How can PARA and Zettelkasten workflow live together?


Luhmann’s card index consists of approximately 90,000 handwritten cards in A-6 format organized in two collections. The first collection, approximately created between 1951 and 1962, a time when Luhmann was on his way from a legal expert with interests especially in constitutional law and administrative sciences to a systems theoretical sociologist, is based primarily on his readings in political science, administrative studies, organization theory, philosophy, and sociology. It consists of approximately 23,000 cards, which are divided into 108 sections by subjects and numbered consecutively, two bibliographies comprising about 2,000 titles, and a keyword index with roughly 1,250 entries. The second collection (1963–1997), now clearly reflecting a sociological approach,6 is divided into eleven top-level sections with a total of about 100 subsections. It consists of approximately 67,000 cards, including a sizeable but obviously incomplete bibliographical apparatus with roughly 15,000 references and a keyword index with 3,200 entries.

So he had 23,000 cards with a 1,250 entries in a keyword index.

Then he had 67,000 cards, with 3,200 entries in a keyword index.


He had one to three entries of where you could find a topic in his keyword index. You can browse his keyword index online btw (I turned on google chrome automatic translate).

Sometimes the keyword index linked to a note in a sequence, sometimes they linked to overview notes, from the linked source above

Three types of linking can be distinguished:

  1. References in the context of a larger structural outline: When beginning a major line of thought Luhmann sometimes noted on the first card several of the aspects to be addressed and marked them by a capital letter that referred to a card (or set of consecutive cards) that was numbered accordingly and placed at least in relative proximity to the card containing the outline. This structure comes closest to resembling the outline of an article or the table of contents of a book and therefore doesn’t really use the potentials of the collection as a web of notes.

  2. Collective references: At the beginning of a section devoted to a specific subject area, one can often find a card that refers to a number of other cards in the collection that have some connection with the subject or concept addressed in that section. A card of this kind can list up to 25 references and will typically specify the respective subject or concept in addition to the number. These references can indicate cards that are related by subject matter and in close proximity or to cards that are far apart in other sections of the collection, the latter being the normal case.

  3. Single references: At a particular place in a normal note Luhmann often made a reference to another card in the collection that was also relevant to the special argument in question; in most cases the referred card is located at an entirely different place in the file, frequently in the context of a completely different discussion or subject.

If you are confused after reading Ahrens books (I like the book, but many people seem to be afterwards), hit me up and I can give you a couple resources to look into that better help explain the zettelkasten.


This is all really useful and suggests to me that there are three aspects to the tradeoffs between “progressive summarization” (more about developing an insightful reconstruction of the ideas in the text being discussed) and Zettelkasten-style note creation (more about elaborating (original?) ideas and concepts (often, but not always, sparked by engaging with a particular text):

  1. Effects on memory (both retention and recall) of actively engaging with (difficult) material multiple times
  2. Added insights gained from revisiting material, typically in new contexts or from different perspectives
  3. Avoiding the complementary concerns with tunnel-vision (getting trapped in a self-generated filter bubble and/or losing contact with richness of the source text) and dissipation (generating fragmentary and superficial formulations in the vague hope that associative links will make them deep (the snake-oil of the ZK-cult?) and/or losing track of what one is “borrowing” from others).

It’s not clear to me that there is a method that guarantees the best outcome. On a case-by-case basis, progressive summarization and (to coin a phrase) Zettelkast-ing both need to be assessed in terms of all three, with an eye to the specific context and in light of what one is trying to accomplish. If the goal is to understand a text and retain the key three ideas, then memory concerns might be central, and tunnel-vision not much of a concern. If the goal is to develop an original and systematic approach to a given domain (what Niklas Luhmann mostly did), then revisiting a text (and an resulting increase in the atomiticity of smart notes) will have its value in generating new thoughts and connections.


