A Notebook Zettelkasten

I've been lurking on this forum for a while, playing around with methods and generally absorbing information. A few months ago I was away from my computer and experimented with a Zettelkasten method in a notebook. This is what I came up with. It still works, and I still use it on when I'm on the go, but I do move, consolidate and otherwise improve my notes before putting them in a digital archive. In fact the whole "system" I created on an airplane. If you find yourself on a desert island with nothing but a pencil and a pile of notebooks, or suddenly transported back to 1775, then you can still write atomic notes that link to one another with tags and stuff.

Implementing a notebook Zettelkasten is as easy as attaching an identifier to individual notes on individual pages, and allowing for space underneath each to note to write down links to other notes on other pages. Additionally, one can create a tagging concept by implementing an index of tags at the back of the notebook, with a list of all note identifiers that belong to that tag.

Take a notebook off the shelf. If the pages are pre-numbered as in the case of a Leuchtturm, then we have a good starting identifier for how to find a note. But the page alone is not good enough, unless you plan to write one idea per page, which seems like a waste of paper.

Whenever you write a new note on a new page, number the note starting with 1. The note id for this note is 1:1. The next note on the page is note 2, with and id of 1:2 and so on. On the next page start over again with 1, so that that first note on page 2 has an id of 2:1.

This is not enough. In order to make it work across notebooks, you would need to indicate which notebook contains which note. To accomplish this, label each notebook with a number. The first notebook you do this with will be Notebook 1.

In this way, the first note on the first page of your first notebook has a note id of 1:1:1. The next note has an id of 1:1:2. The 3rd note on page 220 of your 2nd notebook has the id of 2:220:3.

Earlier I mentioned leaving enough space between notes to allow for linking. Usually a few lines will do. To link to another note, simply write its address underneath the note. You will know to find your 11th notebook, page 134, and locate note 2 if you see a link to 11:134:2.

Structure notes are relatively easy to imagine. Write a new note (probably on a fresh page), and start to structure a more comprehensive outline of the topic, with links to the notebook, pages and notes that should be included in your structure note. This is perhaps something akin to creating a "Collection" in Bullet Journal parlance, but with links to other notes rather than a lot of content.

Tags might prove difficult, especially across notebooks, but one could create a concept similar to it by not writing the tag on the note, but writing the name of the tag on a new page or index, and including the note id of the tag. So you might have:

living simply - 1:233:3, 1:228:1, 1:229:4
stoicism - 1:224:1, 1:228:1

As you can see these are notes in the same notebook. It would be very hard to update a tag index across all notebooks, so instead one could look at the tag index of notebooks for the ones that contain a particular tag, and pull those aside when you want to review those notes. Alternately you could have a separate notebook that acts only as a Tag and Structure note repository, which you update with note ids from all of the notebooks which contain those kind of notes.

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• Very cool system, thank you for sharing. I like how your IDs don't depend on dates and time which makes them functional even in absence of calendar and watch.

There is no method to my madness. My madness is my method.

• Interesting idea! This reminds me of a convention the Bullet Journal community came up with: when you start a page spread to record an idea, and continue your diary/todo list/... on the pages after, you will encounter a problem once this reserved page spread runs out of space.

So their invention is this: once your page spread is full, take the next free page spread in your notebook and enable yourself to jump between the two, skipping all the other stuff in between. They put a link from the old to the new, and the new to the old. On the second page of the old spread, put the page number of the first page of the new spread; and on the first page of the new, put the page number of the old. Now you have two-way links 👍

Regarding tags: Luhmann used keywords in his analog Zettelkasten, too, but far, far more sparingly than we computer people are trained to. He had an index of keywords with very, very few mentions of central entry points into a topic; from there, he'd have to follow the links (or note sequence) to get around.

This might be a useful hint to keep the bookkeeping for tags to a minimum: you can probably do with less!

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

• @TRumnell @ctietze definitely sounds bullet journal method based. I like it. You could use a hybrid approach and utilize a simple database with all of your tags to make searching easier. I am an analog person and have been procrastinating on which ZK to start with, analog or digital. I definitely feel like digital provides quicker access to notes as far a finding them.

• @ctietze That Bullet Journal convention is called "Threading", which in the context of note links is very fitting. But, doesn't it start to look like folgezettel? That was a joke, please nobody respond

@VDL1516 Digital provides way quicker access... unless you're miles away from your computer. It will still take you less time to flip through a notebook than to try and get back to your machine, etc. Naturally I'm pretending I don't have them on my phone (which I do).

