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 note-writing helps insight accumulate

Much of the day-to-day thinking involved in creative work is simply lost, like sand castles in the tide. Ephemerality can actually be useful in low-fidelity thought, but it’s simply an accidental property in many cases. We should do our serious thinking in the form of Evergreen notes so that the thinking accumulates.

Leaps of insight emerge from prior thought. So where does that thought happen? It could happen in your head, or in a series of fleeting sketches in the pages of your notebook, but Knowledge work should accrete, and those mechanisms are awfully lossy.

Consider some hypothetical leap of insight you’d like to be able to make. To make that leap, you’ll typically need to evolve many independent, partially-formed ideas simultaneously, until they suddenly converge in a flash of inspiration. If you need to iterate on more than a few pieces at once, you may struggle to keep them all in your head.

By contrast, because Evergreen notes should be atomic, they’re small enough in scope that you can start and finish one note in well under half an hour (see Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”)). Yet each note you write represents an increment in your thinking about that specific idea, and each note enriches the broader network of links (Evergreen notes should be densely linked). Because these are Evergreen notes, you now have a clear place to stand as you iterate on this specific idea.

The notes you write will interact with materials you read (Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate) and will produce the foundations of new manuscripts (Executable strategy for writing).

And if you can’t write even one atomic note on the idea you have, Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to incrementally develop inklings.

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


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

Naturally, independence presupposes a minimal measure of intrinsic complexity. The slip box needs a number of years in order to reach critical mass. Until then, it functions as a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in. This changes with its growth in size and complexity. On the one hand, the number of approaches and occasions for questions increases. The slip box becomes a universal instrument.

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