Why evergreen notes need to be atomic, concept-oriented, and densely linked?

In a previous blog post, I talked about taking notes in a more serious way in Obsidian, but what would a serious note looks like?

In this post, I describe the benefits of developing notes. I also hypothesize 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)

Evergreen notes

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

Externalization helps you think better

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.

But regular notes are not appropriate externalizations

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 so that it captures an idea in a particular way, it will not be an appropriate externalization. This is why evergreen notes are valuable. The development of evergreen notes is necessary to our quest of leveraging evergreen notes to obtain insights. The next section elaborates why.

Notes should become chunks that we use to parse situations or problems

We perceive a problem or a 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.

There are two methods that we currently know that can lead to insights:

  • Constraint relaxation.
  • 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 a chunk 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.

A note should ideally become a chunk that we use to parse a situation or a problem.

Notes need to be atomic, concept-oriented to become chunks

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, because it lacks the proper attributes. What are these attributes? Let’s take a deeper look at chunk.

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 a 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.

A chunk also represents a concept. Even if it’s made up of other concepts or smaller details. Back to the analogy above, a “person” is an abstraction referring to any particular human being, without specifying who it is exactly. Abstraction is the defining characteristics of human thinking, and whatever externalization of thoughts are, it must have the same characteristics. Therefore, a note must also represent a concept.

In short, chunk is concept-oriented and atomic. If a note is to correspond to a chunk, it must also be concept-oriented and atomic. A note, over time, should become a chunk that we use to reason about the world.

Once we represent a problem with a set of evergreen notes, then chunk decomposition amounts to going into each evergreen note and see what it’s made of (or connected to). But there’s a final attribute: evergreen notes need to be densely linked.

Evergreen notes need to be densely linked

A loose chunk is defined by psychologists 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 provides an important basis as to why evergreen notes need to be densely linked.

A densely linked evergreen note corresponds to a loose chunk. It is easier to decompose such a note to meaningful constituent notes. Chunk decomposition is necessary if we are to perceive the world in any novel way. If we can’t decompose the chunk “person” into the actual human being that we refer to in our mind, we can never distinguish and identify individuals. We can’t develop social relationships with anyone. All human beings would be the same, without any individuality.

When we parse a problem/situation using a novel set of chunks, we significantly increase the likelihood of looking at it in a new way from which a novel solution follows. This is possible only if there are ways in which we can break a chunk into a set of chunks. This is what linking evergreen notes do: enabling an evergreen note to be like a chunk in that it can be decomposed.

Conclusion

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..

References

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. 10.1037/0278-7393.25.6.1534.

How to take notes more seriously with Obsidian

Introduction

Note-taking is an activity that gets practiced a lot, but not a lot of practices are active. In my experience, people take notes so that they don’t forget, or because these are interesting, or because they may have some short-term use for it (schools and stuff). While valid, these uses, in my opinion, are rather limiting. I believe that note-taking is an important method to facilitate insights. Having a method to make incremental progress towards insights is a competitive advantage to students and professionals alike.

People take notes primarily to close open loops

The first reason note-taking, at least in its full potential, often goes underutilized is that we often think of it as a simple act of externalization to reduce cognitive load. When we jot down our ideas, thoughts, information during meetings, interesting paragraphs we read from books, the goal is often to keep us from forgetting or to get things off our mind. In this regard, it is to simply close open loops, to borrow a term from Getting Things Done (GTD). While this act of externalization is indeed fundamental, even to the pursuit of insights, simply externalizing thoughts and leaving them there isn’t sufficient for creativity to blossom.

Another reason it’s difficult to develop good note-taking practice is that we don’t get immediate negative feedback when we do it badly. This also implies that it requires almost a religious attitude during the initial phase where one adopts a new paradigm of note-taking because the result is not immediately visible.

It’s not note-taking, it is developing evergreen notes

Treating note-taking as a method to accumulate insights is a paradigm shift. It isn’t about getting things off our mind, it is about cooking the ideas that would eventually be used, in some way, to create new, useful ideas.