Where this technique might be most useful is on a mountain retreat or doing a through hike of the AT. Bring a notebook, and use it like you would a zettelkasten. When you get back you won't have to try and re-read the whole thing to pull out the meaningful stuff, you can "thread" your way through it.

I have a lot of background with bullet journal style organization, so yes its based on having done that sort of thing for a long time. You learn that the index really is the most important part pretty quickly. So rather than "thread" between pages, you can thread between notes, even across notebooks. Index entries pointing to Structure Pages or to a specific note provides an entry point to "Follow The Thread". I actually wrote a note titled that once...

In reality I use a hybrid approach. The Archive and vim-zettel are my digital archives, but the notebook is something I always have with me. I think its helpful to have a consistent way of thinking about how to record concepts and ideas no matter where and when I'm laying them down.

• @TRumnell I absolutely agree about the notebook and I am envious that you have a notebook ZK, lol.
It really is awesome and I hope to start one. Great idea.

• @TRumnell said:
Where this technique might be most useful is on a mountain retreat or doing a through hike of the AT. Bring a notebook, and use it like you would a zettelkasten. When you get back you won't have to try and re-read the whole thing to pull out the meaningful stuff, you can "thread" your way through it.

Yes! Strive to never be without a pen and a notebook. To that end, I choose to use a pocket notebook as I just can't train myself to carry a man-purse. I have found that keeping my Zettelkasten in one form, in one place, feels the best. So I transfer all my noodlings from my notebook to my Zettelkasten housed with The Archive. Capturing on the go the seeds for zettels are placed in a quick outline format, grouped by date. I love the tactile feel of scratching pen to paper. I love stopping suddenly, whip out the note pad, and furiously capturing what seems a gift from the universe. My puppy is getting used to these pauses in his walk. He is learning to tolerate these pauses and just sits and lies down quietly with his thoughts. I do this frequently but not frequently enough. I use my notebook on Zen retreats (against Roshi's rules) and as I train and dream of a PCT through-hike.

Here is a couple of pictures of the notebook. @TRumnell show us yours.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• My experiments with paper-based methods of maths problem solving has some overlap with your use of notebooks as ZKs when it comes to flexible systems of numbering and of links.

• The basic premise is to develop a system that provides broad support for thinking about math problems on paper.
• I use a page layout with A4 pages in landscape format and 4 columns, which allows for very flexible processing of spontaneous ideas etc., with an easy way of crosslinking between notes.

Here's how it may look like:

• In your post on Zettelkasten Schemata, you describe how digital designs can have an impact on designs in the analog world. (Time to coin "bidirectional skeuomorphism".) This plays a certain role in the method - "[... ] The method is perhaps best introduced by the term “paper software” - a “software” that does not run on a computer, but on sheets of paper, as the most flexible “hardware” available in many circumstances."

You find a self-contained essay here.

• @thomasteepe this is truly inspiring, thank you!

• @TRumnell Thanks for sharing your setup! I had something similar for a while, before I discovered the Zettelkasten method. My notebooks were also cross-referenced with annotations, i.e. a margin comment might be "cf 14.23.2". That worked well for a time, but as Sonke Ahren's points out in Taking Smart Notes, eventually I ended up with a bunch of notes that didn't feel centralized enough to be useful for actually thinking or producing the kinds of knowledge I was aiming for.

That said, like @Will, I am never without my notebook. Personally, I use Field Notes. Much of what I capture there functions like a minimalist Bullet Journal. Other parts function like what Ahrens called "fleeting notes" -- the things you must process later in order to be fully valuable.

While I might have the seeds of a Zettel in my notebooks (based on a meeting, a lecture, what I'm reading, etc.), anymore I go back and process my notes into the Archive. The repetition has also helped with remembering and integrating ideas. The analogue write-up is the analysis of ideas, and the typing it up synthesizes that thinking with whatever else is in my ZK. Inevitably links emerge both times, so the typing makes those links actionable, if that makes sense.

Now that I am using The Archive, I periodically find myself digging out old notebooks to find a note. So, while it's not a process with a determined end date, I am slowly getting all of my old notes into my ZK as well.

I don't think I will ever abandon the analogue; in fact I default to it. But, I also find incredible value in having a computer set up for knowledge work. Technology of any kind -- even a notebook as a simple technology -- is a tool. Using those tools well is what makes for a robust and resilient system for your thinking.

Thanks again for sharing all of this.

• @Sociopoetic, you're a real poet. So eloquent in your reply here. "Fleeting Notes' are like gifts from the universe and I've lost so many to the synapse jungle call my memory. A notebook is an antidote. I use Moleskin Cahier Pocket, a fancy Field Notes.

