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Zettelkasten in Obsidian vs. Notion: Which app is better?

By Matt Giaro

Zettelkasten Notion Obsidian

So you want to set up your Zettelkasten but don’t know if you should go for Obsidian or Notion?

This article will help you make the right choice.

Let’s get started.

Zettelkasten 101

The Zettelkasten is a powerful note-taking methodology that allows you to take full advantage of your notes.

It helps you better remember information and spot unique idea combinations to take your content production to the next level.

But before digging deeper into which Zettelkasten app to choose there are some important concepts you need to be aware of to make the right choice.

The importance of backlinks

First, is that the Zettelkasten method heavily relies on backlinks and linking your notes together. 

The reason is that this note-taking method is built to generate ideas. And ideas are nothing else than “connecting the dots.” 

“Without my Zettels, i.e. just by thinking, I wouldn’t have come up with such ideas. Of course, my head is required to record the ideas, but it cannot be held solely responsible.” – Niklas Luhmann (Archimedes und wir. Berlin, 1987, S. 142-4)

You need a note-taking app to take full advantage of backlinks.

Obsidian and Notion are two popular note-taking apps that allow you to link information together. But as you’ll see, just because an app has a linking feature doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the right fit.

Bottom-up vs. top-down approach

The second important concept you need to be aware of when choosing between Notion and Obsidian as your Zettelkasten app is that a Zettelkasten leverages the power of chaos. This means there’s no Zettelkasten folder structure (not to mention databases or something else).

The structure of the Zettelkasten should emerge by itself. And the system will automatically resurface your best ideas based on the number of links:

Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in. — Sonke Ahrens, How to take smart notes.

So with those two concepts in mind, let’s see whether Notion or Obsidian is more appropriate to create your Zettelkasten.


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Notion as a Zettelkasten: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Notion is one of the most famous note-taking apps out there.

And naturally, many people pick Notion because of its powerful features.

Notion Is NOT a Zettelkasten App at Its Core

But when you look closer at it, you’ll discover that Notion is not a note-taking app per se. It’s first of all, a collaboration tool. That being said, there’s no harm in using Notion outside its primary scope of action.

Creating a Zettel, a Tag, and a Backlink in Notion

Creating a Zettelkasten note in Notion is fairly easy.

Simply create a new page, and type:

@Name of the note you want to link to
How to create a backlink Zettelkasten in Notion

But despite it being so easy, here’s what you need to know…

No way to see multiple connections

Notion is limited to linking with a level of depth of one.

This means that by default, you can only see what specific page links to the page you’re working on. But you can’t see all the outgoing links that your pages links to.

This means that you can’t see the notes linked to the notes.

And most of the time, this is where the gold lies.

Notion Trains Your Brain Against the Zettelkasten Methodology

Notion is powerful. 

Probably too powerful. Notion’s biggest advantage is also its biggest weakness. The reason for that is simple. Notion conveys a kind of super-organizational power to its user. You can organize everything down to the smallest details. You can change views, add formulas, etc.

And this is precisely what the Zettelkasten is not about. The Zettelkasten is not about structure. It’s about chaos. 

That the slip-box is not sorted by topics is the precondition for actively building connections between notes. Connections can be made between heterogeneous notes – as long as the connection makes sense. Sonke Ahrens – How to take smart notes

Here’s what we can find in Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten itself:

“Combination of order and disorder, of clump formation and unpredictable combination realized in ad hoc access. Precondition: waiving established order.” (Zettel 9/8)

Here’s how most people build their Zettelkasten in Notion: they come up with a structure and then try to fit their notes into that structure.
When in fact, the bottom-up approach in the Zettelkasten comes back to letting the structure emerge instead of creating it first.

Notion needs you to choose where you want to create a new note, which can add friction and decision fatigue to the process. Obsidian, by default, allows you to create a new note quickly and dumps it into your vault without making any classification decisions.

Notion encourages you to start from the top and work your way down to the bottom.

You have to know where you’re going before you actually go there

Tools shape the way we work. And this is why many people struggle with setting up their Zettelkasten in Notion.

Obsidian as a Zettelkasten: the good, the bad, and the ugly 

Obsidian is a free alternative to Notion.

Obsidian, a simple Zettelkasten tool?

Unless Notion, Obsidian has been built ground up as a linking and note-taking tool. 

This means you’ll not get bogged down by all the different ways to structure your Zettelkasten in Obsidian.

There are no databases, only plain text files. This makes the note-taking journey way easier and strips away a lot of complexity (even though Obsidian is a real powerhouse and can become daunting too if you go down the personalization rabbit hole)

Obsidian leverages the power of the graph view

As mentioned earlier, Notion has a limited capacity to work with backlinks. 

On the flip side, Obsidian allows you to see different level of links and how your notes are connected in the grand scheme of things using a very nice visual graph view.

It looks like so:

Every dot is a note, and every link…a backlink.

This lets you see how different information clusters are linked to spark new connections.

Obsidian lacks Notion features

Obsidian ain’t Notion.

When using Obsidian, forget about collaborating with your ZK. (Why would you even bother? A Zetelkasten is your own repo of the best ideas. And you certainly would not want someone else messing around with it. That being said, if you want to publish your Zettelkasten to share it with others, there’s an option to do that using Obsidian Sync)

Forget about databases. Forget about working with blocks. Forget about the pretty Notion design. 

Obsidian and Notion are just different because they don’t tackle the same job.

Obsidian vs. Notion: Overview

Obsidian and Notion are meant to get different jobs done.

Notion is a collaboration tool with note-taking features, but Obsidian is a true linking-note-taking tool.

If you want to build a Zettelkasten to spark new creative insights, go for Obsidian because Notions is too limited in working with backlinks and uncovering connections between your ideas.

FAQ about building a Zettelkasten in Notion vs. Obsidian

Creating Links in Notion vs. Obsidian

True power is not just in creating links. It’s seeing the connection in a way that makes sense.

The confusion happens because Notion is too powerful and you can do so many things with it.

Is Obsidian better than Notion?

Yes and no.

If you want to build a Zettelkasten then Obsidian is definitely better than Notion because it has been built from the ground up for linking your notes together.

However, Obsidian is absolutely NOT a collaboration tool.

Notion and Obsidian are two completely different tools built for different purposes.

Is Notion good for Zettelkasten?

Technically, you can create your Zettelkasten in Notion. But Obsidian is way more powerful to help you spark creative insights because of its graph view.

Should you switch from Notion to Obsidian?

If you want to build your Zettelkasten, then yes – you should switch from Notion to Obsidian. But it doesn’t mean that you have to ditch Notion completely.

In fact, Notion is way better in Obsidian on several key functions like collaboration.

How to use Notion as Zettelkasten?

Using Notion as a Zettelkasten when you have an alternative like Obsidian does not make any sense at all.

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