Let me start by saying this: I am not a fundamentalist. Nor am I against the wonders of the digital world. I do not live in a cave, and I don’t—usually—read under the candlelight.
But I do write in 4×6 index cards as a means of acquiring knowledge, conducting research, and producing essays.
My entire productivity and note-taking world revolves around two cheap, black storage boxes from Amazon that house thousands of slips of paper.
If you have been following me, you know what I am talking about. I am talking about my analog Zettelkasten.
No written definition can adequately capture the essence of what a Zettelkasten is, but if you are itching for one, here is how I tentatively define it:
A Zettelkasten consists of individual notes where each note represents an idea (or a continuation of one), and is structured in a hierarchical, alphanumeric manner, which allows the author to infinitely branch out ideas, hyperlink them, and accumulate them in collectives that map one’s lines of thought, topics and research areas.
The Zettelkasten has come to be a very popular yet incredibly misunderstood method for knowledge management that, if used correctly, can transform you into a publication machine and a true life-long learner (and, as of today, hopefully, a fellow conversation partner).
The fact that you are reading this post means that you are, at least vaguely, familiar with Niklas Luhmann. And that also means that you might have learnt that Luhmann didn’t treat his notebox as an archive. Far from it. He regarded it as person, a “communication partner” that he could engage with and who would constantly surprise him with long-lost insights, new, promising connections, and much more. In his words:
As a result of extensive work with this technique a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with whom we can constantly communicate. It is similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, no hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author.
A Zettelkasten gets its own life. Independent of its author. An alter ego.
That’s where I come in.
I want to bring forth, to you, the surprises that I find inside my own Zettelkasten. Develop them into complete thoughts, connect them to my own experience and stories, and send them straight to your inbox. The good and the bad. The ground-breaking, and the controversial.
What’s the purpose of doing that? That’s where you come in: to combine conversation partners. Me, you, and our Zettelkastens. I want to spark conversations around a variety of topics (though, for now, mainly focusing on productivity, privacy, psychology, creativity, and knowledge management). I want you to engage with me, send me your note-cards (or type them up), your comments, and unique insights. I want to challenge you and for you to challenge me. To grow our minds in a shared environment of ideas.
This is all an experiment. But I will give it a try, because I want to push myself, my conversation partner, and, of course you.
If you are committed to life-long learning and have a generalist attitude in life, this experiment might be perfect for you.
Oh, and there is another great reason for utilizing our notes in such a way. The most potent benefits of the Zettelkasten unfold in the context of projects. Luhmann managed to become a publication machine, not just because he was intellectually curious and a gifted academic writer, but also because he set multiple publication goals that he would simultaneously advance towards. This email series that I am about to kickoff, and your responses to it, can serve as prompts that can push our note-boxes, our alter egos, to their intellectual limits and accumulate a body of knowledge worthy of publication.
Let’s use our analog tools to spark conversation and change.
That’s all for now.
If you find any of that interesting, join my private mailing list by clicking here.
P.S. And always remember: there is nothing worse than an idle system, for that would not be a Zettelkasten but an archive.