Notion

How to build a Zettelkasten in Notion (with examples and templates)

Create a minimalist Zettelkasten system in Notion to organize your notes and ideas.
Elizabeth Butler 7 min read
How to build a Zettelkasten in Notion (with examples and templates)
Table of Contents

What is the Zettelkasten method? An overview

Zettelkasten is a tool for thinking that’s used to organize ideas. You can use it as a writer, as an academic, as a lawyer, as a student, or as a content creator. The roots of Zettelkasten go back to the early modern period, but the practice of Zettelkasten, but it was popularised by the twentieth-century prolific academic Niklas Luhmann.

Business cards on marble table
Photo by Kate Trysh / Unsplash

Building a slip box

“Zettelkasten” is translated as “slip box” and in its original form, that’s literally what it was. When Professor Luhmann was researching and writing, he would capture ideas and citations on small slips of paper or index cards. He felt that capturing these small, discrete pieces of information allowed him to make connections and integrate ideas more easily. He wrote:

That slip boxes can be recommended as partners of communication is first of all due to a simple problem about technical and economic theoretical research. It is impossible to think without writing; at least it is impossible in any sophisticated or networked fashion.
-Niklas Luhmann, Communicating with Slip Boxes

Capturing fleeting notes

The first step of building a Zettelkasten in designing a method to capture fleeting notes. For Luhmann, that was done on slips of paper. In the modern world, most people choose to build a digital Zettelkasten instead. The same principle remains, however, whether in the analog or digital version.

Your fleeting notes are made up of your own piecemeal, not yet fully-formed ideas.

Capturing literature notes

As you read, you capture quotes and insights from books and articles in your Zettelkasten system as well. You add a citation/attribution/source, as well as your own initial reflections.

Permanent notes

In the second phase, the goal is to transform these “fleeting notes” and “literature notes” into more permanent notes. For Luhmann, the whole idea of building a Zettelkasten system was to integrate and connect ideas from disparate sources.

Instead of giving an exact account of what he had read, Luhmann made
notes on what came to his mind in the process of reading, with an eye to the notes already contained in his file.
-Johannes F.K. Schmidt, Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool,
Communication Partner, Publication Machine

The conversion from fleeting notes and literature notes to permanent notes is never meant to be entirely finished— it’s an ongoing process.

Connecting notes

The ultimate goal of a Zettelkasten is to enable you to see new connections and relationships between disparate notes and ideas.

The index card file and its user could enter a productive relationship because the internal structure of the file collection turned it into an innovative mechanism that, although requiring the user to ask questions, gave responses that surprised the asking person, even if that person was the author of cards. “Without those cards, just by contemplating, these ideas would have never occurred to me. Of course, my mind is needed to note down the ideas, but they cannot be attributed to it alone”, said Luhmann. The file is thus a surprise generator.
-Johannes F.K. Schmidt, Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool,
Communication Partner, Publication Machine

Making notes discoverable

Luhmann himself had to create a very elaborate numbering system in order to reflect the connections and relationships between his notes. Happily, in the digital era, it is far simpler to create a linked, networked Zettelkasten. You can use tags, folders, or backlinks to organize your database of notes (or continue to use a numbering system, if you prefer).


Why build a Zettelkasten system in Notion?

Notion is a cross-platform, affordable, user-friendly digital note taking app. It’s incredibly easy to customise for any level of complexity. You can create a basic, minimalist Zettelkasten system, or you can design a highly elaborate version. It’s entirely up to you.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

How to create a basic Zettelkasten system in Notion

Step one: Create a Zettelkasten database in Notion.

Start a fresh page. Choose the table database option to get started.

Choose "New database" on the right side when asked:

Step two: Add your category headings.

Add the category headings to your table.

To get started with a minimalist Zettelkasten in Notion, I recommend including:

Note

  • This is where you will capture the body of the note itself.

Topic(s)

  • You can add as many tags as you like.

Note type (i.e. fleeting vs permanent)

  • This can be a helpful way to filter “notes in progress” or “draft notes” from more permanent notes.

Source

  • Add the URL, book, author, citation, etc in this field so you can easily find the original material later on.

You might opt to add more category headings later on, but for the start keep it as simple as possible. Using too much complexity when you're first beginning can add unnecessary friction to your note taking workflow.

Step three: Set up an easy capture system.

Install the web clipper on Notion to make it a matter of seconds to clip and capture ideas into your new Notion Zettelkasten. Having a streamlined way to capture information is a critical part of building a sustainable knowledge management system.

Step four: Switch between layouts/views.

Toggle back and forth between the "table," "kanban," and "gallery" views on the Notion database to choose the visual layout option that suits you best.

Table View

Board View

Grouped by topic tag

Step five: Use your system.

It can be easy to get so caught up in optimizing a Zettelkasten with elaborating numbering, backlinks, nested tags, etc, that the real work doesn’t happen. The goal of building a Zettelkasten is for it to be a tool for thought— it’s meant to help capture learning and create new ideas. Spent a little time living and working in your minimalist personal knowledge management system— then you’ll be able to thoughtfully consider additional features that could truly benefit your own workflow.


Examples of Zettelkasten setups in Notion - YouTube tutorials and walk throughs

Looking for some Zettelkasten Notion inspiration? Check out these talented Zettelkasten creators as they walk through their own workflow setups on YouTube.

Martin Adams

Red Gregory

Matthias Frank

Mariana Vieira


Notion templates for Zettelkasten

Want to test-drive an existing template to get started with your own Zettelkasten? One of these Zettelkasten Notion templates might be just what you’ve been searching for.

The Notion team

Notion Template Gallery – Zettelkasten knowledge management
Real Notion pages made by our team and community. Try new setups or share your own.

Ev Chapman

The Every-Person’s Zettelkasten
“If creativity is a habit, then the best creativity is the result of good work habits. They are the nuts and bolts of dreaming.” - Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Philipp Stelzel

Zettelkasten for Notion - Personal Knowledge Management Template
The Zettelkasten method is the most powerful tool for knowledge workers.The Zettelkasten serves as a second brain, helping its users to better organize and recall notes and assisting them in processing information to generate new and unique ideas.With this template, I try to offer you the most strai…

Zettelkasten hasn’t quite fixed your note taking workflow? Try the Calmer Notes method

I hope that Zettelkasten works out well for you! But perhaps you’ve tried out Zettelkasten before, and found it wasn’t quite the right fit for you. You wondered if building a Zettelkasten in Notion might be a solution. And maybe it will be.

If you’re frustrated by personal knowledge management systems that never quite seem like the right fit, the Calmer Notes method might be just what you’ve been looking for.

The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management walks you through a step-by-step framework to help you create a completely custom, fully tailored personal knowledge management system that suits your life— not anyone else’s. No more cookie-cutter approaches. No more trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you want to design your own bespoke digital note taking system, Calmer Notes may be the right fit for you.

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