Why is the Zettelkasten methode not working for you?

The Zettelkasten (aka as note box) is often described as the ultimate tool for knowledge workers.

Its inventor, Niklas Luhmann, is frequently cited for his prolific lifework. During his life he wrote more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles. However, many average users struggle to achieve higher knowledge output with Luhmann’s box, or similar systems like Tiago Forte’s Second Brain.

Is it simply a tool for hoarding and procrastination?

This fuels the criticism of skeptics like who repeatedly criticize such systems by saying that they simply serve as tools for hoarding and procrastination.

I think these critics are partly right. The system is sold as a simple solution that is supposed to solve a complex challenge: namely, the better organization of knowledge, with the aim of making it easier to retrieve at a later time.

The Zettelkasten achieves this by linking knowledge through hyperlinks, which shows remarkable parallels to the structure of our brains, which consists of interconnected neurons.

However, the problem is that in practice, the Zettelkasten is indeed misused for merely hoarding knowledge from articles and books. As a user, there’s a tendency to save too much irrelevant information, fearing that potentially relevant things might be missed and thus not be retrievable later.

However, if knowledge is only stored in the note box, the system is only used passively, the advantages only become apparent when the user also actively uses the knowledge system. This is the part that is often overlooked, because active use is strenuous and demands that the user actually work.

My personal Zettelkasten story

I can speak from my initial experiences with the note box: I became addicted to saving quotes from articles or books, but I no longer had the inclination to write about these quotes afterward. .

Writing requires the user to expend creative energy, which in my case was often not present when I transferred quotes to the note box.

This was probably because I found it difficult to switch my work mode from organization to creativity, so creativity fell short.

However, creativity is the most important element of any knowledge system, because we ultimately want to create new knowledge with our work.

In the end, it is not so important whether the notes are stored correctly, or whether everything relevant has been transferred to the note box.

What is more important is the writing process, because this is where thinking happens, knowledge is processed, knowledge gaps may be noticed, and content snippets are created that can be used in the future for scholarly articles, essays, or books.

Therefore, it does not surprise me that it is reported that Niklas Luhmann spent all day writing.

Sure, he could rely on a gigantic analog note box, but the secret of his productivity was also that he wrote more texts than most other knowledge workers of his kind.

For this reason, I resolved in 2024 to spend more time writing mini-essays. These are essays like this one with 300 to 800 words that address a single topic.

I estimate that by the end of the year, I will have written up to 250 essays, which will in turn be linked to each other and to notes.

This will hopefully create a stronger knowledge base for me in the future, rather than just passively storing things I picked up somewhere.

Let’s see where this path will lead me.