Since classes have let out, I finally have a little more time to continue posts on my method of taking notes. Several friends have asked me about my methods in the last few weeks and I was able to point them to my posts on paper note taking (Two Goals and Notebook Annotation), but not the specifics of my computer system.

In this post I will simply summarize the concept of the zettelkasten method as I understand it. In the next post, I will detail my implementation of the method in Sublime Text.

A few years back I took a Saturday and read every single post in the archives of the excellent Taking Note blog. The author of this blog is partial to the system created by sociologist Niklas Luhmann which you can read about in detail in this post.

Luhmann’s system uses index cards (German=zettel) in a slip box (German=kasten). Each new card receives a unique number that other cards can reference. The specifics of Luhmann’s system don’t matter much in the world of computer notes, but a few architectural points do matter whatever medium you use:

  1. The notes are organized topically rather than chronologically or by association with a document (as in marginal notes).
  2. The size of the cards encourages one idea per note. Thus cross referencing is rather fine grained. Further, when working with the notes for a writing project, one can deal with small, manageable chunks rather than, say, all my notes on Plato.
  3. His numbering system allows for branching. Thus parent notes can have children, allowing for some degree of hierarchical organization.
  4. A new idea can simply receive a new number in sequence, allowing notes to easily break free from a strict, preconceived hierarchical organization.
  5. The act of linking between notes is explicit through manually written cross-reference. This makes note association intentional in contrast to word usage associations in (e.g.) DevonThink or the use of tags.

All of these features combine into one big feature that I care most about: with the zettelkasten method I can actually use my notes. Right now I have 484 files (zettels) in my notes folder. Some of these are long, some short, and some more than three years old. Yet I can actually find all the notes I need, associate one note with another rapidly, and use these notes in the process of writing my dissertation.

This happens because the zettelkasten method strikes a balance between order and freedom. On the one hand, we can imagine a note system with no organization. Just write whatever comes into your head in a single stream. These notes will rapidly become useless because the stuff you want is mixed in with all the cruft. On the other hand, we can imagine a note system that rigidly orders notes, tags their contents, forces a certain title style, sorts each note into one of sixteen categories, requires a template that must be filled out before a note can be created, and will not let you write down any thoughts until you have done your push-ups for the day. This system is useless already simply because it will never be used. The zettelkasten method gets it just right. I can create a note rapidly yet just as rapidly find that note again when I need it in usable form for writing.