(This article was originally published on BetterHumans.pub website.)


“Are you sure reading all those books is worth your time?” my fiancé asked me last fall. He found a weak spot. I’d been contemplating my reading habits for quite some time.

While I knew how you could remember what you read, I felt my reading was inefficient.

I read a book, along with 50 articles a week, and encounter many interesting ideas. While I had a method to remember what I read, I felt my reading and creative workflow was inefficient.

But when it comes to writing, it often happened that I knew I read something about the topic somewhere. Despite my summaries, I struggled to recall where the information was, making it difficult to reference. I’d spend half an hour browsing through side notes in a book’s margins, digital notes, and bullet journals without a result. I’d continue without the information, frustrated.

So when my partner asked the question, my answer was unconvinced, “Reading is great. I just haven’t found the right system to work with it yet.”

That’s why something clicked when I first heard the term “Zettelkasten” in one of Ali Abdaal’s videos. Yet, I struggled to summarize the Zettelkasten — even Ali admitted that he hadn’t grasped it fully.

Whenever I’m hooked, I enter a tunnel. I watched and read every tutorial I could find on the internet, read the original German texts, studied Sönke Ahren’s how-to guideresearched coaches, and hired one. Since March, I also help my coaching clients set up their system.

I’m so in love with my Zettelkasten, my fiancé sometimes feels betrayed. These are the ways my digital brain has transformed my thinking, learning, and writing.

  • Increased productivity. I write and create faster. I no longer waste time searching for sources. Instead of using my brain to browse through books and digital bookmark notes, I have everything in one place. A research-based 1,300-word article used to take me three hours to write— with Zettelkasten, it takes me one and a half.
  • Original ideas. Whenever I write or research a topic, I browse through my Roamkasten and find what I’m looking for, plusconnections between domains I hadn’t thought about in the first place.
  • Better thinking. New information challenges my thinking and helps me overcome cognitive biases. I gain a deeper understanding of everything I read.
  • Maximum retention. I have a place that stores everything valuable from what I watch, read, or listen to. It helped me develop my worldview by comparing evidence, ideas, and arguments.

What follows is a crisp description of how the Zettelkasten works and the exact system I follow to set it up in Roam. Everything you’ll need to set this up is in this article.

1. Zettelkasten — What Is It and How Does It Work?

What follows is a brief description of its origins, the four types of note hierarchies, and the key principles.

1.1 Luhmann’s Zettelkasten as fuel for his productivity

Niklas Luhmann was a social scientist and philosopher, and researchers consider Luhmann one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century.

During his life, he wrote 73 books and almost 400 research articles on various topics, including politics, art, ecology, media, law, and the economy.

When someone asked him how he published so much, Luhmann replied“I’m not thinking everything on my own. Much of it happens in my Zettelkasten. My productivity is largely explained by the Zettelkasten method.”

“Zettel” is the German word for paper slip, “Kasten” means cabinet or box. During his lifetime, he wrote and kept 90,000 index cards in his slip box. All notes were digitized by the University of Bielefeld in 2019, and the original German version is available online. But this is what it originally looked like:

Image created by David B. Clear (CC BY-SA 4.0)




Why it’s relevant: You’ll use templates for your literature and your permanent notes. Templates save you time and make your structure consistent. I’ll share my templates with you in a bit.