Hat tip to the always-interesting newsletter by David Moldawer, which turned me on to zettelkasten. You should totally subscribe to it if you’re interested in writing and reading in the age of information saturation.
Zettelkasten roughly means ‘card file system’.
It’s a way to manage notes and information.
Lots and lots of notes — a lifetime’s worth.
The key principle of zettelkasten is to have a single, trusted system for everything: all the notes, clippings, quotes, writing and information that you gather, in every facet of your life.
You build one zettelkasten to rule them all. You forego your mess of project-specific notes and folders, and half-finished journals buried in the dusty strata of years of collecting and note taking and thinking.
And over time, your zettelkasten becomes a massive database of research, notes and quotes. The bigger it is, the richer it is, and you can use it to find connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and threads.
Then you can query your zettelkasten to yield associations that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent using only project-specific notes.
Building a zettelkasten
If you want to start building your own zettelkasten, there are some good strategies on zettelkasten.de.
They have even made their own Mac-based notes application called The Archive that you can use.
Before you start, though, here are two considerations:
One of the key issues is future-proofing your notes against format drift and proprietary solutions. You’re embarking on a lifetime’s work, and you want to make sure you can access it regardless of what operating system or software you’re using 40 years from now.
So follow the advice on zettlekasten.de and save your notes as .txt, which is the format deemed most likely to survive the dead media problem.
You’ll also need a file-naming protocol. I’ve adopted the one recommended on zettlekasten.de, which is based on the date and time of the entry. So if I’m adding a note at five thirty-seven pm on three December 2018, I name it 1812031737.txt.
You might think this string of numbers is pretty unfriendly, and that a meaningful filename related to the topic might be more useful.
But instead, the idea is to save your notes in date order, and use tags and keywords to surface content when you enter search terms into your database.
Personally, I have settled on DEVONthink — which, as you can probably guess by now, is ridiculously expensive Mac-only software.
So, yeah, there are much cheaper and even free options for implementing a zettelkasten, but I chose DEVONthink for a few reasons.
- DEVONthink is built around open formats and plain text. If you no longer wish to use DEVONthink, you can easily extract your notes from a DEVONthink database, and import them into whatever new system you want. This is in contrast to, say, Scrivener or Ulysses, which save your text in unintuitive file structures, and in formats that make it painful to extract your text if you no longer have access to the software that created it. This problem gets more and more painful to solve as your zettelkasten grows.
- You can share a DEVONthink database with multiple devices, and there’s a good iOS app. This means I can make notes on my phone, on my laptop or on my desktop and they all sync seamlessly. And unlike Evernote, you maintain custody of your database at all times — it doesn’t sit on a cloud server waiting to be compromised.
- You can create links between entries to view and group items in different ways without affecting the structure of the database.
- DEVONthink handles PDFs — and its search algorithm includes PDF content in search results. You can also add images, sound files and video files.
- DEVONthink’s search is amazing. You can use Boolean operators like AND, NOT, OR, NEAR, XOR (either one result or the other, but not both) and OPT (first term must be present, but second is optional).
- But things get really funky with the ‘similar words’ search function. You can use this to select terms that not only look similar, as in a fuzzy search, but are contextually related. This allows you to find connections between notes that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, and bring forth the wonder of your life’s compost.
So go forth and build your zettelkasten!