The Two Conditions That Helped Me to Finally Understand Zettelkasten

Call it what you want: The Slip-Box, the Note Card system, or Zettelkasten — everything you read on it will be useless without these two basic tenets

Yi Shun Lai

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library filing cabinet
Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

I’ve been trying for the last year and a half to implement Ryan Holiday’s great index-card filing system for keeping ideas in place. The idea immediately appealed to me: I scribble in books and mark them up and make notes in the margins and on Post-It notes.

I also really, really love boxes and individual slips of paper.

By the time I finally wanted to take Holiday’s system seriously, I had probably wasted hundreds of hours saying to myself, “Okay, I read that factoid in this book, and it would be perfect in this essay/presentation I’m writing. I know I stashed that book in the ‘continuously to be referenced’ area of my bookshelf, now…hang on, did I move it? Ah. Here it is. Now, where in the book was it? It was in the section where she was talking about how she got that radio for her birthday one year, wasn’t it? Where’s that?”

book spread open to multiple annotations on a single spread with various post-it notes on both sides of the spread. this photo should give you a headache.
No kidding, this is the way I wrote the last workbook I wrote. NEVER AGAIN.

You get the picture. Eventually I would stumble around to the passage and feel good about myself and also really, really tired.

Obviously there’s a problem with that system. I always tell my writing students, quoting David G. Allen, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” (Weirdly, in the master of fine arts classes I’ve taught so far, there’s never been a single class on how to store and access your research.)

The basics of Holiday’s system are such: Write everything that resonates with you down on an index card. This can be anything — an idea you have or something that you read in a book or an article. File the card according to subject. Eventually you’ll have enough cards to make a book or at least a couple of blog posts.

My so-pretty, ultimate failure of a notecard system.

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Yi Shun Lai

Author: A SUFFRAGISTS’S GUIDE TO THE ANTARCTIC (2024), Pin Ups (2020). Columnist, The Writer. theGooddirt.org; @gooddirt. Psst: Say “yeeshun.” You can do it!