Zettelkasten Forum

Paper-Based Zettelkasten Processes for Problem Solving

Here are several ideas on a paper-based, Zettelkasten-inspired process for tackling problems.
(I've tried to keep the post self-contained, my apologies if some things seem a bit too obvious to readers of this forum.)

We suggest the following materials:

  • An index card box in A5 landscape format.
    A paper size of A6 seems too small for diagrams, A4 is certainly OK and for diagrams (or for math with bulky terms) arguably better than A5, but it is about twice as clunky.
    Landscape format fits better with the sheet layout we describe below.
  • Matching paper in A5.
    Paper sheets are thinner than index cards, so the box capacity is much larger.
  • Matching tabs for the box.
    These are often sold together with the box. They are needed for setting up sections and are useful as place markers.
  • Pencil, eraser etc.
    Writing material is a matter of taste, but with diagrams and a constant need for modifications, pencil and eraser are a natural choice.

These simple elements can support our attempts to solve a problem.

  • We can use the sheets for all types of notes - in words and phrases, formulas, diagrams, tables, lists or mind maps.
  • If we divide the sheets by a vertical line, we get a layout with space for side remarks, questions etc. This is an important building block for doing "more metacognition": We can start to think about weird points in the left column using the right column.
  • We can number the sheets (for example in the upper right corner) in a decimal notation, like 12, 12.1, 12.1.1, 13.
  • With this notation, we can reference between sheets: where did an idea come from, where is an idea examined in more detail, where do we find related ideas?
  • We can order the sheets in the index card box according to their number.
    Having the highest number at the front is convenient.
  • Finding sheets works via the numbers. (See the index idea below for an additional access to the material.)
  • Using the index card box tabs, we can set up several sections - one for the main part with notes on problems we try to solve, one for spontaneous ideas (perhaps with sheet numbers I1, I2) or a section for open topics we want to examine later.
  • The index card box may contain an organically growing section on thinking tools for problem solving: general questions, collections of creativity techniques, tricks for special problem domains (e.g. in science).
    This tool collection may contain references to other sections of the index card box.
  • When we take sheets from the box, a tab can help us to put them back later.

How to do the thinking about the problem itself?

  • One approach is "thinking on paper" - a close interplay between thinking and writing:
    We can write down questions, even half-formed ones. We can note that we are confused, and find out in writing why. We can collect ideas, or produce ideas with creativity tools, collect even hazy ones, and make them more precise, or we can play around with diagrams and terms on the paper.
  • Arguably one of the most important processes is reflection:
    We can ask on a new sheet what happened on the previous one. Where are the main obstacles? What can we do now? What variations are possible? What problem solving tools (perhaps from the tool collection) may be useful?
  • The notes are a "work in progress".
    They should not be written in the spirit of a polished solution - such a document can be written later, when the search for a solution was successful.
    A polished version can become part of the index card box.
  • If necessary, we can install an index to find material for a given topic.

How to stay on track?

  • It's easy to get lost while looking for a solution. Here's a practice that may help.
    The basic idea is to use "control tower sheets" - a name inspired by David N Perkins' lecture "40 Years of Teaching Thinking: Revolution, Evolution, and What Next?", available on YouTube.
  • We start with a new control tower sheet and name it "CT 123", if 123 is the next free sheet number.
  • On sheet CT 123, we write down the topic (like "Problem XY") and then a reference like "Questions (123.1)".
  • We start a new sheet 123.1 and collect questions. We choose the most promising question and examine it on a sheet 123.2, and reference 123.2 in the control tower sheet.
  • Each new sheet is referenced in the control tower sheet, with graphical links to its predecessors, forming a kind of mind map.
  • If a topic deserves a control tower of its own, we can start a new control tower sheet CT 124 and so on.
  • With this practice, we produce little "dossiers" of 10-20 sheets for each topic of a control tower sheet.
  • It's convenient to treat the sheets of a dossier as a group and arrange them on the desk while working on them.

Here are several remarks.

  • The process outlined above can be modified in countless ways.
    Feel free to adapt the process to find your own "personal problem solving method".
  • At the core of the method is a small number of principles:
    Externalize: Find a lasting representation of your thoughts. Write them down.
    Organize these documents.
    Use reflection and metacognition: Find out where the obstacles are.
    Use tools.
    These principles could be used in isolation, but I find them much more powerful when they form an "integrated problem solving environment" - in analogy to the "integrated development environments" in computer programming, like Eclipse or Visual Studio.
  • In my mind, a paper-based method has two major advantages over a computer-based one:
    It causes much much less distractions.
    It is much easier to combine text, diagrams and formulas while concentrating on content and not on technology.
  • However, if a computer seems to be the best medium, something like wiki software may be a good choice.
  • Searching for a solution to a problem often leads to tree-like structures - we start with a collection of seminal ideas, we pursue them to a certain point, from there, we can follow several different paths etc.
    The control tower sheets mirror these structures.


  • Thanks for sharing your current approach here, Thomas!

    I like the term "meta-cognition"; separating these transient notes into the subject matter to the left and reflections/comments to the right makes total sense to work on problems.

    Could you add more details about what happens when a problem seems to be solved (if that ever really is the case)? You stressed the point that the notes are not polished, but work-in-progress. Do polished results emerge as new notes inside this box, or does a polished result live outside it?

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

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