Thanks to everyone for taking the time on this thread. I find it super interesting. One thing – reading your post @lizardmenfromspace – is that the word ‘reference’ is pretty ambiguous, perhaps particularly for anyone from an academic research background who is mixing with zettelkasten practices. You have three types (or instances?) here, but there are also what are called citations (they tend to be called references in the antipodes where I was trained). I found this nomenclature quite confusing also in Ahrens’ book as well. Perhaps though I’m overthinking the term and that it is always simply something that refers to something else (through some form of link).

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All that is meant by reference is just pointing the reader to another note in the collection. Because he gave each note a unique identifier, he could reference any one note in a different note.


So I read the book. And I’m not sure if I would say I’m confused. I just don’t understand the details of the process as much as I like to know. I also don’t have a good grasp of the theory of how it might help in everyday life. So if you could kindly tell me about the resources you’ve talked about, I would be ethernally greatful.

  1. David B. Clear’s blog post has been my favorite explanation of it for the general reader
  2. Shortened research paper from one of the researchers into Luhmann’s archive. You can also get the actual paper too, but it is much longer. Gives an overview of the index, how cards were integrated, and organization system. This is all in the context of a physical paper zettelkasten
  3. Slides from a presentation explaining Luhmann’s thinking and how the author created a digital program specifically for zettelkasten.
  4. Luhmann wrote two essays that have been translated to english titled “learning how to read” and “communicating with slipboxes”.
  5. You can browse Luhmann’s actual note collection, which is pretty wild
  6. You have the intro guide I’m creating, which is being developed first over in my public zettelkasten

The actual workflow is quite simple, I’ll go ahead and write a post outlining the process.

How a zettelkasten can help in everyday life

Just as in work, everyday life is full of decisions that are informed by your working knowledge on a subject. Zettelkasten is just a way of formalizing and collecting that knowledge in one place so that you can reference it when you run into a problem related to it. The most mundane example I give is the tracking of my experiences and thoughts on creating homemade pizzas. In my zettelkasten, I put information I come across on what makes a good pizza (theory), reflections on new recipes I try (experience), and others recommendations. I am putting all this knowledge into a system (zettelkasten) because we don’t have the brain space to memorize every piece of information we come across in life. This especially becomes the case when you are consuming a lot of information, whether it be through podcasts, the internet, or books.

If you have any specific questions about the zettelkasten, feel free to @ me because I’ve thought a ton about it and answering questions helps me crystallize my own thoughts on the subject matter.


The PARA focuses on collecting notes

I think that summary doesn’t capture PARA. The way I understood it, PARA focuses on actionability. I have never taken Building a Second Brain, but I have just recently reviewed Tiago’s 8-part PARA series.

The most important part of PARA is the small specific Projects. Areas, Resources and Archives can be less formal. The most important thing is knowing where to focus to take action.

In that sense, I very much agree with @Calhistorian. I see my entire Zettelkasten as a Resource, where I’m building up reference material and connections for various topics. As those topics become more prominent or actionable, I can upgrade them to Areas, or Projects. But on the whole for me, by default, things I’m collecting and connecting are a Resource, in the PARA sense.

(Disclaimer, I am very new to Zettelkasten, and use it quite loosely. But I have been keeping a “Commonplace Book” on index cards for several years.)

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While your Projects can sit atop a library on connected ideas, I sense that for many people, there exists palpable tension between project management and idea management. I wonder if, for some use cases, perhaps Projects should not receive top billing.

This tension continues between the mindsets of “thinking through linking” versus “getting things done”—between developing ideas and working through a list of tasks.

These are context switches. The brain pays a toll for each switch.

One context is driven by developing ideas, the other context by completing tasks. Both contexts can live together, and for some people they live together harmoniously, but usually there is tension.

Much of the equation boils down to your individual use cases and preferences.

That said, here are some questions I have found helpful…

  • Which context brings you more joy?
  • How can you spend more time in that context?

