What is confusing about the Zettelkasten that you'd like explained?

What about Luhmann’s system or the concept of zettelkasten more broadly is confusing to you?

Not looking to spark any debates here, but instead understand what are peoples major questions and confusions regarding it.


I still can’t get a good idea on the work flow.

For now I have the inbox folder in which I make daily notes and notes on my research, things i have to capture on the fly. Then I have a folder for processing those notes, highlights and summaries, etc. And then I have the Permanent notes folder; the thing is that I still don’t know when does the zettel make its appearance? Where should it be stored? Do I use the zettelkasten prefixer only when I’m ready to make a permanent note?

I think the thing that bugs me most is the “sacredness” of a Zettelkasten and how pristine and formed it seems it should be.

I get that it should only use your own words (to promote your thinking) and heavily reference your Zettels (to be able to get back to the original idea) but I’m always sorely tempted to put there information that’s relevant to me but on which there are no real comments to be made (like procedures, distilled often-used data and so on). Everywhere I ask that question it seems to run contrary to the whole idea but it seems to me that it should go where my main information is – as long as I keep remembering to avoid collecting stuff for collection’s sake.

Same kind of problem with the “definitiveness” of Zettels. Sometimes I want to remember a half-formed idea to develop later, and it seems to me that throwing a half-formed Zettel in the system is better than no Zettel, as long as you keep evolving the whole thing. But it looks like your Zettels should always be those beautiful products of evolved thought.

Or am I getting it wrong?


There’s nothing wrong with dropping things like procedures, data into your system. However a Slip Box is designed to facilitate insights, hence the your-own-words, densely-linking, concept-driven, atomic constraints on the notes.

Simply put, the reason people advise against putting impermanent notes into a Zettel is because impermanent notes (without refactoring into permanent notes of course) are not that useful when reviewing (since they weren’t written with the intention of being reviewed), and thus serves no purpose in helping you discover surprising connections.

Regarding the “definitiveness”, it’s definitely not a requirement. No note is perfect and completely evolved. the point here is to apply the constraints (densely-linking, concept-driven, etc) so that the notes follow the design which has been proven to facilitate insights. A half-formed note can still satisfy the constraints, at least in my opinion. I often write a note as it materializes in my mind and then refactor it later on (days, hours, depends on you really). Therefore, for every given note there’s always a certain point in time where it is guaranteed to be half-formed.

I think you can simply call the system that you put data or procedures as a repository or an inbox or something like that, and Zettel is the system to facilitate insights.

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Remember that the original was a fully specified system and workflow. Now subverted into a digital simulacrum.

My view is that it can be good to be clear where, and why, your own practice varies from the original, but there’s no reason at all not to follow your own system. But if then you find it not working, you can’t put that down to zettelkasten as a methodology. If you can understand what makes it a powerful system, and you’ve got the understanding right, then just work the way that seems best.

Many of the detailed discussions are not about what people do, it’s about whether what they do encapsulates all the features of method if they say they are trying to implement it. There are many aspects to the system and most implementations ignore a number of parts. The popularity of the system is based on Luhmann’s success with it, and it’s easy to believe that the bit someone is leaving out is important and, if they are trying to implement his system and if you have any concern for their success, you want to draw their attention to that.

I think I understand the method, and I know that it’s not what I do myself.

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Thank you very much @minhthanh3145 and @Dor for your insights; I absolutely agree the important thing is to know the reason for the principles of the method rather than adhering strictly to them because « that’s how it’s supposed to work ». I have started deviating slightly from the academic tenets of the ZK because I’m not doing academic work and it’s started to make my practice of it better and happier.

Thank you as well for emphasizing the review aspect. That does clarify things a lot about the ultimate goal of the system and makes me founded in putting procedures and carefully curated data I use all the time in my ZK, because these are, in a way, evergreen notes that I put thought into assembling – even though they’re not original « thoughts » per se.