How to use Zettelkasten in Notion – A Complete Guide


Zettelkasten is a powerful note-taking and personal knowledge management method for those looking to master their productivity. Notion can help enable you to use Zettelkasten digitally. This tutorial will teach you how to set up a Zettelkasten system in Notion.

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What is the Zettelkasten Method?

Zettelkasten is German for ‘box of cards’ and focuses on the connections between ideas. In a Zettelkasten, notes have tags that describe the key aspects of that piece of information, and they may reference other notes in the slip box. 

This method was popularised by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann who used his Zettelkasten to pen nearly 400 academic articles and more than 70 books over his lifetime, covering law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love. His secret to navigating his vast web of personal knowledge was the use of his Zettelkasten. 

This method aims to prevent ideas from becoming isolated. Think of how you would structure class notes in folders. The traditional process of creating folders for each class or subject leads to information being locked away as the index is arbitrary instead of ideas being connected naturally. 

How does Zettelkasten Work?

Luhmann’s method consisted of creating two slip boxes:

  • Reference Box
  • Main Box

The reference box is for reference detail and brief notes about the content and information you’re trying to lock away. The main box is where you can explore these short ideas more, make arguments, and establish links between individual ideas.

When you come across new information in reading, use an index card to take literature notes. If you come across information you’d like to remember, write this down in your own words in 2-3 sentences. Reference notes consist of grouping information, organizing ideas into categories, and creating tags so you can find linked ideas later.

The main box is the home of the permanent notes. To create effective permanent notes, you must consider literature and reference notes and assess how they are linked together, informed by your thinking and research. These notes aim to add value to existing notes by creating arguments and providing analysis and thoughts to your knowledge. 

If you are looking for a deep-dive on Zettlekasten, check out our Complete Guide to Zettelkasten.

As referenced earlier, there are two types of slip boxes in Zettelkasten:

  • Reference box
  • Main box

There are several ways to attempt to replicate these boxes in Notion, but we will show you two different ways:

  • Zettelkasten System using Backlinks
  • Zettelkasten System using Relations

Creating a Zettelkasten System in Notion using Backlinks

Enclosed below are the steps required to implement a Zettelkasten system in Notion using backlinks:

Create a New Page in Notion

a new page in Notion to hold our Zettelkasten system
a new page in Notion to hold our Zettelkasten system

Open up Notion and create a new page to hold the Zettelkasten system we are going to setup. Feel free to get creative with an icon and cover image!

Create a Table to Hold our Notes

Creating a table in Notion to hold notes
Creating a table in Notion to hold notes

Create a new table to hold our notes by clicking in the body of the page and typing “/table“. Select “Table – Inline” from the available options.

Changing title of Notes Table in Notion
Changing title of Notes Table in Notion

Give your table a name by double-clicking where it says “untitled” and typing in the name you want for your table. In our case, we will use Notes Table.

Changing the Name column title to Notes
Changing the Name column title to Notes

Your table should now be visible. Click on the “Name” column title and type in “Notes” as shown in the screenshot above.

Change the Tags Column to Note Type

This table is going to hold both our main (aka slip) and reference notes so we need a way to distinguish between them. The way we will do this will be by setting up a “Select” column we will call “Note Type”.

Converting a Tags Multi-select Column to a Note Type Select Column in Notion
Converting a Tags Multi-select Column to a Note Type Select Column in Notion

To do this, click on the “Tags” column header. Give your column a new name (like Note Type). Then, change the property type from “Multi-Select” to “Select as shown in the screenshot above.

Create a “Date Added” Column

Creating a date column in Notion
Creating a date column in Notion

Next, let’s create a Date Added column to keep track on when we created the note. To do this:

  1. Click on the “Column” column header
  2. Click on “Text” under “Property Type
  3. Select “Date” as shown in the screenshot above.
  4. Click on the text box and type in the name you want for this column.

For this tutorial, we will name the column “Date Added”.

Empty Notes table in Notion
Empty Notes table in Notion

You should now have a table like the one shown in the screenshot above.

If you want to learn more about the power of tables and databases in Notion, check out our Definitive Guide to Using Tables in Notion.

Add a Note to Your Table

Adding first note to note table in Notion
Adding first note to note table in Notion

Now let’s add a new note to our table.

