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 stuffs).

But I believe that note-taking is an important method to facilitate insights, and that having a practice that can facilitate insights is a competitive advantage to students and professionals alike.

People take notes primarily to close open loops

The first reason note-taking often flies under the radar is that, we don’t think of it as a method to accumulate insight. 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. Another reason is that, we don’t get immediate negative feedback when we do it badly. After the immediate utility or importance of these notes disappear, they tend to go into oblivion.

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

Therefore to treat note-taking as a method to accumulate insight is a paradigm shift. It isn’t about getting things off our mind, it is about preparing the materials that would eventually turn into insights. There are many prominent processes, with Zettelkasten as a typical example. However, there is a core practice underlying all such processes, and that is writing evergreen notes.

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

Developing evergreen notes help create shifts in perceptions which produce insights

How does evergreen notes enable insights ? Insight is an unexpected shift in perception that leads to a better story. A story is a representation. A representation is distribution of activation across pieces of knowledge in memory [1]. Basically, we change our perception of a story by changing how pieces of knowledge (ideas) are activated. And activation of an idea is closely linked to how it’s connected to other ideas, so we must change how ideas connect to one another.

Evergreen notes are atomic, concept-oriented and densely linked to other ideas, so evergreen notes are the components of our perceptions. More importantly, they are externalized perceptions, which mean we can concretely integrate, contrast, modify, refine them. Evergreen notes enable the possibility of manipulating how ideas connect together in an external environment. When we do it in our mind, it is called thinking.

Interestingly, the observed suddenness of insight is more likely an epiphenomenon, and in fact the brain gradually gets closer and closer to insights [2]. This is important because it means that insight is something that we can make incremental progress towards. Each increment is made by refining evergreen notes and their connections.

So, to summarize, developing evergreen notes amounts to developing our own perceptions, which create changes in perceptions, which are insights.

Obsidian helps you develop evergreen notes

Obsidian is a local knowledge base that works on top of markdown files. One of the features that make Obsidian suitable for developing evergreen notes is the ability to link notes and note content together. This is important because Evergreen notes should be densely linked. Atomicity and concept-orientation is all in the writing, so it is in how you write, not the tool that you write in.

Obsidian offers two levels of linking, one is note-level linking, and the other is block-level linking. Since evergreen notes are already atomic on their own, in my opinion most linkings would happen on the note level. However, often times too only a portion of an atomic idea is found relevant, so there’s where the block-level linking is useful.

It is important not to take the analogy too far. Rather than being indivisible into smaller units, atomicity of a note is more about being a useful abstraction.

Capture thoughts throughout the day and turn them into evergreen notes

So we have established that writing evergreen notes is important. One can even say that it is of the highest caliber of abstraction one can produce. We should aim at this ideal, 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 evergeen notes.

Therefore, if you only write evergreen notes in a dedicated a block of time, then most of our thoughts throughout the day will vanish without making any contribution. As a result, both the quality and quantity of evergreen notes produced daily is limited. The solution, obviously, 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 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 which 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).

The same plugin also allows you to template your daily notes, so you can set goals/objectives in the template to remind yourself everyday. For example, I have 3 areas of focus that I try to take evergreen notes on everyday. 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.

Conclusion

In this blog, I have delineated how taking evergreen notes can facilitate insights, and how Obsidian facilitate the practice of taking 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. To me it has been a great competitive advantage.

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.