I process everything worth processing into my digital Zettelkasten. I throw the used notebook into my pile of never to be looked at again notebooks. Most of everything is captured. Much like anything that is processed in my Zettelkasten, these notes are just the rough first draft and some take a lot of enjoyable work to flush out.

I won't give up scratching notes on paper. I love the visceral connection too much. Each tool has its place and use. Because I'm often away from my computer when I'm struck with an idea, I'll always carry my notebook.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @Will, indeed! Still, for those "jungles of memory," opening an old notebook is like a visit with an old friend (your former self). Yuri Lotman calls this "auto communication" -- that the I who writes is not the same I who will read the writing later.

For that visceral connection, I think that's why I have my assortment of pens and pencils. They each perform differently. Fountain pens are for letters to friends, notes to my partner, or (at least sometimes) comments on a student's essay. Fineliners are for no-matter-the-place personal jottings and the diagrams and maps required for the scientific side of my work. Colored pencils serve to highlight and tag things as needed. (Though it may also be worth mentioning that in my bag I also frequently carry a mindfulness coloring book or some sort of art page, for when my mind needs time to process ideas.)

Ah, such a delight to dialogue with you!

• Thanks @TRumnell for your input!

I was searching for a practical analog Zettelkasten and I found your solution very fitting. Thanks for sharing!

I very prefer a paper-based ZK system to a digital one (I tend to focus more on paper than on screen). However, one huge advantage of the digital method is the easiness when in need to search for notes.

In order to have the best of both worlds, I'm planning on using a dual system, where I write all my notes on a notebook (I'll lend your great idea) but will leave the tags and all the search function to a computer. I'm not sure yet how i'm going to do this, since I don't know which computer program will fit this - as I understand - simple task.

Briefly, Zettels with their respective IDs will stay on notebook and will remain as the main source of research. Going along with this a computer (or iphone/android app, would be nice to have it as easy access) where i can insert the notes ID that corresponds to the note title and some tags/#, and that later could be searchable.

Someone knows any program that can function as I exposed? Thanks!

p.s. for english speaking persons here, sorry for my particular use of your language.

• @Will Here are a few shots of my mess of a notebook. I write in a rare form of code called "scribble". Se even if you can easily read English, you cannot easily read these notes.

I actually wrote a thread of notes on the value of Fleeting notes.

@Wafthrudnir I still use a digital system exactly as you suggest. Many of the threads of notes in the notebook get consolidated into a single note or idea as I "reprocess" them in my mind. They get tagged and linked to a wider collection of notes in the digital archive, which is only really possible in a digital context for exactly the reason you suggest: its the only way to search them all effectively.

In the digital version of the note, I keep a reference to the entry-point in the notebook from where I withdrew the thread so I can go back to it. Sometimes, though rarely, I'll revisit the notebook that it came from and follow that thread back to some other linked idea that was relevant. If I'm being honest that happens only once in a blue moon.

• Hi, I am new to the forum. I have recently read Ahrens' book and am at the very beginning of my PhD in Literature, so I want to get things started right. Thank you for the comments on this thread and thank you @TRumnell for the inspiration! My biggest hindrances to using a Zettelkasten were: "I need boxes but I don't have where to put them" and "I really don't want to use a program"!
At the moment I am kinda transferring notes taken on my readings into more "permanent" ones in anoter notebook I have consacrated to be the zettelkasten.
My questions are:
1) The book, the system, and so the digital programs, seem to highlight the fact that you can move the notes around. When I have several zettels on a page this doesn't happen. Do you think it's a hindrance and it's basically doing what I (and many I guess) used to do - taking notes consequentially in a notebook which then piles up and the singular notes just "look as" zettels because they have a number on top?
2) As for the identification - I am using a number for every idea, even if they are taken from the same source text, and not having a "note number 1" for each page. So, then when I crossreference I'd have "1:1" and "20:7;20a:8; 20b:8" with the second number being the page number.

I know Ahrens recommends not wanting to be perfect, but I'd love to know whether I'm on the right track, as this is so illuminating to me and I really think this system works and can make me progress!

Thank you so much and apologies for the long text!

• The Bullet Journal community came up with conventions to link across pages. E.g. you'd number your journals with Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, ...) and the pages with regular Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, ...) and then you link from page 12 in notebook V to page 87 in notebook III by putting ->(III,87) or something in there.

