Why I stopped using folder cards in my analog Zettelkasten 📝

For the first few months of building a Zettelkasten, I used what I called "folder cards." For a while, I recommended that others use them as well. Not any more.

Why I stopped using folder cards in my analog Zettelkasten 📝


Using folder cards in an analog Zettelkasten is not a good idea—for three reasons:

  1. Using folder cards can make you worry about putting new idea cards in the "wrong" place.
  2. Maintaining an index section in your Zettelkasten is a better—and perhaps also more enjoyable—way of making your notes "discoverable" than is using folder cards.
  3. Using folder cards can lead to unnecessarily long card addresses.

Back when I used folder cards

For the first few months of building a Zettelkasten, I used what I called "folder cards." For a while, I recommended that others use them as well.

In this video released in October 2022 (that's Video #4 in the Zettelkasten series I have created), I announced that I would be experimenting with using fewer and perhaps even no folder cards, and in the video right after that, I reported that I would no longer be using folder cards.

Problem #1: using folder cards makes people worry about putting new idea cards in the "wrong" place

Although I was perfectly happy with folder cards for a few months, I began to see the drawbacks of using them. One of these drawbacks was disclosed during the fall semester of 2022, when I taught my students to use a Zettelkasten in the course I was teaching (The Examined Life).

I repeatedly urged my students not to try to find for each new card the supposedly one-and-only "perfect" place to put it but instead to either

a. find a card already existing within their Zettelkasten that the new card has a good-enough relation to (as explained in Video #3 in the series) or

b. have the new card be the first in a new branch of their Zettelkasten  if they couldn't find such a card already in their Zettelkasten (as explained in Video #5).

Simply repeating those statements was not enough, however, as was evident in the number of times students expressed reluctance to decide where to put a new card because they worried they might put it in the "wrong" place.

It's possible that what my students were struggling with is what Bob Doto has identified as an urge that many of us have—the urge to categorize. If that's the case, then no surprise that my students would agonize over where to put new cards that could very well be placed within two or more categories.

As a side note, one way to avoid this problem might be to use note-making software that enables you to tag a single note with multiple tags (with a "note" here understood to be the title and content of an idea card). Alternatively, if you use DEVONthink (Mac and iOS), you could create "replicants" of a note whenever you want to house that note in two or more folders. (I plan on saying more about these options sometime in the future, when I talk about how I use Obsidian to back up and enhance the work I do with my analog Zettelkasten.)

If it's correct to say that my students were repeatedly getting tripped up by an urge to categorize, then one way to counter that urge would be to create an "environment" that makes it somewhat difficult to act in accordance with that urge.

A note-making system that includes a bunch of folder cards is not such an environment. It is instead one that reinforces the categorizing urge—and in so doing, it leads people more so in the direction of categorizing ideas than it does in the direction of developing them. So folder cards begone!

Another side note: Categorizing ideas can be valuable, but if your aim is to produce output based on them, then you're going to want to spend the majority of your time developing ideas. One way of developing ideas using a Zettelkasten the way Niklas Luhmann did is to create Folgezettel, or sequences of connected cards. This is something I plan on making a video about in the near-ish future.

Problem #2: maintaining an index is better than using folder cards

When you're building a Zettelkasten, it's a good idea to have a section of it called "the index."

The index is the part of a Zettelkasten that usually begins with as many cards as there are letters in the alphabet.

On those cards, you write down key terms followed by the addresses of cards that represent, say, the top 2–4 places in your Zettelkasten to find (sequences of) cards related to each term.

Much as an index at the back of a book is made after the book has been written, so should each entry in your Zettelkasten's index be added only after you have created a few cards that amount to a sequence of cards on the topic the entry represents.

There are at least three reasons to maintain a Zettelkasten index.

  1. First, using an index can enhance what people in the PKM space often call "discoverability," which in this case would mean increasing the likelihood that you will be able to find certain ideas in your Zettelkasten when you want to find them.
  2. Second, since adding entries to the index section of your Zettelkasten involves stepping back from the individual ideas you've been adding to your Zettelkasten and taking note of the topics those ideas are about, maintaining an index can help you to generate ideas about output you could produce, whether that output be (a) an article, blog post, video, etc. or (b) a "structure note," wherein you record your thoughts about how different cards relate to each other and which can therefore provide you with a rough outline for, again, an article, blog post, video, etc.
  3. Third, adding entries to a Zettelkasten index can be pretty enjoyable. At least it is for me. I enjoy pulling back from the activity of creating individual cards so as to see the directions in which my Zettelkasten branches have been developing.

But back when I was still using folder cards, there were a number of times when I would want to add an entry to my index, only to realize that I had already created a folder card for it. In some of those cases, I went ahead and created an index entry anyways; in other cases, I did not. But in all those cases, I thought to myself, "There has to be a better way."

And there is: just ditch the folder cards.

Problem #3: unnecessarily long card addresses

Using folder cards makes for unnecessarily long card addresses. Sure, long card addresses are unavoidable if over the course of several years you're building a Zettelkasten in much the same way Luhmann did, but there's no reason to make them longer than they need to be.

In the image below, you can see that the very first idea card in a sequence of cards that falls under the category of "desire and happiness" has four numbers on it.

Here's what the first three numbers refer to:

  1. The Examined Life (that's the name of the course in which I'm teaching my students to use a Zettelkasten).
  2. happiness
  3. desire and happiness

None of these numbers are necessary if I'm maintaining an index in my Zettelkasten. If I simply add to my index the terms "happiness" and "desire" (or maybe "happiness" on my H card and "desire and happiness" on my D card) followed by the addresses of one or more relevant cards, then I don't need a folder card for "happiness" or one for "desire and happiness" and thus can get rid of the first three numbers on the cards in this part of my Zettelkasten.

We now have a fourth reason to maintain an index, then: doing so means you don't need to use folder cards and thus don't need to put unnecessarily long addresses on your cards.