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 is of course enormously indebted to the notion of a Zettelkasten. See Similarities and differences between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten.

Implementing an evergreen note practice



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

Executable strategy for writing

A naive writing process begins with a rough inkling about what one wants to write and a blank page. Progress from this point requires an enormous amount of activation energy and cognitive effort: there’s nothing external, so you must juggle all of the piece-to-be in your head.

By contrast, if you’ve already written lots of concept-oriented Evergreen notes around the topic, your task is more like editing than composition. You can make an outline by shuffling the note titles, write notes on any missing material, and edit them together into a narrative. In fact, because you can Create speculative outlines while you write, you might find that the first of these steps is already accomplished, too. And writing each note isn’t hard: Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”).

Instead of having a task like “write an outline of the first chapter,” you have a task like “find notes which seem relevant.” Each step feels doable. This is an executable strategy (see Executable strategy). But beware—don’t let this strategy “poison” the initial note-writing process: Write notes for yourself by default, disregarding audience.

I describe two approaches here: an undirected version, in which writing projects emerge organically from daily work; and a directed version, in which you’re trying to write about something specific.

Undirected version:

  1. Write durable notes continuously while reading and thinking. (Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work)
  2. Each time you add a note, add a link to it to an outline, creating one if necessary (Create speculative outlines while you write).
  3. Eventually, you’ll feel excited about fleshing out one of those outlines. (Let ideas and beliefs emerge organically)
  4. Write new notes to fill in missing pieces of the outline.
  5. Concatenate all the note texts together to get an initial manuscript
  6. Rewrite it.

Directed version:

  1. Review notes related to your topic (and a step or two beyond those—Notes should surprise you)
  2. Write an outline
  3. Attach existing notes to each point in the outline; write new notes as needed.
  4. Concatenate all the note texts together to get an initial manuscript
  5. Rewrite it.

One other nice benefit of this approach: Evergreen notes lower the emotional stakes in editing manuscripts.


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

Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing • Zettelkasten Method

To see with clarity if your research backs up your text’s structure sufficiently, the next step is to assign notes from your Zettelkasten to the items of your outline. When an item of your outline seems to be neglected because you don’t have enough notes that fit, you can continue your research, focusing on the missing pieces. As soon as you’re confident you got enough coverage for a start, you string the notes’s contents together according to the outline. Thus you create the very first draft. That’s all it takes to move from a plan to outline to manuscript. Then you begin to re-write, organize the material and start to make the text coherent.

There’s no magic involved in writing texts with the help of a well-fed Zettelkasten. To compile a first draft you put the contents of selected notes at the appropriate places in the outline, putting meat on the bones of your text’s skeleton. That’s how a Zettelkasten helps you complete your first draft.

Create speculative outlines while you write

When you write a new note, add it to one or more outlines you’re maintaining, creating a new one if necessary. Substantially-complete writing projects will naturally emerge.

Normally, we start an outline when we start a writing project. This forces us to start with a blank page. By contrast, if we write new notes every day and notice how they relate to each other, these can accumulate into potential writing projects. When an outline feels “ripe,” we can pluck it and turn it into a manuscript without the exerting herculean start-up effort that comes with a blank page.

Maintaining already-written notes in an outline is comparatively easy: just look at a pair of notes and ask: which comes first? (Pirsig)

Furthermore, to start a writing project with a blank outline, we need to have a topic and some angle in mind. We can Use notes to avoid preconceived conclusions.


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

Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.

Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.” As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle (Johnson 2011). A laboratory with open-minded colleagues can be such a space, much as intellectuals and artists freely discussed ideas in the cafés of old Paris. I would add the slip-box as such a space in which ideas can mingle freely, so they can give birth to new ones.

“When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” When Luhmann was asked what else he did when he was stuck, his answer was: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.”

How to Write a Book – Without Even Trying (so hard) • Zettelkasten Method

When I create a Zettel, I search through the folder for an outline that could make use of this Zettel. If I don’t have an outline in my folder that fits, I create one.

Now I can see articles, books, and other writing projects emerge as a consequence that I read texts and create Zettels without any specific intention in doing so.

The book on writing I mentioned came to be in the same manner. I work on a book on nutrition, so I decided to research how to write a book and writing in general. Each note I turned into a Zettel got its place in an outline. After a while, I satisfied my need for readings on that topic. When I looked at the outline I realized that I had notes worth a book already. I replaced the IDs with the content of the Zettels. Voilá. A manuscript was ready.

Pirsig, R. M. (1991). Lila: an inquiry into morals. New York: Bantam Books.

Instead of asking Where does this metaphysics of the universe begin? — which was a virtually impossible question -all he had to do was just hold up two slips and ask, Which comes first? This was easy and he always seemed to get an answer. Then he would take a third slip, compare it with the first one, and ask again, Which comes first? If the new slip came after the first one he compared it with the second. Then he had a three-slip organization. He kept repeating the process with slip after slip.

Use notes to avoid preconceived conclusions

When writing manuscripts, one often begins with a conclusion (or at least an angle) in mind, and then we write or do research with an eye to supporting that idea. If we’re not careful, those preconceptions will distort our thinking. But if we begin by writing Evergreen notes should be atomic, we can let the conclusions and topic emerge from our careful thinking.


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

The very moment we decide on a hypothesis, our brains automatically go into search mode, scanning our surroundings for supporting data, which is neither a good way to learn nor research.

The linear process promoted by most study guides, which insanely starts with the decision on the hypothesis or the topic to write about, is a sure-fire way to let confirmation bias run rampant. First, you basically fix your present understanding, as the outcome instead of using it as the starting point, priming yourself for one-sided perception. Then you artificially create a conflict of interest between getting things done (finding support for your preconceived argument) and generating insight, turning any departure from your preconceived plan into a mutiny against the success of your own project. This is a good rule of thumb: If insight becomes a threat to your academic or writing success, you are doing it wrong.