Zettelkasten the ultimate guide

Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide

Introduction

Welcome to “Zettelkasten – the ultimate guide”. This page is the starting point to learn more about Zettelkasten. Here you can navigate to various posts. All zettelkasten content available on this website will be referenced on this page. This page will always contain the most up to date information about zettelkasten.

The main goal of the zettelkasten system is to optimize learning. By fine-tuning the note taking process. To make a system that works for you, instead of the other way around. The method is popular because it increases efficiency. I have some more reasons why I use it.

My reasons to use zettelkasten

  • Connectivity of thoughts: The zettelkasten system is based on connecting notes. It’s similar to how your brain works. A combination of ideas (notes) create new ones. The system helps you make these connections, it also overcomes memory limitations.
  • Increased efficiency: As I mentioned earlier, the main reason people use this method. The zettelkasten system offers a workflow for processing information. This standardized way of working increases efficiency.
  • Solve complex problems: The zettelkasten system helps you tackle complex issues. You can split information up in separate notes, while still maintaining connections between ideas. This will make zooming out possible. The Obsidian software even offers a visualisation of connections between notes, more about this later.
  • More effective: By using the workflow you filter the data you collect. This will turn data into information, only important notes will make it into your zettelkasten. Eliminating needless notes, while maintaining structure by focusing the information that matters. Further down in this post more about my workflow.
  • Organic growth: The zettelkasten system gives you the opportunity to grow your library of information while maintaining structure. It does so by making use of index notes, every index note represents a subject. They contain references to underlying notes. You could call this a hierarchy, but since underlying notes can become a index themself I like to call it a flexible structure. You create notes bottom-up, by adding them and placing them within an index. Periodically you can restructure your notes, when new subjects develop.

This post includes all information about Zettelkasten that can be found on this website. You can see it as a starting point for navigating the subject. I will start by explaining the core principles. Furthermore, how I currently use zettelkasten, which tools are around and how they perform.

Core Principles

Why I am not a purist

The two zettelkasten principles that I think add most value. I use these principles in combination with the workflow and flexible structure (more about this in the paragraph further down, “What I currently use”). This means I don’t follow the zettelkasten method exactly, in my opinion this shouldn’t be the goal. I use the zettelkasten components that add most value, because they align with the reasons for using zettelkasten. For every component I need to be able to explain the reasoning behind it, which I will in this guide. I will also explain why I don’t use certain zettelkasten components.

  1. The principle of atomicity; based on an unique numbering system. This means that you put information that belongs together on a single note with an ID. The ID can be used as a reference on other notes.
  2. The principle of connectivity; In other words, connecting notes about similar subjects. The goal of this is to create connectivity of thoughts.

The blog posts on Know Act Invest compare tools based on these two principles. Because these are minimally needed to apply Zettelkasten. So they give a focused insight in how the tool performs.

Principle of Atomicity

The goal of this principle is to group related information. This makes notes relevant and easier to find. In the zettelkasten system this works by giving an ID. By example the ID:

  • ID 1A for a note about Value Investing. Then 1B for a related note about a valuation method.
  • ID 2A for the first note about active investing. And so on.

This method works great if you have physical drawer with notes. Most software contains a search option or tag mechanism to make notes findable. This makes sequential numbering redundant while using software.

But how do I apply this principle then?: By deciding when to split up notes and which information to put together. I test tools based on their capabilities for doing this.

Principle of Connectivity

The principle of connectivity has the goal to create new ideas from connecting notes.

In traditional Zettelkasten the ID’s are used to create a hierarchy of notes. The main goal of this approach is to group information together. Another reason the ID’s are used is to connect notes by writing the ID or multiple ID’s down. The connection of notes is greately simplified in software today, ID’s are unnecessary in my opinion. I do understand how a hierarchy can help structure information, but most tools have solutions for this. In the next paragraph I will tell you how I structure information (without a hierarchy) using Obsidian notes.

What I currently use: Obsidian

After comparing multiple tools, Obsidian notes stuck. This is now my preferred application. It runs locally on my computer, for notes on the go I use my phone. More about this in Workflow. My main reason for using obsidian is connectivity between notes, the tag system and the possiblity to use plugins.

An added benefit is that Obsidian notes makes use of .MD file extensions. MD stands for Markdown, this is a markup language used in multiple applications. This means I can always transfer my files to a new tool.

How I use it

The principles are paramount in the use of Zettelkasten. Alongside this the workflow and flexible structure. In this paragraph I will zoom in the latter two, specifically how I do this in Obsidian notes.

