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Evergreen Notes

On creating notes which serve as building blocks for personal knowledge

note-taking spaced-repetition


A concept coined by Andy Matuschak, they are a concept adjacent to that of the zettelkasten. Most notes are never useful again, evergreen notes attempt to remedy this by accumulating insight over time, across projects. Each note should be atomic, meaning it covers only one concept, but should cover this concept comprehensively.

By writing in a concept-oriented form as opposed to a note based on a book or article, the likelihood of identifying themes or patterns across supposedly disparate sources increases. This is by design; this improves the probability of insight across the long-term and allows any given concept to be approached by numberous, often novel, directions.

Writing Inbox

A writing inbox is the starting point for evergreen notes. It is a collection of items which have been read at a shallow level and will potentially be developed further. It is important that this inbox can be added to in a frictionless manner (think: browser extension, keyboard shortcut in RSS reader, etc.) and is prompts the user (or else makes it easy to identify) to clear out loops which are not yet closed i.e. expand upon an old saved link or archive it.

Personally, I am currently exploring an experimental approach where these transient notes are captured in a deck in Anki: this allows me to rapidly input ideas which will be relayed back to me at a given interval—using a software I’m already familiar with—and ensures notes don’t simply get buried and not resolved (this is currently my biggest issue with note-taking).

Anki is an unusual choice for note-taking but the scheduling system is perfect for re-surfacing forgotten ideas. Cards can easily be suspended or deleted if useless and various responses can be given depending on how long the user would like to wait before being prompted for any given idea (e.g. ideas not currently of interest can simply be pushed back further). In addition, the prompts can simply be edited if new information or relevant thoughts have occurred since the card was previously shown—in this way there is progressively more fuel being added to any given note, increasing the likelihood it can become part of my evergreen notes.

A key challenge with this arrangement is ensuring this writing inbox does not become overwhelmed with scraps of writing that never get improve upon or deleted. A key focus must be to think through each card carefully, and prevent delaying a decision (to write or to delete) out of uncertainty.

Revising Notes

Since evergreen notes require constant revising in order to build upon existing notes, there needs to be a systematic revision structure. Instead of going through existing evergreen notes and trying to improve on them ad-hoc, it makes sense to place the names of the evergreen note cards in an Anki deck and used spaced repetition to handle the spacing of the notes. This does a number of important things:

  • Keeps spaced repetition tasks within one software
  • Removes the cognitive burden of selecting individual notes to improve upon
  • Creates a natural system whereby new notes are rapidly iterated upon (presumably when the most interest is on them) and gradually increases the duration between revisions over time (as low-hanging fruit on particular notes becomes more scarce)

This type of system will impact the accuracy of Anki statistics (as the again/hard/good/easy responses act differently to a typical knowledge-based card), but I have no use for that functionality anyway (see my Anki best practices for more detail).