Zettelkasten Usage: Analog or Digital

The last weeks I have been pushing on my Zettelkasten project. I am inspired by Niklas Luhmanns system of an analog thinking system.

Luhmann Zettelkasten Archive

90.000 documents and 50 years of usage is quite a number.
To look at it in a archived digital form see https://niklas-luhmann-archiv.de/

But as my thoughts run, this will be an **analog / offline approach for me. ** Meaning a real wooden box and real slips of paper. I am sure that there will be some digital mix-ins over time but at the time being I am not convinced that the digital transformation will be as easy as some claim. And it might even kill the core benefits of the concept.

Or to put it even more bluntly:
a Zettelkasten (box of slips of paper) is not a Zettelkasten without Zettlel (slips of paper)

With this post I want to ask you (the community) if you have any thoughts on that or have material or examples of another highly productive user of a Zettelkasten.

Feel free to post replies here or contact me via direct message.

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Check out Roam Research, if that is what you’re asking. Or, I probably misunderstood your question.

My zettelkasten is digital and based on Drafts. I call it zettelkasten though the technique is quite different (the lack of slips is not the only difference) because the aim and process are the same.

Instead of analog zettels, I have digital ones (each one is a draft), respecting the zettelkasten principles, incl. unicity of zettelkasten (for life and work purposes), atomicity and autonomy of notes, and links everywhere.

The notes are linked together and connected to outside documents (links to web sites or Apple Notes with scanned paper documents for instance ; or references to books and articles).

The Drafts app and its multiple actions allow to search notes with keywords and navigate easily between drafts and also to refered documents. And notes are created nearly as fast as the thinking process.

I chose the Drafts app for these reasons, and also because it perfectly integrates with my diary system (which also is linked to zettelkasten notes). One app and multiple uses for one common tool : text !


Oh and by the way ! This thread is added to my zettelkasten because it’s of interest to me :wink:

In one click in Safari thanks to a customized shortcut, I’ve just added the following link, with my usual format, into a draft that references the one dedicated to the zettelkasten topic:

I am not asking for tools: I know of roaming research, notion and obsidian.

All great tools and all good concepts for digital 2nd Brains.

I am looking for people and information using the Zettelkasten either digital or (even better) analog.

Thanks for sharing.

Fifty years ago, when I was a PhD candidate in English in a grad school in Philadelphia, there were no digital alternatives to lowly ink-stained wretches like myself – who were legion. As the concept hadn’t been named as yet, there were no zettelkasten per se as yet. But we had the equivalent, with no special designation or nomenclature. The standard medium was the 3x5 index card (by the user’s choice, either lined or unlined – they were ubiquitous in office supply stores and institutional bookstores on campuses. The truly impoverished used shoe boxes and tab dividers (sometimes home-crafted from “oaktag” stock; sometimes commercially produced). The more flush among us bought sturdy pasteboard or sometimes metal cabinets, usually a single bay, for easier transport, with a drawer of dimensions suitable to the index cards and tabbed dividers. The rest you can imagine. It’s so long ago, I don’t remember what indexing and cross-referencing system I used to record and catalog and manage and cross-index both references (recorded in the prescribed format; in my case based on the MLA Style guidelines) and handwritten notes from research. I wrote at least eight lengthy year-long assignment seminar papers (avg. 45-75 pages) and wrote the framework of my doctoral thesis in this way. I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for, except possibly validation, or perhaps practical tips, shortcuts, and hints for more effective use of the system. Or did you simply want to survey our preferences for one genre of information storage (what you’re calling analog, and what I’d call physical or actual vs. the virtual, executed using digital technology on cybernetic devices) over another? I’ve been using personal computers from as soon as I could afford a commercially viable product – specifically, the IBM Personal Computer I, with floppy drives, 512K of volatile RAM, and Wordstar was the canonical word processing software (and Visicalc the market leader in that new category of application, the electronic spreadsheet) – and I abandoned my index cards, my IBM Selectric typewriter, though I only wish I could say I abandoned physical file storage, a step which came much later, and never looked back. In 1989, I switched entirely to the Macintosh platform, as soon as Apple started marketing a real computer capable of business grade and professional level functionality and efficiency (the Mac IIx). These days I use a variety of note-taking apps, with which I am still familiarizing myself, but mainly, and notably, NVUltra Beta, Drafts, and with markdown capable apps, like Ulysses, for long-form expository writing, and for hard core editing of documents intended for distribution in some publishable form or other, either Nisus Writer Pro (as a word processor), or Scrivener (as a writing project management environment). I also use Adobe InDesign for book projects that include images, and call for more what I’ll call “imaginative” typographic and graphic design enhancement.

