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Andy Matuschak's Notes (andymatuschak.org)
166 points by telotortium on Aug 26, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

Thorough indictment of productivity porn:


"People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use Many bloggers and “life-hackers” have made a full-time job of suggesting how you should organize your journal, or how you should most effectively Write about what you read. We should take this advice seriously insofar as those practices have helped the authors achieve meaningful creative work: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”

But most people who write about note-taking don’t seem particularly accomplished in their own fields, whatever those may be. In fact, most such writers aren’t applying their notes to some exogenous creative problem: their primary creative work is writing about productivity."

I suspect a lot of folks who are into note-taking methods have this mindset that if only we knew how to take better notes, we'd be able to reason better, produce better output and become more accomplished. I also suspect we are cerebral types and have rich inner worlds, so it's only natural that we think that more and better analyses will help us understand the world better. Yet, despite the many tools that we have, many of us only hover just a little above mediocrity in our accomplishments.

(I'm describing myself in the above paragraph.)

Outside of certain fields like academia and writing, I've observed that accomplished people tend to focus more on "doing" (including doing the "wrong" things) rather than constructing a super coherent model of the world. They rely on rough heuristics and feedback loops to learn, rather than careful analysis.

I read an article this week "Action Produces Information" [1] that made me think that maybe the more cerebral among us ought to step outside our mental models occasionally and actually try to interact with the gritty world and let reality be our teacher (instead of our models). By interacting with reality, we actually generate new information.


Watch any group of entrepreneurs for a long enough period of time, for instance, and you would notice that the best entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily the best calibrated Bayesian updaters or expected utility calculators. Instead, the best entrepreneurs tend to have a mix of bias-to-action and fast adaptation in response to new information.

It seems to me that better note-taking methods are great for sharpening the brain (which is a valuable thing in itself), but a bias toward action/empiricism might be better for sharpening the skills needed to do meaningful things in the world. They're not mutually exclusive, but given a finite amount of time, my intuition tells me that putting more weight on the latter will tend to have a higher payoff.

[1] https://commoncog.com/blog/action-produces-information/

I also think people get stuck in optimising their process because it’s easy to see, easy to change and makes you feel productive. Versus most creativity which is very woolly and hard to make tangible. Both can be approached by doing and empirically evaluated though. For me at least it’s more about biasing towards tackling the actual problem or challenge in front of you rather than polishing tools. Note taking in particular should be pragmatic and straightforward and I’m amazed at the complexity people can put into it.

Productivity porn has its uses. Getting to write notes is hard, or at least not very gratifying. Getting the perfect pen and notebook makes note taking more appealing, which is good.

But there's always a better pen and notebook out there. At some point you have to do the work.

Yes, obviously. If you limit PP to rewarding yourself, short-term, for starting unappealing work, then you should be fine. Otherwise it's just a huge resource sink.

I settled on a $1.20 pen model which I really like, a generic notebook and have kept the resolution not to even look at any more stuff (okay, I read about Zettelkasten but resisted the temptation to try it). This sort of works for me.

I will keep quiet on how much time I had spent researching various productivity-related crap :)

I wrote about something similar for self-help, more broadly here about how good self help is self-defeating:


Right now, Andy is perhaps the most sophisticated thinker in this space sharing his insights and prototypes (meta-knowledge work, backlinked evergreen notes, spaced repetition, new UX/UI for these systems, etc). Here's some additional pointers:

- Andy livestreamed a demo of him on a typical work session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGcs4tyey18

- this Patreon post explains in greater lenght his OS-level spaced repetition approach: https://www.patreon.com/posts/bringing-ideas-36925173

- Andy is working on a prototype of that system, called Orbit, which might be available soon: https://twitter.com/withorbit

- in regards to his specific writing/thinking system, here's a couple more clarifications: https://notes.andymatuschak.org/z4AX7pHAu5uUfmrq4K4zig9x8jmm... https://notes.andymatuschak.org/z6f6xgGG4NKjkA5NA1kDd46whJh2...

- Obsidian has a plug-in which replicates the sliding panes of Andy's notes: https://forum.obsidian.md/t/andy-matuschak-mode-v2-7-updated...

