Obsidian Zettelkasten

100 - Niklas Luhmann was a German sociologist during the 20th century who is known for his prolific writing and work towards creating a theory of society. He created two zettelkastens over his career, starting the first one as a response to the need for an effective way to organize notes for the long term (Johannes F.K. Schmidt, 2018).

The reason he is so popular among the zettelkasten community is because his zettelkasten is public, the focus of a long term university research project, was part of his prolific output, and has a book written about it.

1B1 - Prolific Output

Notebox 1

Note box I: 7 extracts with notes from the period from approx. 1952 to 1963, a total of approx. 23,000 pieces of paper


The notes were largely written during the time when Luhmann worked as a legal trainee in Lüneburg or as a member of the government at the Ministry of Culture in Lower Saxony and document his reading of administrative, political, philosophical and increasingly also organizational-theoretical and sociological literature.


Notebox 2

Note box II: 20 extracts with notes from the period from 1963 to the beginning of 1997, a total of approx. 67,000 pieces of paper.


The notes are characterized by a clearly sociological-conceptual, theoretically and methodologically controlled access to a large number of publications from a wide variety of scientific disciplines. In terms of theoretical history, the new beginning with the development of a theory of administration may have taken place; The programmatic formulation on the first slip of this collection is paradigmatic for a fresh start:


Department Overview

The overview created by the NL Archives is based on the structure of the collection with its 108 thematic departments (as well as the four register departments) specified by Luhmann and provides a further breakdown within the individual thematic departments based on Luhmann’s priorities on the respective notes.

Therefore, the number structure does not represent a hierarchical structure. The departmental overviews do not claim to be complete (thematic or numerical).


Luhmann himself has not created a detailed overview of the contents of the collection. For ZK I there is only a department overview without further internal differentiation

source - section 4.1

Summary - It looks like Luhmann did not use detailed categories but instead had a somewhat vague overview of the different departments. What keeps it from going into the realm of traditional categories is that he did not further differentiate with subcategories.

Related Links

Questions I have about Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

101 - Specialized Knowledge is the extensive body of knowledge you have about a subject matter. It would be pathway A in prior knowledge. Typically this is acquired over many years of study. The acquisition of specialized knowledge follows this path:

  • Quick Overview: give you a very basic understanding of a subject matter, a good source for these would be the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series
  • Basic Understanding: Introductory College Course that lays out the current structure of the field, its major models and terminology. You can often acquire this on your own either through MOOCS or commonly used books.
  • Intermediate Understanding: Getting an undergraduate degree of a subject matter, where you dive into the various sub-disciplines and get a better understanding. Follow the same strategy as above, but for the sub-disciplines. A good resource is Kio Stark’s book.
  • Advanced Understanding: Is where you get a graduate degree in a subject matter and become an expert. You form an advanced mental model of a subject matter and start to poke around the edges, either reforming the existing models or answering unknown questions regarding the existing ones.

102 - General Knowledge is about getting a sense of the universe at large and the larger context that your specialized knowledge sits within. It is also the ideas from various disciplines that you learn about in hopes that it can help spark new ideas within your current area of expertise.


103 - Skill is your ability to do something well. Being an effective worker in life often depends on your ability to execute on a skillset.

You can get ahead in life with your skill sets through two main paths. The first is to become the best in a common skill such that people seek out your services (e.g. best guitarist, amazing writer, etc). The second is to pick a skill set that is a unique combination and involves an important but niche knowledge base. Where you are able to provide a skill that very few people can provide (Newport, 2016).

See also Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquistion.

Not only do skills require the knowledge of how to carry out a task but also the background knowledge that supports them.

104 - Procedural Knowledge is the information you’ve internalized on how to carry out tasks. Often time procedural knowledge will start out in the form a checklist before being turned into a habitual model that is invisible and automatic, see Internal Models.

Over time you develop the ability to execute on the procedural knowledge effectively, turning it into a skill.

105 - Creative Productivity Project - when I created this note I didn’t give it an ID, so this is a retoractive ID creation. This is for the purpose of integrating this zettelkasten within my Neuron Zettelkasten.

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106 - Layers of Structure in a Zettelkasten - you can compare and contrast the layers of structure in both the physical and digital zettelkasten, abstracting out the main components. These are foundational components to think about no matter what medium you are creating a zettelkasten within.

