Zettelkasten – A System for Filling Your Vault

Zettelkasten, a system for collecting and organizing notes, has been around since the 1500s. Today I’m thinking about ways to utilize it in my own life. Here’s my romantic vision: a little office with a desk and a computer in a corner, while the remaining walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with library card catalogs. My reality? Much different, of course.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

But before we get started on Zettelkasten, let’s talk a little about the purpose behind it: filling your vault. I learned about that term in a recent episode of The Next Right Thing. Emily P. Freeman shared the importance of spending our time on the things that we love, even when we don’t think we’re getting any recognition or that anyone is following along.

Maybe you want to write a book, but know that you’re nowhere close to getting an agent or a book deal. Maybe you want to be professional artist, but you’ve never sold any of your work. Or maybe you want to be a book reviewer, but the field is too scary to step into.

Emily’s advice is to do it anyway. Chip away at the book that you’re dreaming to write, keep creating your art, read books and write lots of reviews. The idea is that you’re perfecting your trade with all of this practice and if the big day ever arrives and you’re asked to show your work to an agent, an art dealer, or a newspaper editor, then you have a treasure chest filled with the work you’ve been doing all along. Your vision and voice will be as clear as a bell.

Think about how exciting it is to find a new-to-you blog that’s packed with content that speaks to your soul. Chances are, that blogger has been toiling away for years and can now offer a feast for its newly discovered readers. Same idea.

Here is Emily’s advice for filling your vault:

  1. Keep a Quote Journal
  2. Create, Write, and Store Every Idea
  3. Rest On Purpose

Here’s the dilemma: I do keep a quote journal and I know that many of you do, too. We all write down things all of the time. It could be from books, movies, podcasts, blogs, everywhere. We are consuming content even when we don’t realize it. So how do you put the pieces together in any sort of coherent way? How in the world do you create, write, and store every idea in a way that doesn’t add to this overwhelming feeling that’s always lurking in the background? (Wait, am I projecting here?)

photo credit

And this is where Zettelkasten comes in. I was introduced to the idea by my friend Jenny in May. In a nutshell, Zettelkasten is a note-taking system. The idea is similar to some of the more in-depth bullet journal techniques — write down quotes and ideas onto index cards and then assign each quote an overarching category. Then, when you’re working on a specific project, you can browse your cards and have an array of resources and citations at your literal fingertips. I immediately began thinking about how I could incorporate this into my daily routine. I started googling and checking hashtags on social media to get an understanding about how people use this system and, as you can imagine, came away with so many ideas.

Analog System

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten Photo Credit

At its heart, Zettelkasten uses the basics, pen and paper, to create a card catalog system which makes my library-aesthetic-loving-heart go pitter-patter. Can you imagine? Your own collection of index cards full of your favorite topics?

Some people believe that the key to this system is writing down everything. In the FAQ about his system, Ryan Holiday says:

Ryan Holiday, The Note Card System

I’m drawn to this system simply for the aesthetics. Superficial, I know. I’ve even tried to start using it — right now I have an index card box by my computer with a handful of cards filled out. But, honestly, this seems like a system that I’ll never be able to maintain, especially as my categories have already changed several times. I just know that I’d never transfer all of the little quotes I find to index cards and I’d never categorize them correctly. So much would slip through the cracks. So, despite Holiday’s insistence that it shouldn’t be easy, I believe that I need an easier option.

Tending a Digital Garden

A lot of people use electronic resources that collect, sort, and store ideas and information. This is sometimes beautifully referred to as “tending a digital garden.” (Joel Hooks and Maggie Appleton share their strategies in the linked posts.) Roam Research and Obsidian are two of the more technical tools that some folks are using for their gardens.

As amazing as those programs seem to be, I don’t need something quite so technical. I’ve been using Evernote, off and on, for over 10 years and Maria Popova, one of my superheroes, swears by it:

Maria Popova on Lifehacker

There are many benefits to storing and linking ideas and inspiration in Evernote – I couldn’t have written this post without it because I have a Zettelkasten notebook in which I’ve saved all of these links. As I was working on this blog post, I found post ideas that I had earlier this summer, complete with linked citations, all in my evernote notebooks. You can expect some finishing touches on those posts in the next few months!

Here’s what I like about Evernote:

  • You can sync across devices and easily access from any computer.
  • You can tag different notes with multiple keywords, which makes the linking of ideas even easier.
  • It’s easier to copy/paste links into Evernote than to write them down onto index cards.
  • I can take a screen shot of the article, crop it down to the sentence that I want to remember, and attach it to the notecard along with the website link. When I’m ready to share on the blog, then I can upload the image to WordPress as an image in the post – with the citation for credit easily at hand.
  • You can easily copy over your Kindle notes and highlights into Evernote, which you can then tag and categorize to your heart’s content.
  • It’s tidy! I don’t have to worry about lots of notecards floating around. Sometimes I still take notes on notecards, but I can transfer them to Evernote and then recycle the paper.

Hybrid Approach – Evernote & A Commonplace Book

Here’s how I’m working right now:

I jot things down in my commonplace notebook while reading physical books or listening to other content, usually just a key word or two along with the source. I’ll also try to write specific thoughts about them if I can, but those are harder for me to capture. On Sundays, I go through my book and look up the source. I’ll copy/paste the link into a new notecard and try to take a screenshot of the exact sentence that caught my attention, which narrows the essay or article in a more manageable way. Then I try to assign it tags that fit in the moment. The good thing is that you can always go back and add tags later as your knowledge about specific topics expand.

I love the way I can link seemingly disconnected ideas with tags. I love that I can put two notes in totally different notebooks, but can link them with the tag mother culture, and can then connect those two ideas. Technology is amazing!

Sometimes it all feels a little ridiculous. Who am I to even try such a thing? I can get negative really quickly and all sorts of doubts about my self worth filter through. And that’s okay. We all have self doubts and experience a bit of imposter syndrome. It doesn’t change the fact that I am always trying to put disparate pieces of the puzzle together and will probably never stop no matter how unsuccessful I continue to be. I’m not likely to write anything important or groundbreaking, but I do like watching my knowledge base expand – and this is a great way to do that. I don’t even know what my end goal is, I just know that I’m trying to do the next right thing by filling my vault and getting ready for wherever it leads me.


13 thoughts on “Zettelkasten – A System for Filling Your Vault

Add yours

  1. Fascinating, Katie. I used to use Evernote, but then some years ago decided that I didn’t use it enough to justify the cost. You’ve piqued my interest again. I substituted One Note since it was free, but haven’t found it very user-friendly at all. You’ve given me lots to think about – thanks for this, Katie!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been lurking around the Zettelkasten communities for several years and as much as I was fascinated with the concept and results, I felt like I could never start it because I wouldn’t do it RIGHT. Imagine my surprise when your post today seemed to have come from my brain verbatim!

    I’ve only been following your blog for less than 3 months, finding you through the Charlotte Mason/Homeschool community, then *pow*, you write this post, and especially this …“ Think about how exciting it is to find a new-to-you blog that’s packed with content that speaks to your soul. Chances are, that blogger has been toiling away for years and can now offer a feast for its newly discovered readers. Same idea.”…Wow. Mind blown….

    Thank you Katie for just doing the next right thing…it’s working.


  3. Great post and so many ideas that I have been pondering. I have a 3×5 file box that belonged to my mom and have been considering using it to create something similar. This post might be just the motivation I need!

    Liked by 1 person

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