4. Stop creating new folder cards 📽

Are you making the mistake of thinking that you have to find the supposedly one-and-only best place for each card you create?

4. Stop creating new folder cards 📽

UPDATE (October 23, 2022): In this video, I advise people not to make TOO MANY "folder cards." But now I recommend that people not create "folder cards" AT ALL. While I think it's still a good idea to decide on several subject areas before getting your Zettelkasten started, creating folder cards can result in (a) unnecessarily long card addresses and (b) using your Zettelkasten for something the Zettelkasten method isn't really about.


To watch the part of the video featuring Bob Doto and Scott Scheper talking about whether it's a good idea to decide up front what subject areas to focus on as you develop your Zettelkasten, click here (that should start the video 2hours12mins0sec into it).

Video transcript

If you've watched the other videos in this series I’ve been making about the Zettelkasten method, you'll know that I make use of what are called "folder cards." In this video, I'm going to explain why you should stop using them—kind of.

First of all, let me address the question that I'm sure has been on the minds of every single one of my subscribers, which is at least three of you: "You get punished by the YouTube algorithm if you don't publish videos on a regular basis, so where the crap have you been?"

I haven't posted a new video for a while because I hired some people to paint the inside of my house. As a result, for about two weeks, most of my possessions got pushed to the center of each room and wrapped up in sheets of plastic.

Okay, let's talk about Zettelkasten stuff.

As I said, this video is about why you should stop using what I call "folder cards"—kind of.

If you've watched the previous videos in this series, you'll know that I have said that when starting a Zettelkasten from scratch, it's a good idea to come up with a handful of main subject areas that you plan on focusing on in your Zettelkasten.

My ten main subject areas, which are probably much better than yours.

In the videos before this one, I also recommended that you build out your subject areas into subcategories or branches and create "folder cards" for each of those. And I recommended that you build those out two or three levels deep.

In this mind-map replica of my Zettelkasten, you can see that I have built out one of my subject areas three levels deep—three levels beyond Level 1, that is. You can think of each of these levels as a column. The column furthest to the left is Level 1, the column to the right of it is Level 2, and so on.

For Levels 2, 3, and 4 of my “race and racism” branch, I have created folder cards. The next image I’m about to put on the screen shows you what these three folder cards look like in my old-school Zettelkasten.

Usually I write the titles and addresses for folder cards in pink so as to distinguish them from my idea cards, the titles and addresses of which are written in blue. In case you’re wondering, the fact that I have two folder cards here that are in orange rather than pink kind of drives me crazy, but I’m on meds for that.

As I said at the beginning of this video, I’m telling you to stop creating folder cards. When I say that, though, I do not mean that you shouldn’t have any folder cards in your Zettelkasten at all. [UPDATE (October 23): Actually, I now think folder cards are a bad idea.

Instead, I’m saying that after creating folder cards two or three levels deep, you should stop creating more. I say this for three reasons.

First, if you create folder cards beyond the third or fourth level, you are most likely going to find yourself in the unfortunate position of agonizing over where to put new cards in your Zettelkasten. If you find yourself in this unfortunate position, it’s probably because you are making the mistake of thinking that you have to find the supposedly one-and-only best place for each card you create.

As I have said several times in previous videos, to the extent that you make this mistake, you’ll be trying to do with your Zettelkasten something that the Zettelkasten method is not really about.

The second reason you should stop creating folder cards beyond the third or fourth level is closely related to the first: if you have folder cards too many levels deep in your Zettelkasten, you are less likely to use your Zettelkasten for what the Zettelkasten method really is about—namely, developing lines of thinking.

Put differently, you are less likely to create the sequences of notes—or what in German are called Folgezettel—that I and so many others have found to be among the best ways of developing lines of thinking.

The third reason to stop creating folder cards beyond a certain point has to do with how to organize your idea cards: you should be relying primarily on the index section of your Zettelkasten to organize those.

The Index

I haven’t talked about the index section of a Zettelkasten yet. I’ll say just a little bit about it here.

If you want to get your index section started, grab a handful of cards—26 of them if you’re doing things in English—and on each one write a letter of the alphabet.
Now let’s say you have a sequence of idea cards fairly deep in your Zettelkasten that are focused on the issue of health care.

If you want to be able to find that sequence of cards in the future, you should write down “health care” on your “H” card in your index and then right next to that entry you should put just the address of the first card in that sequence.

As I said, the index should become the primary way of organizing your idea cards.
Whereas folder cards get you started with organizing idea cards before you create idea cards to place behind them, the index can be used to organize your idea cards after you have created several of them.

You don't have to use folder cards or even subject areas

But actually, if you want, you can have zero folder cards in your Zettelkasten. Yeah, zero. Niklas Luhmann didn't use folder cards, and you don't have to either.
In fact, you can even get rid of the subject areas if you want.

Like Scott Scheper, I believe that for those just getting started with the Zettelkasten method, creating a few subject areas can be very helpful.

But you don’t have to do that. As Bob Doto argues in a video recently posted by Scheper, although Luhmann had eleven main subject areas in his second Zettelkasten, he came up with those subject areas only after creating idea cards.

Moreover, Doto appears to argue—I'm not 100% certain this is his view—but he appears to argue that coming up with subject areas is ”antithetical to the entire system.” He adds that starting out this way could result in using your Zettelkasten in ways that you would do well to “unlearn.”

While I’m not so sure that starting off with a handful of main subject areas is antithetical to the entire Zettelkasten method, creating folder cards too many levels deep certainly is.

Because so much of what I have learned from Doto about the Zettelkasten method has proven to be valuable, in the coming weeks I plan on experimenting with using folder cards a lot less and perhaps not at all.

At some point, I’ll report back to you about how the experiment went.


We’re about done here. I just want to let you know what the next couple of videos I plan on making will be about.

In the video before this one, I talked about where to put a new “continuation card” when it has a good-enough relation to one of the cards that already exists in your Zettelkasten. In one of the upcoming videos, I’m going to show you where to put a new card when it doesn't have a good-enough relation to an already-existing card.

I also plan on making a video about why I think using an old-school Zettelkasten can be so effective when it comes to digesting the information we consume.
And then one other video I hope to create will be about different approaches to creating *Folgezettel—*those sequences of notes I mentioned earlier.* *One of those approaches I call the outward-in approach and the other the inward-out approach.

I know, you’re like “oh my gosh, I can’t wait.” Yeah, hit subscribe—and the “like” button while you’re at it.

I’m going to sit here for twenty seconds while you do that.