Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten

Niklas Luhmann was a 20th century sociologist, who developed an innovative and revolutionary system for taking, filing, and combining notes from his research and writing. This is a short introduction to his Zettelkasten system.

After collecting notes for many years, he realized that these notes were not accessible or useful for his thinking and writing. They were buried in the margins of the original texts and lost on random slips of paper scattered around his office. So Luhmann created a knowledge management system that would solve this problem and provide the storehouse for his incredible output.

Most of the time, people attempt to create a reference system by building out a hierarchy of topics first and then adding notes to them as they read. Luhmann flipped that process around. Instead, he added all of his notes to one slip-box (German: Zettelkasten).

He would copy the note on an A-6 card and write a number in the corner. Then, he added new notes into the box using a complicated indexing system of numbers and letters.

Many people have focused on the analog features of his system, which are truly a testament to his ingenuity and commitment to research. But the real beauty of Luhmann's system is found in a few simple principles that can easily be applied today, even in digital knowledge management systems.

STEP 1: Create fleeting notes whenever you are reading.
STEP 2: Create bibliographic notes for sources. Include (in your own words) a brief summary of the big ideas in the book.
STEP 3: Create brief, literature notes as a transitional text. These notes should be in your own words and should contain specific references to the original text. Use direct quotes sparingly.
STEP 4: Create permanent notes for long-term use in writing and thinking. These notes must be atomic (include only one idea per note), carefully linked to relevant notes in your system
STEP 5: Create index notes to create entry points into the majority of your notes. These notes should pull together collections of related topics.
STEP 6: Create project notes that pull from your entire knowledge base. As your system grows, you will find more and more surprising connections and unique insights.

This is the system Luhmann use for decades, and it's the system that helped him become one of the most prolific writers of his era.

He said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”

In Germany, professors present a public lecture that announces what they believe will be the main research project of their career. During his lecture, Luhmann famously said, “My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero.” In sociology, a “theory of society” is incredibly ambitious. It's a theory that seeks to explain all of the major aspects of human life.

About 30 years later, Luhmann finished his project - a two-volume book titled "The Society of Society". Due to the density and complexity of his arguments, each chapter was actually published separately, and they stirred debate and discussion in every major academic department - philosophy, education, politics, law, economics, psychology, art, epistemology, and others.

Someone once asked Luhmann if there was anything he missed in his life. His said: “If I want something, it’s more time. The only thing that really is a nuisance is the lack of time.”

Just imagine what he could have accomplished with the time-saving tools available to us today.

Further Reading

  1. How One German Scholar was So Freakishly Productive
  2. The Zettelkasten Method
  3. How to Use Roam Research as a Digital Zettelkasten

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from Luke Miller