For the note-taking, whatever the app I use to record the note (and my sense of which to turn to to record a thought, or a bit of lifted text from whatever source, whether transcribed manually via keyboard or copied and pasted electronically is purely instinctual): sometimes Drafts notes get migrated to NVUltra folders, and sometimes, but rarely, vice versa. I find Drafts notes tend to have a shorter shelf life and get discarded once their usefulness has been exploited or archived elsewhere. Finally, just to keep this fully on-topic, whatever app I’m using, the first entry (and I have a keymapping programmed into both Typinator, which I use on the Mac desktop, and TextExpander, for iOS) is a date and time stamp coded this way: “20210805111317” which is the protocol I learned and quickly adopted permanently after a brief romance with The Archive app, which was also the springboard for learning about the exotic allure of Zettelkasten theory.

But in the end, my mind is still the same one I abused half a century ago, with my packets of index cards, and my collection of pens.

That’s the long of it. The short of it is, I see absolutely no use for myself of an analog Zettelkasten methodology.


I’m surprised you didn’t mention punched cards. :slight_smile: (Hint: I’m someone who just missed them.) :slight_smile:

Thanks @howdin. I asked a broad question and you gave me good food for thoughts.

Due to my missing not even punch cards but also the Apple IIx entirely starting with an Atari ST as my parents first computer. Your personal historical reference is great.

I wonder if you did use the index cards in research for an ongoing study or discarding them after the completion of paper.

I like your wording with physical vs virtual.

I for my part want to understand the physical system - maybe to find a good implementation in the virtual world. But to evaluate the virtual solution implemented by a human who has his own thoughts about a system I want to have my own opinion build on experience.

I have to say that many applications love to use the Zettelkasten as a selling point not really giving the user the freedom to use the core concepts of this idea. The question is which of the physical things are key for great results (human generated IDs, reduced space on an index card, written and maintained by hand, physical and slow incomplete search …)

I have a similar thing with my GTD journey. The open implementation of a system is really hard for developers.
Non of the GTD apps I know of and still use gets the natural planning model of David Alans Book (which is at least asking for outcomes of a project)

Thats why I think Drafts is a great system for many things, because many of the elements are extensible empowering me to find or build my own process.

One core question is still if we have to relearn to use our brain for thinking outside of this virtual boxes. I found some interesting studies about learning and note taking physical vs virtual.

@Andreas_Haberle, thanks for your remarks in response to my long-winded reminiscence.

I infer you are much earlier on the trail of your GTD journey, and I’m glad anything I said will help you formulate a coherent MO and strategy moving forward.

Presumably (at least I presumed) it made sense to restrict my remarks to whatever of substance I did say, as this is, after all, a Get Drafts forum, and sometimes the value and impact of any valuable remarks gets vitiated by expanding the scope of what, in fact, may be salient, but not immediately relevant. Hence, I didn’t make any mention of what happened to the content of the index cards I kept so meticulously back in the day (and they were, necessarily, meticulous as it was my habit and personal quirkiness that I eschewed the use of ballpoint pens and wrote everything down either with pen and ink (literally, as in a fountain pen, or my particular affectation, the Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph; I must have had delusions that whatever I was recording somehow had permanent value and I’d better ensure the scratchings were preservable).

