Similarities and differences between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten

My practice of writing Evergreen notes is heavily inspired by Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten practice and its contemporary advocates. I use a different term both because there are some distinctions and because I want to give myself space to explore ideas in this space apart from the culture surrounding Zettelkasten, which has its own prior values and proclivities.

Key similarities:

Key differences:

One final difference, this one a touch pointy: the primary purpose of my system is to develop ideas in my core creative projects. Most people in the contemporary Zettelkasten culture seem to use their systems primarily to write notes about others’ ideas. If they’re developing their own ideas with them, those ideas are an interesting hobby, not their core creative work. All this falls afoul of the issues around People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use. I don’t know how, exactly, but my context of use substantially shapes the note-writing practice.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

Notes should surprise you

If reading and writing notes doesn’t lead to surprises, what’s the point?

If we just wanted to remember things, we have spaced repetition for that. If we just wanted to understand a particular idea thoroughly in some local context, we wouldn’t bother maintaining a system of notes over time.

This is why we have dense networks of links (Evergreen notes should be densely linked): so that searches help us see unexpected connections.

This is why we take Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented: so that when writing about an idea that seems new, we stumble onto what we’ve already written about it (perhaps unexpectedly).


Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from

One of the most basic presuppositions of communication is that the partners can mutually surprise each other. Only in the way can information be produced in the respective other.

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten • Zettelkasten Method

If you look something up in your Zettelkasten, you need to get unexpected results in order to form new thoughts. Surprise is the key ingredient here, as I pointed out in my introductory post on this topic. The links between notes make this possible since 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. While your mind usually continues to work with the obvious, your Zettelkasten instead shows you the bizarre. It sparks your imagination and blows your mind as it confronts you with the unexpected.

Also, it opens up opportunities to connect thoughts over the course of years which in turn will generate moments of surprise. This eventually leads to discoveries of unforeseen connections and enables you to think out of the box.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

Evergreen notes are a safe place to develop wild ideas

When you have some inkling about a novel idea, it’s tempting to try to immediately write down the idea and develop it in-place. But often, that’s not possible, practically or emotionally: the idea may just not be solid enough yet to attack directly. The blank page may feel intimidating; the claims may still feel mushy.

Instead, nurture the wild idea and let it develop over time by incrementally writing Evergreen notes about small facets of the idea. Those notes have much tighter scope: they just have to describe one atomic concept (Evergreen notes should be atomic, Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented).

The idea doesn’t even initially have to be related to any pre-existing line of thought. But over time, you can incrementally connect it to other concepts, old or new. See also: Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to incrementally develop inklings.

You can Create speculative outlines while you write to tie those pieces together, and in time, they’ll accumulate into a more coherent whole. (Notes should surprise you and Knowledge work should accrete).

By contrast: Brainstorming may often substitute for missing insight accretion systems


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

Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.” As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle (Johnson 2011). A laboratory with open-minded colleagues can be such a space, much as intellectuals and artists freely discussed ideas in the cafés of old Paris. I would add the slip-box as such a space in which ideas can mingle freely, so they can give birth to new ones.

Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours. Basically, that is what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 2004).

Pirsig, R. M. (1991). Lila: An inquiry into morals. New York: Bantam Books.

Because he didn’t pre-judge the fittingness of new ideas or try to put them in order but just let them flow in, these ideas sometimes came in so fast he couldn’t write them down quickly enough. The subject matter, a whole metaphysics, was so enormous the flow had turned into an avalanche. The slips kept expanding in every direction so that the more he saw the more he saw there was to see. It was like a Venturi effect which pulled ideas into it endlessly, on and on. He saw there were a million things to read, a million leads to follow… too much… too much… and not enough time in one life to get it all together. Snowed under.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

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.

Last updated 2023-07-13.