"Wtf is a Zettelkasten?"

Many people implicitly ask us what a Zettelkasten is by coming to our page by searching for Zettelkasten tutorials online. In this blog post, we try to clean up some common misconceptions on what a Zettelkasten is and invite you to watch our new video on what a Zettelkasten is.

Posted in Guides on March 21, 2019

We regularly monitor our website's traffic to understand how our users are interacting with our website. As we don't collect any usage statistics from our app, we do not know who uses it for what. But everybody needs to search for some functionality at some point, and this is where the traffic analytics on our website become important. Over the course of the last months, we've been registering significant traffic directed at our website using search queries that relate to the concept of the Zettelkasten. Users click to our page using the search "zettelkasten method" exorbitantly often. And on our page, the guides to setting up Zettlr to work as a Zettelkasten and what Zettelkasten-elements Zettlr currently supports receive by far the most hits out of all our docs pages.

So what is it people are searching for on our page? We are pretty sure the answer they are looking for is not "How can I put my knowledge of working with a Zettelkasten to practice?" It is more likely they are driven by the question "What is a Zettelkasten to begin with?" The concept of a Zettelkasten is notoriously difficult to pin down and this is where the problems start. We live in a society that likes a dead-simple approach to problems; one solution each. But a Zettelkasten evades this 21st-century mindset. A Zettelkasten is a multitude of different approaches to a common problem — the problem of knowledge management.

Zettelkasten as Knowledge Management

What the concept of a Zettelkasten essentially boils down to is a way to manage your knowledge. We read a lot of text in our lifetimes. Not only books, but increasingly we read online — be it Facebook posts by relatives or long blog posts by the people that matter to us and give us inspiration. But the more we read, the more it seems to slip through our long term memory. We don't remember everything, and this opens up the question of how to preserve this knowledge. This question becomes even more pressing if you are a researcher in the humanities, who mainly works with text and needs to reproduce a lot of thoughts and arguments in a small amount of text. So the question that pops up is: How do you store that amount of knowledge in a way that you can access it everytime?

This is the point at which probably most of our users stumble upon the word "Zettelkasten." Praised by many online outlets as the solution to our knowledge problems, the existing tutorials and guides on how to actually make use of this idea tend to complicate matters a lot. Many people advertising their expertise on the Zettelkasten method are extremely unhelpful when it comes to actually realising a Zettelkasten that works for you.

The problem, we think, stems not from them having no idea what they are doing, because all of these people using the Zettelkasten are great minds. But what they seldomly seem to realise is that people need a simple answer to a complex problem. Add to this the fact (it's not a question, no matter what you think) that there is not the Zettelkasten approach — but one for every human being living on this planet.

The concept of Zettelkasten has been compartmentalised to only being associated with the very specific way of using a Zettelkasten that works as the one Niklas Luhmann had. But this is wrong. A knowledge management system, or in our case, a Zettelkasten, has to be tailored to each specific user. It does not help to copy a workflow by a different person, because a Zettelkasten must at all costs reflect the working habits of the person using it. There are some constraints to remember, but these are few. Approximately 75 percent of a Zettelkasten must be individually tailored to the user.

After all, the question of "how do I manage my knowledge?" boils down to two components. The first thing you must respect when beginning to structure your knowledge is exactly that: a certain structure. This is what people like us can explain to you and help you with. But the second thing is where you are completely on your own: self reflection. To manage your knowledge, you have to know how you work. It does not help you to receive tips from people telling you what the contents of your knowledge management system should look like, because these vary between all users. Some people need to only write down thoughts as in a diary. Some people need to write down using bullet lists, while some need to write whole paragraphs. And some — mainly researchers managing a lot of texts they've read — need to preserve a lot of meta information such as the originating work, page numbers and cross-references.

Structure and Self-Reflection

The structure of a Zettelkasten is fairly easy described: It's a database. It is simply a place where you file your knowledge in a semi-structured way. What you need to do is:

  • Conceive of a basic, but consistent structure of your notes. Elements that have to be present everywhere, such as an ID, some tags to categorise your thoughts, and the contents.
  • File them in one system, and one system only. Having your notes littered around in different systems (some in Word documents and some in plain text files) does not help and complicates matters.
  • Stick with these basic structural elements. They need to be stable; it confuses you if you switch from using, e.g., an ID in each file at the top to switching to an ID at the bottom of each file. If you change these underlying structures, you'll have to change them everywhere.
  • Do not overdo the structure. Try to keep it really simple. And by "really" we really mean simple. If the stable structure of your Zettelkasten contains more properties than an ID, some tags (or categories, depending on the system) and internal cross-references to other notes, you will very soon find yourself adapting your Zettelkasten a lot in the early stages, which will drill down on your motivation so hard it is likely going to keep you from keeping up your work. The stable structural elements should be so generic they'll fit to anything.

The more important part of a Zettelkasten therefore is self reflection. You need to be constantly on the watch for how you work. This is a habit that you'll need to develop over time and nobody can ease this way with a tutorial. Whenever you are writing or reading a text, you need to develop a way of constantly thinking "what am I doing currently? Is this good?" Additionally, you need to anticipate the future: what problems are you likely going to run into in the future? Of course you shouldn't overdo it with thinking about the future, because nobody can foresee the future; but you will soon spot some bottlenecks that are destined to become a problem. You need to realise these before you are halfway in a solid Zettelkasten. Because changing thousands of files can become a headache very soon.

In fact, the more you read on how to do a Zettelkasten, the less you'll actually know, because a lot of it depends on intuition and self-observation. And this is something no tutorial can teach you. You will have to develop faith in yourself that what you do is not bad, but actually quite useful. Do not listen too much to too specific advises on how to start a Zettelkasten. Just start and use the structure you need. And stop reading tutorials on Zettelkästen.

The Zettelkasten Manifesto

In case you're still wondering what a Zettelkasten is and you need a little bit more incentives to get started, please have a look at a video we've made earlier this week, where we outline why the notion of a Zettelkasten has become so intrinsically linked to the name of Niklas Luhmann, why we think that this is bad and how we think we should think of Zettelkästen:

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