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
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
In contrast to Evergreen notes, Most people use notes as a bucket for storage or scratch thoughts. These are very convenient to write, but after a year of writing such notes, they’ll just have a pile of dissociated notes. The notes won’t have added up to anything: they’re more like fuel, written and discarded to help the author process their ongoing experiences.
Fleeting notes are valuable scratchpads to temporarily support working memory, but Knowledge work should accrete, so we should view them as “messy-thought” inputs for the “neat-thought” notes they’ll inform (Khoe).
This is one reason why Note-writing practices are generally ineffective.
Khoe, M.-L. (2016, December 21). Messy thought, neat thought. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from Khan Academy Early Product Development website: https://klr.tumblr.com/post/154784481858/messy-thought-neat-thought
In part because Note-writing practices provide weak feedback, people don’t even notice how ineffective their note-writing practices are. They develop some baseline level of note-writing skill and mostly stay there (People generally develop skills to a plateau and then stop). Expert performance is not well-defined, so it’s not obvious that people aren’t performing well (Salience of improvement drives skill development). All this is true of other core knowledge work skills, too: Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc.
Much of what’s written about trying to improve these practices is misguided: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”