In this post, I describe the benefits of developing notes. I also address why we need to develop evergreen notes, rather than just regular notes. Finally, I make a case for why an evergreen note has to be atomic, concept-oriented, and densely linked. (I’ll update the references later)
I’d have to let the author speak for himself:
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 is the fundamental unit of knowledge work.
Andy Matuschak – Evergreen notes
Notes ideally help thinking
Thinking is difficult. To quote Jordan Peterson, it means being able to divide your mind into different people with different personalities and withstanding the tension of them battling it out.
Because our brain is powerful a processor but poor storage, and it’s within the interplay and contrast between ideas that productive thinking takes place, we should externalize as much as possible to focus our brainpower on resolving tensions between ideas.
By externalizing symbols out to the notes, we can spend more brainpower on the productive part of thinking.
Regular notes are usually not ideal
A note, ideally, is an externalization of the idea that it captures. This is arguably where the strength of note-taking comes from, at least in its full potential: by manipulating notes which are concrete entities, we can manipulate ideas that are abstract entities.
However, if we don’t design a note to gear it towards capturing an idea in a particular way, it will not be an appropriate externalization of the abstract entity that we’re trying to manipulate. This is why evergreen notes are valuable. The development of evergreen notes is necessary to our quest of leveraging evergreen notes to obtain insights. I will elaborate on this in the next section.
Notes != chunks
We perceive a concept/problem/situation using a set of chunks. For example, when we look at an office, we don’t see in detail the individuals who are residing on a physical structure that supports a particular posture, we see people sitting on chairs. “People” and “chairs” are chunks. The more sophisticated our chunks are, the better we perceive a situation/concept/problem. Instead of seeing your boss, you see a man who is married with children, has more than 10 years of experience in the industry, and is currently interested in certain aspects of product development. The chunk that is “your boss” can be seen as a collection of other chunks which are the datums that I just described.
There are two methods that we currently know that can lead to insights: constraint relaxation and chunk decomposition. Constraint relaxation is when we relax unnecessary constraints of the problem imposed by trickery or by our limited reading of the problem/situation. A famous example is the 9-dot problem where the key insight is that we have to relax the constraint of the line being drawn must reside within the box.
Another way that we can obtain insights is to decompose these chunks into different sets of chunks. For example, the infamous matchstick problem in which the key insight is that we must decompose the equal operator into two matchsticks that can be moved around.
In this post, we are more concerned about chunk decomposition than constraint relaxation. It’s not guaranteed that this process will lead to the decomposition of the right chunk into the right set of chunks, but it’s necessary nevertheless if we are to perceive a problem in any new way. Therefore, a note that is built to be decomposed is the premise for the claim that evergreen notes can facilitate insights. There are other requirements as well, which will be explored shortly.
Evergreen notes need to be atomic, concept-oriented
It is worth noting that a regular note does not correspond to a useful chunk. We can’t use a meeting note, a quick jot-down, a sentence from a book, to parse a situation/problem. A set of useful chunks allows us to frame the situation/problem, but regular notes cannot be used in that way.
A chunk is a concept built from other concepts, and which can be used in a way that does not require its deconstruction into smaller concepts. We don’t have to substitute “people” for “Jane, Dick, Grayson, and those who possess similar traits” when we want to use the term to refer to the concept of a general group of individuals. For an evergreen note to be a chunk, it must also be useful on its own without having to refer to other notes. This explains why evergreen notes need to be atomic.
When I think about risk, one chunk that comes to mind immediately is the idea that “people tend to overestimate risks and underestimate opportunities.”. This, in my opinion, is an ideal evergreen note.
First, I do not need to deconstruct this evergreen note to use it. For example, I can use it to explain a particular behavior of my friend, Jane: “one explanation for why Jane refused a lucrative job offer that is out of her comfort zone is because humans tend to overestimate risks and underestimate opportunities”.
Second, the evergreen note revolves around a very particular concept – that tendency of human beings that give more weights in their evaluation towards losses, and fewer weights towards win.
So, in summary, a chunk is concept-oriented (“people” is a concept) and atomic (“people” does not require deconstruction to be used). If notes are to correspond to useful chunks then they must also possess these characteristics. An evergreen note, over time, should become a chunk that we use to reason about the world. When an evergreen note corresponds to a chunk, the problem of chunk decomposition then becomes the problem of note decomposition.
Evergreen notes need to be densely linked
A loose chunk is defined as that which can be decomposed into meaningful chunks. From experiments, we know that loose chunks are much more likely to be decomposed before tight chunks. This is why evergreen notes need to be densely linked. A densely linked evergreen note corresponds to a loose chunk, therefore when necessary, it’s much likely to be decomposed to other evergreen notes and such decomposition can yield insights.
Chunk decomposition is necessary if we are to perceive the world in any new way, let alone obtaining insights. If we can’t decompose the chunk “people”, we can never distinguish and identify individuals and develop social relationships with them. All human beings will be the same, without any individual characteristic.
When we parse a problem/situation using different sets of chunks, we significantly increase the likelihood of looking at it in a new way from which a novel solution follows. Insights, in a sense, are just that: new ways to look at the world that lead to novel solutions.
In summary, atomic, concept-oriented and densely linked evergreen notes facilitate insights by converting the problem of chunk decomposition into a much more soluble problem that is (evergreen) note decomposition.
Knoblich, Günther & Ohlsson, Stellan & Haider, Hilde & Rhenius, Detlef. (1999). Constraint Relaxation and Chunk Decomposition in Insight Problem Solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 25. 1534-1555. 10.1037/0278-7318.104.22.1684.