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1. The very first step in creating an analog, old-school Zettelkasten

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

To watch this video on YouTube, click here.

If you're just now getting started setting up an analog, old-school Zettelkasten, you should check out this video to learn the very first step you should take.

The script for—and some of the images in—the video are below.

Video script

If you’re just getting started with building a Zettelkasten—whether it be a digital or analog one—you have to make sure that you don’t forget to complete the very first step.

If you have seen some of the videos I have made recently about the Zettelkasten I am having my students create this semester, you may have noticed that the first and only main category is the course itself, which is called The Examined Life.

Creating a Zettelkasten focused on just a single college course will work fine for my students, but if you want to create an old-school Zettelkasten of your own, the very first thing you should do is decide what topics or categories you want to have in your Zettelkasten.

Niklas Luhmann, the German sociologist who appears to be the one to have invented the Zettelkasten method, had two Zettelkastens—or Zettelkaesten—during his lifetime, and each of them focused on a certain number of topics.

Luhmann’s first Zettelkasten was devoted to a pretty large number of subjects—108 of them, according to Johannes Schmidt, who’s written a piece many people interested in the Zettelkasten method have read. That piece is titled “Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine.” According to this same piece, Luhmann’s second Zettelkasten contained just “eleven top-level subject areas.”

My own system currently contains ten such subject areas, which you can see on the screen here: political economy, race and racism, Buddhism, philosophy, sociology, education, environment, history, note-taking and writing, and productivity.

I didn’t have much trouble coming up with this list because I’ve been doing research in these areas for quite some time.

If you want some assistance in figuring out what subject areas or topics to include in your Zettelkasten, I recommend that you take a look at the first two links below this video.

The first link is to a Wikipedia page titled “Outline of academic disciplines.”

In the “Contents” box towards the top of that page, you can find a pretty long list of major subject areas.

If there are particular subject areas you are really interested in, you might want to click on those and drill down to see the subcategories in those areas.

For instance, let’s say you’re particularly interested in learning about different religions. Well, you could set things up so that Religious Studies is one of the main subject areas in your Zettelkasten, and then within that area you might want to use some of the categories you see here.

Alternatively, you might find that what is listed as a subcategory on this Wikipedia page might be one that you want to turn into one of your main categories. For instance, instead of having a sociology subject area, perhaps you want to have as a main subject area what is here referred to as “Sexology” or maybe “Social change” or “Social stratification.”

The second link is to a video made by Scott Scheper, who has done some great work unearthing key aspects of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten method that typically go unmentioned in the many videos and blog posts that are out there claiming to introduce people to the Zettelkasten method.

In the video, Scheper walks a high school teacher of history through the process of setting up a Zettelkasten from scratch, advising him to look at the outline of academic disciplines so as to determine what subject areas to include in his Zettelkasten.

I should just add here that the way Scheper recommends that cards be numbered in that video may or may not be the way you will end up wanting to number them. I number my cards differently than he does, something I will go over in a future video.

As you come up with a list of the subject areas or categories you want to include in your Zettelkasten, I recommend that for at least some of them you add some subcategories. Maybe go two or three levels deep, as you see I have done here for my philosophy subject area.

Although I recommend that you build out some of your subject areas, unless the subject area is one you are already really knowledgeable about, I recommend that you not build out that subject area beyond just two or three levels.

That’s because the vast majority of how your Zettelkasten is organized should be determined only as you are creating new cards to put in your Zettelkasten. That, at least, is how Luhmann did things.

As Schmidt points out in the article about the Zettelkasten method that I mentioned earlier, Luhmann “opted for organizing entries based on the principle that they must have only some relation to the previous entry without also having to keep some overarching system in mind.”

When you’re first getting started with your Zettelkasten, you won’t always be able to adhere to this principle that Schmidt describes here. That’s because when you’re first getting started, you won’t have a lot of already-created cards, or “previous entries,” as Schmidt calls them here—you won’t have enough of those to ensure that each new card you create can be related to an already-existing one.

