Misconceptions About the Relationship Between Permanent & Evergreen Notes
In this essay, I'll be looking at common misconceptions regarding the relationship between notes kept in a zettelkasten and Andy Matuschak's evergreen notes.
To unpack how these notes size up, I'll be looking at Andy's public notes, since these serve as the basis for much of what is discussed online. Andy states that his public notes are written for himself, "roughly a thinking environment," an experiment, and possibly confusing. Matuschak's notes are also at times unfinished and, being evergreen, subject to changes. So, what follows will not be an analysis of Andy's current thinking on the matter outside these notes, but on the notes as they have been made available to us.
I should also state that this essay is not to be read as a critique of Matuschak's notes or the way in which he defines them, but rather as a critique of the way they are interpreted online, especially when read as foils to permanent zettelkasten notes.1 It is my belief that online discussions attempting to make strong distinctions between evergreen and zettelkasten notes are tenuous at best, based more in superficial connotations regarding the terms "permanent" and "evergreen" than on actual permanent and evergreen notes.
The Making of Evergreen Notes
Andy lists five principles associated with the writing of evergreen notes, which, as will be shown, mirror those of zettels. According to Andy, evergreen notes should be:
- Densely linked
- Organized based on associative ontologies rather than hierarchical taxonomies
- Written for yourself by default, disregarding audience
Matuschak's practice of writing evergreen notes "is heavily inspired by Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten practice and its contemporary advocates." So, it's no surprise that in each of the above principles both Luhmann and Ahrens are provided as sources. Even Andy's primary note on Evergreen notes has as a reference both Ahrens and Luhmann, which is to say that the most notable proponents of the zettelkasten methodology serve as the basis for the principles associated with writing evergreen notes. And, the individual principles concur.
Atomicity, concept-centricity, and dense links may be key components of evergreen notes, but they are also fundamental to creating zettels.2 So too is establishing connections based on associative ontologies, which is a common practice in the zettelkasten world, especially for note makers not solely employing the folgezettel technique. And, while Andy lists "writing for oneself" as a core principle of evergreen notes, this in contrast to Ahrens' call to write for an audience, ultimately the choice can be left up to personal preference, as there are pros and cons to both approaches.
Other Similarities Between Permanent and Evergreen Notes
Similarities between permanent zettels and evergreen notes extend beyond the core principles. In fact, there are many places where evergreen and permanent notes overlap. Andy states that the two kinds of notes are similar in that they are both:
- Emphasizing of links
- In favor of centering one’s own ideas and their development over time
- In favor of emphasizing the use of one’s own words, even when describing others’ ideas
If these similarities between zettels and evergreen notes sound familiar, that's because half of them mirror the principles for writing evergreen notes laid out above. The three similarities that are not mentioned as principles—serendipity, centering one's own ideas, and the emphasizing of writing in one's own words—are also key components to creating zettels, and thus further connect the two note-making methodologies. From this we can see that the making of evergreen notes both in principle and in practice mirrors that of making permanent notes.
Potential Differences Between Permanent and Evergreen Notes
If the sources of inspiration for evergreen notes, the principles that define them, and the attributes that identify them can all be traced back to the zettelkasten method, what then may be the differences between the two methodologies, and in what ways do these differences warrant strong distinctions between the two?
Andy states that he uses the term "evergreen notes" to make room for distinctions and to give himself space to explore ideas "apart from the culture surrounding Zettelkasten, which has its own prior values and proclivities." Given the at times constrained, ideological culture that arises in certain corners of the online zettelkasten world, this is an understandable desire.3
Andy attempts to distance himself from the culture of zettelkasten through stated differences in practices divided into two categories:
Practices that inform the note-making process, which include:
- An inbox for capturing new notes
- The use of spaced repetition as a mnemonic device
- A morning writing practice
- Making notes public
And, practices related to the notes themselves, which include:
- A "broader taxonomy of note types"
- Note titles that act as an "abstraction for the note itself"
- Contextual backlinks
What's interesting to me is that none of the proposed differences are in any way at odds with the zettelkasten method. In fact, in the cases where I have employed the above practices, I found myself not distanced from the zettelkasten community, but further ensconced within it! And, it appears I am not the only one, as most of the differences mentioned are already common practices for zettelers.
