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.