107 - Note Identifiers - one of the main layers of structure in a digital zettelkasten is having a UID (Unique Identifier). A UID allows you to identify another note within your current one.

All the below mentioned Identifiers work fine but people prefer different ones based on their secondary functions. For example, the secondary function of Time IDs is they immediately tell you when the note was created. Some people like having this feature because they think of their notes in a temporal aspect.

Because the UIDs provide different secondary functions, sometimes people like to combine the different ones (e.g. Time ID + Title or Luhmann ID + Title).

  • Serial Number - is where you use a counter, increasing it every time you create a note, Note 1, Note 2, Note 3, Note 4, Note 5, Note 6, etc. A zettelkasten program that uses this version would be Zettelkasten^3.
  • Luhmann ID - Luhmann used alternating numbers and letters for his zettelkasten (e.g. 3a1p5c4fB1a), this allowed for him to insert a nearly infinite number of notes between any two notes (Johannes F.K. Schmidt 2018, Section 4).
  • Time IDs - are timestamps, these are good IDs for a zettelkasten because you can essentially have unlimited ones if you drill down to the minute or second (e.g. 2020070290245). Most people aren’t going to be creating new notes so fast that a minute or second timestamp won’t work.
  • Unique Titles - are words, phrases, or sentences that hold semantic meaning and you keep unique to that specific note (.e.g. this note is titled “Note Identifiers”).
  • Random UIDs - you can have programs that generate seemingly random combinations to stand in as your identifier.
    • Random Number - generates a random number, typically using a hash or random number generator.
    • Four Letter Words - I see websites (e.g. Twitch - ClumsyWittyDragonBudStar) using random combo of 4 words as the identifier.

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108 - ID Comparison - the primary function of all the IDs is to act as pointer, so you are able to find a note again. Whether that be find a note when you point to it in another note (links) or just search it. When deciding on an ID then you want to choose one that supports your secondary functions.

I’ve personally been coming around to the concept of generating Time IDs with a shortcut key anywhere, followed by a specific search function. How it would work is when you click the Time ID, [[2020070290245]], it first searches for a note that is a direct match. If it find a direct match it goes to that note, else it pulls up a search that finds notes that have it in the body.

This is what zettlr does. The reason I like this method so much is it allows you to put an ID anywhere in a note, allowing you to link to a specific part of a note. See Zettelkasten De Dicussion

Luhmann ID Secondary Function - Has the secondary benefit of easily showing relationship and related notes. Especially when notes get added over time. Note 1a, 1b, 1c is related to Note 1. It adds a quick layer of structure.

I’m usually not an advocate of Luhmann IDs, as Luhmann used them because they added a layer of organization he needed due to restrictions with a physical zettelkasten. Because the restrictions don’t exist in a digital zettelkasten, Luhmann ID’s aren’t necessary. I make an exception with this forum zettelkasten because it makes for easier organization because I don’t have good tools for managing Time IDs.See 16a1b #rewrite-section

Time ID Secondary Function - placeholder

Name ID Secondary Function - placeholder

109 - General Skills - are skills that have a broad applicability across ones life, no matter what you decide to do with your life.

  • Cognitive Skills
    • Thinking
    • Learning
    • Attention
    • Memory
  • Communication Skills
    • Rhetoric
    • Speaking
    • Writing
    • Drawing
    • Comics
  • Improvement Skills

110 - Sources are the places I go to for feeding information into my Zettelkasten. I have three main sources for information that I feed my zettelkasten:

  • Books (nonfiction books & textbooks) I have found to be the best sources of new information because not only are the structured nicely but the information is usually of high enough quality because the pain it takes to write and publish a book.
  • Podcasts offer similar level of content to blogs and are probably the reason I rarely read blogs or related internet content. I listen to a ton of them because it allows me to multi task (e.g. do household chores or drive while listening).
  • Own Thoughts - walking, which I do every evening with my dog, has been when I usually come up with thoughts I want to put into my zettelkasten. I do this primarily by texting myself

Secondary sources I use:

  • Wikis (e.g. Wikipedia or SuperMemo Guru)
  • Professional Publications and Journals
  • Blogs (rarely use blogs because I find the material to be not as good)

111 - Problems in Note Taking - cataloging the various problems that you run into with taking notes and managing them.

