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.

Knowledge work should accrete

Many activities in Knowledge work seem to be ephemeral efforts, their outputs mostly discarded after they’re completed.

You might wake up to a really tricky email and realize that it connects to something you’ve been thinking about for a while. You might spend an hour writing a careful reply, capturing your latest thinking. And now… it lives in your “sent” folder, and briefly in the impression on your and your colleague’s mind. The effort accumulates only insofar as that work subtly influences your and your colleague’s thinking over time.

Likewise, Most people take only transient notes, though with effective practices, they’re an essential foundation; see Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

We should strive to design practices systems which yield compounding returns on our efforts as they accumulate over time.

A Spaced repetition memory system achieves this for memory: when you find information useful, you can invest a little effort to make sure you always have it available. Over time, one’s spaced repetition library accumulates thousands of questions, and (I strongly suspect) that knowledge makes it easier to be an effective knowledge worker later.

Hamming illustrates this point vividly:

You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done.


Sosa, R. (2019). Accretion theory of ideation: Evaluation regimes for ideation stages. Design Science, 5, e23

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

But most importantly, without a permanent reservoir of ideas, you will not be able to develop any major ideas over a longer period of time because you are restricting yourself either to the length of a single project or the capacity of your memory. Exceptional ideas need much more than that.

2019/08/13 conversation with Anna Gát:

On Twitter, you don’t build anything.

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

Hamming, R. W. (1997). The art of doing science and engineering: learning to learn. Gordon and Breach.

Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work

If you had to set one metric to use as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, the best I know might be the number of Evergreen notes written per day. Note-writing can be a virtuosic skill, but Most people use notes as a bucket for storage or scratch thoughts and Note-writing practices are generally ineffective.

A caveat: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”


Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.

Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you attend a lecture, discussion or seminar will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus.

Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.

Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate

Much of the day-to-day thinking involved in creative work is simply lost, like sand castles in the tide. Ephemerality can actually be useful in low-fidelity thought, but it’s simply an accidental property in many cases. We should do our serious thinking in the form of Evergreen notes so that the thinking accumulates.

Leaps of insight emerge from prior thought. So where does that thought happen? It could happen in your head, or in a series of fleeting sketches in the pages of your notebook, but Knowledge work should accrete, and those mechanisms are awfully lossy.

Consider some hypothetical leap of insight you’d like to be able to make. To make that leap, you’ll typically need to evolve many independent, partially-formed ideas simultaneously, until they suddenly converge in a flash of inspiration. If you need to iterate on more than a few pieces at once, you may struggle to keep them all in your head.

By contrast, because Evergreen notes should be atomic, they’re small enough in scope that you can start and finish one note in well under half an hour (see Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”)). Yet each note you write represents an increment in your thinking about that specific idea, and each note enriches the broader network of links (Evergreen notes should be densely linked). Because these are Evergreen notes, you now have a clear place to stand as you iterate on this specific idea.

The notes you write will interact with materials you read (Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate) and will produce the foundations of new manuscripts (Executable strategy for writing).

And if you can’t write even one atomic note on the idea you have, Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to incrementally develop inklings.

Related: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”


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

Naturally, independence presupposes a minimal measure of intrinsic complexity. The slip box needs a number of years in order to reach critical mass. Until then, it functions as a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in. This changes with its growth in size and complexity. On the one hand, the number of approaches and occasions for questions increases. The slip box becomes a universal instrument.

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

Evergreen notes should be densely linked

If we push ourselves to add lots of links between our notes, that makes us think expansively about what other concepts might be related to what we’re thinking about. It creates pressure to think carefully about how ideas relate to each other (see Understanding requires effortful engagement and Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented). It’ll also help you internalize the ideas more deeply through Elaborative encoding.

Finding the right links requires reading old notes, so it’s also an organic mechanism for intermittently reviewing the notes we’ve written (Evergreen note maintenance approximates spaced repetition). This may lead to surprising discoveries (Notes should surprise you).

And by recording the connections, we document how we came to our conclusions, which may be useful to us (or our colleagues) later. As much as is possible, we should Prefer fine-grained associations. By contrast, Tags are an ineffective association structure.

When just reading through our notes, the connections offer many paths to move through idea-space. The temptation is to navigate hierarchically, but the links cut across fields and topics. Prefer associative ontologies to hierarchical taxonomies

Luhmann actually argues that…

In comparison with this structure, which offers possibilities of connection that can be actualized, the importance of what has actually been noted is secondary.

You don’t necessarily have to link to notes you’ve already written: Backlinks can be used to implicitly define nodes in knowledge management systems. It feels high-friction to stop and add a new note whenever it feels necessary; it’s very freeing to be able to link to a stub. (see also Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”)).

Aside from the ongoing value of the captured links, they may help you shepherd your attention while drafting: Release valves for non-linear thought may support improved linear output.


