In this series, we are exploring how to take your thinking seriously. To see the five previous posts in the series, go here.
Intended Audience: Knowledge workers, students, or anyone who wants to take their learning seriously and compound their knowledge and learning over time.
(Applying what takes you 8 minutes to read today will benefit you for decades, and others for generations to come.)
Last week we asked, how can you take your thinking seriously? Last week we explored the idea of taking your thinking seriously by developing a thinking practice. Today we will explore how you can develop a thinking practice specifically through disciplined writing and it's potential benefits.
What are evergreen notes?
They are fundamental units of thought. They're about one single thing, an idea broken down into it's fundamental element. . This makes it easy to reuse notes and form connections across topics. It requires notes be densely linked.
Note titles should be declarative and imperative. Titles should make a statement, give instructions or advice, expresses a command, order, direction, or request.
They should be concept-oriented. Evergreens should be about a concept, an idea. It can be helpful to write them as declarative statements. They are concepts that you believe to be true, backed up with sources of inspiration, references where you learned about the idea, or based on your own experience.
They are best when richly interconnected. The best ideas are like ingredients, they stand on their own but are most powerful when richly combined. Evergreen notes are best when densely linked to other ideas and resources.
Evergreen notes are guided by the questions: "What thinking practices can help me reliably develop insights over time?" and "how can I shepherd my attention effectively?"
They should be focused. Apply your thinking and evergreen notes to an area of deep focus and specific work.
I think for evergreen notes to really be effective, let alone for you to have the motivation to do them, you need to have a specific area of focus. For me, my focus in writing evergreen notes are psychology, recovery, intimacy, and applied theology. They are a way of doing disciplined thinking for the work that I am doing as a therapist.
Things to avoid, things to do
Here are some thoughts on a few things that are common but not sufficient for creativity and developing your own thinking. And they definitely don't create a forest of your own ideas.
Don't just read and forget what you read. Take notes.
Don't just take raw notes. Raw notes are things like: writing a few words in the margin of a book. Journaling in a random journal or writing a thought down in your notes app on your phone. Writing an idea down on a stickie note. These are raw notes. They are not intentionally connected to each other. They have minimal value for the moment, but have no enduring value. They do little to nothing to improve your memory. They don't build on each other. They don't promote discovery of new ideas. They don't improve your thinking. Take notes in one central, connected place.
Don't just simply store your thoughts in files. Files do not promote creativity. Files force you to place one thought or resource in one place, rather than develop contextual bi-directional links and make a though deeply integrated in your network of other thoughts. Storing your ideas and resources, and knowledge dots in a file (physical or digital) means you have to decide on a single place to store it, under a single topic, in a hierarchical structure. This is very limiting.
It limits your ability to search for and find it in the future (there is only one or a few words to find it by). It limits your ability to use the idea interchangeably with other ideas. It limits your ability to connect idea dots together.
Keeping your thoughts, resources, and knowledge stored in files keeps them siloed and does not open them up to powerful connections, new insights, or creative combinations. Take networked notes.
Don't only write down what other people say. Do your own thinking by writing down your own way of saying the concept that you learned. Take notes in your own words.
Don't fail to cite your references. Ideas are built on other ideas. Claims are best when built on data, research, and experience. Whenever possible, cite references to data, original thinkers you learned a concept from, or your own experience. Cite people who inspire and influence you. By citing others, you not only respect them, but you leave a trail for you to follow in the future and for others to see who has influenced you. Take note of who you are learning from and inspired by.
Don't merely tag an idea. Put your ideas in a rich context. Relate how one idea X, connects to other idea Y and Z and is informed by idea A. Tagging an idea or resource is not a bad thing, it can be a very helpful tool and I do it regularly. Especially when searching for an idea, having robust tags can be helpful in allowing you to filter down your ideas when querying multiple tags. However tags are too often very broad, and if you are doing extensive writing in a particular context, tags may not be nearly as helpful as richly contextualized linking. So use tags for your ideas, but also write out how your ideas relate to each other. Tag your notes.
Don't let your notes be orphans for long. Speaking of how your ideas relate to each other, an orphan note is a concept that is not tagged or connected with any other associated ideas. When you write down an idea, seek to connect it to other ideas. Sometimes this isn't possible, but over time, the more you write, the more your ideas will become interconnected. The more densely you relate your ideas to one another the stronger your thinking becomes. Connect your notes.
Don't do deep thinking only when you are trying to create something for others. So often people think there is value only when doing. Your worth is based on how much you produce. I'm all for being productive and getting things done. But don't neglect the practice of thinking carefully and deeply for it's own sake. Yes, this slows you down. But when you are thinking about creating knowledge forests, you must think longer term. Forests aren't created on a short time horizon. So slow down, think deeply, and write out your thoughts. In time they will become incredibly valuable. Train your thinking regularly by taking evergreen notes daily.
When it comes to evergreen notes, I am indebted to, and highly influenced and inspired by Andy Matuschak, and Maggie Appleton (who are in turn influenced by Sonke Ahrens).
Personally, I aim to create valuable knowledge forests for psychology, therapy, recovery, applied theology, or more broadly speaking, create my own form of modern wisdom literature.
Benefits of Evergreen Notes
By writing out ideas in your own words, it pushes you to do your own thinking.
By writing extensive evergreen notes you will be able to learn about a particular topic very deeply.
In time, you will be able to see areas where you lack understanding.
In time, you will be able to create new content, give talks, write articles, teach, or share your ideas much more effectively.
You will be more creative and have new ideas as you connect and combine your own idea dots together in surprising new ways.
"Writing about something, even something you know well, usually shows you that you didn't know it as well as you thought. Putting ideas into words is a severe test."
Paul Graham, Putting Ideas into Words
"Notes should surprise you. If reading and writing notes doesn’t lead to surprises, what’s the point? This is why we have dense networks of links...so that searches help us see unexpected connections...so that when writing about an idea that seems new, we stumble onto what we’ve already written about it (perhaps unexpectedly)."
What if you started training your mind, like you workout, and regularly showed up each day to exercise your mind by taking evergreen notes?
What are you most curious about?
Let me know if you have any questions about evergeen notes or want to learn more about a particular aspect of my thinking practice.
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