Make Your Notes Work for You: the Secret Sauce of Zettelkasten

Phil Houtz
6 min readFeb 17, 2020
Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

When you get stuck on your next writing project wouldn’t be great to have a partner who could quickly help you work through the stuck point and arrive at clarity?

That’s how Niklas Luhmann thought of his zettelkasten note-taking system. He saw his notes as an active partner with which he could communicate. He describes his method of note taking as being a conversation in which both partners learn from the other. The greater the investment of time, the deeper the conversation.

As a result of extensive work with this technique a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with who we can constantly communicate. It proves to be similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, not hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Just because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author.

Communicating with Slip Boxes, Niklas Luhmann.

Rats. It’s Not Working. Stupid Notes.

About a year ago I plunged head-first into the zettelkasten note-taking method with the expectation that I would eventually arrive at a point where my notes would do at least some of my thinking for me. That didn’t happen.