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

2. Possibility of linking (Verweisungsmöglichkeiten). Since all papers have fixed numbers, you can add as many references to them as you may want. Central concepts can have many links which show on which other contexts we can find materials relevant for them. Through references, we can, without too work or paper, solve the problem of multiple storage. Given this technique, it is less important where we place a new note. If there are several possibilities, we can solve the problem as we wish and just record the connection by a link or reference. Often the context in which we are working suggests a multiplicity of links to other notes. This is especially the case when the card index is already voluminous. In such cases it is important to capture the connections radially, as it were, but at the same time also by right away recording back links in the slips that are being linked to. In this working procedure, the content that we take note of is usually also enriched

In any case, communication becomes more fruitful when we succeed to activate the internal network of links at the occasion of writing notes or making queries. Memory does not function as the sum of point by point accesses, but rather utilizes internal relationships and becomes fruitful only at this level of the reduction of its own complexity. In this way, more information becomes available at this isolated moment of an search impulse than one had in mind. There is also more information than was ever stored in the form of notes, The slip box provides combinatorial possibilities which were never planned, never preconceived, or conceived in this way.

If we ask, for instance, why on the one hand museums are empty, while on the other hand exhibitions of paintings by Monet, Picasso, or Medici are too crowded, the slip box accepts this question under the perspective of “preference for what is temporally limited.” The connections that already exist internally are, of course, selective, as this example was to prove. They also do not fall into the limits of what is obvious because we must cross the border between the one who takes note and the slip box itself.

In comparison with this structure, which offers possibilities of connection that can be actualized, the importance of what has actually been noted is secondary.

Prefer fine-grained associations

Links between materials in an information system (e.g. Evergreen notes should be densely linked) can be fine-grained (like a citation in the middle of a sentence of a paper) or coarse-grained (like a “see also” section).

It’s generally better to make fine-grained associations. For instance, rather than evaluating a jumbled list of papers related to the paper you’re reading, it’s more helpful to see that I noticed paper X relates to paragraph N.

This is particularly true when links are bidirectional, since you’ll need help to see why the “backwards” relationship makes sense.

Contextual backlinks

A contextual backlink displays not only a reference from another location, but the specific context around that reference—for instance, the page of a book or the referencing paragraph.

Related: Prefer fine-grained associations

Daily working log

Each day, I start a note titled with that day’s date; e.g. 2020-03-12. It captures ephemera throughout the day: reflections, scratch work, etc. It’s an intentional dumping ground, a release valve so that there’s always “a place to put that thing.”

In the Taxonomy of note types, this is the lowest-fidelity layer, ephemeral by design. But as scratch thoughts look like they might have legs, they get extracted into a note in my writing inbox (A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes). Sometimes I’ll use the daily working log as a drafting space, and I can extract sections roughly-as-is into Evergreen notes.

For me, the important bits are:

  1. This is a space where I can put anything and feel zero friction. (Close open loops)
  2. I feel a natural pressure to extract anything which wants to “outlive the day”—to move up the Taxonomy of note types.

Because the daily working log is also a live note, it also functions as a useful stub for Contextual backlinks: Backlinks can be used to implicitly define nodes in knowledge management systems.

My daily routine

Working independently means the burden and opportunity of creating my own structure. I’ve found ritual and routine essential to guide me.

When my days don’t go well, it’s often because something derailed me in the morning, and I never really got back on track. The high-order bit for my productivity is whether I complete a deeply-focused morning creative block. So my day is structured around making intense creative mornings happen.

  • ~7:00: Wake; shower; walk, train, feed my dog; make coffee
  • ~7:45 – 13:45: Uninterrupted morning working block
    • Default environment: WiFi off; Forest on my phone; alone at my desk (It’s hard to hear yourself think)
    • No meetings; working in 25m/5m pomodoros (see notes on Pomodoro technique); no extended breaks (I find maintaining momentum is more important than combatting fatigue)
    • Start a Daily working log, write for a minute or so about how I’m feeling and my intentions for the day; look at my Menu for the week, get a sense of what I’d like to dig into.
    • Dig into whatever seems most exciting creatively, usually sticking to one task for the entire block
      • Details here vary depending on my projects and their status. Sometimes it’ll be My morning writing practice; sometimes it’s designing or building prototypes; sometimes it’s reading through a stack of material about something I’m trying to understand.
    • If I start to run out of steam (usually around pomodoro 10), I’ll switch to administrative and procedural tasks, like email time: I’ll spend ~30m ~3 times a week replying to email (and generally ignore it otherwise).
    • I eat lunch at my desk. It’s usually Chopped salad or Quiche.
    • After this block, I think of my workday as effectively “done” and free myself from any further sense of obligation.
  • ~2 – 3: Decompression walk with my dog. Often also walking with a friend or taking a meeting by phone at this time.
  • ~3 – 6:30: Unstructured time. Napping, socialization, meditating, exercising, reading, more walking.
  • ~6:30 – 8: Cooking, dinner.
  • 8 – 10:30: (If a friend wasn’t over for dinner) piano, reading, time with Sara.