If you're reading this, you probably are trying to figure out how to recreate the magic that allowed Niklas Luhmann to publish as much as he did. If you've gotten here after watching countless YouTube videos and trawling the net to understand Luhmann's workflow, it means you still haven't quite figured it out. I think I have it. Let me show you. I won't get into the fine details of who Luhmann was and what his system was able to achieve, I'm guessing you're here because you already know.

Luhmann wanted to capture ideas in a time without computers. His basic workflow went something along the lines of: - Hey, this is what I've read. (Author, book title, etc.) - These are the ideas I got out of the book, and here's where to find them. (page numbers) - This is what I think the ideas I captured are about and these new ideas may be related to other ideas I've stored previously. If you're interested, I can direct you to them and you can see for yourself.

That's it. That's what Luhmann did with his Zettelkasten. The magic began when he built up a critical mass of interconnected notes. That's what will ultimately happen provided you keep at it.

Luhmann's workflow:

His data capture started with random thoughts that will occur throughout the day. The so called 'shower thoughts'. He captured these in 'Fleeting notes'. Just a pen and a piece of paper will do. Get the thought down. I personally use the notes app on my iPhone. It's easy to dictate a thought and save it. Periodically he would review these notes to see whether they were brainfarts or something more useful he could incorporate into his work. If they were useful, he would go directly to adding them to his collection of permanent notes. Fleeting notes are casually and quickly written just to capture random thoughts. Unless converted to a permanent note (a Zettel) it would be tossed away.

When Luhmann read books, he resorted to 'Literature notes'. His literature notes consisted of the name of what he was reading on one side of an index card and short notes about what he read on the other. He would need page numbers to find the ideas in the book again so he put them next to the notes he took. That's a literature note. Short and sweet. They are his own brief thoughts about the ideas in a book, written in such a way he could navigate back to the source.

Just a couple asides, if Luhmann was alive today he would probably take 'media' notes, to reflect the diverse sources of information he would've had access to. Also Luhmann was able to write short literature notes. To be fair, I'm not able to. In a digital system we would not be limited to what can fit on an index card. And though this forced Luhmann to be condensed and precise, it is not a restriction we face using digital systems. As long as we translate the source information into our own words, literature notes can be as long as we would like them to be, bearing in mind they are only meant to be initial notes to be expanded upon later.

Anatomy of a Literature note:

The front of a Literature note might state: Title: How to catch a dragon. Author: Sir Catchy McCatchitall. Topics of interest: How to hunt very big game, how to find Dragons, How to field dress gaping wounds. 10 tips to avoid tetanus. etc.

The back of the Literature note might state: Page 13: Marijuana does not intoxicate Dragons. Snoop was wrong. Page 17: Dragons are capable of complex thought. Examples: Using bait/virgins/gold to lure unsuspecting humans into an ambush. Page 69: Dragons can be sexually attracted to humans. Emergency field contraception (Don't use chain mail, lambskin is better). Page 101: How to walk after a dragon encounter. Dragons are shameless toppers. etc. etc.

That's it. Literature note completed. A statement of the data source and page numbers with short thoughts of the ideas encountered on the written page.

Luhmann would then return to his literature notes, usually within a day or so when the ideas were fresh and again look through them for relevance to his broader work. If a line item on the literature note was useless, he would toss it. He would then take the remaining line items out of his literature note and convert them to 'Zettels'. These are the notes he would carefully maintain in his Zettelkasten or Slip box. Take note, Zettels are a subset of his permanent notes. They are not the only permanent notes. Right here is a point of confusion among ardent Luhmann fans, there are two types of permanent notes. Have you figured out what they are?

Of course, the Literature notes are kept on file as well. Literature notes and Zettels together are permanent notes. Literature notes can be useful in pointing to where in the filing system, you can find developed ideas based on the line items in the literature notes. Essentially literature notes form a bibliography which Luhmann would be able to look through to locate specific notes if he so desired. Again, the concept is 'this is what I've read, here are some thoughts I found interesting and here's where to find them'.

Zettels are developed line items from a literature note or a fleeting note. Luhmann would ponder the item, develop it in his own words on an index card and carefully file the note away in his system. He would take into consideration where the note should be located, near to or behind existing notes and he would use his own homegrown linking system to daisy chain new notes to older notes that were related to the new note. He would file additions/continuations to existing notes, comments, corrections, and contradictions, generally any form of amplification or clarification to existing notes as he discovered them.

Zettel notes do not have to stand alone as a single thought. They can have 'companions' filed closely nearby. It is important to note: Luhmann's filing system was organized along lines of thought and was not merely an accumulation of discrete facts. Thus, his filing system contained an ongoing series of discussions, both for and against particular topics. It was not an assemblage of data. This is the fairy dust. This is the magic. This is how you should file your permanent notes: as links in a chain of interconnected thoughts covering all sides of a topic.

Physically filing notes based on proximity is not necessary in a digital system. You don't have to go looking through your Zettels to place a new note (though you should occasionally, a lot can be said for ruminating within your notes).

In a digital system, all you need do is consider what the note may be associated to within your filing system and link to it. A zettel may have many links to and from it as it's going to be interwoven into your system of notes so much so you'll eventually stumble onto it as you browse your system. I use Obsidian for daisy chaining Zettels together and linking to their respective literature notes.

And there you have it. Fleeting notes you keep become Zettels. Line items you keep -out of Literature notes (which you also keep) become Zettels. We hang on to literature notes because they are our bibliography. We keep Zettels because they are where we organize and file our own thoughts about things. We link the Zettels among themselves following lines of thought, and we link the literature notes to the Zettels created from them. I personally create mini-maps of content (MOCs) as literature notes for every data source I encounter, and link the line items to the Zettel notes I create from them directly.

I hope this has helped you figure out how to approach Luhmann's Zettelkasten. If there's further interest, Let me know, I'll be glad to share my understanding and note templates if you're familiar with Obsidian. Keep in mind what I've explained is only the most basic operation of a Zettelkasten. It can be ramped up and prettied up in as many ways as there are people using the system.

Be well, Mitch. February 2022. p.s. Watch out for the dragons.