Using Luhmann's Zettelkasten-method in DEVONthink

This post is meant for those who are familiar with Luhmann’s Zettelkasten-method.

I have a large number of notecards I created as a student when I was studying literary theory. I’m now experimenting and trying to find out whether I can use DT and Luhmann’s Zettelkasten-method to digitize my old cards.

Luhmann made sure that each of his cards contained only one idea. Related cards (= with similar ideas) were put near each other in a note-box and sorted according to an outline, consisting of digits and text-characters only. If a new related idea popped up, a card with that idea would be added to the box directly after or before a card with a similar idea, depending on whether it was a sub-idea or a leading idea.

The problem I am having is to build this (or a similar) outline in DT. I would like to give each card a unique name which describes the content and precede it by hierarchical numbers (and/or text-characters), like in this example:

  1. What is literature? Definition of a concept
  2. Literature and literary scholarship
    2.1 The aim of literary scholarship
    2.2 The function of literature
  3. Metre
    10.1 Sonnet

As long as I have only few cards, I can to this manually, but if I have hundreds of cards it’s impossible.

I also want the cards (= the files in DT) to reflect the historical development of World Literature. As you can see above, I have

  1. Metre
    10.1 Sonnet

Now suppose I want to add “Horatian ode” and another card about ‘skaldic poetry’ to DT. I would have to place both cards after Metre and before Sonnet, and I would have to change the digits accordingly.

How can this be done automatically?

The ideal solution, as far as I can tell, would be to select the files and execute a [new] menu command in DT which could be called “Refresh numbering”, or something to that effect.

I hope it has become clear that I want to create a sequence of notes, a sequence which can be easily adapted to new cards (= files) and new outline numbering.

In case this is currently not possible, would it perhaps be possible to write an AppleScript to do this?

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This is not a direct answer to your question, but on the topic of Zettelkasten + DEVONthink, if you haven’t already found the following thread, it might be a good one to read through for more discussions and ideas:

More generally, a lot of people have been exploring this idea. Searching for Zettelkasten or Zettel in this discourse site should bring more results, and Googling more widely will find blogs by people who discussed this too.

(I’m not posting this reply in a dismissive way; your question certainly has merit. These pointers are meant to be helpful.)


Yes, I understand and I appreciate your suggestion very much.

I have been watching Zettelkasten YouTube videos in the past few weeks, but I have not found any one of them really helpful. None of them has really demonstrated how Luhmann actually used his arcane numbers and text-characters to sort his notes. Besides linking the notes (which is easy to do in DT) his way of creating and maintaining a structured outline seems to me to be the key to his extraordinary productivity.

You should take a look at Getting Started • Zettelkasten Method

The site is the major repository on the net for information about the Zettelkasten method. The articles on the blog go back to 2013, and the forum there is very lively:

Edit: there is an article about using DEVONthink as a Zettelkasten: DEVONthink as a Zettelkasten Note Archive • Zettelkasten Method

Do you want to re-create your cards using this mechanism for a symbolic or sentimental reason?

Or is this something you plan to use practically for learning and/or efficiency?

Aren’t tags, automatically generated by folders an option for you - getting the structure and also getting the numbering done?

In case this helps, in addition to the pointers posted by @mbbntu, there is a book that AFAIK is considered the main English-language description of Luhmann’s approach:

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to take smart notes: One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking: for students, academics and nonfiction book writers. CreateSpace.

A 2nd edition came out last year: (Amazon link)

(Tip: if you want to look for used copies, I find a very good resource for finding such things.)

Mainly for learning and efficiency and fast retrieval.

The system needs to be flexible enough so that I can add more cards (= files) at any time and store them at the right place (in my imaginary Zettelkasten), and by that I mean: directly before or after cards containing similar ideas.

In that case I would suggest simply learning about many methods to do this - historical and current, paper and digital, then think through your own workflow and needs.

Pick and choose from those ideas and develop a system that works for you.

The odds that you can gain some tips from understanding Zettelkasten historically is very high.

The odds of re-creating that system as a current digital system as the best workflow for your goals today are almost nil.


Hello Wolkenhauer,

When you say “folders”, are you then talking about “groups” in DT?

