The Zettelkasten is very much the rage these days. However, as someone who works in policy research, I have been employing Zettelkasten-ish features in my workflow for years. Collecting, storing, organizing, connecting, analyzing, and writing about information is what I do for a living. Learning about the Zettelkasten method simply gave me a name and better structure for what I was already doing.
While there’s a lot of hype around apps like Obsidian and Roam, which were designed around the Zettelkasten method, it’s crucial to remember that the Zettelkasten philosophy is a method and workflow, not a specific app or product. Luhmann, after all, set up his Zettelkasten using index cards and little physical boxes. A Zettelkasten can be created using whatever tool or app you find works best for capturing, analyzing, and linking information.
There are a few cool new apps and systems built around the Zettelkasten method, but most have some serious (for me) limitations. I’ve tested a few of them (including Obsidian, Craft, Roam, Noteplan 3, and Notion), but **Bear with Apple Notes works the best for my personal use case.**
Bear and Apple Notes are tools I’ve used for years now and I know them well. In the process of making this a more formal Zettelkasten system, I realized I didn’t need to move away from these familiar tools, but rather just needed to make some minor tweaks to my workflow. And, as Curtis McHale points out in this excellent video, there’s a cost associated with trading and switching up systems, a cost that negates the efficiency of having a Zettelkasten.
The Inbox 📥 — Apple Notes
Curtis McHale discusses the need to keep your inbox and your Zettelkasten separate and this is exactly what I’ve done with Apple Notes and Bear. As I discuss previously, using Apple Notes for my digital scrapbook has worked very well for me. Apple Notes is free, on all my devices, flexible, and highly searchable. I realized some time ago that keeping my inbox separate from where I write and process information keeps my Zettelkasten much tidier, particularly when searching.
The Zettelkasten 🗃 — Bear Notes
Bear Notes is my Zettelkasten, an excellent one for me for a number of reasons.
1. Bear works on all my devices. I am in the Apple ecosystem and a big reason I cannot use Obsidian and Roam is because neither has a solid mobile option at this time. I realize Obsidian can work with apps like 1Writer, but I prefer a consistent UI across all platforms. I do as much (if not more) writing on my iPhone as I do on my computer. As a parent, I cannot run to my computer every time an idea pops into my head. My phone is always with me so I can quickly jot down an idea or thought in Bear and come back to it later to build on it. I can read through a draft and tweak it when I have a few moments standing in line at the grocery store. Hell, most of this post was written in spurts in Bear on my iPhone while washing dishes, doing laundry, and walking the dog.
2. Bear has a clean and fast user interface. One thing I really hated about Obsidian when I tried it was how it looked. It has a ton of features but I felt like I was working in some archaic terminal. It just wasn’t pretty to look at and, for me, it wasn’t nearly as fast to navigate as Bear. Roam did not appeal to me either. Visual appeal in a writing environment is very important to me. If I like the way something looks, I am more willing to look at it and not feel overwhelmed. Bear has a ton of features but the app design is clean such that those features don’t get in the way. In addition, I really like the different themes in Bear. This seems cosmetic, but is actually very functional when writing in different lighting environments.
3. Bear is does a great job of capturing information. While I do not use Bear as my primary web clipper, I do find it helpful for capturing whole articles when I want to take notes on them. There are various shortcuts I use to do this and the native webclipper also works really well. But what I find really helpful is the ability to get into the app and add information, particular on mobile. Of all the apps I tried, Bear is the fastest and least fiddly for getting information (wether it’s web content, written text, a document, or an image) into the system. Bear also plays nicely with a number of apps, allowing users to append or prepend documents to notes and insert photographs and audio recordings with ease. I don’t need “one app to rule them all,” but I do need an app that that works well with the other apps I use. Bear does amazing an amazing job in this regard.
4. Sync is reliable. This goes back to needing to do work anywhere. Bear’s syncing capabilities (which uses iCloud) have never let me down. I can seamlessly move from my MacBook to my iPhone to continue my work. I’ve found sync equally reliable in other apps that utilize iCloud sync.