When that happens, it’s nice to have an “overarching system,” which consists of the main subject areas in your Zettelkasten along with their subcategories. One reason it’s nice to have this overarching system is that it can prevent you with creating new cards solely because you have encountered information that is new.

That’s a temptation that many of us have, myself included. It’s a temptation often referred to these days as the “Collector’s Fallacy,” which is the misguided belief that the way to increase one’s knowledge is simply to collect as much information as possible—as opposed to using something like the Zettelkasten method to develop lines of thinking that in some cases end up being uniquely your own.

With the overarching system laid out in front of you—especially when it is in the form of an outline and/or a mind map... can filter out new information that is merely interesting, permitting ideas to enter your Zettelkasten only if they are interesting and related to subject areas that you already set aside time to establish.

This doesn’t mean you should never create new subject areas if you happen to come across information that falls outside the subject areas already in your Zettelkasten. It’s just that I think that more often than not, you will find that it is best to be very selective about what information you permit to enter your system.

However, don’t let the fact that your Zettelkasten has an overarching system lead you to the mistaken notion that the point of the Zettelkasten method is to come up with some extremely well-organized system in which each card has a supposedly perfect place to live.

Not only would you in all likelihood fail to create such a system; it’s also the case that building, or even trying to build, such a system is not what the Zettelkasten method is about. The Zettelkasten method is instead about developing ideas—and when you’re developing ideas, you should be focused primarily on creating cards that in some way elaborate on an already-existing idea in your Zettelkasten or continue an already-existing line of thinking.

With this video and, if you want, the links underneath it, you have what you need to complete the very first task that anyone building a Zettelkasten should complete.

Give yourself twenty to thirty minutes to figure out what main subject areas you want to use your Zettelkasten to explore. Start off by coming up with the subject areas entirely on your own. Maybe try to come up with anywhere from four to ten main subject areas, and, if you have the time and desire to do so, build out a couple of those subjects into subcategories.

After doing that, if you’re worried there’s a subject of burning interest to you that you simply forgot to include, you might want to check out the “Outline of academic disciplines” Wikipedia page—again, that’s the first link beneath this video. And if you want Mr. Scheper to walk you through the process, check out the second link.

The last piece of advice I’ll give here is that you shouldn’t be too concerned if there is some overlap between some of the subjects you decide to explore. For most of us, such overlap is inevitable.

In my own case, there is overlap between the political philosophy branch of my Zettelkasten and the race and racism branch. Racism, for instance, relates to freedom insofar as racist practices, policies, and actions place constraints on people’s freedom. Racism is also a form of oppression, so there’s some overlap between these two categories. And racial inequality is related to the issue of equality.

Actually, when it comes to the issue of equality and inequality, I approach that from different angles not just in my race and racism and philosophy subject areas but also in my political economy and sociology areas. Here’s the sociology branch open underneath the philosophy one, and you can see that it includes a section on inequality.

I was well aware that there would be overlap between those branches even before I started adding cards to my Zettelkasten. I did think of just putting my race and racism branch within the political economy category. In fact, I thought of throwing the sociology branch in there two. But in the end, each of these areas represents a significant area of research for me, so I decided to make each into its own branch.

If there’s some overlap between your subject areas, or branches, as well don’t worry. Sure, if at this first stage of setting up a Zettelkasten you can think of a better way to organize things so as to minimize the overlap, go ahead and organize things differently.

But also know that having such overlap isn’t much, or perhaps at all, a problem—at least when it comes to implementing the Zettelkasten method, which, again, is about developing ideas, not building a system where every idea has one and only one place it can reside.

Okay, I hope this video has made clear what you need to do if you are in the very beginning stages of setting up a Zettelkasten. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post those underneath this video.

Also, if you want to make sure you see the other old-school Zettelkasten videos I plan on releasing pretty soon, hit that “subscribe” button beneath the video.

Alright, get outta here.


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