Recently, I implemented a note taking system called a Slip-Box, also known as a Zettelkasten. Zettel-whats-en?
Actually, you may have already heard of it. The zettelkasten has received a lot of press lately, due to Sonke Ahren’s 2017 book, How to Take Smart Notes. This book has taken the online productivity community by storm, and there are a lot of great ones out there. I recommend you check out the Forte Labs’ book review for How to Take Smart Notes.
There are a lot of different ways to use index cards to aid in writing. The first time I had ever heard of it, it was in Ryan Holiday’s article, The Notecard System. More recently, I learned about Anne Lamott’s method, in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. But it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the Forte Labs’ book review that I actually ever considered using one of these systems.
On the other hand, maybe this picture just inspired me to become a library witch:
So, what is it?
The Slip-Box is a tool to aid in thinking. Nikolas Luhmann, a German sociologist from the 1960s invented this system, which ultimately helped him to write a total of 58 books within 30 years, along with countless articles and translations (Ahrens 44). He attributed his prolific output to his slip-box, and claimed that most of his thinking actually happened within the box.
It’s a somewhat magical idea: the box actually thinks for you. How could that be possible? Luhmann not only attributed the magic ability of his cards to the large volume of information he collected, but to the connections that were created between them. He was able to do this by using a permanent numbering system and card-to-card references. This network helped him expose new connections and form new ideas.
A shoebox full of index cards
At the most basic level, the Zettelkasten is a shoebox full of notes on index cards. Write your notes on them, sort them in interesting sequences, then use them for your work. More specifically, the Zettelkasten has three boxes: 1) literature notes, 2) permanent notes, and 3) project notes.
Literature notes, or bibliographic notes, traditionally chronicle information contained in books. The literature notes are filed in the literature box alphabetically according to their bibliographic citation. I cite the source on the top of the card, then write the basic information I want to remember from this source. Once I’ve written the note down, I file it behind alphabetical card dividers.
The second box contains “permanent notes.” Permanent notes describe thoughts that a person thinks as they are consuming information. These are original thoughts and ideas sparked by the literature. They are filed in the second box according to relevance to other notes, rather than by top-down categorization (think filing cabinet).
This method of filing is accomplished by assigning each card a permanent number (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). New notes can be inserted in between two others using alternating alphanumeric characters (1, 2, 2a, 2b, 3, 4, 4a, 4b, 4b1, 5). As the user adds notes to a cluster, a train of thought forms in the box. Adding cross-references to notes creates connections outside of the immediate cluster. These linking mechanisms increase the connectivity of the database and promotes creative connections.
The third and final box is the temporary project box. Users can store cards relevant to a project here as a temporary workspace. It is always possible to reassemble the Permanent Notes box with the help of its permanent filing number.
As thoughts and concepts become more fleshed out in the box, the user may start new projects. A project traditionally means writing an article or paper about your idea. This final creative step is the ultimate goal of this entire system. “There is no such thing as history of unwritten ideas,” Ahrens states (106), emphasizing the fact that knowledge must be shared with the world through writing.
My Slip Box
After a little bit of exploring, I decided that I wanted to make mine different (surprise, surprise). I wanted to change a few things about the slip-box.
In How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens explains that Luhmann’s original slip-box mainly populated by ideas he encountered while reading scholarly research (39). But as a researcher, he followed strict research principles. There was no mention in How to Take Smart Notes of him recording anything from his daily life.
I did not agree at all with the assumption that published material is the only thing worth studying. I learn about so many interesting events, perspectives, and ideas from just being out in the world every day. Anecdotal information is valuable because it informs my thinking, ideation, future projects, and exploration. Conversations, ideas, epiphanies, and observations are surely just as valuable as anything that I can learn through reading. I wondered to myself whether I was alone in thinking that anecdotal information or word of mouth should be recorded.
I found solace in Khe Ky’s (first name pronounced “Kay”) video, Roam Research: A tool for creative serendipity. In this video, Khe demonstrates how he documents the content of conversations with friends in Roam Research, a digital note taking tool. He also shows how he uses links to elaborate on his own observations related to that subject over time. After seeing the way that Khe saves anecdotal information, my idea felt validated. This gave me the confidence to decide that yes, anecdotal information is worth saving here in my Slip-Box.
Digital or Not?
In addition to the inclusion of anecdotal information, there was another requirement that I had for my slip-box: I wanted it analog. A lot of the contemporary conversation surrounding slip-boxes and zettelkasten focuses on using digital research tools. These are programs like Evernote, Notion, Roam Research, and Obsidian. If digital works for you, then that’s great, but I don’t prefer it.
The problem with digital
Having used Evernote since 2016, I amassed 1500+ notes, and depended on it heavily for a lot of my personal information storage. But throughout that time, I began to have some personal gripes with the digital system. It first started when I noticed that things were slowing down. With so many notes, my interface slowed down significantly, and it made it a struggle to even access the content.
