Understanding Zettelkasten notes.
If you’re reading this, you probably are trying to figure out how to recreate the magic that allowed Niklas Luhmann to publish as much as he did. If you’ve gotten here after watching countless YouTube videos and trawling the net to understand Luhmann’s workflow, it means you still haven’t quite figured it out. I think I have it. Let me show you. I won’t get into the fine details of who Luhmann was and what his system was able to achieve, I’m guessing you’re here because you already know.
Luhmann wanted to capture ideas in a time without computers. His basic workflow went something along the lines of:
- Hey, this is what I’ve read. (Author, book title, etc.)
- These are the ideas I got out of the book, and here’s where to find them. (page numbers)
- This is what I think the ideas I captured are about and these new ideas may be related to other ideas I’ve stored previously. If you’re interested, I can direct you to them and you can see for yourself.
That’s it. That’s what Luhmann did with his Zettelkasten. The magic began when he built up a critical mass of interconnected notes. That’s what will ultimately happen provided you keep at it.
His data capture started with random thoughts that will occur throughout the day. The so called ‘shower thoughts’. He captured these in ‘Fleeting notes’. Just a pen and a piece of paper will do. Get the thought down. I personally use the notes app on my iPhone. It’s easy to dictate a thought and save it. Periodically he would review these notes to see whether they were brainfarts or something more useful he could incorporate into his work. If they were useful, he would go directly to adding them to his collection of permanent notes. Fleeting notes are casually and quickly written just to capture random thoughts. Unless converted to a permanent note (a Zettel) it would be tossed away.
When Luhmann read books, he resorted to ‘Literature notes’. His literature notes consisted of the name of what he was reading on one side of an index card and short notes about what he read on…