Since you're now in the physical world, sticking to physical constraints (page numbers, journal numbers, maybe double-page-spread quadrants? (top-left, bottom-right, ...)) makes more sense than an arbitrary numbering system like numbering ideas, no matter how many are on the page, because looking them up may become confusing when you break the rhythm and have to flip forward and backward to zero-in on a particular ID you're looking for.

Navigating this is when you want to assemble a tool for thought for a lifetime is not going to be fun for long I imagine that at first ideas will explode because you can follow trails, but good luck carrying 10 notebooks with you, or leafing through them to find a particular page. Loose leaf organization has an advantage here.

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

• Hi @ctietze, thanks for you reply. Well, as for the moment I don't really have to carry things around, so portability is not an issue for me. But space is, the notebook is more compact than a box, for which I really wouldn't have a place in my room. The slip-box box really appeals to me, that's why I am afraid that when it will come to assemble things to write I will not be able to "spread the pieces out" in front of me. And I am afraid I won't like, go and see what's in the notebooks later on in life... But this would be the same on a digital format if I had a window open for each note or whatever that is. I am a bullet journal user, that's why I was keen on using a system like this. As for now I am linking pages with relative idea, and other notebooks for reference, so for example, I have a "Notes1" which is my literature notes book, and I would link if I want to expand, o remind myself something in a way like "see Notes1, p.X", but I will already have that idea condensed on its zettel. I like the idea of the quadrants, though!
This is a pic of what I'm doing... I just wanted to get something started, let's see how this turns out! I am so excited!

• Oh, for the moment I still haven't figured out how I want to be able to stuble upon these ideas later, but that's the challenge for me.

Hi, I am new to the forum. I have recently read Ahrens' book and am at the very beginning of my PhD in Literature, so I want to get things started right. Thank you for the comments on this thread and thank you @TRumnell for the inspiration! My biggest hindrances to using a Zettelkasten were: "I need boxes but I don't have where to put them" and "I really don't want to use a program"!
At the moment I am kinda transferring notes taken on my readings into more "permanent" ones in anoter notebook I have consacrated to be the zettelkasten.
My questions are:
1) The book, the system, and so the digital programs, seem to highlight the fact that you can move the notes around. When I have several zettels on a page this doesn't happen. Do you think it's a hindrance and it's basically doing what I (and many I guess) used to do - taking notes consequentially in a notebook which then piles up and the singular notes just "look as" zettels because they have a number on top?
2) As for the identification - I am using a number for every idea, even if they are taken from the same source text, and not having a "note number 1" for each page. So, then when I crossreference I'd have "1:1" and "20:7;20a:8; 20b:8" with the second number being the page number.

Hi - My sense is that this will end up being a cumbersome and impractical system. I used to bullet journal but stopped because I was losing track of information, despite the tricks mentioned by @ctietze. Trying to take it one step further and turn a book full of notes into a Zettelkasten frankly sounds like a crazy idea. I don't mean to be insulting, I just mean it sounds crazy. Sometimes crazy can be good, sometimes not so good.

Keep in mind that Luhmann had a lifetime to perfect a system that, by necessity, had to be manual, and he ended up with something that was efficient and practical. If you want to have a manual system as well (only manual; not a cyborg, half paper/half electronic system), then you should think very carefully about departing too far from Luhmann's model.

I have no idea how you would "stumble" across an idea or a thought train with your system, except by pure trial and error. That seems remarkably impractical. A lot of the discussion in this forum focuses on finding good "entry points" to an electronic Zettelkasten; that job would be exceedingly messy using notebooks, although I suppose you could create an index of ideas, with the reference to one or two zettels (not too many) listed by each idea, as a way to get you started of finding a thought train in your paper Zettelkasten.

• @GeoEng51 said:
Keep in mind that Luhmann had a lifetime to perfect a system that, by necessity, had to be manual, and he ended up with something that was efficient and practical.

I don't think that we can infer that. We need to always take into account that Luhmann did research and writing all day every day with few interruptions. He might having an inefficient tool and a lot of work ethic.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:

@GeoEng51 said:
Keep in mind that Luhmann had a lifetime to perfect a system that, by necessity, had to be manual, and he ended up with something that was efficient and practical.

I don't think that we can infer that. We need to always take into account that Luhmann did research and writing all day every day with few interruptions. He might having an inefficient tool and a lot of work ethic.

That could be true. But I don't myself believe it. I have a hard time imagining that he was egregiously inefficient over such a long period of time. What do all those people who have studied his method and written PhD theses about it have to say on the topic? (I'm not being facetious; they must have some opinion about it).