There are many prominent processes, such as Zettelkasten, that align with that paradigm shift. However, there is a core practice underlying all of them, and that is the practice of producing evergreen notes.

Evergreen notes are atomic, concept-oriented, densely-linked notes that make up the standardized units of the production of insights. They are evergreen because they are supposed to last forever, not in terms of content, but of their potentiality. An evergreen note written years ago may combine with a new evergreen note to create a new evergreen note whose idea ends up transforming the way we view both of its constituents.

I wrote about why an evergreen note needs to be atomic, concept-oriented and densely-linked:

Obsidian helps you develop evergreen notes

Obsidian is a local knowledge base that works on top of markdown files. Obsidian makes itself suitable for developing evergreen notes by enabling the ability to link notes and note content together. This is essential because Evergreen notes should be densely linked to other notes. It’s something that benefits tremendously from technology. Atomicity and concept orientation is much more about how you write, rather than the tool that you write in.

Obsidian is a second brain, for you, forever

Obsidian offers two levels of linking, note-level linking, and block-level linking. Since evergreen notes are ideally atomic, most linking would happen on the note level. However, a portion of an atomic idea can also be relevant to the idea we’re currently wondering about, so there’s where block-level linking is useful. It is important not to take the analogy too far. Atomicity of a note is more about being a useful abstraction, rather than a property of indivisibility.

Capture thoughts throughout the day and turn them into evergreen notes

We have established that writing evergreen notes is important. It is perhaps the most useful level of abstraction one can hope to generate. We should aim at this ideal state, but also take into account the facts that we have a lot of fleeting thoughts throughout the day, and that all thoughts are equal in terms of their potential contributions to evergreen notes.

Therefore, if you only write evergreen notes in a dedicated block of time, then most of our thoughts throughout the day will perish. As a result, both the quality and quantity of evergreen notes produced daily are severely limited. The solution is to capture those fleeting thoughts and to have a daily habit to refactor these thoughts into evergreen notes. We need to produce and refine lower-level abstractions to turn them into high-level abstractions.

Put it another way, a note does not have to be evergreen on its first construction, we can refactor or elaborate a fleeting note into one or more multiple evergreen notes later. This is also true for software development work, where you write code so that the software is functional first and then attempt to refactor it to adhere to good patterns. Of course, if you are already familiar with the patterns then applying them initially is also a good choice, although I doubt there are explicit design patterns in the note-taking world (yet).

Obsidian helps you capture thoughts easily

Obsidian has a Daily Note plugin that automatically creates a note with the current date if it doesn’t already exist. In my workflow, daily notes are where my capturing activity takes place. Regardless of wether, it is an idea, a meeting note, a thought, an observation, it will go into the daily note first, and only then it is refactored to individual notes (i.e curation).

My daily note

The same plugin also allows you to template your daily notes, so you can set goals/objectives in the template to remind yourself every day. For example, I have 3 areas of focus that I try to take evergreen notes on every day. It is a way to instantiate long-term initiatives into your life.


Obsidian’s plugin ecosystem is an exciting place, there you can also find Obsidian Calendar Plugin, which is also part of my workflow to navigate between daily notes quickly and easily.

Navigate between notes easily using Calendar

Conclusion

I have tried to delineate how producing evergreen notes can facilitate insights, and how Obsidian facilitates the practice of producing evergreen notes. I write this blog post in hopes that I can contribute to the popularization of Obsidian (because I love it), and also contribute to the paradigm shift of note-taking, or note-creation, to put it more appropriately. Writing evergreen notes has provided me with what I think is a great competitive advantage, and I hope that it can do the same for you.

Further Resources

References

[1] Jones, Gary. (2003). Testing Two Cognitive Theories of Insight. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition. 29. 1017-27. 10.1037/0278-7393.29.5.1017.

[2] Bilalic, M., M. Graf, N. Vaci and Amory H. Danek. “The temporal dynamics of insight problem solving – restructuring might not always be sudden.” Thinking & Reasoning (2019): 1-37.

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights – Gary Klein

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