5. Wikilinking and hyperlinking is fast. A key feature of a Zettelkasten is the ability to link ideas and reference sources. In Bear, it’s easy to link to other notes and insert hyperlinks in a visually appealing manner. While Bear does not have automatic backlinks, I haven’t found this to be much of an issue. When I want to backlink something, it takes seconds to go in an add the backlink. Just like Jerry Brito, I find that this more deliberative process is actually helpful and prevents me from getting overwhelmed by links that don’t matter to me.
6. Tagging. I LOVE Bear’s tagging system. It’s one of the features that first attracted me to the app. Adding tags is easy and I can add multiple tags for notes that cross subjects or projects. After using Bear’s tagging system for a couple of years now, I find that I can’t stand old-fashioned folder systems. Bear also has easy options for changing all tags to a group of notes.
7. Search functionality is robust. Search in Bear works great and there are a number of search operators that help with this. My biggest gripe with Bear is that you cannot search within a note on iOS, although I believe this slated for a future release.
8. It’s familiar. Going back to Curtis’s point, this system is familiar to me. I’ve been using Bear for years and I know how the app works. I’m familiar with its keyboard shortcuts and search operators. There’s no learning curve with this app, so there was no time lost setting things up.
There’s no one right or perfect app for creating a Zettelkasten. This article — How to choose the right note-taking app: the ultimate guide— does a good job of breaking down what might be good apps to consider but we all vary in terms of what features we need or want and what characteristics we value.
Things (I think) You should Consider when Choosing a Zettelkasten
Just because Bear works for me for this purpose does not mean it will work for others. But there are some general things I think everyone should consider when selecting an app to be their Zettelkasten:
Can you get your information OUT of the app if you need to change in the future? This is another point Curtis McHale makes in his video and it’s a good one. If you decide to switch apps/services, can you get the information out of it? Arguably, Obsidian is good at this, as the notes are saved in markdown files on your computer or cloud storage service of your choice. Bear uses Markdown files but notes are saved within a proprietary database. That said, Bear does have a way to get all your notes out of the app and I am comfortable with this option.
Does it work on all the devices you need it to work on? For me this is critical. I am not always at my computer and some of my best ideas strike me when I am doing other things. This may not be important to everyone, and some may prefer to not have their Zettelkasten on their iPhone. That’s fine, just think about where you will want to use this and make sure it works on all those devices.
Does it give you the ability to link information (link notes to other notes)? This is a huge part of building a Zettelkasten so make sure whatever system you pick has the ability to do this with ease. That last part is important — some systems, like Apple Notes, will generate links to notes, but doing so is clunky and not fast. Therefore, make sure the system you pick can easily link notes to one another. I would also recommend ensuring your system automatically updates Wikilinks.
Does it have tagging? While you don’t necessarily need Bear’s nested tagging system, I do think a good digital Zettelkasten allows for tagging. Folders are silos and make it much harder to connect things. Tags of any kind are going to be better for building a Zettelkasten.
Do you like looking at it? For me, if I like the way an app looks, I’m more likely to use it. Aesthetics are important when I’m staring at something for hours a day.
My Zettelkasten Workflow
Summarizing all the many things I’ve read about the Zettelkasten Method and Principles, I’ve come to think about my Zettelkasten workflow as consisting of the following steps:
1. Capture information
2. Process (Write) my own thoughts on that information
3. Link ideas and concepts
5. Revisit and rearrange (and purge!)
I capture things in Apple Notes. For a lot of what I capture, Apple Notes is the final destination. I save everything in a single folder (“✂️ Web Clippings”). I tag notes but otherwise rely on Apple Notes’ fantastic search functionality to find what I’ve saved. Sometimes I save the whole text or PDF of an article (using a shortcut), but most of the time I only save a rich hyperlink. Using Apple Notes keeps my “inbox” separate from my Zettelkasten and helps me make more deliberate choices about what gets pulled in.