Zettelkasten is frequently misunderstood as being anti-category. Actually, Luhmann did categorize his notes (quite extensively, in fact) — check out the actual digitized collection of his notes:
Categories are good, but the point is to link between them so you can create a heterarchy, allowing you to jump between contexts. I would say the folder methodology is fine, as long as you’re finding associations between different folders.


Thanks everyone for this very helpful conversation. I have another question for you:
If we are talking specifically about obsidian, would you recommend having a dedicated vault to each system?

@nickmilo If there’s a tension, it’s not between developing ideas and getting things done. Oops, misunderstood what you wrote.

Sonke Ahrens promoted zettelkasten as a way to get more written with less effort–completing projects. His point is that many of the tasks of academic writing and research are open-ended and difficult to clearly define and plan out in advance. As you say, the developing ideas and working with a task list require different thinking and that can be a source of tension.

@amirography If you still want to combine elements of both approaches (rather than trying out both systems for a while before picking one) would suggest a single vault with top-level P.A.R.A. folders. Speaking as a well-respected authority on both systems :wink: here’s how it works:

Resources is a relatively unstructured directory where you keep your Zettelkasten. Some of these notes will find their way into published work, but when you work in this context, you are focused on the ideas and how they relate.

Projects and Areas directories have a clear structure matching your task manager. When you work in this context you are thinking about your routines, goals, deadlines and deliverables. Notes in these categories can include meeting notes, project plans, to-do lists, reminders of administrative details, checklists, and outlines of documents in-progress.

The Archive folder is where completed projects go.

As you create an outline of an article, dissertation, or blog post for a project, you’ll be filtering relevant information from your zettelkasten with tags and search and harvesting information from your zettelkasten to use in your document through the use of direct links and transclusion. With backlinks you’ll be able to see how a note in Resources has been used for various projects, but maybe you wouldn’t link to projects while you’re in Zettelkasten mode because of the context switching involved.

Tiago Forte’s just-in-time project management involves moving things in and out of folders as projects come and go. I haven’t taken the course so don’t fully understand it, but sounds like others find it helpful. Maybe you can continue to use that method outside of Obsidian for managing other documents, but I think this aspect of BASB is incompatible with Zettelkasten.


That would be a bad idea in my mind. The whole point of a zettelkasten is centralizing your note taking such that notes can contribute to each other and mix. Luhmann called this multiple storage.

As @jreinier said, what is important is being able to still link between folders, which goes away when you create separate vault

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For me is just resources. I think it’s ok to have a section from non hierarchical notes. And it’s natural that from those you derive other annotations with more order/hierarchy. You don’t have to turn the former into the latter. You can have both, i think.

Some years ago i worked on an area that does optimization based with evolutionary inspiration, and there is this balance called Exploration vs Exploitation. I think zettelkasten promotes more exploration, whereas having a hierarchy means you are more likely exploiting the data. The way i see it, if you have a section within Resources to do zettelkasten, you promote the emergence of new connections and ideas that can potentially form part of the hierarchy, which you can exploit to your benefit, and in turn, once those ideas are established and successful/useful you can reflect on them or have random insight that can turn into a zettel.

Would love to join the ADHD telegram!

Ah, sorry, it’s in Farsi.

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Hi, could you elaborate on how you use Zotero and Obsidian?
I started using Obsidian yesterday and I have been using Zotero for 6 years.

For now, I highlight pdf and annotate them in Foxit pdf reader, then I extract the highlights in zotero. In Obsidian, once I finished reading a paper (or while reading it), I copy the most relevant ideas/highlights into a note, link them to different concepts that have their own notes.


The way I have started doing it, is by these 3 starred documents.
I don’t even have the File Explorer opened.

