Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to incrementally develop inklings

I’m often struck by an interesting question or notion in conversation or on a walk. In many cases, I can’t write anything terribly insightful on that topic in that moment: I certainly can’t write a good Evergreen notes. I don’t have anything useful to say about the notion yet—it just seems awfully interesting.

What action should I take now? How can I arrange to develop that inkling over time? I could create a “to-do” or block out time to think about this question, but that’s often not what’s called for. Instead, often what I need is marination: let’s come back in a few days, see what bubbles up.

I can capture the notion in A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes, but it’ll rapidly become a pile of unwieldy scraps which I’ll come to ignore (Inboxes only work if you trust how they’re drained).

Spaced repetition systems can be used to program attention, so such mechanisms might be helpful here. In such a system, I might:

  • Sit down to my morning writing and see a small handful of writing prompts for the day, drawn from my writing inbox
  • I can choose to append whatever’s top of mind about any of them (perhaps they obscure what was written previously until I’ve added new material)
  • Once I’ve done that, I can mark the prompt as “fruitful,” meaning it’ll come up again relatively soon, or “unfruitful,” in which case the system will increase its interval substantially.
  • Alternately, I might take a moment to convert one of these prompts into one or more Evergreen notes.
  • Any prompts which I simply ignore will have their intervals increased, but perhaps not as substantially as explicitly-unfruitful prompts.

By taking advantage of the exponential nature of spaced repetition intervals, one could make incremental progress on potentially hundreds of prompts, while considering only a few on any given day.

This would represent a system for incremental thinking.

Related: Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate.


Rice Issa has published a simple implementation.


Matuschak, A. (2019, December). Taking knowledge work seriously. Presented at the Stripe Convergence, San Francisco.

Last updated 2023-09-14.