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 notes; 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 (Write notes for yourself by default, disregarding audience).

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 from my Patreon community. You can become a member to support future work, and to read patron-only updates and previews of upcoming projects.

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 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

Prefer associative ontologies to hierarchical taxonomies

Let structure emerge organically. When it’s imposed from the start, you prematurely constrain what may emerge and artificially compress the nuanced relationships between ideas.

Our file systems, organizational structures, and libraries suggest that hierarchical categories are the natural structure of the world. But often items belong in many places. And items relate to other items in very different hierarchical categories.

Worse, by presorting things into well-specified categories, we necessarily fuzz their edges. Things don’t always fit exactly. Maybe once enough new ideas are collected, a new category would emerge… except you can’t see its shape because everything’s already been sorted. And because everything’s already been sorted, further sorting requires undoing existing structure.

It’s better to let networks of related ideas to gradually emerge, unlabeled: Let ideas and beliefs emerge organically. Once you can see the shape, then you can think about its character. This is one reason why Evergreen notes are a safe place to develop wild ideas.

But beware: Tags are an ineffective association structure.

One consequence of following this advice: It’s hard to navigate to unlinked “neighbors” in associative note systems.


References

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path. The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.

Why Categories for Your Note Archive are a Bad Idea • Zettelkasten Method

Topic clusters emerge by themselves, especially surrounding keywords or tags. The resulting archive fits the way you think because it grew according to your interests. Also, things are labeled in a way especially meaningful to you, not anybody else. This is all about personal information management, so personalization is a must, and increasing idiosyncrasy will likely make things better.

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

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?