Let’s look at the problematic part that I described in my firsts post.

Screen Shot 2023-04-18 at 17.52.19

The files are obviously sorted alphabetically, making “Blank verse” the first in the list. But actually, based on the history of literature it should be the last in the list. How would you solve this dilemma?

As I already said, as long as there are only few cards (files) I could precede them with numbers or text (a, b, c … etc.), but if I have hundreds of related notes in one group then that’s not feasible.

Adding more (numbered) groups to the example above seems kind of overkill, and in our example I wouldn’t know what groups I could or should add, because that amounts to having one group for each file.

Following your suggestion, currently all the example files have the tag “11 Meter”, but that doesn’t affect the sort order.

If I misunderstood your suggestion, then please correct me.

Ummm… you’d change the Sort method, likely to Unsorted so you can manually order the documents :slight_smile:

Thanks to @mbbntu and @ mhucka for the links. I will certainly check them out later and then report back.


Silly me, for some reason I overlooked that there are two main ways to sort in DT: the sort order in the sidebar (for items in the sidebar) and View > Sort > Unsorted for items in the main window.

Now, that I use View > Sort > Unsorted, I can drag the files up or down in the list which is, in fact, exactly what I wanted to do. Mea culpa!

As always, thanks a lot BLUEFROG for your invaluable help! You saved my day. :–)

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As Jim writes, if you go above the columns for what is listed, you can choose “unsorted” instead of Date Added (in the attached screenshot).

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Thanks Wolkenhauer for drawing my attention to yet another way to unsort the items. This was indeed what I was looking for.

No worries and you’re welcome :slight_smile:

Hi and thank you for the post. I was also looking for a solution to build a Zettelkasten in DT. After hours of investigating and reading I decided to just start and see where it takes me.
Here’s is how I ended up and maybe that’s somewhat helpful.

Headline topics are introduced by a simple number, description and _toc (stands for table of content): e.g.

  1. Poems_toc
  2. Drama_toc

I have a smart search folder filtering all _toc entries to build a table of content. That allows me to quickly find existing topics

Any other entry is done with a simple numbering: e.g.
1.1 poem writing,
1.2 Poem analysis etc

I don’t follow a specific systematic. What comes in gets a new number and is added.
If I have an item that’s related I simply ad a sub-number: e.g.
1.1.1 style, xxx zzz

If I need to squeeze in sth I add a letter:
1.1.1 style
1.1.1a yyy
1.1.1b uuu xxx

That’s it.

I have tried to use links within DT but realised that this becomes to tricky. Also in case of any technical issue the links might not work anymore. So too risky.

I hope that’s somewhat helpful. If someone has an idea to improve my method, happy to get your feedback.


Hello Cid,

You said: “If I have an item that’s related I simply ad a sub-number [and …] If I need to squeeze in sth I add a letter”

I think this is exactly what Luhmann did.

As far as I am concerned, I’m not sure whether I now need to precede each card (file) with a number since I can now simply manually drag a file into the right position, be it before or after a certain file.

Since linking can be said to be the cornerstone of Luhmann’s method, this is a very serious allegation. Could you tell us more about your experience with linking in DT and why they may become too risky?

Is your working field the humanities? Perhaps literature?

If you use a numbering system in your file names, you’ll be able to export the files and maintain your ordering. If you do not, you will lose the ordering.

There has been a lot of debate on the forums at about the use of Folgezettel (see: As far as I can tell, most people seem to think that it is pointless to adopt Luhmann’s numbering system (which he developed because he was using a physical card index) when digital systems are capable of doing things that could not be achieved with paper.

For those who may be interested, there will be a Zoom meeting this weekend, hosted by the Tinderbox community, regarding the use of the Zettelkasten method in Tinderbox. There are some useful comments about the method on their forums: Tinderbox Meetup - Sunday, April 23, 2023: What does it mean to use Tinderbox as a Zettelkasten tool (or tool for what ever method we individually might use)? - #27 by Sascha - Q & A - getting started with Tinderbox - Tinderbox Forum.

One of the most important take-aways seems to be: don’t get hung up on the process. It’s a distraction, and there are more important things to think about.