“Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”

Lots of people write about solutions to the problem that Note-writing practices are generally ineffective. The vast majority of that writing fixates on a myopic, “lifehacking”-type frame, focused on answering questions like: “how should I organize my notes?”, “what kind of journal should I use?”, “how can I make it easy to capture snippets of things I read?”, etc.

Answers to these questions are unsatisfying because the questions are focused on the wrong thing. The goal is not to take notes—the goal is to think effectively. Better questions are “what practices can help me reliably develop insights over time?”, “how can I shepherd my attention effectively?” etc. This is the frame in which Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work makes sense: Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate.

In terms of technology, what matters is not “computer-support note-taking” but “computer supported thinking.”

It’s easy to focus on “note-taking” because it’s a visible component of an invisible practice: if you see someone insightful writing in their notebook, you might imagine that if you get the right notebook and organize it well, you’ll be insightful too. And of course, taking notes is tangible. It’s relatively easy, and it feels like doing something, even if it’s useless (Note-writing practices provide weak feedback). So it’s an attractive nuisance.

People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use


Matuschak, A. (2019, December). Taking knowledge work seriously. Presented at the Stripe Convergence, San Francisco.

Conversation with Michael Nielsen, 2019-12-16

computer supported thinking

Note-writing practices are generally ineffective

Knowledge work should accrete, but Most people take only transient notes.

In part because Note-writing practices provide weak feedback, people don’t even notice how ineffective they’re note-writing practices are. They develop some baseline level of note-writing skill and mostly stay there (People generally develop skills to a plateau and then stop). Expert performance is not well-defined, so it’s not obvious that people aren’t performing well (Salience of improvement drives skill development). All this is true of other core knowledge work skills, too: Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc.

Much of what’s written about trying to improve these practices is misguided: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”

By contrast: Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work