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

“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

A nice screed on this subject: Notes Against Note-Taking Systems - by Sasha Chapin