  1. Click on the first cell under the “Notes” column
  2. Type in the name of your note.
  3. Next click on the cell underneath the “Note Type” column header as shown above.
Creating the Main Note note type in Notion table
Creating the Main Note note type in Notion table
  1. Start typing in the name you want for your Slip or Main Note category (we used Main Note). Click on Create Main Note as shown in the screenshot above.
  1. Assign your note a date created date by clicking on the cell in the “Date Created” column and selecting a date as shown in the screenshot above.
A note in Notes Table in Notion
A note in Notes Table in Notion

Your note should now look roughly like the screenshot above.

Add a Reference Note(s) to Your Notes Table

Adding a Reference Note to Notes Table in Notion
Adding a Reference Note to Notes Table in Notion

Let’s add a reference note to our table. This follows the prior step almost exactly with one notable exception. After giving your note a title, click in the cell in the “Note Type” column. Type in “Reference Note” and click “Create Reference Note as shown in the screenshot above.

Notes in Notes table
Notes in Notes table

Give your note a date. Your table should now have a main note and at least one reference note (we created two just to show you what it would look like) as shown above.

Open Up Your Main Note

Opening a page in a table in Notion
Opening a page in a table in Notion

Hover over your main note and click the “Open” button as shown above.

Add a Backlink to a Reference Note

Now we get to finally add a backlink! Backlinks are bi-directional link that does two things:

  • Defines a relationship between two different pages (or in our case notes)
  • Provides a quick way to access referenced resources in the main page or note

To create a backlink in Notion, do the following:

Creating a backlink in Notion
Creating a backlink in Notion
  1. click in the body of the page where you want the backlink to appear
  2. type [[ to bring up the backlink dialog
  3. start typing in the name of the page you want to create a backlink to
  4. once visible, select the page from the available options as shown in the screenshot above
a backlink in Notion
a backlink in Notion

Your backlink should now appear as shown above. Click on the link to go to the reference note page.

Seeing the number of backlinks a page has in Notion
Seeing the number of backlinks a page has in Notion

You should now be on the reference note page. Notice the “1 Backlink” reference on your page? Click on it and you will see a list of all the pages that have backlinks to this page. Pretty cool, huh.

If you want to learn more about how backlinks work in Notion, you should really check out my Guide to Backlinks in Notion.

Click on the backlink to go back to the main note page. Now let’s add another backlink to a different reference note.

Adding a second backlink to a note in Notion
Adding a second backlink to a note in Notion

For our example, we added a section section of our page called “Equipment Needed” to differentiate between ingredients and equipment.

To add your backlink to another reference note in Notion, do the following:

  1. Click in the body of your note
  2. Type [[ to bring up the backlink dialog box
  3. Start typing in the name of the page you want to create a backlink to
  4. Once it appears as an option, click on it
A second backlink in Notion
A second backlink in Notion

Your backlink should now appear on your page as shown in the screenshot above. Click on the backlink.

Reference Note in Notion
Reference Note in Notion

You should now see your reference page. Click on the “1 backlink” text as shown above and you should see a reference to your main page.

Populate your Notes Table with More Main and Reference Notes

Fully populated Notes Table in Notion
Fully populated Notes Table in Notion

Now, go back to your Notes Table and fill it with more reference and main notes as shown in the screenshot above.

Wouldn’t it be great to have dedicated views for your main notes and your reference notes. We can do that by create linked databases for each view, which we will do next.

Create a Linked Database Showing Only Your Main Notes

Linked databases allow you to create a custom view of an existing table. The main advantage is that any changes you make in the main table will automatically update the linked database and vice versa.

To create a linked database containing only your main notes, do the following:

Creating a linked database in Notion
Creating a linked database in Notion
  1. Click in the body of your Zettelkasten System page
  2. Type “/create” to bring up the block menu
  3. Select “Create Linked Database” as shown in the screenshot above
Selecting the Notes Table as source for linked database in Notion
Selecting the Notes Table as source for linked database in Notion
  1. Once the linked database selection dialog appears, start typing the name of our main table
  2. Once the main table appears, click on it to select it
Linked Database
Linked Database

Your linked database should now appear on your page. We need to setup a filter to only shown the main notes, do the following:

  1. Hover over your table and click on the ellipsis as shown in the screenshot above
Select Filter
Select Filter
  1. Select “Filter” from the menu
Click Add a Filter to create a filter
Click Add a Filter to create a filter
  1. Click on the “+ Add a filter” drop-down button and select “+ Add a filter” from the options as shown above
Configuring the filter criteria in Notion
Configuring the filter criteria in Notion
  1. In the filter criteria menu, click on “Notes” and select the column you set up for note type as shown above
Selecting the filter criteria for main notes in Notion
Selecting the filter criteria for main notes in Notion
  1. Click on the last option in the filter criteria and select your main note option as shown above
Filtered linked database in Notion
Filtered linked database in Notion

You should now see your linked database that only shows your main notes.

