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).


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.

Last updated 2023-07-13.