Atomic essay #21 – how I do research: part 4 (what is an Evergreen Note?)

Once I’ve got enough Literature Notes, I’m going to start to see connections. For me, creativity is in large part about making connections between things that are already there.

Atomic essay #21 – how I do research: part 4 (what is an Evergreen Note?)

This post was hard to write. Evergreen Notes are such an important part of my workflow, so I didn’t want to explain them badly. Originally I was trying to pack too much into this post and it wasn’t working. Instead, this post now functions as a brief outline; subsequent posts will explain further.

Once I’ve got enough Literature Notes, I’m going to start to see connections. For me, creativity is in large part about making connections between things that are already there. These connections go beyond one source; they’re ideas that have been considered and refined by connecting insights across sources.

These are Evergreen Notes.

A word on the nomenclature: I use the term Evergreen Note almost by default. It’s a term coined by Andy Matuschak, whose own such notes can be seen here. He owes a debt – as do I – to the Zettelkasten system used to great effect by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, popularised by its inclusion in Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes. If you want to read more about the Zettelkasten – or indeed make a ‘true’ one – you can read any number of guides online about how to do it. My method, like Matuschak’s, borrows from some of the thinking and methodology behind the Zettelkasten, but there’s plenty I don’t do, because it causes me to focus on maintaining the system, not thinking about ideas. Any system that one spends more time maintaining than using is useless. I use the term Evergreen Note rather than the Zettelkasten’s Permanent Note because my notes are more similar to Matuschak’s, for reasons that aren’t worth going into here. My point is, you can call them what you like. What’s important – for me – is that they:

  • Are about ideas, not individual texts (because this is why we have Literature Notes)
  • Are atomic – short, and about one idea. I'm not always very good at sticking to this.
  • Are written in one's own words in continuous prose
  • Reference source material
  • Are revisited and refined over time.
  • Are linked to other Evergreen Notes

Why are these 'rules' important? The first is, I think, clear enough – we want to write about ideas that we've hard that we've arrived at via a thinking and reading process. The Literature Notes are our summaries of the thoughts and writing of others; the Evergreen Notes are our elucidation of our own ideas. The second is because by writing about that one idea (though, I admit, what 'one idea' is hard to define, so I just go with what feels right) it is easier to refine that idea on its own without getting overwhelmed by others. However, as I'll discuss later, these individual ideas can be combined with others to make deeper connections – this happens when you link Evergreen Notes to each other. They're written in continuous prose so they're ready to be dropped into a piece of original work. Some have written whole essays this way – dropping and combining little idea blocks together. I don't – instead, I like to use the Evergreens and the links between them as more of a thinking tool.

In my next post, I’ll explain how I take Evergreen Notes, providing examples as I do so. For now, here is an example of an Evergreen Note: