I shared this with my newsletter crew a few months ago, but it’s time to make an official entry on the internet about my Zettelkasten workflow. And before we get much further, I need to state for the record that this is how I’m using the Zettelkasten system. It definitely will not be the way other people use it.
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To me, that’s the point, though. Sure, you could take tons of time to learn a special system, and then mold your thinking around it. You could focus more on the structure of what worked for someone else instead of what you need.
BUT WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?
Instead, consider this post a permission slip to do whatever the hell you want and to modify existing methods and systems to work for you. Plus, until you have one metric fuckton of slips or cards, the full-on Zettelkasten system won’t really apply to you.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I get into showing my workflow or a Zettelkasten method example, we need to talk about what the system is.
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(And a fair amount of nonsense.)
What is the Zettelkasten Method?
On the surface, the Zettelkasten method is a fun way to hoard bits of paper.
But it’s a lot more than that.
Think about all the information you take in. For me, a lot of that information comes from reading fiction. (I’m a fiction writer, so this makes sense.) But my brain is also creating information in the form of random thoughts and also, thoughts about the information I’m taking in.
Wouldn’t it be great to organize all that information?
The Zettelkasten method of note-taking is how you organize that information. For a more formal introduction, you can read about the Zettelkasten system here.
However, for me, that run down only confused me further. This is where I will reiterate again that you should do what works for your brain and not focus so much on set systems. Also, for what it’s worth, all brains are different and the thoughts we have about our thoughts are different. So any system to categorize your thoughts should be completely unique to you, and that includes the method as well.
Zettelkasten is a German word meaning “slip box.” And Zettelkasten notes are slips of paper kept in a box, kind of like a card catalog. The Niklas Lumann Zettelkasten is the stuff of lore. He was a German sociologist that used the system extensively and used a Zettelkasten numbering system that is absolutely bonkers, if you ask me. But, the system enabled him to write 50 books in his lifetime, which goes to show that the way you use the Zettelkasten method should be more about what you need from the system and not about matching how others do it.
If you’d like to dig in further, you can absolutely find a Zettelkasten book or two out there, I have no recommendations. Instead, I find a good Zettelkasten example to be the most helpful thing. So I would recommend checking out my workflow below, and also searching places like YouTube and Medium to see how others are using the system.
My Zettelkasten Workflow
Before we get too far into it, this is not a Zettelkasten workflow tutorial. It’s also not a Zettelkasten workflow template. This is simply what is working for me right now.
And, it should be stated, I just began using this system. So, up until a few months ago, most of my thoughts were stored in commonplace books or planners.
For a look at how I used those notebooks, check out these blog posts:
- What Is a Writer’s Notebook?
- How to Start a Writer’s Notebook
- How to Keep a Writer’s Notebook
- Writer’s Notebook Ideas: Collections to Keep Your Novels on Track
My workflow works for what I need. So it’s not going to look like anyone else’s system. But it has been a great way to use up the index cards I buy from my local closeout store every time I’m there.
(I literally purchase index cards, remaindered books, candy, and He-Man toys. I am a very serious adult, you guys.)
Zettelkasten Workflow Example
As a fiction writer, I read a lot of fiction. So my system reflects that. I take notes from books I’ve read, I make notes about ideas I’ve had for stories. I note marketing methods from other writers, and I write crazy marketing ideas that will probably never work.
For now, I’m creating categories. I know that everything you read about the system says to not do that. But categories are working better than tags for me.
(Categories are broad topics, tags are more granular and related to the specific topic.)
Here are some of my categories for my own ideas:
- general ideas
- meet cutes
- real life experience
- heart ache
- butter (a concept from this book)
And I use the same categories to keep notes about the books I’ve read.
Then, there are subcategories for marketing, where I can keep ideas about how I want to use my platform or to take notes about events I’ve seen other authors do.
What Do You Do With a Zettelkasten?
Eventually, I’ll have a lot of notes. And when I do, I’ll be able to look at all of them and see the connections between them all. I assume that’s when a numbering system will come into play. But if we’re being honest, there will more than likely be a color-coding system that I lean on. I have tons of highlighters and stickers, and I will be using them.
For me, this system is about keeping ideas in one place and being able to move the cards around to figure out what they mean in relationship to one another.
While I’ve always been a commonplace book sort of girl, it can be easy to lose those bits when you finish a notebook and put it away. Searching for that one little thing becomes a hassle, and it’s hard to put that information in context with all your other information.
I hope this system changes that for me.
Do You Zettelkasten?
What do you think of the Zettelkasten method? Do you like notebooks or notecards? Are you an analog kid like me, or are you living for the organization systems you can create in Notion?