5 Common Misconceptions About the Zettelkasten Note-Taking Method

No, not everything belongs in your slip-box

Brooke Harrison

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It wasn’t until I read How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens that I realized almost everything I’d assumed about the Zettelkasten or “slip-box” note-taking method was WRONG.

This method gets a lot of attention for the results it gave German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. He used index cards and a unique numbering system — and for some of us, that’s all we know about it.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about creating a digital Zettelkasten with the help of text editors and apps like Roam Research, Obsidian, and Evernote… but most of us don’t know what that means. And if we want to build a “second brain” or become more prolific writers, we should know what Zettelkasten ISN’T — and, more importantly, what it IS.

So let’s expose the common misconceptions about Zettelkasten, and learn what it’s really all about (so we can implement it successfully!)…

Misconception #1: That we can take notes in exactly the same way we always have.

We mistakenly believe that Zettelkasten changes only how our notes are stored, and not how they’re created.

You’re probably familiar with Luhmann’s index cards, stored in his “slip-box” like a filing cabinet. He used a unique numbering system to order and connect his notes. We think, OK, the next time I read or watch or consume content, I can whip out some index cards and jot down a few bullet points.

Not so, my friends.

“The main misunderstanding stems from an isolated focus on the slip-box and a neglect of the actual workflow in which it is embedded.” ~ Sonke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes

So what did Luhmann’s workflow look like? There are 3 basic principles you should know about Luhmann’s note-making:

  • Luhmann’s “slip-box” notes were not merely a summary of the material but an elaboration.
  • Luhmann took notes in his own words, in complete sentences.
  • Each index card contained just one “atomic” thought or idea. One idea per card; often only a few sentences or a paragraph…

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Brooke Harrison

Writer & Entrepreneur. I write to process and share what I’m learning :) How to take notes in Obsidian (free guide!): https://brooke-harrison.ck.page/2521a68501