Problem: Retrieval of Relevant Notes

Solution: Selection Tools such as Indexes, Table of Contents, Note Lists w/ Sort Orders, Search Functions, Back links, Unmentioned Links

Problem: Duplicate Information


  • 24a - Storage Problems
  • 24b - Sorting Problems
  • 24c - Selecting Problems
  • 24d - Summarizing Problems

112 - Information Processing - …

  • what information is worth taking notes on?
    • information you want to store until you have opportunity to memorize it
    • information not worth memorizing but is important for model building
  • how to best process the information from sources

Related Information Workflow

113 - Levels of Development make a Zettelkasten - What is the difference between zettelkasten and other note taking methods?

Using Obsidian as the Software Implementation, you can think of the different levels of development to better understand what a zettelkasten is:

  1. Referential System - would be creating notes without any links between them. When you want to “reference” a note, you pull it up through search or the note list.

  2. Wiki System - would be well written full notes on topics with some linking between notes. Think of Wikipedia as the prime example. You can still develop topics with a wiki but it is not built for that, it is built as referential tool. You wouldn’t be putting your random ideas on a topic inside it.

  3. Zettelkasten - is designed for the development of ideas. It accepts whatever you feed it and requires that you connect the notes to other ones and keep them digestible. This allows you to build up chains of information overtime.

The way I think about it would be to have a public facing wiki system, that is supported by a zettelkasten. Normally people don’t have wikis with super small entries filled with unimportant thoughts.

How you’d use the two together is whenever you reach a critical mass of notes around a topic in your zettelkasten, instead of writing a paper or blog post about it, you create a wiki entry. This is good because it makes sure you are only presenting ideas that have been fleshed out, saving people time.

Related Public Note Repositories


114 - Knowledge Development - Zettelkasten is about knowledge development, while wikis are better suited for knowledge management.

Part of knowledge development is the generation of useful connections that can be acted upon or provide new information that is relevant. The new information can add context to the existing information. Think of how “dogs” sit in the wider context of both mammals and pets, whereby you link to both in your note on dogs.

New information can also add another component to an existing model. This is the flip side of wider context. An example of this would be linking to the dogs note in your pets note.

The wider context of this note would be Zettelkasten Principles (Note 1e).

115 - Specialized Skills - are the unique or highly developed skills you picked up over your life. They can be widespread skills that you just excel at on an unbelievable level (e.g. screen writing or guitar) or more specialized ones such as methodological, statistical and critical thinking skills.

116 - 21st Century Skills are the skills needed to work with newly emerging technology in the 21st century. This often involves being able to interface with computers in order to do more efficient knowledge work. This involves both the production of new knowledge and communication of knowledge.

See 17a1 - Future Roles and 17a3 - Future Skills and Abilities

117 - Information Surprisal and Utility - you want information you communicate to be useful and surprising.

I can spout at you crazy conspiracy theories, which are entertaining due to their level of suprisal but only go so far because of their limited use. You want information that can be useful to you by aiding in the creation of new knowledge or supporting the execution of a skill.

You also want information you are communicating to be surprising. People would get really annoyed if you walk up to them and say their name to them over and over again. It has a suprisal factor when you say their name for the very first time because it gets their attention. The fact that you want to “communicate with them”, which is what you are signaling when you say their name, will be surprising to them. Unless you signal to them in some other way, which removes the suprisal, such as walking up to them.

Four Options of Information Suprisal

26b - Surprising & Useful
26c - Surprising & Useless
26d - Unsurprising & Useful
26e - Unsurprising & Useless

Surprisal & Prior Knowledge

Surprising & Useful Information

Surprising & Useless Information

Unsurprising & Useful Information

Unsurprising & Useless Information

Using suprisal and utility to look at what knowledge is worth prioritizing in development

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118 - Suprisal and Prior Knowledge - one of the factors that makes figuring out the right level of information suprisal difficult is the level of prior knowledge the people you are communicating with have.

Giving an introductory textbook to a graduate student is going to be of limited use because there is no suprisal factor. They already know the information (prior knowledge).

119 - Surprising and Useful Information - An example of this would be the documentary game changers. For the purpose of this example, lets pretend that the information is true and the science is solid. I haven’t evaluated it so I’m not weighing in on its validity. Given that, the information in the documentary is surprising because it challenges the traditional narrative of the necessity of meat for strength. But it is also useful because you can act on the information to improve your own health.