When I began reviewing the notes I had saved, I realized that a lot of them were junk: old scans of government documents, pages with broken links, and unintelligible quick notes. Some of the notes were better suited for other platforms. Photos could go in photos hosting platforms. Screenshots of songs could go in Spotify. Pictures of book covers taken in bookstores could go into my GoodReads account.
There were all kinds of things lurking in the depths of my 5-year-old evernote account. I think the main reason for all of this excess content is it’s too easy to add notes to a digital system. Copying and pasting, bookmarking pages, and screenshotting images allows users to whip up a lot of activity. But how many actual ideas did I write down? Precious few. Digital platforms might help increase the speed of activity, but I’m just not convinced that they do a lot to help users think.
Paper is where the magic is
I think the main reason I went with paper though, is because I like to work with physical media. I like the feel of a pen in hand, and I like to shuffle the cards. The physical sensations make me feel grounded. I have found that working with the index cards feels very similar to working with tarot cards or journaling. I have actually come to refer to working in my slip-box as “consulting the oracle.” I feel like I’m opening myself to listening to a higher power, trying to hear what the slip-box is telling me.
A Second Brain
Listening to the slip-box sounds a little out there, but it is a message conveyed by Ahrens himself. “Look into the slip-box instead to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built up. Don’t cling to an idea if another, more promising one gains momentum” (78). It makes sense: see where the critical mass is mounting. But this idea is rather radical, and goes against conventional ideas about how research should be conducted.
Traditional research methods
Many research authorities place emphasis on choosing a topic of research first, then going out to find information to support or deny the claim. Ahrens explains what the “ideal” process of writing should be, according to experts: “make a decision on what to write about, plan your research, do your research, write,” (Ahrens, 140). The problem with this method is that it does not reflect the real way that people obtain knowledge.
The zettelkasten research method
In Luhmann’s method, the research should not be directed towards any specific direction during the information gathering phase. In fact, it should be gathered intuitively, according to a person’s interests. It is okay to make notes even if you don’t understand their ultimate direction. Trains of thought develop card by card, as the user writes ideas down one card at a time. As a slip-box amasses more and more cards, and the user groups them in ways that are unique and meaningful sequences, ideas become more and more detailed, until a fully realized thought takes form (Ahrens, 143).
It may take a week, a year, a decade, but once enough connections are created, the thought might be the kernel of a valuable and complete idea. After a time, you can look into your slip-box to actually discover what you have been thinking about (Ahrens, 143). The guiding principle of using the sli-box should be to maintain an openness about where the thoughts might take you.
More examples of listening
I find this intuitive method very similar to the way other creatives describe their creative process. Specifically, the morning pages process, invented by Julia Cameron, as well as the creative process that Elizabeth Gilbert used to write her novel, The Signature of All Things.
Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages
Julia Cameron’s famous morning pages practice is based on the act of listening. She instructs students to write three pages of free-writing each morning upon waking by hand. After writing the pages, Cameron encourages practitioners to “listen to the morning pages” by glancing over them to see what you have written. It is only through listening to what we write in our morning pages that we will discover when a topic is repeatedly surfacing. Topics that are coming up day after day should be addressed. But, without becoming aware of a problem, you can never fix it, and herein lies the importance of listening.
Elizabeth Gilbert writes The Signature of All Things
In another shining example of listening to one’s inner voice, Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her book, Big Magic, the process of how she wrote one of her later novels. She relied on a very intuitive process.
When she set out to start her novel, The Signature of All Things, she lacked inspiration or passion, and was having a hard time getting started. In order to spur her creativity, she asked herself whether she was curious about anything. After listening to her inner voice, she discovered that yes, there was one thing she was interested in: gardening (Gilbert, 240). She said she followed a “trail of curiosity” (243) which led her to “a fictional family of 19th century botanical explorers” (244), and ultimately, a new novel. Gilbert listened to her inner voice, which allowed her to produce a new novel from scratch, even when she thought she had no inspiration.
I believe that using a slip-box is exactly this kind of activity: opening yourself up, listening, and finding out where the bread crumbs are leading you.
The zettelkasten has been an extremely compelling way for me to collect notes over the past month or so that I have been using it. It has brought order to my chaotic notes and has given me a sense of direction.
In full disclosure, this is the first article I’ve written using the zettelkasten. It seems to be similar to some sort of demented evangelism, or multi-level-marketing scheme, where as soon as you learn about the system, you must immediately write an article about it, sharing it with this world. So here it is: my inaugural zettelkasten article to evangelizing the slip-box.
Thanks for reading! What do you think? Do you think you would you ever try to make a slip-box? Why or why not? I welcome any comments, questions, or corrections in the comments section below.