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Many notes don’t have a very long shelf life. For example, a list of groceries isn’t as helpful when you return from the store. At that point, you toss or delete the list. We refer to such notes as transient: they’re only useful for a short time.
But not all notes are like that; some should be longer-lived. For example, when you come across an unfamiliar idea while reading a book, you may want to capture it so you can go deeper. Doing so will take time; for now, you need a placeholder.
At first, you’ll know little about the subject, so your note will be sparse and messy. That’s okay. As you learn more, you can revisit it and add new things you’ve learned. Over time, you’ll have a comprehensive resource of everything you know about the subject.
Independent researcher Andy Matuschak calls these evergreen notes. In contrast to transient notes, evergreen notes remain relevant over long periods. As Matuschak puts it, they “are written and organized to evolve, contribute, and accumulate over time, across projects.”
He provides five principles for writing evergreen notes:
- They should be ‘atomic,’ i.e., each note should focus on one idea.
- They should be concept-oriented, meaning each note should focus on a concept rather than a book, author, project, etc. (Of course, a note about a book or author might link to an evergreen note.)
- They should be densely linked; that is, they should have lots of links to other notes.
- You should resist the urge to impose a top-down structure onto evergreen notes since they might be relevant to more than one category.
- You should write these notes for yourself rather than for publication. (Of course, they can serve as the basis for things you publish later.)
The concept of evergreen notes was a revelation to me. Like many people, I learned to take notes in school to prepare for exams. However, once the test passed, my notes served no further need. That is, I treated them all as transient. I’ve forgotten most things I learned this way.
The fact I was writing on paper didn’t help. Using loose leaf binders allowed me to insert new sheets of paper to expand notes later. But in practice, I never did. Also, I grouped school notes by subject and sorted them chronologically, which favored recency over conceptual unity. And, of course, the lack of search facilities made re-finding old ideas difficult.
Computers change all this. With digital apps, you can quickly revisit old notes after many years and revise or expand them. If you organize things with some care, you can easily return to ideas over time to build on them and connect them with other ideas.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to manage evergreen notes using paper. But doing so requires more effort. As a result, the practice is primarily worthwhile for people with specialized needs, such as authors and academics. The barriers are too high for everyday practical use. But computers democratize evergreen note-taking.
Understanding the difference between evergreen and transient note-taking will change how you use notes. Rather than merely being a means for recall, they become external expressions of your evolving models. By building them out in a stable, trusted location, you can create robust networks of ideas that will serve you throughout your life.