For starters, Ahrens refers to the use of an inbox to capture fleeting and in-process notes in at least two places in How to Take Smart Notes.4 Not to mention, Ahrens' entire book could be read as a homage to the benefits of having a daily writing, reading, and note-taking practice, of which Luhmann's own practice is well documented. Contextualizing links is also a common, regularly emphasized practice, the use-value of which is expanded on in Sascha Fast's "RE: Backlinks Should Be Context-Rich."
Other practices such as using spaced repetition, making one's notes public, and creating note titles that act as abstractions for the note's content, while nowhere explicitly stated as an integral part of the zettelkasten practice, are easily integrated for anyone wishing to do so.5
The only remaining possible difference is Andy's reference to a broader taxonomy of notes, but here too we will see many similarities.
There are a number of common note types referred to in the zettelkasten community, some coming from Luhmann, some from Ahrens, and some having developed within the online discourse. Indexes, fleeting notes, structure notes, hub notes, biographical notes, literature notes, are just a few. It is a diversified taxonomy that, for better or worse, seems to expand with every passing year.
While Matuschak's note on his supplementary taxonomy is incomplete, it does give us an idea of where his thinking lies. Andy's taxonomy consists of roughly seven kinds of notes, four of which are defined as rungs on a ladder leading toward the production of written work, and three others remaining somewhat independent of this process. The notes that exist on the ladder are:
- Ephemeral scratchings
- Prompts and incomplete notes kept in a writing inbox
- Evergreen notes
- Outline notes
Note types which are not on the ladder are grouped under the term "Proper noun notes" and include:
- Literature notes
- Person notes
- Log notes
As you may have noticed, the majority of the above note types are congruent with notes already in use within the zettelkasten community. For example, ephemeral scratchings, prompts, and incomplete notes kept in an inbox all fall under the category of "fleeting notes." And, as shown above, at both the principle and practical level, evergreen notes and zettels are almost entirely interchangeable. Andy's "outline notes" seem to be a variation of structure, index, or hub notes. And, literature notes are, well, literature notes, one of the two main permanent notes found in a zettelkasten.6
Only "person notes" and "log notes" seem to exist outside the current taxonomy of zettelkasten notes. And yet, here too, these could be easily integrated into a person's zettelkasten without any degradation to the methodology.7
Misunderstandings About Zettelkasten's Not-So-Permanent Notes
The differences Andy cites above—perhaps because they aren't that different, or because few have taken the time to examine them—are rarely discussed in online spaces debating the merits of evergreen notes over permanent notes. What you encounter instead are vague takes on "rigidity" vs "fluidity," a surface-level distinction based on connotations associated with the terms "permanent" and "evergreen." And yet, rarely will you come across a long-time zetteler who thinks permanent notes are rigid or immutable.
The term "permanent note" is a Sonkhe Ahrens' coinage, and refers not to the nature of a note's mutability, but to its having been permanently included in the zettelkasten, for a permanent note is actually a reference to two different kinds of notes: zettels and literature notes.
Zettels are the idea, concept, and argument notes found in the slip box. These are the notes people are most often referring to when they talk about the "atomic notes" they store in their zettelkasten. Literature notes, sometimes called biographical notes, are reference notes kept in a box outside the slip box. Both zettels and literature notes are considered "permanent" because they have graduated from "fleeting notes," or, to use Matuschak's terminology, "ephemeral scratchings," "prompts," and "incomplete notes." Once fleeting notes have been deemed as potentially useful in the future, and have been edited, refined, and densely linked, they make it past the velvet rope, and become a permanent part of one's zettelkasten.8
This, however, does not mean that they are unalterable. Both Sascha Fast and Will Simpson have written on the subject of the mutability of permanent notes (here and here, respectively), so I will leave it up to you to investigate. But, suffice to say, there is little to bolster the argument that permanent notes are frozen in time while evergreen notes remain subject to the wind.
Krishna, Jesus, and Siddhartha Walk Into a Bar
As the old saying goes, put the founders of the world's religions in a room, and you get a vibrant meeting of the minds. Gather their followers, and you get war. In much the same, if far less violent, way, this holds true for the world of PKM. The followers of a methodology are almost always the ones who expend the most effort putting up walls between themselves and those perceived to be outside the barriers of their own creation.