Now let’s set one up that only shows our reference notes.

Create a Linked Database Showing Only Your Reference Notes

Select Create Linked Database
Select Create Linked Database
  1. Click in the body of the page and type “/create”
  2. Select “Create Linked Database” from the available options
Select your Notes table
Select your Notes table
  1. Start typing in the name of your notes table
  2. Once you see it as an option, click on it to select it
Select Filter from menu
Select Filter from menu
  1. Select “Filter” from the menu
Click Add a Filter and Select Add a Filter from options
Click Add a Filter and Select Add a Filter from options
  1. Click on “+ Add a Filter and select “+ Add a filter” from the options provided
Select the reference note option
Select the reference note option
  1. Select your Note Type option, select “Is” and then select your reference note option as shown above
Linked Database showing only reference notes
Linked Database showing only reference notes

Your new linked database should appear and only show reference notes as shown in the screenshot above.

If you want to learn more about how to use linked databases in Notion, check out our Complete Guide to Using Linked Databases in Notion

Creating a Zettelkasten System in Notion using Relations

Creating a main page for Zettelkasten in Notion

Enclosed below are the steps required to implement Zettelkasten in Notion:

  1. Create a New Page to hold your Reference and Main Boxes
  2. Create a new page in Notion to hold your reference slip box database
  3. Click in the body of the page and type “/table” and select “Table – Inline” from the available options
  4. Give your table a name by double-clicking “Untitled” and typing in your table title
  5. Add columns to your reference box table
  6. Underneath your Reference Box, type “/table” and select “Table – Inline” from the available options
  7. Give your table a name by double-clicking “Untitled” and typing in your table title
  8. Add a Date Created Column to your Main Table
  9. Click on the + button to add another column
  10. Click on the Column header and go to “Property Type” -> “Relation
  11. Click on the “Select a database” drop-down menu and start typing in the name of the reference box database
  12. Click on the reference box database and click the “Create relation” button
  13. Populate your Reference Notes with quick notes
  14. Populate your Main Notes database with Main Notes
  15. In the Main Notes Database, click in the cell in the Relation column we created
  16. Start typing in the name of the reference and click on it when it appears
  17. You Main Note now references a Reference Note
  18. Repeat the prior step for all the rest of your Main Notes

Create a New Page to Hold Your Zettelkasten System

Click + button to create new page in Notion
Click + button to create new page in Notion

Open up Notion and create a new page by clicking on the + button in the left panel under “Private”.

Main Zettelkasten Page in Notion
Main Zettelkasten Page in Notion

Create a Table to Hold Your Reference Notes

The next thing we want to do is create a database to hold our reference notes. As explained earlier, reference notes are quick notes or details referencing something specific. Typically, reference notes will then be added or referenced by main notes, which we will cover later in this tutorial

Creating a table in Notion
Creating a table in Notion

To create a table in Notion, simply click in the body of the page you just created and type “/table” without the quotation marks. Select “Table – Inline” from the available options. This will create a new table on the page.

Give Your Table A Name

Adding a Title to a Table in Notion
Adding a Title to a Table in Notion

Double-click where it says “untitled” and type in the title you want your table to have. For this tutorial, we will use “Reference Box” to indicate that this table will hold our Reference Notes.

Changing the title of the "Name" column in a Notion Table
Changing the title of the “Name” column in a Notion Table

Let’s rename the “Name” column to “Reference Note” so that it’s clear this column holds reference notes.

  1. Click on “Name
  2. Delete the word “Name
  3. Type in “Reference Note“. Hit the “Enter” key to save your change.

Add Columns to Your Reference Note Table

Creating a Date Created column in a Notion table
Creating a Date Created column in a Notion table

You can add more columns to your Reference Notes table. I like to have a “Date Created” column so I can know how old the note is. To create a date column in Notion:

  1. Click on the column you want to be a date column
  2. Click inside the text field and type in your column title as shown in the screenshot above
  3. Click the “Text” under “Property Type” and select “Date” from the options presented
Reference Box in Notion
Reference Box in Notion

You should now see a “Date Created” column in your table.

Click underneath Reference Box Table to Create Main Box (aka Slip box) Table

Now that we have our reference box created, let’s create our main (aka slip) box. The slip box holds our detailed, permanent notes.

