§Note-writing systems

Digital note-writing systems fixate on the presentation and manipulation of individual notes, mostly ignoring inter-note sense-making

If I’m writing Evergreen notes onto physical index cards, I’ll naturally arrange them on my desk as I write them. Several notes that are related will likely end up in a small cluster or pile. Notes which follow from others will probably sit physically to the right of “more fundamental” notes. As I’m writing a new note, I’ll see all the other notes I’ve been writing, physically arranged adjacent to it. This is a kind of Peripheral vision.

In a digital Note-writing system, by contrast, the environment’s focused on the experience of writing one note. The core operations and representations fixate on “the note you have open,” not on larger structures. In digital note-taking systems, I usually can’t simultaneously see the other note I’ve just finished writing—let alone the last four. Most systems barely support multiple windows, but even if I can open multiple windows, it’s awkward to arrange them into the spatial relationships I might naturally use for physical cards. Rather than peripheral vision, it’s like I’m wearing horse blinders and mittens.

Backlinks are a weak peripheral vision, and they help, but they’re generally a way of changing the one note you have open, not an effective means of sense-making across many notes. Contextual backlinks help: in such a listing, you can at least see snippets of many notes at once. But if you navigate among those backlinks as you make sense of the structure, you lose object permanence. Related: It’s hard to navigate to unlinked “neighbors” in associative note systems

If I read a note some time later, I have the unnerving sense that it’s part of some “whole” that I can’t see at all. Here, the practices described in Evergreen notes should be atomic work against me. If I was working with physical notes, I’d pull a bunch of notes onto my desk and arrange them. Shuffling the notes around would help me make sense of the structure. There isn’t really a digital equivalent.

This reminds me of the “spatial” Finder in earlier versions of Mac OS, in which each folder would be opened into a new window and those windows’ positions and sizes would be persisted across sessions. A given folder would always be in a particular spot once opened, so you could establish ad-hoc arrangements of folders which would persist over time.

Evergreen notes

Evergreen notes are written and organized to evolve, contribute, and accumulate over time, across projects. This is an unusual way to think about writing notes: Most people take only transient notes. That’s because these practices aren’t about writing notes; they’re about effectively developing insight: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”. When done well, these notes can be quite valuable: Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

It’s hard to write notes that are worth developing over time. These principles help:

This concept is of course enormously indebted to the notion of a Zettelkasten. See Similarities and differences between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten.

Implementing an evergreen note practice



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

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.

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