Workflow

Before the note ends up in the Zettelkasten it usually goes through a workflow. The purpose of a workflow is to filter based on relevance. The steps help me to convert data into information. This means only some things I read make it to the Zettelkasten. Filtering also improves the quality of your notes since they become more concentrated. This workflow can be slightly different for everyone. My workflow follows these steps:

  • Reading information, while reading I scan for insights that I want to retain. The primary reason is that I think it can be of value in the future or that it relates to work I am doing at that moment.
  • Roughly writing it down, the next step is to write it down on paper. Most of the time I write it down in a single line of text. The context is still in my memory.
  • Processing it in the Zettelkasten. Within a day or two I open my Zettelkasten system and make a new note for the info, or add it to an existing one. In this note I include the title, context and the note itself.
Zettelkasten Workflow
Zettelkasten Workflow

Connectivity of thoughts

The zettelkasten system is based on connecting notes. It’s similar to how your brain works. A combination of ideas (notes) create new ones. In essence this is the connectivity of thoughts. To realize connectivity in Obsidian notes I combine two functionalities:

1. Backlinks
As you can see in the example below. I have used multiple references to different notes using the backlink function.

Zettelkasten connectivity example

2. Tags
The backlinks can be combined with tags. The backlinks will create direct connections, links between notes. The tags will create indirect connections. This will create a web of thoughts, a web of interconnected ideas. You can visually represent the connections using the graph view in zettelkasten.

Zettelkasten Graph View
Zettelkasten Graph View


My current graph view, as you can see “Tags” is turned on. Also I have used groups to differentiate notes that have the tag; book, unitednations or investing. If a note contains more than one tag the order of groups will determine the color.

Templates

Within Obisidian notes I make use of templates. The advantage of these is uniformity for every note. Basically a checklist that contains metadata.

In the settings under “Core plugins” this feature can be turned on. In the menu on the left under “Plugin options” the button “Templates” will appear.

Zettelkasten Obsidian Templates
Zettelkasten Obsidian Templates


Within the “Templates” option a folder can be selected that contain the templates. In my case this folder is also called “Templates”. How original.

Zettelkasten Obsidian Templates Settings
Zettelkasten Obsidian Templates Settings


Within the folder you can place your templates (notes). I currently use the following template for all my notes:

Zettelkasten Obsidian Template Example
Zettelkasten Obsidian Template Example


The note title automatically inserts and the date (based on the format in the settings). The index is to maintain a flexible structure, more about this in the next paragraph. More information about templates: Obsidian website. To insert a template click on the button in the left menu:

Zettelkasten Obisidian Template Button
Zettelkasten Obisidian Template Button

For every note I insert this template, which will look like this:

Zettelkasten Obsidian Template Insert
Zettelkasten Obsidian Template Insert


On the left you can see the edit view, on the right the preview.

Flexible structure

I use the flexible structure of Obsidian to facilitate organic growth, one of my reasons to use zettelkasten. I do so by using index notes as zettelkasten prescribes. This makes it possible to create a structure independent from a hierarchy.

For every subject I make a new folder with an index note. The title of the note starts with “0.” so it’s always on top of the folder.

Zettelkasten Obisdian Index Note
Zettelkasten Obisdian Index Note

The index notes contains backlinks to notes about that subject. Every note is in one index. In this case notes about the United Nations. The headings are areas within the subject, by example “Books”. This structure is flexible because you can create an index when needed. This means you can move around backlinks when a new index is created. This method reïnforces the principle of atomicity while simultaneously creating a flexible structure.

Zettelkasten in…

For quite some tools I have tested the zettelkasten principles in separate blog posts. In this paragraph I will give you my conclusion in bullet points and a reference to the post for more info.

Obsidian

  • What I currently use.
  • Flexible structure.
  • Graph view; visual representation of connections, to enhance the connectivity of thoughts.
  • Based on the Markdown markup language.
  • Has a mobile App for iOS and Android.
  • Supports templates.
  • You can use tags within notes.
  • For more information, click below:

OneNote

  • Set structure.
  • Has a mobile App for iOS and Android.
  • Supports templates.
  • For more information, click below:

Evernote

  • Set structure.
  • Supports templates.
  • Has a mobile App for iOS and Android.
  • You can use tags within notes.
  • For more information, click below:

Notion

  • Flexible structure.
  • Has a mobile App for iOS and Android.
  • Supports templates.
  • You can use tags within notes.
  • For more information, click below:

Zettlr

  • Flexible structure.
  • Based on the Markdown markup language.
  • Helps you get started with Markdown.
  • You can use tags within notes.
  • For more information, click below:

The blog post that started it all

I actually discovered Zettelkasten because of Rob Berger from the Dough Roller Money Podcast. For more information, click below:

Future projects

Currently I am writing a review of How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases) I will add the review to this page when it is done. I am also on the look out for software to apply zettelkasten. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.

Want to learn more about Zettelkasten?

Then I recommend the following book. This is the step-by-step guide on how to set up and understand the principles behind the note-taking system that enabled Luhmann to become one of the most productive and systematic scholars of all time: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases)

What are your experiences with Zettelkasten?, Which software do you use? Let me know in the comments, I am eager to hear from you.

Thanks for taking an interest in this post, I would really appreciate it if you would leave a comment with feedback. This helps me to continuously improve the website.

Further reading on Zettelkasten

More about the method