  1. Projects
  2. Areas
  3. Resources

At the top of their pages, they have an embedded ![[menu]] file. I find the “Red Graphite” theme most useful here - because it hides the name of the embedded files. It becomes more like a real menu, not an embed. The menu page links to each other. So it’s fast to jump between them. Then, below them, I start making internal links for every project, area and resource. The reason I haven’t added 4. Archive, is that I just remove the link from these pages when I’m done with them. They are all still there, I can reach them through search Ctrl + O or File Explorer if I ever need them again. Or just internal link them again to get them back.

Mimicing a brain, I just disconnect the wire and it merges into the forgetable ooze part of my digital head - which is the archive.

To really move around fast in this system of links, I made some hotkey changes with Autohotkey. You can check that out here.


I think it is important to understand that:
1. PARA is part of Tiago’s Larger “Second Brain” System
2. The “Second Brain” and Zettelkasten serve two different but somewhat overlapping purposes.

Tiago’s “Building a Second Brain” (BASB) is primarily focused on the goals of those Sonke Ahrens calls “Librarians” (as opposed to “writers”). It is all about collecting and curating resources, distilling those resources to what might be useful to your future self, and then integrating those distilled resources into project-specific action (any action, not just writing or publishing).

PARA is simply the hierarchical structure in which these collected and distilled resources are organized (the course covers some project management stuff based loosely on GTD as well as some workflow strategies for creative work but its strength is in its approach to the collecting and curation of digital resources).

What is interesting about PARA is that it is a hierarchy based on action as opposed to more traditional metadata categories.

  • “Projects” contains what you are currently working on
  • “Areas” contain notes relevant to broader domains of action (like habits) that have no specific time frames or end dates.
  • “Resources” contains notes not currently being used in specific projects or areas but that might be used in the future. (this is usually organized in folders with more traditional metadata categories)
  • Archives contain resources and project notes that have little to no anticipated future use.

Notes shift from one level to the next and are distilled depending on opportunistic needs.

The overlap between Zettelkasten and the “Second Brain” happens during the distillation process which Tiago calls “Progressive Summarization”. In actuality, it is only at the end of progressive summarization (stages 4 and 5) that the Zettelkasten system might start to be useful.

This is when you start to shift from curating information through highlights and bolding (you can tell the BASB system was designed around Evernote and its limitations) and start to actually summarize in your own words. The final step is where you produce some artifact (what he calls remixing).

Only a very small amount of resources gets to the point of “remix” which is where a Zettelkasten system could start to take over.

One weakness of the BASB system for creative output is that there is little to no linking between notes beyond being temporarily put in a project folder or in a categorized “Resource Folder”. You have to know (or guess) what you might need ahead of time for a project instead of having notes, ideas, resources, etc. present themselves in useful but unanticipated ways.

I tend to think of my “Second Brain” system as my library or archive and my Zettelkasten as my studio or workshop.

I am just getting started with Zettelkasten and Obsidian but am hoping that it will supplement my way too big and complicated “Second Brain” and provide a better outlet for actually creating instead of just collecting.

In practical terms, I am keeping my “Second Brain” system pretty separate from my Zettelkasten (the root directory is technically in my “Resources” Folder in Dropbox but I have very little second brain stuff in Dropbox).


After completing the BASB Course, my understanding of the “Archive” is to get stuff out of the way of your active work. Conceptually, in Evernote that makes sense since it turns into long lists of folder and notes within. Tiago has used Evernote for many years, and has had to manually move things to the Archive often. The new tools such as Obsidian/Roam/Zettlr/etc completely remove that manual process from information handling.

I guess you could simplify the PARA concept down to just PAR and still get all the benefits from the original implementation.


This conversation is very interesting, I think I can benefit from a mixed system (very new to both and I don’t know what I’m doing). I have to have at least two vaults because I can’t mix my job-y job notes anywhere – no pure Zettelkasten for me ever. But I still want to the benefits of long-term thinking in the job vault while maintaining a structure of what it is that I’m currently working one. From what I gathered here mixing these two approaches could work.

Now I’m not sure if I’d do the same on my “personal”/everything-else vault, it isn’t as deadline oriented as the work one.