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.
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.
Lots of people write about solutions to the problem that Note-writing practices are generally ineffective. The vast majority of that writing fixates on a myopic, “lifehacking”-type frame, focused on answering questions like: “how should I organize my notes?”, “what kind of journal should I use?”, “how can I make it easy to capture snippets of things I read?”, etc.
Answers to these questions are unsatisfying because the questions are focused on the wrong thing. The goal is not to take notes—the goal is to think effectively. Better questions are “what practices can help me reliably develop insights over time?”, “how can I shepherd my attention effectively?” etc. This is the frame in which Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work makes sense: Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate.
In terms of technology, what matters is not “computer-support note-taking” but “computer supported thinking.”
It’s easy to focus on “note-taking” because it’s a visible component of an invisible practice: if you see someone insightful writing in their notebook, you might imagine that if you get the right notebook and organize it well, you’ll be insightful too. And of course, taking notes is tangible. It’s relatively easy, and it feels like doing something, even if it’s useless (Note-writing practices provide weak feedback). So it’s an attractive nuisance.
Matuschak, A. (2019, December). Taking knowledge work seriously. Presented at the Stripe Convergence, San Francisco.
Conversation with Michael Nielsen, 2019-12-16
computer supported thinking
Many bloggers and “life-hackers” have made a full-time job of suggesting how you should organize your journal, or how you should most effectively Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply. We should take this advice seriously insofar as those practices have helped the authors achieve meaningful creative work: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”
But most people who write about note-taking don’t seem particularly accomplished in their own fields, whatever those may be. In fact, most such writers aren’t applying their notes to some exogenous creative problem: their primary creative work is writing about productivity. These writers offer advice on note-taking to help scientists and executives with the challenges of their work, but the advice was developed in a context disconnected from those external realities. There are two related problems here: Effective system design requires insights drawn from serious contexts of use, and Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes.
Luhmann, by contrast, barely wrote about his Zettelkasten: he focused on his prolific research output, then published a couple small essays about his practices near the end of his career.
I’m not quite guilty of this problem myself, but I certainly slip into this behavior for weeks at a time. This is a cautionary note. Related: The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading.