Zettelkasten vs. Second Brain vs. PARA – What’s the difference?

At first glance, this title sounds like clickbait. Because in reality, the “Zettelkasten” is a second brain.

A “Second Brain” refers to any system or tool that helps you store information for later use. The “Zettelkasten” naturally falls under this category.

However, there is an issue. The term “Second Brain” is often synonymous today with Tiago Forte’s PARA method, which he refers to as a “Second Brain.”

In this article, I want to compare the Zettelkasten method developed by Niklas Luhmann with Tiago Forte’s Second Brain.

What is a Zettelkasten?

The Zettelkasten method was invented by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. His “Zettelkasten” consisted of actual index cards in shoeboxes, interconnected with hyperlinks.

Organizing and identifying these physical cards, as well as locating linked cards, was obviously a massive task in the latter half of the 20th century. Thanks to digital tools like Notion or Obsidian, these tasks are no longer challenging.

Physical space is also no longer a concern.

Back then, Luhmann needed several cabinets to store his 90,000 cards. Today, you could store several hundred million notes locally on your hard drive without running out of space. And if needed, there’s always the cloud as an alternative.

At its core, the Zettelkasten is a system of notes interconnected through hyperlinks. This system functions similarly to the World Wide Web. Notes can (and should) be tagged with keywords to make them easier to find.

Over time, the Zettelkasten takes on a life of its own. It becomes a web of knowledge that you can navigate whenever you need information on a topic. And due to the flexibility of the system, new and surprising connections constantly emerge. Information that may initially seem unrelated can thus be creatively linked together.

What do we understand by a Second Brain?

A “Second Brain” can operate exactly according to the Zettelkasten principle, or it can be structured entirely differently.


  • A Zettelkasten is a Second Brain.
  • A Second Brain can be a Zettelkasten, but it doesn’t have to be.

The term “Second Brain” gained popularity in recent years due to the work of Tiago Forte, who refers to his PARA method with this term.

How does Tiago Forte’s PARA Method work?

The name “PARA” is an acronym for the four components of Forte’s system:

  • Projects
  • Areas
  • Resources
  • Archives

Each of these components has a specific role and structure that assists in organizing information and knowledge:

  1. Projects
    • A project is a series of tasks linked to a particular outcome and has an endpoint. Projects are time-bound.
    • Examples: Writing a blog post, preparing a presentation, planning an event.
    • This means that a project has a clear deadline or a recognizable conclusion.
  2. Areas
    • An area is an aspect of your life or work for which you hold specific responsibility and need to monitor to ensure it remains in an acceptable state.
    • Unlike projects, there isn’t a clear deadline, but you have to monitor your areas regularly.
    • Examples: Health, finances, professional development, family relationships.
  3. Resources
    • Resources are subjects or topics of sustained interest that can be studied over time. Contrary to projects and areas, they aren’t necessarily “active” in the sense that you need to review or update them regularly.
    • Examples: A manual, a course on digital marketing, a list of favorite recipes.
  4. Archives
    • Information that you aren’t actively using or requiring but wish to retain for future reference or other reasons is stored in the archives.
    • Examples: Completed projects, old financial data, expired contracts.

The PARA method allows for a structured yet flexible way of organizing, enabling individuals to better manage tasks, responsibilities, knowledge, and past work for efficient and streamlined productivity.

Why I Don’t Like Tiago Forte’s Second Brain

From my understanding, Tiago’s Second Brain is more than just a second brain; it’s more of a Life Management System.

This is totally fine, I criticize PARA based on something different:

Due to the use of a separate folder for every project.

Suppose I’m writing a book about Mediterranean cuisine and I come across an interesting insight about olive oils. I would save this information in the “Mediterranean Cuisine” project folder.

But what if my insight on olive oil is also important for the “Nutrition” area?

In most cases, I would make a duplicate. However, if I expand the note in the project folder while working on my book, it will soon deviate from the note in the “Nutrition” area. Any new insights won’t be reflected there.

Thus, there’s a risk of ending up with a multitude of duplicates differing in minor details.

The primary distinction between a Zettelkasten and Tiago’s PARA Second Brain is that the Zettelkasten is organized through links and tags, while PARA relies on a folder structure.

I’m not a big fan of folders because they create an unnecessary barrier between files.

They’re rigid, inflexible, and stifle creativity.

A fantastic alternative to folders are tags because they’re flexible, as I can assign multiple tags to each note, linking them simultaneously with various projects.

The note doesn’t reside in Project A, B, or C, or in Area 1, 2, or 3. No! It’s in the Zettelkasten but is also part of all the projects it’s linked to.

In comparison to folders, tags allow for much greater creativity because the flexible linkages often result in unexpected insights. This is also one of the core principles of creativity: connecting things in a new context, leading to entirely new realizations you never foresaw.

Conclusion – Zettelkasten vs. PARA

Tiago Forte has certainly struck a chord with his Second Brain in our current era.

We live in a time of information overload. Today, there’s no shortage of information, just a shortage of good or situationally relevant information.

For academics, knowledge workers, or artists, it’s essential to manage their notes using a system, ensuring that information, knowledge, or insights remain accessible for future use.

I’m genuinely grateful to Tiago for heightening awareness of this challenge. However, I don’t believe his PARA method is the best possible solution.

Admittedly, a lot boils down to personal preference.

For some, his approach seems to work, but for many, it feels needlessly complicated.

Similarly, to a newcomer, the Zettelkasten might also seem unnecessarily intricate. Just think of all those odd terms associated with this concept: Fleeting Note, Literature Note, and so on.

But, in essence, the Zettelkasten methode is straightforward.

Write notes. Tag them with a keyword. Link them to other notes.

That’s all you need to start with your Zettelkasten and build a web of knowledge within a few months.

It’s this simplicity and straightforwardness that captivates me about this method.

P.S.: I’ve often received valid feedback that my Notion Zettelkasten template seems quite complex. For this reason, I’ve now also crafted a “simplified” version of the Notion template. It lacks advanced features and other frills, targeting beginners and also individuals who don’t need to save as many notes.

Find out more here.