Spool Five

Zettelkasten Method

Three key elements

The Zettelkasten method is a way of taking notes that emphasises the following three things:

  1. Hypertextuality
  2. Atomicity
  3. Individuality

Starting from the bottom, notes should be individual and personal. I feel that this is especially true in the information age where fast and easy access to a lot of information is already available. Personalising notes, either through style, or through curation, helps make information and knowledge meaningful.

Notes should be atomized - one-note-per-topic. This is one of the aspects of the Zettelkasten method that I am still getting used to. It can take a bit of discipline and training at first. It also requires a system where you can easily switch back and forth between notes. For example, if I am writing a note about Manchester United, I shouldn’t go off on a tangent about the game of football in general. Instead, I would insert a link to a ‘football’ note and expand on that topic there. The important thing is having a way that your initial flow/topic isn’t interrupted too much. The results of this approach are pretty cool though. Topics become ‘modular’, you can insert them in other spaces and build up a network of relations.

Hypertextuality - the concept of a hypertext has been around since the 60s (well, the term has been around since then, the phenomenon is older). Still, though, I feel that its full potential has yet to be broached. Zettels are hypertextual, they exist as atoms, yes, but also as pieces of a larger, virtually infinite, fabric.

Zettelkasten tools (digital) that I’ve tried/recommend

Some notes from zettelkasten blog/tutorial

1. Atomic Notes

As a general rule, basic Zettels should only contain one idea per note. This allows you to link to a more specific idea rather than to a set of rigidly grouped ones. (think: “African Lion” vs “All Felines”)

That’s because putting multiple ideas in a single note already makes them part of a rigid structure. We don’t want our ideas to be strictly part of any rigid structure because we need to be able to link them even to loosely related ones in the future.

In that sense, turning Zettels atomic means making them agnostic to a parent topic; this allows Zettels to be a source of new topics on their own.

5 August 2015 When using the Zettelkasten Method to organize my notes, I have found it important that each note file contains only a single idea.1 I try to take this single thought and articulate it in as clearly as possible. This may take anywhere from 50 to 500 words. After I have spelled out the single idea I now have a mental hook that I can attach other ideas and pieces of information to—and this becomes more useful the more specific the hook. For instance, suppose I kept all my thoughts about Plato in a single file. Whenever I want to connect a thought to this information I would add a link: Plato. But this link could refer to anything within my Plato research. As it stands, however, I have split my research into bits as fine as possible while still maintaining the intergrity and coherence of the ideas. The specific thought that Plato’s account of tripartition in the Republic arises out of a need to explain internal motivational conflict goes into a single file. In other notes I can refer to this specific thought with a link: Plato - Tripartition - Internal Conflict.

This also gives me a way to manage my references to secondary literature. As I’m reading Lloyd Gerson’s article “A Note on Tripartition and Immortality in Plato,” I find that he talks about this subject on pages 85 and 86.[@gerson01] So I add a brief quote and a few comments to the bottom of a section labeled “References” in the note. If I had not split up my notes on Plato into fine- grained topics, I would have trouble knowing where to put this information and I would have more trouble finding it again when I need to know what Gerson says about this specific topic. The “References” section in the note is already populated by several other references to secondary literature. This way, when I go to write the paragraph in Chapter 4 of my dissertation that deals with the link between tripartition and motivational conflict I have already prepared both my own position and a list of references to my sources.


Emergent categories as opposed to fixed ones.

“In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again? (Ahrens, 2017)”


Plain text.

Links to this note