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.
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
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:
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.
Rice Issa has published a simple implementation.
Matuschak, A. (2019, December). Taking knowledge work seriously. Presented at the Stripe Convergence, San Francisco.