Creating a Slip Box table in Notion
Creating a Slip Box table in Notion

To create the slip box in Notion, do the following:

  1. Click underneath the table you previously created
  2. Type “/table” without the quotation marks to bring up the block menu
  3. Select “Table – Inline” as shown in the screenshot above

Give Your Slip Box Table a Title

Editing title of table in Notion
Editing title of table in Notion

As we did with the reference notes table, let’s give our main table a title. We will use the same exact steps we took when we gave our reference notes table a title:

  1. Double-click on the “untitled” text
  2. Type in your title
  3. Hit the “Enter” key

Add a Date Created Column to Your Slip Table

Creating a Date Created Column in Notion
Creating a Date Created Column in Notion

Let’s add a date column to our main or slip box table.

  1. Click on the column header you want to hold our date created
  2. Click on the text box and type in the title of your column (date created)
  3. Click on the “Text” option under “Property Type
  4. Select “Date” from the available options as shown above
Notion table with a Date Created column
Notion table with a Date Created column

You should now have a Date Created column in your Notion table. Feel free to add more columns to fit your needs.

Create a Relation Column

Click + button to create new column in Notion
Click + button to create new column in Notion

Click the + button at the top right of your slip table to add another column. We will use this column to create a relationship between our main notes table and the reference notes table using relations.

Adding a relation to a table in Notion
Adding a relation to a table in Notion

Give your column as name as shown above. Then select “Text” under “Property Type” and select “Relationfrom the available options.

Click on “Select a Database”

Creating a relation in Notion
Creating a relation in Notion

You should now see the “Create a relation to another database” pop-up dialog box. Click on “Select a databaseand start typing in the name of your reference note table as shown above.

Click on the “Reference Database” and click the “Create relation” button

Picking the database to use as a relation in Notion
Picking the database to use as a relation in Notion

After you start typing in the name of your reference database, you should see it appear as an option. Click on it and you should see as screen like the one above. Click on the “Create relation” button to create your relation.

A relation column in Notion
A relation column in Notion

You should now have a relation column (reference notes in the screenshot above) to creates a relationship between your main box database and your reference box database.

Populate Your Reference and Main Databases with Notes

Notes in Our Reference and Main box tables in Notion
Notes in Our Reference and Main box tables in Notion

Now that both of our tables are ready, populate them with information. Remember to use the Reference box to hold reference material and quick notes and to fill your Main box with more detailed notes. For the purposes of this tutorial, I filled my databases with movies in my main box and movie quotes in the reference box.

Click on the Cell of the Main Note You Want to Add a Reference Note to

A cell entry for a relation column in Notion
A cell entry for a relation column in Notion

Now comes the fun part! Let’s create some relationships between our main notes and our reference notes. To do this, click on the cell in the Relation column for the main note you want to add a reference note reference to.

Start Typing in Name of the Reference Note You Want to Relate to Your Main Note

Searching for the reference note we want to relate to our main note in Notion
Searching for the reference note we want to relate to our main note in Notion

You will see a search dialog box appear like the one in the screenshot above. Start typing in the name of the reference note you want to relate to your main note. Once it appears as an option, click on it to select it.

Selecting the reference note we want to relate to our main note in Notion
Selecting the reference note we want to relate to our main note in Notion

Once you have selected the note, click away from the dialog box to close the dialog box.

A reference note link attached to a main note in Notion
A reference note link attached to a main note in Notion

A link to the reference note will appear in the relation cell (Reference Notes cell in our example) of your main note as shown in the screenshot above.

Repeat the Step Above to Add More Relationships Between Your Main and Reference Notes

A bunch of reference notes links to main notes in Notion
A bunch of reference notes links to main notes in Notion

Now that you know how to relate your main notes to reference notes, repeat the prior step until you have created all the relationships you want between your reference notes and your main notes as shown above. You can have multiple reference notes linked to a main note.

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The Main Challenge of Using Notion for Zettelkasten

While Notion supports the ability to implement a Zettelkasten system, it is missing one major feature that would make it an amazing app for using Zettelkasten:

A Knowledge Graph

Apps like Obsidian, RemNote, and Roam Research all support the ability to visualize the inter-linking of your notes in a knowledge graph. While this may seem on the surface to be a superficial feature, it is actually an extremely valuable one.

Having the ability to see in one graph view all of the inter-relationships of your data and ideas helps to uncover new insights you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. I really hope Notion implements a knowledge graph in the future.

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