A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes

Even if you aspires to write Evergreen notes, most notes begin as transient notes. You should be able to capture thoughts without friction (Close open loops), then reliably develop them into evergreen notes over time (Knowledge work should accrete). This implies two important mechanisms:

  1. a quick way to capture transient notes which clearly isolates them from evergreen notes; and
  2. a place to put notes you want to develop further and a practice which reliably drains it (Inboxes only work if you trust how they’re drained)

I use a “writing inbox” for this purpose. Undeveloped ideas, excerpts from my Daily working log, notes from reading, one-line prompts, etc all begin in that queue. During My morning writing practice, I’ll look through notes in this inbox and spend time developing any that strike me. On most days, I spend the majority of my writing time in this way.

Many notes in my writing inbox end up as evergreen notes, but that’s not appropriate (or possible) for all of them. If a note doesn’t seem sufficiently interesting after a few looks, it’s best to archive or delete it. (A challenge here: Triage strategies for maintaining inboxes (e.g. Inbox Zero) are often too brittle)

While I’m at my computer, I capture notes directly into my writing inbox. I also feed it with: Pocket memo pad to capture into writing inbox while out.


Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten • Zettelkasten Method

Last updated 2023-07-13.

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.

Taxonomy of note types

==TODO: flesh this out; write a note for each note type; etc==

For me, the practice of writing and revising notes is, at its core, about trying to move up the following rough ladder:

Note types outside this ladder:

  • Proper noun notes
    • “Literature notes”, titled after a single work and meant primarily as linkages to other more durable notes, and as targets for backlinks. I write these roughly as “outline notes,” except for someone else’s ideas. For example: Miller - The magical number seven, plus or minus two
    • Likewise, but less commonly, I also have “person notes” (e.g. Anand Agarawala) and “business notes” (e.g. Confluent)
    • These note types are weakly evergreen. I may add to them over time, but because they aren’t concept-oriented (Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented), they’re not as useful to build on as an evergreen note. Non-trivial writing about proper nouns typically gets factored into separate evergreen notes which can be used in multiple places.
    • “Log” notes, which accumulate ephemeral observations about a specific practice, system, or project over time. They’re akin to a Daily working log, but sliced by some topic of interest rather than by date. e.g. Log: personal mnemonic medium
    • With better transclusion or support for Contextual backlinks, such notes could be written directly in one’s Daily working log, and “log” notes could be defined as a query over such notes.

Tactically speaking, I usually denote a note’s “type” with a tag.

Don’t over-obsess or over-formalize this stuff. Remember: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”.

Last updated 2023-07-13.