Naturally, I couldn’t submit seminar papers or thesis drafts on packets of index cards, no matter how ingeniously indexed and categorized and tabulated. Further, of course, except for notes in reference, mainly by date, or in standard scholarly form, by author and date of publication – depending on the link it occurred to me existed between whatever was recorded as a note on one card with the content of another. There was a lot of juggling of cards for sure, and temporary groupings, and re-groupings.

But the chief means of coordinating and tying together disparate sources of connected facts and records, if not more broadly related, perhaps expansively apposite points that were, indeed, pointers and proofs of more broad matters of inquiry, if not focused theories and hypotheses… perhaps themes I thought I detected in the works of a single author, or a shared by several authors… were, of course, the ubiquitous notebooks that were the student’s stock in trade: in my case either as standard 8.5x11 inch loose leaf binders with rings that sprang open and closed, or as spiral bound notebooks, in ready supply at the campus bookstore.

Today, the roles of these binders and containers, as repositories of related collected snippets, facts, whatever, and mainly collected on those myriad index cards, but also sometimes on collected scraps of whatever paper was available when inspiration, or a relevant bit of reading suddenly, lit up my consciousness, begging for transcription for possible later use. These notebooks also, of course, were the recording media for more expansive drafts, of actual presentable prose.

And the point of this, to cut to the chase, is of course that, regarding these notebooks, in my case, their function (and then some, given the far more powerful potentialities of digital technology to create the means of very complex technologies for gathering, arranging, and connecting data in many forms – and not just snippets of language, or brief prose notes, or pro forma reference data – including visual files containing graphic and photographic representations of viewable exhibits) has been subsumed by any number of ingenious applications and systematized data manipulation environments. I’m talking about such software products as DEVONthink Pro, Tinderbox, etc.

I think any discussion of these, though relevant to the theory and practice of zettelkasten – whether deployed as virtual or physical systems – is beyond the purview, in my opinion, of this specific forum.

I’ll finish only by stating the obvious. And that is, for me (at least) the sometimes seemingly overwhelming job of transferring the essnetially fundamental, if not raw, data stored with strict adherence to the principles of unicity and atomicity on real or digital slips, and which 50 years ago I had to do to a maddening degree of iteration and reiteration entirely by hand, ink blotches and all, has been significantly reduced for the factors of bandwidth and consequent labor efficiency, which was the chief promise of computers in the first place.

I doubt very much the quality of my thoughts, such as they have been, was improved.

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Hi Andreas,

I am fresh to the Zettelkasten method, even though many of its aspects are similar to the way I work. Soon I’m going to decide which tools I do want to use - both my intuition and some thoughts lead me to the desire to do it with pen & paper instead of a digital tool, which brought me here via a web search. Ideally, I’d find a way to combine the best of both worlds, willing to accept some extra time effort to keep it synced.

How’s your approach in the meantime and if you do use a digital tool, how which tools do you use?

Regarding GTD: I tried them all (wanting to develop my own GTD solution a while ago) over a couple, at least all of the products which are basically suitable for applying GTD. I used Things 3 and 2Do for more than one year, these are ranked on place 2 and 3. For me the best tool is FacileThings, it is specifically designed for applying GTD strictly and for utilizing efficiency bits, like codes for projects. Projects support defining the outcome, horizons range from purpose down to next actions, with alignment etc. etc.

For more than years I did not use a digital tool for GTD as well, I did it with my Bullet Journals and with what I do call a “Meta Journal” (registry for all horizon elements, with code system for fast and easy reference). The reason was that all of my digital GTD endeavours ended up with massively bloated systems - now I know that this happened because I was looking for something like Zettelkasten without even knowing the concept and was mistaken by thinking I could handle all my ideas also within my GTD system. So now I safely returned to FacileThings, but still do use my Bullet Journals and my Meta Journal - these three tools in combination work fine, soon to be enhance by my Zettelkasten to be.



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Sounds great - let us talk / write