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Zettelkasten: a tool for better thinking and writing

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What is a Zettelkasten?

Zattelkasten means a box of index cards. Using such cards and storing them for easy retrieval is an old technique for data organization. In this context the term is used specifically for knowledge management and it is coined by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann and his article “Communication with Index Card Systems. An Empirical Account or Communication with Slip Boxes”. I don’t know the influence this article had at the time, but the most exciting part was the way he numbered and linked his cards, to create a life long system of information.

As I’ve learned from the best site on the subject zettelkasten.de there are new projects, attempting to transfer this methodology for use in the digital age.

The main principle of the methodology is to store one thought or idea into one text file which plays the role of the index card in a card-box. This virtual card will be written (and not copied) with your understanding of the idea and interlinked with other cards, making new connections just like our brain does. Ultimately this is also the goal of this technique. To build an extended brain to which you can rely on for longer term storage of information.

Except for the ability to search through the notes, a function performed easily by computers, there is no need for another form of filing. The links between the notes are the back bone of this system.

This simple idea can help in research, storing reading notes as well as improve writing and maybe create new ideas.

Adaptation of the methodology. How can I make my own?

Although there are some specialized applications for the Zettelkasten, you can use some simple elements to build your own. You just have to use any text editor which supports the markdown format. Markdown is a fairly simple and widely used text format, in which you can store metadata while it remains readable by any text editor. Your operating system’s basic functions can be used to search through text and find the results for you.

You only need to decide the naming of the files so they can have a unique ID useful for the linking. As you work, you create your notes in the simplest way possible and make connections with the existing ones on the subject.

Academics need more linking options with citations and references, so a reference databases application is essential for this type of use. Regardless of this, don’t get discouraged if you are not an academic. Such a system is really easy to setup. It just needs a good markdown editor but some automation could also help.

Almost all software solutions are made for Mac computers. For other operating systems, there is a plug-in for Sublime text which works fine and Zettler which is the fullest cross platform solution. I didn’t find a complete solution for Emacs, except for the Zetteldeft which is a set of scripts based on deft.

What should my notes be about?

This system is something really personal and as far as I understand, you can’t duplicate it from someone else. So you really cannot get a tutorial on what info should go in there.
According to Zettelkasten.de a good answer to this question is to take the 5 most important subjects in your life, reflect on them and create notes. One per idea.

I personally did not go with that approach and for the moment I chose to grow it around the information I stumble upon or need. I guess the opposite approach would be to set some time for reflection and writing in a daily basis, depending on the type of work one has.

I’m concluding this post with a link to the Zettelkasten manifesto from the creator of Zettlr.

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