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

Most people take only transient notes

In contrast to Evergreen notes, Most people use notes as a bucket for storage or scratch thoughts. These are very convenient to write, but after a year of writing such notes, they’ll just have a pile of dissociated notes. The notes won’t have added up to anything: they’re more like fuel, written and discarded to help the author process their ongoing experiences.

Fleeting notes are valuable scratchpads to temporarily support working memory, but Knowledge work should accrete, so we should view them as “messy-thought” inputs for the “neat-thought” notes they’ll inform (Khoe).

This is one reason why Note-writing practices are generally ineffective.


References

Khoe, M.-L. (2016, December 21). Messy thought, neat thought. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from Khan Academy Early Product Development website: https://klr.tumblr.com/post/154784481858/messy-thought-neat-thought

Knowledge work should accrete

Many activities in Knowledge work seem to be ephemeral efforts, their outputs mostly discarded after they’re completed.

You might wake up to a really tricky email and realize that it connects to something you’ve been thinking about for a while. You might spend an hour writing a careful reply, capturing your latest thinking. And now… it lives in your “sent” folder, and briefly in the impression on your and your colleague’s mind. The effort accumulates only insofar as that work subtly influences your and your colleague’s thinking over time.

Likewise, Most people take only transient notes, though with effective practices, they’re an essential foundation; see Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

We should strive to design practices systems which yield compounding returns on our efforts as they accumulate over time.

A Spaced repetition memory system achieves this for memory: when you find information useful, you can invest a little effort to make sure you always have it available. Over time, one’s spaced repetition library accumulates thousands of questions, and (I strongly suspect) that knowledge makes it easier to be an effective knowledge worker later.

Hamming illustrates this point vividly:

You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done.


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.

But most importantly, without a permanent reservoir of ideas, you will not be able to develop any major ideas over a longer period of time because you are restricting yourself either to the length of a single project or the capacity of your memory. Exceptional ideas need much more than that.

2019/08/13 conversation with Anna Gát:

On Twitter, you don’t build anything.

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

Hamming, R. W. (1997). The art of doing science and engineering: learning to learn. Gordon and Breach.

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 reading efforts accumulate

It’s important to Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply, but instead of just writing about the specific book you’re reading, you can (and should) write your notes such that your reading observations accumulate over time as they interact with each other and with your own ideas (see Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate, Knowledge work should accrete).

This is also why we write Evergreen notes: so that if we encounter a book which discusses a concept we’ve already written about, we’re pushed to integrate new ideas with our prior conception. Certainly, we normally do this when we read, but we’re limited to our faulty memory of other works which might be related. The externalized note-taking system substantially removes this limitation.

This is why part of why Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented: so that the structure of our notes pushes us to notice the relationships between the ideas in different texts—and in our own work (see Evergreen notes should be densely linked, Notes should surprise you).

The notes you write will also produce the foundations of new manuscripts (Executable strategy for writing).

This is one reason for Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply

If you want to deeply internalize something you’re reading, the best way I know is to write about it:

For deep understanding, 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.

But of course, it doesn’t always make sense to read in this way: much of the time you’re not really trying to internalize the text deeply, and text may not be worthy of that much attention: The best way to read is highly contextual.

Also, 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.

The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading

Some of them do very simple things—jotting a few key references on the back page, or writing intermittently in the margin—but none of them implements any kind of consistent practice like the one described in Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply. It’s not that they’ve so deeply internalized and automatized those practices that they seem invisible: they’re just not doing those things.

They’re all expert readers, though, in their own way. They read for a purpose; they discuss what they read with others; they use what they read as part of creative projects; etc. So they’re not more effective than other readers for no reason at all.

In fact, the negation almost seems true: most note-taking fanatics seem to actually be quite ineffective thinkers. This should give one pause that it’s important to Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply! I suspect that the key issue here is “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”; such people are focused on “better note-taking.” People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use.

That said: Many eminent thinkers need a writing surface to think.


References

My Twitter thread on this note: Andy Matuschak on Twitter: “One way to dream up post-book media to make reading more effective and meaningful is to systematize “expert” practices (e.g. How to Read a Book), so more people can do them, more reliably and more cheaply. But… the most erudite people I know don’t actually do those things!”

“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


References

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 their 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