Personally, I don't find much use in reading Matuschak's evergreen notes as radically distinct from the notes contained in a zettelkasten. Andy describes his notes as an "evolution" of Luhmann's notes,9 and regularly gives props to both Sonkhe Ahrens and the broader online zettelkasten community. I take Andy's interest in giving himself space to think about note-making at face value, and see his evergreen notes less as a set of note types distinct from those contained in a zettelkasten, and more as an attempt to shift the language and thus culture of zettelkasten-style note-taking. In other words, change the language and you change the discourse. Andy's notes give note makers both in and outside the zettelkasten community an enhanced vocabulary to discuss note-making. Less so do they represent an entirely new methodology. For even Andy, in reference to his taxonomy of notes, reminds us to not "over-obsess or over-formalize this stuff."10
New Language Leads to New Communities
Matuschak's notes have made it possible for people turned off by the zettelkasten community to have a vocabulary and metaphorical language to talk about note-making while still practicing contextual linking, the building of rhizomatic structures, and atomicity. This is no small accomplishment. Diversifying communities is important, and even more so when communities of similar practices and worldviews form a network. While the expansion of this network is still in its infancy, evergreen notes have already inspired the creation of "digital gardens" and inform Nick Milo's MOC/LYT method of note-making.11 But, neither of these limbs extend beyond the reach of the ghost of Niklas Luhmann.
Luhmann states that, when matured, the slip box "becomes a sensitive system that internally reacts to many ideas."12 He states that "the slip box provides combinatorial possibilities which were never planned, never preconceived, or conceived." He states that "internal branching" creates a kind of "internal growth," that growth in size correlates to growth in complexity. Luhmann states that a slip box needs time to grow "in order to reach critical mass." Before that time, we might say that the slip box functions less as a plant and more as a planter, "a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in."
Luhmann talks about his slip box in much the same way Andy talks about his evergreen notes. A zettelkasten is a living, textual organism that changes over time. It is, as a whole, "evergreen." While evergreen notes may not (yet) be a separate category of notes distinct from notes kept in a zettelkasten, if distinctions continue to get watered, and if cross pollination with ideas about learning, knowledge, and note-taking take place outside the zettelkasten community's field of vision, evergreen notes may eventually grow into something truly separate and distinct. As it stand, however, we zettelers, MOCers, and digital gardeners are all still tilling the same soil. 🌴
Bob teaches many courses on zettelkasten, PKM, social media, and spirituality, and is a Building a Second Brain mentor. He is the author of Sitting with Spirits: Exploring the Unseen World In the Margins of Christianity; The House of I Am Mirrors: And Other Poems; Acupressure For Beginners; and The Power of Stretching. You can stay up to date on his doings and goings by signing up for his weekly email “The High Pony: Really Good Insights for Living an Inspired Life.” bobdoto.computer for everything else.
Debates regarding the supposed differences between evergreen and permanent notes show up somewhat frequently where MOC/LYT and digital gardens are discussed. Although, these communities by no means have a monopoly on the subject.↩
Here and elsewhere, I use the term "zettels" to refer to the atomic notes kept in the slip box. These are distinct from literature notes, which are kept outside. Both, however, are considered "permanent" according to Sonkhe Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes, and when I refer to "permanent notes," I am referring to this broader categorization.↩
At times, I, too, share in Andy's wish to put space between me and the community I find myself in. And, were I to find myself working under my own distinct methodology, new terminology would be key. So, I get it.↩
Ahrens, S. (2017) How to Take Smart Notes. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. The two pages in question are pp. 23 and 30.↩
I, myself, am indebted to Andy for the latter, and consider my zettelkasten better for having adapted Andy's naming practice.↩
Ahrens, S. (2017).↩
Ahrens defines a zettelkasten as being made up of two main areas: the slip box (for permanent zettels) and a box of biographical notes (where permanent literature notes are stored). In theory, one could add additional boxes for both people and log notes without having any negative effect on the zettelkasten as a whole.↩
Ahrens, S. (2017).↩
Nick's LYT Kit platform refers to evergreen notes in a variety of places (here, here, and here).↩
Luhmann, N. "Communicating with Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account." http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes↩