Evergreen notes should be atomic

It’s best to create notes which are only about one thing—but which, as much as possible, capture the entirety of that thing.

This way, it’s easier to form connections across topics and contexts. If your notes are too broad, you might not notice when you encounter some new idea about one of the notions contained within, and links to that note will be muddied. If your notes are too fragmented, you’ll also fragment your link network, which may make it harder to see certain connections. Evergreen notes should be densely linked

There’s no clear litmus test or correct answer here—just a bunch of tradeoffs.

The notion is quite similar to the software engineering principle of separation of concerns, which suggests that modules should only be “about” one thing, so that they’re more easily reusable. But likewise, if you fragment modules too much, you’ll have a cohesion problem. In this way, Evergreen note titles are like APIs.


Create Zettel from Reading Notes • Zettelkasten Method

The underlying principle I’d call the principle of atomicity: put things which belong together in a Zettel, but try to separate concerns from one another. For example, I might collect a list of assumptions in one Zettel which serves as an overview. like hard determinism . A related argument and its conclusion will be kept in another Zettel. Moral responsibility under hard determinism is a good example. I can re-use the arguments without buying into the assumptions because the arguments are of sufficiently general form. Atomicity fosters re-use which in turn multiplies the amount of connections in the network of Zettels.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

Write notes for yourself by default, disregarding audience

Because Evergreen notes can be used as part of a strategy for writing public work (Executable strategy for writing), it’s tempting to “save time” by writing notes in publishable form. That might mean providing all the necessary background to understand some (boring to you) idea, or self-censoring, or adding lots of qualifiers, or spending lots of effort on clarity. Many of these practices can be somewhat useful as part of your own thinking process—for instance, clearer writing usually involves clearer thinking. But I find it substantially increases the overhead and effort in writing, often to the point of producing blockage.

More concretely, this manifests as a common failure mode for me when I’m writing notes as part of explicit preparation for some public writing. I’ll often try to do both jobs at once. That is, I might be writing atomic-style notes (Evergreen notes should be atomic) but I try to write them as if they’re sections in a larger essay or work. Or even just: I try to write things with all the context and clear prose needed for an outsider to understand what I’m talking about. Then I often find that I can’t write anything at all! Better to write at a level where I can produce something, then use that to lever myself upward. (Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”))

When it’s a topic I understand well, I can write notes for both myself and an audience simultaneously. But that sometimes produces the false impression that I can pull this off all the time! To avoid that false impression, I’ll write notes for myself “by default,” and only “opt into” writing notes for an audience explicitly.

Q. What bad habit do I often fall into when writing evergreen notes in preparation for public writing?
A. I’ll try to do my public writing as part of my first pass on the notes.

Q. Why do I often find myself stuck when I try to write evergreen notes as publishable prose for an audience?
A. When a topic is hard enough to distill on its own, the extra cognitive load of considering a reader overwhelms me.

Last updated 2023-07-13.