About these notes

Hi! I’m Andy Matuschak. You’ve stumbled upon my working notes. They’re kind of strange, so some context might help.

These notes are mostly written for myself: they’re roughly my thinking environment (Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work; My morning writing practice). But I’m sharing them publicly as an experiment (Work with the garage door up). If a note seems confusing or under-explained, it’s probably because I didn’t write it for you! Sorry—that’s sort of an essential tension of this experiment.

For now, there’s no index or navigational aids: you’ll need to follow a link to some starting point. You might be interested in §What’s top of mind.

👋 Andy (email, Twitter, main personal site)

PS: My work is made possible by a crowd-funded research grant. If you find these ideas interesting and want to see them developed further, please consider becoming a micro-grantmaker yourself on Patreon.

PS: Many people ask, so I’ll just note here: no, I haven’t made this system available for others to use. It’s still an early research environment, and Premature scaling can stunt system iteration.

Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work

If you had to set one metric to use as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, the best I know might be the number of Evergreen notes written per day. Note-writing can be a virtuosic skill, but Most people use notes as a bucket for storage or scratch thoughts and Note-writing practices are generally ineffective.

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


References

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.

Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you attend a lecture, discussion or seminar will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus.

Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.

Evergreen notes

Evergreen notes are written and organized to evolve, contribute, and accumulate over time, across projects. This is an unusual way to think about writing notes: Most people take only transient notes. That’s because these practices aren’t about writing notes; they’re about effectively developing insight: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”. When done well, these notes can be quite valuable: Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

It’s hard to write notes that are worth developing over time. These principles help:

This concept evolves in large part from Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten, which he regards as the independent intellectual partner in writing his 70 books. See Similarities and differences between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten

Implementing an evergreen note practice

See:


References

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down.

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

Write about what you read

It’s important to write about what you read:

It’s not enough to just highlight or write marginalia in books: there isn’t much pressure to synthesize, connect, or to get to the heart of things. And they don’t add up to anything over time as you read more. Instead, write Evergreen notes as you read.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting: The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading. Speaking at least for myself, experience has suggested that I need more support to effectively engage with what I’m reading.

Method

Our broad approach is an alternating cycle:

  1. Collect passages that seem interesting and thoughts that emerge while reading: How to collect observations while reading
  2. Process clusters of those passages and thoughts into lasting notes:How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes

References

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

It is impossible to think without writing; at least it is impossible in any sophisticated or networked (anschlußfähig) fashion.

Levy, N. (2013). Neuroethics and the Extended Mind. In J. Illes & B. J. Sahakian (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 285–294). Oxford University Press.

Notes on paper, or on a computer screen … do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible.

How to collect observations while reading

It’s important to Write about what you read, but it’s distracting to switch back and forth between reading and writing polished notes. Instead, collect insights in a lightweight way while you read. You can put them in A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes. That'll Close open loops, and you’ll process them later (see How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes).

Annotations—even inline marginalia which include your own writing—have very little informational value. They’re atomized; they don’t relate to each other; they don’t add up to anything; they’re ultra-compressed; they’re largely unedited. That’s fine: think of them as just a reminder. They say “hey, look at this passage,” with a few words of context to jog your memory about what the passage was about.

Since you’re going to write lasting notes anyway, annotations need carry just enough information to recreate your mental context in that moment of reading. You wouldn’t want to rely on that long-term, since then you’d just have a huge pile of hooks you’d have to “follow” anytime you wanted to think about your experience with that book.

When processing these observations, you’ll want to be able to see the big picture and see clusters of ideas, so it’s helpful to collect annotations in a manipulable fashion.

Concretely, the approach I’m trying:

  • Physical books:
  • Web articles:
    • Copy+paste interesting excerpts into a single working note in my writing Inbox.
    • Or perhaps use the Bear excerpter, in combination with the marker tool.
  • Digital books and PDFs:
    • Use in-app highlighters
    • Export all highlights into a working note in Inbox to cluster
      ::TODO::

I find the digital solutions quite unsatisfying: it’s slow and heavy browsing between annotations in these solutions.


References

https://zettelkasten.de/posts/making-proper-marks-in-books

The text inspired a thought, and the inspiring part is already marked in the text.

https://zettelkasten.de/posts/create-zettel-from-reading-notes

taking notes on my Mac while reading just doesn’t work for me. My state while typing is too different from the state I’m in when I read print. Going back and forth requires heavy switching of mental gears. First, this wears me out after a while. Second, this switching ruins the focus: I cannot follow the text properly. That’s why I take notes on paper and mark the passage I want to refer to with a little * in the page’s margin.

A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes

Even if you aspires to write Evergreen notes, most notes begin as transient notes. You should be able to capture thoughts without friction (Close open loops), then reliably develop them into evergreen notes over time (Knowledge work should accrete). This implies two important mechanisms:

  1. a quick way to capture transient notes which clearly isolates them from evergreen notes; and
  2. a place to put notes you want to develop further and a practice which reliably drains it (Inboxes only work if you trust how they’re drained)

I use a “writing inbox” for this purpose. Undeveloped ideas, excerpts from my Daily working log, notes from reading, one-line prompts, etc all begin in that queue. During My morning writing practice, I’ll look through notes in this inbox and spend time developing any that strike me. On most days, I spend the majority of my writing time in this way.

Many notes in my writing inbox end up as evergreen notes, but that’s not appropriate (or possible) for all of them. If a note doesn’t seem sufficiently interesting after a few looks, it’s best to archive or delete it. (A challenge here: Triage strategies for maintaining inboxes (e.g. Inbox Zero) are often too brittle)

While I’m at my computer, I capture notes directly into my writing inbox. I also feed it with: Pocket memo pad to capture into writing inbox while out.


References

Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten • Zettelkasten Method

Close open loops

Tasks left undone, observations left unrecorded, replies yet to be written—these swirl about our minds, as if we’re rehearsing them over and over again to make sure they’re not forgotten. To get rid of this nagging and create a “mind like water” (to use the term in Allen, 2015), build systems to reliably close these open loops.

For instance: for operational to-dos, this means (Allen, 2015):

  1. You should be able to record a task anywhere
  2. You regularly drain tasks from this list
  3. You regularly delegate, refactor, or delete tasks which you can’t prioritize

Taken together, these properties ensure that when you record a task, you can stop thinking about it. Ubiquitous capture isn’t enough, as most to-do systems demonstrate. If you don’t regularly review your task list and decide to delete or re-strategize lingering tasks, you won’t be able to trust that you’ll follow up on tasks you record.

See also A reading inbox to capture possibly-useful references.


References

Allen, D. (2015). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.