The Zettelkasten Method of Taking Notes

The Zettelkasten method is a system that optimizes our way of taking notes. It's extremely useful in the academic context, but also in more everyday situations when we're often faced with the challenge of synthesizing the information to which we're exposed.
The Zettelkasten Method of Taking Notes

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 14 November, 2022

The Zettelkasten method is an optimized technique for taking notes and making them really useful. It’s particularly valuable when writing essays, articles, or theses. However, it can be applied to almost any intellectual exercise that involves collating information and decanting it, as happens when you design a project.

Almost everyone takes notes, albeit for different reasons. Sometimes, they’re simple memory aids, but on other occasions, they’re fundamental tools for advancing ideas. The Zettelkasten method offers the option of carrying out note-taking in a more rational way, thus increasing efficiency.

Nevertheless, we must stress that the benefits of the Zettelkasten method usually only become apparent after a while of using it. In fact, it requires a certain dexterity for a real difference to be noticed between usual notes and those taken in accordance with this methodology. In this article, we’re going to see what the Zettelkasten method consists of and how to put it into practice.

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man…”

-Francis Bacon-

Woman writing notes
The Zettelkasten method was designed by the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann.

The history behind the Zettelkasten method

The Zettelkasten method gets its name from two German words: zettel, or ‘note’; and kasten, or ‘box’. Therefore, it could be translated as a note box or slip box, as its creator called it. It was designed by the renowned sociologist Niklas Luhmann. He was living proof of the effectiveness of this methodology. Indeed, he wrote 70 books and more than 400 academic articles.

Luhmann was a bureaucrat who loved philosophy. During his career, he had to consult various texts and take notes on them. However, he soon saw the need to systematize them and thus began to shape the Zettelkasten method. This allowed him to produce a piece of writing that impressed a renowned German sociologist, Dr. Helmut Schelsky.

Dr. Schelsky offered Luhmann a position at the Center for Social Research at the University of Münster in  Dortmund. Luhmann didn’t have a degree in the subject, but he attended classes, perfected his note-taking skills, and graduated in less than a year. He ended up being appointed as the chair of social psychology at Bielefield University.

Types of notes

To apply the Zettelkasten method we must distinguish between four types of notes. First, are the fleeting notes. They correspond to ideas that appear suddenly, in isolation. They should be written in whatever notebook you have to hand. When you process them at the end of the day, you might either transform them into permanent notes or discard them. You keep your notes in three different boxes, written on bibliographic index cards.

  • Literature Notes. They correspond to the ideas you’ve extracted from what you’ve read. They’re brief and must be written in your own words. They go in a slip box. Ideally, you should check them every day.
  • Permanent Notes. You develop these from the literature notes. They correspond to the development of your ideas or arguments from the first box. In effect, they’re conclusions, which constitute the essence of the work you intend to carry out.
  • Index or Structure notes. They tie all of your notes together. They’re similar to an index section in a book.

The principles of the Zettelkasten method

The Zettelkasten method has a few basic principles that should be applied throughout the note-taking process. Each note must comply with these parameters, which are the following:

  • Atomicity. Each note must contain one and only one idea.
  • Autonomy. Each note must be understandable on its own.
  • Link. The notes must be linked to each other. If they’re isolated, they’re useless.
  • Explanation of the link. Next to each note, you must specify, really briefly, why it’s linked to another note.
  • Own words. Copy and paste is prohibited.
  • References. You should note the reference source(s) for each idea.
  • Connection. When there are several notes that are related, it’s advisable to describe this relationship and its implications.
  • Thematic Notes. Gradually, you start to group the notes by themes. You should create another note that groups them together and shows the connection between them.
Woman writing in a notebook
This method distinguishes four types of notes: fleeting, literature, permanent, and index or structured.

Keys to employing the Zettelkasten method

To start with, it might not be too easy to employ the Zettelkasten method for taking notes. In fact, you’ll probably need to use it for several months in order for it to flow naturally. It’s worth taking into account some guidelines:

  • Make a couple of slip boxes for every project you have in mind.
  • Ideally, write down an overall goal at the beginning of each project. For example: writing an essay on the history of Bolivia.
  • Set a specific goal. This is a measurable product that allows you to fulfill your objective. For instance, write a five-page text that talks about the history of Bolivia from the 19th century to the present.
  • Define why. Specify the reason why it’s important to achieve your goal and reach your objective.
  • Deadline. It’s useful to set a deadline for achieving your goal.

You should review your literature notes every day, and then prepare at least one permanent note. When the time comes to write up your project, you simply have to squeeze out all the content of your notes. This content isn’t only valuable for the knowledge it contains, but also for the ideas it inspires in you.

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  • Ahrens, S. (2020). El método Zettelkasten: Cómo tomar notas de forma eficaz para impulsar la escritura y el aprendizaje de estudiantes, académicos y escritores de no ficción. Sönke Ahrens.
  • Gil, L., Vidal-Abarca, E., & Martínez, T. (2008). Eficacia de tomar notas para integrar información de varios textos. Infancia y aprendizaje31(2), 259-272.

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