It is the most straightforward and user-friendly Zettelkasten solution for Notion. By clicking on the link, you can get it 50% off:

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten for Notion

So, what do you need to start building your Zettelkasten?

Niklas Luhmann used a physical index card box with almost 100,000 index cards that were linked to one another by a complicated directory system. Such a huge directory took up a lot of space: He needed an entire room just to store his notes.

Fortunately, we are already living in the digital age. Unless you prefer pen and paper, you can create your entire Zettelkasten on your smartphone.

This comes with many benefits besides needing less physical space: A digital Zettelkasten makes it easier to find notes and makes the interlink between notes substantially faster.

How can you find my notes again in a Zettelkasten?

  1. By tagging them (don’t use categories)
  2. By linking between notes

This way you are creating a web of information. With time more and more connections will form, some more surprising than the others. This way the Zettelkasten will transform into a tool that will support your creativity and thinking.

What kind of notes exists in a Zettelkasten?

  • Fleeting Notes
  • Literature Notes
  • Permanent Notes

Let’s have a look at each note category.

Fleeting Notes

When you start building a Zettelkasten, just begin by taking notes throughout the day.

For example, when you are listening to a podcast, just write ideas or quotes you are hearing on a piece of paper or on some simple note-taking app on your phone.

Those first notes are called Fleeting Notes.

Not all of those notes need to be part of your Zettelkasten. In the next step, you need to decide which of the fleeting notes you want to bring into your Zettelkasten.

Literature Notes

We call those notes Literature Notes:

They are short, bullet-point summaries of things you want to remember from the content you’ve consumed.

Remember: Less is more! Summarize the content in your own words and include a reference to its source.

This step is important because writing is thinking: while writing, we process information and become aware of possible mistakes in our reasoning.

However, if we were to consume new information without actually processing it by summarizing it in our own words, our learning behavior would resemble the eating behavior of a bulimic.

We overeat on new notes and forget them soon after taking them, just as bulimics vomit food and thus retain no nutrients in their bodies.

This type of learning is called bulimia learning for a reason!

Important: Just summarize one idea per note!

Each note contains only one single idea. When you create them you don’t write a full article. You write ideas. That’s how they become reusable. – Eva Keiffenheim

Permanent Notes

Some of the literature notes can be converted into permanent notes, but do this just for ideas and thoughts you really want to explore deeply.

Literature notes are short summaries while permanent notes are short essays about a single idea (100-300 words). Other people or your future self should be able to understand them without reading the source material.

Link your new permanent note to existing permanent notes. Ideally, you link to another note, when this note is supporting, challenging, upgrading or contradicting the new permanent note. This way, a web of knowledge will emerge with time.

Knowledge Working with a Zettelkasten

Thanks to his Zettelkasten, Luhmann never had to deal with writer’s block. Because no matter what topic he tackled, he always had notes that served as a starting point for a project. By structuring those notes he automatically built an initial outline.

So, with the Zettelkasten method, the actual process of writing does not occur when you sit down to write, but already when you start to structure your thoughts and create literature or permanent notes. This way, the actual writing process ends up feeling more like formatting the first draft.

Digital or analog notes? What is better

Luhmann worked for around 40 years until his death in 1998 with an analog Zettelkasten. Theoretically, you too could work with analog notes as Luhmann did. However, be aware that he only chose the analog form due to the technical limitations of his time.

Digital notes have only advantages compared to analog notes.

You can

  • take them anywhere,
  • format & edit them effortlessly,
  • share them with other people,
  • and browse them easily.

Compare that with analog notes: Here you would have to play archivist to keep track if you plan to grow your Zettelkasten.

It would also be impossible to take a Zettelkasten consisting of tens of thousands of notes with you when traveling.

Last but not least, an analog Zettelkasten can be destroyed more easily. Author Ryan Holiday, for example, relies 100% on analog notes. But when his apartment was robbed a few years ago, his biggest concern wasn’t his valuables but his notes.

When you are building a digital Zettelkasten, you can easily create backups. Don’t forget about this step!

Which apps can you use to set up a Zettelkasten?

There are now a number of apps that you can use to create a digital Zettelkasten. Not all of them were created specifically for this task:

Evernote or Notion, for example, are among the most popular productivity apps on the market and are often used for building Zettelkastens.

However, they can be a bit tedious for this task. Some people prefer to use apps that were built with the Zettelkasten system in mind like Obsidian, Roam, Zettlr or Jopin.

My personal Zettelkasten is still on Notion: For me, this has the advantage that I can more easily link the notes to my blog posts, because I now write most of the posts directly in Notion. The disadvantage of this solution is that the interlinking is not quite as easy to set up as with Obsidian or other apps.

Which app you choose in the end is of course your decision, and also depends on your personal preferences. I would recommend testing your way through each app at the beginning before making a final decision.

However, once you’ve made up your mind, try to work with this app for at least a year: as humans, we believe the grass is always greener somewhere else. That’s why we also believe that other apps are always better than the ones we’re using at the moment.

This phenomenon is also known as the Shiny Object Syndrome. However, if you keep changing your work tools, you’ll never get to the point where you’re really good with the tools.

Apps like Notion or Obsidian require a lot of learning time before you can work with them efficiently: If you don’t allow yourself this time, you will never get to know all the possibilities of the respective software.

So after a trial period, decide on an app and stay with it for at least a year.

Additional tip: What information should I put in the Zettelkasten?

“Like our stomachs, our minds are more often injured by overeating than by hunger.” — Francesco Petrarch

Remember: information is food for the mind. The same applies to nutrition: the foods you avoid are more important than the foods you eat.

Just as we have to be careful about what we eat when it comes to food, we have to be careful about what we are dealing with.

The quality of the information – and not its quantity – should always have the highest priority. So always ask yourself whether a piece of information will really help you in life before you let it into your Zettelkasten. Less is more!

Good luck with building your Zettelkasten,


Offer: If you wish to build your Zettelkasten with Notion, check out my Zettelkasten Template. It is the most straightforward and user-friendly Zettelkasten solution for Notion. By clicking on the link, you can get it 50% off:

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten for Notion