Zettelkasten/ Second brain Concept

Article Author: David B. Clear Created: June 2, 2021 10:48 AM Property: Processed URL: https://writingcooperative.com/zettelkasten-how-one-german-scholar-was-so-freakishly-productive-997e4e0ca125 Updated: August 7, 2022 10:17 AM

Its about making a second brain or a note system that is evolve in a life time of learning with inter connected ideas and notes. You should able to travel non linearly through the different notes. And the same should use later make to something new.

Make sure it will be future proof as it grow every year when ever you are reading.

Luhmann was extremely prolific.

During his almost 40 years of research, he published more than 70 books and over 400 scholarly articles on a wide variety of subjects, connecting sociology with such diverse topics as biology, mathematics, cybernetics, and computer science. That’s more than seven books every four years for his whole career — in addition to a boatload of articles. And those books are no hastily thrown together nonsense. They are classics that made him one of the most important sociologists of the twentieth century (pdf).

What is a Zettelkasten?

Luhmann described his Zettelkasten in different ways. Sometimes he called it a conversation partner and sometimes he described it as a second memory, cybernetic system, a ruminant, or septic tank.


Image courtesy of the author (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The problem with all these approaches is that they don’t really help you find connections among ideas. Instead, they lock ideas away to be forgotten in a box under your bed, in the cloud, or in a folder somewhere on your computer.

Luhmann thus went one step further. Instead of relying on tags alone, he also linked his notes together. The result looks like this:


Image courtesy of the author (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Notes, and therefore ideas, are no longer just grouped together, but their connections are explicitly tracked. This creates a web of ideas and results in massive advantages.

The Zettelkasten’s massive advantage

By using the Zettelkasten method, your notes become entities that are knitted into a larger web of ideas. Instead of the system deteriorating the more you add to it, it becomes better. Again, it’s like your brain. No one would suggest that having more neurons would make you dumber. It’s the same with the Zettelkasten. More notes means more ideas and more connections, and the more ideas and connections you have, the “smarter” your Zettelkasten becomes and the more insightful your writing will be.

Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, relaized from his stuides how much information is contained in a message is determined by how surprising the message is.

for example talking with a duck.

I noticed that using the Zettelkasten method allows me to concentrate much better while reading. I think this is because the method turns reading into a mission. I’m not just reading. I’m on a quest to hunt down ideas, extract them from texts, and feed them to my Zettelkasten as notes. I have a crystal clear goal: feed my Zettelkasten.

Remember, a Zettelkasten is intended to store knowledge for the rest of your life. If some piece of information ends up not being relevant now, it may turn out to be relevant eventually. You’re never wasting time by adding more ideas and connections. A Zettelkasten just keeps getting better the more ideas it contains.

I think the Zettelkasten’s power as a thinking aid is explained by three main factors.


using the Zettelkasten method forces you to write. In particular, according to the method you have to write notes using your own words to ensure that you’ll understand them in the future. And as anyone who’s done any writing knows, writing things down forces you to turn vague otions into clearer thoughts.

Second, whenever you add a new note, the Zettelkasten method forces you to look for already existing notes you can link to. That broadens your thinking by forcing you to consider how new ideas relate to others you’ve encountered before.

Third, a Zettelkasten can store a train of thought. A train of thought is nothing but a sequence of ideas and a Zettelkasten is all about linking ideas. Thus, you can have a train of thought today, store it in your Zettelkasten as a sequence of interlinked notes, and then, anytime in the future, you can continue that train of thought by adding new notes and linking them to the previous ones.

The Zettelkasten principles

A Zettelkasten is a phenomenal tool for storing and organizing your knowledge, extending your memory, generating new connections between ideas, and increasing your writing output. However, to make the most of a Zettelkasten, you should follow some key principles.

  1. The principle of atomicity: The term was coined by Christian Tietze. It means that each note should contain one idea and one idea only. This makes it possible to link ideas with a laser focus.
  2. The principle of autonomy: Each note should be autonomous, meaning it should be self-contained and comprehensible on its own. This allows notes to be moved, processed, separated, and concatenated independently of its neighbors. It also ensures that notes remain useful even if the original source of information disappears.
  3. Always link your notes: Whenever you add a note, make sure to link it to already existing notes. Avoid notes that are disconnected from other notes. As Luhmann himself put it, “each note is just an element that derives its quality from the network of links in the system. A note that is not connected to the network will be lost, will be forgotten by the Zettelkasten” (original in German).
  4. Explain why you’re linking notes: Whenever you are connecting two notes by a link, make sure to briefly explain why you are linking them. Otherwise, years down the road when you revisit your notes, you may have no idea why you connected them.
  5. Use your own words: Don’t copy and paste. If you come across an interesting idea and want to add it to your Zettelkasten, you must express that idea with your own words, in a way that you’ll be sure to understand years later. Don’t turn your Zettelkasten into a dump of copy-and-pasted information.
  6. Keep references: Always add references to your notes so that you know where you got an idea from. This prevents plagiarism and makes it easy for you to revisit the original source later on.
  7. Add your own thoughts to the Zettelkasten: If you have thoughts of your own, add them to the Zettelkasten as notes while keeping in mind the principle of atomicity, autonomy, and the need for linking.
  8. Don’t worry about structure: Don’t worry about putting notes in neat folders or into unique preconceived categories. As Schmidt put it, in a Zettelkasten “there are no privileged positions” and “there is no top and no bottom.” The organization develops organically.
  9. Add connection notes: As you begin to see connections among seemingly random notes, create connection notes, that is, specific notes whose purpose is to link together other notes and explain their relationship.
  10. Add outline notes: As ideas begin to coalesce into themes, create outline notes. An outline note is a note that simply contains a sequence of links to other notes, putting those other notes into a particular order to create a story, narrative, or argument.
  11. Never delete: Don’t delete old notes. Instead, link to new notes that explain what’s wrong with the old ones. In that way, your Zettelkasten will reflect how your thinking has evolved over time, which will prevent hindsight bias. Moreover, if you don’t delete, you might revisit old ideas that may turn out to be correct after all.
  12. Add notes without fear: You can never have too much information in your Zettelkasten. At worst, you’ll add notes that won’t be of immediate use. But adding more notes will never break your Zettelkasten or interfere with its proper operation. Remember, Luhmann had 90,000 notes in his Zettelkasten!

Second brain Summary