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The Zettelkasten Method: Boosting productivity and knowledge management

Read our guide to this tried and true method to organizing notes on complex topics and boost your creativity and productivity.

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The bottom line
  • The Zettelkasten method is an approach to information and knowledge management developed in the 1970s.
  • Although originally used for paper notes, new digital tools can take the method to new heights and boost your  learning and productivity 

In today’s era of information overload, professionals and students from various fields are constantly looking for effective ways to capture, organize, and retrieve knowledge efficiently. Whether you’re doing a research paper, writing an article, or studying for an exam, one of the most overwhelming tasks is to manage all the information that you have collected.

Without a systematic way of organizing your notes, you will be spending too much time searching for related literature that may not be utilized efficiently. A significant number of students do not manage their personal information environment – there is a need among many of us for a system to help them organize, store, and update our resources, especially those collected digitally.

Going through a paper-based catalog
Going through an old card catalog - a card catalog is a physical arrangement of single cards that contain information about items in a library.

One note-taking method that offers a framework for structuring and organizing information systematically is the Zettelkasten method.  Derived from the German words “zettel” meaning “note” and “kasten” which means box, Zettelkasten is literally a “box of notes” – much like the library’s card catalog drawers. 

Let’s see how a Zettelkasten might help you in your studies, research, or work!

The Zettelkasten Method

A brief history of Zettelkasten

The Zettelkasten method was developed by German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who wrote around 70 books and 400 articles on a variety of topics such as law, economics, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love.

Niklas Luhmann, inventor of the Zettelkasten
Niklas Luhmann created a Zettelkasten with around 90,000 index cards!

Because of the amount of information that he was dealing with, Luhman devised his personal knowledge management system. He created individual note cards or slips, each representing a piece of information, idea, or concept.  He then used unique identifiers or numbers for each note card and established links between ideas and concepts.  He ended up with thousands of networked notes that helped him create new insights and ideas for his many works.

While Luhman primarily developed the Zettelkasten method for his own use, many researchers and knowledge workers were influenced and adopted his method.  In recent years, with the rise of digital note-taking tools, the Zettelkasten method has gained further popularity.

What is the Zettelkasten note-taking system?

A Zettelkasten is a system of interlinked notes in a repository. Arindam Basu likens it to a “second brain” or a “network of neurons mimicking the human brain and neuronal connections.”

Conceiving of a Zettelkasten as a notebox with interconnected notesa
A Zettelkasten can be conceived of as a note box full of interconnected notes

The interconnectivity of the notes – the “zettels” – promotes a holistic understanding of complex topics. By actively linking related notes, you can create a knowledge network that will help you view information from multiple angles. Like a mind map or web, Zettelkasten will encourage you to find connections between concepts, resulting in the emergence of creative ideas and a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Getting started with Zettelkasten

Choose a note-taking tool

Choosing a note-taking tool. For a traditional Zettelkasten set-up, you may use index cards, loose pieces of paper, or sticky notes. This allows you to re-arrange the notes according to their categories. Nowadays, digital note-taking tools are widely used. These note-taking programs or apps allow for easy tagging and hyperlinking. Popular options include Obsidian, Roam Research, and Zettlr.

Set up your note-taking workflow

Start by breaking down larger concepts into smaller, atomic notes. Give each note a unique identifier or title.  As you create new notes, link them to relevant existing ones.  Periodically review and revise your notes ensuring they remain up-to-date and interconnected. 

Remember to also note bibliographic information so you can easily locate the source for further reference or cite it for your papers.

Link and tag the notes

For written notes, write codes/tags/keywords on top of each card. Then, you can re-arrange them by grouping similar tags together.  For digital notes, utilize linking and tagging features in the program or app to establish relationships between notes. These connections allow for seamless navigation and exploration within your Zettelkasten.

Improve iteratively

Regularly revisit and revise your notes, incorporating new knowledge and refining connections. The iterative nature of Zettelkasten fosters ongoing growth and deeper understanding.

Tips for an effective Zettelkasten

  • Develop a system of unique identifiers. To link notes, it is important to create a system of unique and specific identifiers.  These identifiers can be alphanumeric codes, tags, or even keywords that help you locate and connect related notes easily.  By ensuring each note has a unique identifier, you can seamlessly navigate through your knowledge database and locate the information you need.
  • Create meaningful connections. When linking notes, aim to make meaningful connections that enrich the understanding of various. Try to look for conceptual overlaps, shared themes, and similarities or contradictions between ideas.  Be deliberate about connecting your notes, as this will already help you visualize what you need to write or remember.
  • Use bidirectional links. Unlike traditional hierarchical outlining methods, bidirectional links allow notes to connect with each other in multiple directions, facilitating a multidimensional exploration of ideas.  By establishing bidirectional links, you can follow the flow of information and insights from one note to another possibly discover new perspectives and connections.
  • Link with intention. Don’t be random or haphazard about the linking process. Take time to consider why you are linking two or more notes and how they relate to each other.  Note whether it is an opposing viewpoint, a supporting argument, or a complementary concept.
  • Utilize linking phrases or keywords. Use consistent linking phrases or keywords that will act as signposts and signal the relationship between notes.  Examples are “expands on,” “contradicts,” or “related to.” This can provide context and clarity to help you with the coherence of your work.
  • Be flexible. One of the advantages of the Zettelkasten method is its ability to promote serendipitous discoveries.  Expect to find surprise connections and insights.  Allow for flexibility and revisions of your notes and tags. This may lead to a greater body of knowledge, which could mean more articles and research for you.


The Zettelkasten continues to evolve as more people adopt and adapt it to their specific needs and workflows. By following these steps and tips, you will also be able to harness the power of Zettelkasten to capture, connect, and explore ideas more effectively and hopefully lead to enhanced creativity, productivity, and deeper insights.