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

Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented

It’s best to factor Evergreen notes by concept (rather than by author, book, event, project, topic, etc). This way, you discover connections across books and domains as you update and link to the note over time (Evergreen notes should be densely linked).

The most straightforward way to take notes is to start a new note for each book, each project, or each research topic. Because each note covers many concepts, it can be hard to find what you’ve written when a concept comes up again later: you have to remember the name of each book or project which dealt with the topic (by contrast: Evergreen notes should be atomic).

When you read another book which discusses the same concept, you’ll write a new note on that book. With this approach, there’s no accumulation (contra Knowledge work should accrete). Your new thoughts on the concept don’t combine with the old ones to form a stronger whole: you just have a scattered set of notes on the concept, perhaps referring to it by different names, each embedded in some larger document.

It’s not just about accumulation. There’s also no pressure to synthesize your new ideas on the concept with your prior thoughts about it. Is there tension between them? Is some powerful distillation only visible when all these ideas are considered simultaneously? Understanding requires effortful engagement

If we read two books about exactly the same topic, we might easily link our notes about those two together. But novel connections tend to appear where they’re not quite so expected. When arranging notes by concept, you may make surprising links between ideas that came up in very different books. You might never have noticed that those books were related before—and indeed, they might not have been, except for this one point.

Organizing by concept makes note-taking a little harder, but in a useful way: when writing new notes, we have to find where they fit into the whole. So we explore some part of our prior web of notes, which may lead us somewhere unexpected.

Over time, we accumulate notes which we can combine in increasingly complex ways (Evergreen note titles are like APIs) to produce novel insights (Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate).


References

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten • Zettelkasten Method

When you’ve taken two texts apart already, a Zettelkasten will help you draw connections between them, see their similarities and oppositions. Thereby, you’ll be able to distill a bunch of texts and find out something new for yourself with time.

you’ll generate new ideas by following connections and exploring a part of your web of notes. The non-apparent connections are generally more beneficial to creative thinking than the obvious ones as they generate greater surprise.

when you analyze a text, you decompose its web-like whole into pieces and keep track of their relations to one another.

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

We could try to generalize the experiences of Paris, Florence, New York under general concepts like “art” or “exhibitions,” or “crowding” (inter-actionistic), or “mass,” or “freedom” or “education,” in order to see how the slip box reacts. Usually it is more fruitful to look for formulations of problems that relate heterogeneous things with each other.

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?

Fleeting literature notes can make sense if you need an extra step to understand or grasp an idea, but they will not help you in the later stages of the writing process, as no underlined sentence will ever present itself when you need it in the development of an argument.

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. A text must then be conceptualised independently from these notes, which explains why so many resort to brainstorming to arrange the resources afterwards according to this preconceived idea.

Evergreen note titles are like APIs

When Evergreen notes are factored and titled well, those titles become an abstraction for the note itself. The entire note’s ideas can then be referenced using that handle (see Concept handles, after Alexander). In fact, this property itself functions as a kind of litmus: as you develops ideas in notes over time and improve the “APIs,” you’ll be able to write individual notes which abstract over increasingly large subtrees (e.g. Enacted experiences have incredible potential as a mass medium, Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work).

Some effective note “API design” techniques: separation of concerns (Evergreen notes should be atomic), sharp titles (Prefer note titles with complete phrases to sharpen claims), and positive framings (Prefer positive note titles to promote systematic theory).

Related: Grounded claims, after Qian et al


References

Frederick, M. (2007). 101 things I learned in architecture school. MIT Press.

Conversation with Michael Nielsen, 2019-12-16

Prefer note titles with complete phrases to sharpen claims

When writing Evergreen notes, I’ve found that using complete phrases as note titles helps maintain concept-orientation (Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented). For example: Educational objectives often subvert themselves, Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”).

These are often declarative or imperative phrases making a strong claim. This puts pressure on me to adequately support the claim in the body. If I write a note but struggle to summarize it in a sharp title, that’s often a sign that my thinking is muddy or that this note is about several topics (contra Evergreen notes should be atomic). In both cases, the solution is to break the ideas down and write about the bits I understand best first.

Questions also make good note titles because that position creates pressure to make the question get to the core of the matter. Some questions really are evergreen (To what extent is exceptional ability heritable?); others are more ephemeral creative prompts (How might the mnemonic medium enable readers in genres outside platform knowledge?). The goal with the latter type of note is to eventually drop the question mark, refactoring it into declarative/imperative notes.

A few common exceptions to this policy:

I often begin by writing a note without knowing what the title will be. The title often emerges from the text as it’s written. When a note suggests a strong title with a clear claim, that’s a good sign that it’s starting to make sense. Related: Evergreen note titles are like APIs