If I decide something needs to be processed further or is going to be used as part of a more in-depth writing exercise, I send it into Bear. Bringing something into Bear is really easy with Bear’s extension feature, which gives the option of just bringing in the link or the entire article. I vary in how I bring websites and other content into Bear, sometimes just importing the link and other times the entire article or PDF. It really depends on how I plan to use the information.
Processing information collected is key to building a Zettelkasten. For me personally, I do this best by reading and then taking notes in Bear that describes the key point of what I’m reading in my own words. This last part is crucial and something I’ve had to change about my habits around note taking. But it has gotten easier with practice.
Almost all of my book reading is done on the iOS Kindle app. To take notes on books, I create a single Bear note for the book I am reading and jot down key ideas (in my own words) from that book. To make the note more visually appealing, I will use Kindle’s feature to share an image of a quote.
Again, the key to processing information in this way is to put it into your own words and not just regurgitate what you are reading. I also try to make things more visually appealing by adding relevant images and emojis. I often find that I remember something a lot better if I drop in a relevant image AND write it in my own words.
This approach to writing has been a huge shift in how I take notes but has definitely had a huge impact in how I use the information I collect. I find that doing this helps me remember better what I have put into my system and facilitates connections to other ideas. Which brings me to the next crucial element — linking.
The heart of a Zettelkasten is the linking of ideas and concepts. As a simple example, as I was taking notes on the previously mentioned article, it made me remember something I saw in Curtis McHale’s video, so I created a Wikilink within my note that takes me to my notes on that video. This too has taken some getting used to, but once I got into a rhythm of doing it and was better at using Bear’s search operators to find what I previously took notes on, it became second nature.
What I love about Bear is that linking things is very easy. You can either use double brackets and start typing (and Bear will auto populate some choices) or you can hit the paper icon in the toolbar and brackets magically appear. I link notes extensively in Bear. While Bear does not have a graph view like Obsidian, there is GomScope, software that displays a graph and backlinks specifically for Bear users. I’ve used this software for a few weeks now and while it’s cool and helpful in certain situations, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. The simple exercise of linking notes together helps me understand connections.
One great feature in Bear is that if I change the title to the note I’ve referenced, the wiki link referencing that note will automatically update. This is huge because I frequently change note titles to better capture my key takeaway from that information.
Regarding backlinks — Bear does not automatically create these. But I’ve had no trouble just dropping them in myself. Because Bear makes it so easy to create Wikilinks, adding in backlinks is not difficult.
As others have pointed out (see again Curtis McHale, as well as Tiago Forte’s excellent discussion with Sönke Ahrens), the point of making a Zettelkasten is to generate ideas, make connections, and then get that information about those connections out to the world. For me, this is literally my job, so I don’t have any trouble with this. But one critical element to note here is that, because this is my job, the final destination for the ideas formed in my Zettelkasten are a report publishing system I use at work. Therefore, the export options in Bear are really important for how I use this system. I have to be able to get my information neatly out of Bear and over to my work software. Thankfully, Bear has a number of export options, almost all of which I use on a regular basis.
With my own Zettelkasten, I have found it important to go through and periodically revisit, archive, and even delete notes. Sometimes the simple exercise of going through really old notes helps spur new ideas. Sometimes it will also help me find old notes that are no longer relevant or were half-baked and just need to be deleted. I try to do this a few times a year and have found it helpful for keeping my Zettelkasten uncluttered. Tiago Forte recommends archiving old notes and this is a feature Bear offers. While I personally tend to lean more towards deleting notes, there is an occasional item that I archive instead, just in case I want to revisit it later.
There is no one “right” app or software or tool for creating a Zettelkasten. The workflow is more important than the product. But my use of Bear and Apple Notes should make it clear that creating a Zettelkasten doesn’t require some highly-specialized or expensive software. As long as the system works for your needs and can create links to other documents, it will work. There is also a ton of value in using software with which you’re already familiar.