• About Luhmann's Zettelkasten? Nothing there are no PhDs etc. Just the material by Johannes Schmidt.

However, I interviewed very productive and successful professors. All of them had no efficient tool (most of them had no tool).

I am a Zettler

• @GeoEng51 I do see your point, and you centered my main concern. I am at the beginning so I still haven't tagged my notes and haven't created an index yet - which is what I am planning on doing. I want to wait until I gather a few more notes because otherwise I would use tags based on my state of research now rather than using entry points that could be functional in a year or so. I just love the idea of literally opening a box and flipping through the cards, and I hope I will be able to use that soon. As for digitalizing, I am also thinking of using simple word files in a specific foder. A file as a zettel, rather than complicated programs, but I am not sure as to how it can work out in the retrieval phase. I am happy though to look for a system, and maybe mine's going to be a hybrid of stuff. I just need to find out how my specific brain likes to work!

...As for digitalizing, I am also thinking of using simple word files in a specific folder. A file as a zettel, rather than complicated programs, but I am not sure as to how it can work out in the retrieval phase. I am happy though to look for a system, and maybe mine's going to be a hybrid of stuff. I just need to find out how my specific brain likes to work!

One of the discussion items on that is to use a system that stores each zettel as a plain text file. That is the approach taken in The Archive and also in other programs like Zettlr and Obsidian. Each zettel is a plain text file; all the plain text files are stored in one folder.

Text files have the best longevity. Someone was wondering about storing zettels in Word files a while back; the general feedback on the forum was not to do so, for various reasons, of which longevity and proprietary format were two.

I use The Archive to create my zettels and manage my Zettelkasten - it is really simple and easy to search, and the cost is small. But I admit to occasionally opening the ZK up in both of the other programs, to use some of their features.

• @GeoEng51 said:

One of the discussion items on that is to use a system that stores each zettel as a plain text file. That is the approach taken in The Archive and also in other programs like Zettlr and Obsidian. Each zettel is a plain text file; all the plain text files are stored in one folder.

Text files have the best longevity. Someone was wondering about storing zettels in Word files a while back; the general feedback on the forum was not to do so, for various reasons, of which longevity and proprietary format were two.

I use The Archive to create my zettels and manage my Zettelkasten - it is really simple and easy to search, and the cost is small. But I admit to occasionally opening the ZK up in both of the other programs, to use some of their features.

I see, so I can try using plain text files... at this stage (I don't know if there already is a thread on this issue, I apologize if there is): each file is a zettel, do I save the file with tag names? How would I be able to search within? I know there are programs that do this, but I have the fear of programs like notion and roam and stuff stealing your data, also, I don't like the idea of having to upload to their servers, I want something stored locally. I tried Zettler, but I find it too difficult! ahahah

• Also, I have microsoft, so it seems I can't use The Archive!

• edited November 2020

Also, I have microsoft, so it seems I can't use The Archive!

Running virtual machine could be a painful but faithful solution: https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/VirtualBox/Setting_up_a_Virtual_Machine/Mac_OS_X

• I was reminded of this thread (which I'd followed with quite some interest) when I recently came across the digital archive of Ross Ashby, an early cybernetics theorist. He assembled 25 journals totalling 7,189 pages, which are cross-referenced and include two separate indexes (one for keywords, the other for subject categories), both archived on index cards! Much recommended to anyone interested in paper-based note taking.

• @alkibiades, thanks for the link. Fascinating, and I have little interest in "paper-based note-taking" myself. Looking at his archive, I see the dedication to his craft, the love between Ross and Rosebud, and I am moved to tears. Some of his cards are as if Niklas Luhmann wrote in English. They even studied some of the same topics. I wonder if their paths might have crossed.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @alkibiades , oh wow, thank you! I'm a perennial student of cybernetics (maybe one day I will add "cyberneticist" to my list), but I was not aware of this. I now know where I will be spending some of my free time! I also love the keyword and category indexes -- at some point, I hope to have the tags I use in The Archive (and my notebooks, I use both in my system) work that way.

@Will, to your question on whether Ashby and Luhmann met: I can't find a direct answer, but it seems like they at least new some of the same people, like Heinz von Forester.

• Glad to hear that you’ve found it interesting too, @Will and @Sociopoetic ! This is the least I can contribute after gaining so much inspiration from this forum in the past. I wasn’t aware of Ross Ashby’s work — or journals for that matter — either, this was a very random discovery while looking for inspiration from other fellow note-takers from the past. I’ve tried all sorts of different software in the past, but always found it inferior to paper in anything but long-term archival.