I think the space of graph/backlinked personal notes/knowledge systems is taking off [1], with many solutions free and open-source. (Of that list, many have spaced-repetition plug-ins not referenced there.) It will be interesting to how the field matures in a couple of years.

[1] https://www.notion.so/db13644f08144495ad9877f217a161a1?v=ff6...

Thanks for the links! I wonder if Andy (or anyone else) has addressed the lack of images in these notes. Some ideas are expressed much better visually, but I have yet to figure out a frictionless way of integrating things drawn in a notebook or tablet into notes written mostly on a laptop.

You seem to know a lot about Andy. Do you know which tools he uses to write his notes and keep track of back links?

If you check out the livestream on youtube, you'll see that he does the writing in Bear (Mac/iOS only app). Presumably there's some custom code to export everything and build the HTML with backlinks, but as mentioned in the link posted here, this code is not public anywhere.

He has shared part of his toolkit, namely the exporting and syncing of the Bear notes, and “link-janitor” for the backlinks [1]. Although I wouldn’t recommend it in general - it’s a brittle prototype. And right now there are better tools out there (linked above) many of which appeared in the last few months.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/bearapp/comments/enbk65/sharing_a_s...

I was in Andy's dorm (house) at Caltech. When I matriculated, I chose begrudgingly to study a "real" science--physics--instead of what I actually liked--computer science. It was in no small part thanks to Andy's contagious and unabashed excitement for CS that I eventually switched over and became a happy software engineer.

Hi! I was in Blacker, too (same year as Andy). I matriculated wanting to do astro and stuck with it, but there were enough excited CS majors around (of which Andy, of course, was one) that I ended up taking a number of CS classes for fun before graduating.

And thank goodness I did! I eventually left astro for industry and that experience (both the formal classes and just being around a bunch of CS people a lot) helped with that transition tremendously.

Great to have such upperclassmen as role models as a student. Doesn't surprise me that it would have a big effect on what majors students choose. But sometimes we wonder if too many people take cs at caltech these days just because it is trendy or just easier? Guess I really Don't know if that's a "problem" Either, I am happy it worked out for you.

As yet another housemate of Andy's at Caltech, it is perhaps worth mentioning that he was also involved in updating Caltech's CS curriculum prior to it becoming as popular as it is today.

Hard to say how much of the trend is just what happened everywhere, but CS1 being in Python rather than Scheme probably helped a bit.

Was swapping Scheme for Python a good thing though? Scheme is a very good way to understand the concepts of CS in a more fundamental way. Python can be learned independently anyway through SICP.

IIRC, CS1 was a mandatory class for other majors (like MechE) and a course in Scheme was basically hazing from their perspective.

I forget if Scheme was moved to a later course or made optional.

It was moved to a later course, thankfully. I’m a big SICP fan!

(Hi Chris!)

Hmmmm... you didn’t happen to start the 2-seater car physics major trend, did you?

>If you had to set one metric to use as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, the best I know might be the number of Evergreen notes written per day.


Knowledge workers are refrigerators:

    meals + information ⟶ knowledge + heat
A traditional measure of a knowledge worker is in papers/year.

To find a higher-frequency leading indicator, notes/day seems apropos.

(The heat above is generated at O(100W). Unfortunately that doesn't correlate well with knowledge produced, or we could just use it as a measure. Would an intermediate measure be drafts/week?)

Highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6rVHr6OwjI

Does number of lines of code deleted also count?

what's the problem with it? Isn't a good metric going to be numeric, kinda of necessity?...also since these are his personal notes, shouldn't we assume the "you" there means himself? So who's he keeping outside the gate?

I guess the biggest criticism is it promotes quantity over quality. Similar to counting lines of code or pages of a book written. Although I think it’s safe to assume in this case there is some implicit notion of minimum quality to consider a note “written”.

ah i see that and yeah after reviewing the concept of evergreen notes, I think your assumption is a safe one ...though the original post (pre-edit) was something like "oy using volume of notes written as a gatekeeper for knowledge work", which seems like a slightly different criticism of the statement.

I didn’t see the pre-edit version so did wonder where the gate keeping bit came from. That sort of uncharitable take is why I’d never put my notes online. I’d find it extremely stressful.

Some of the notes seem to be restricted? e.g. i get an error: unauthorized when clicking the link "Relationship between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten" on this note: https://notes.andymatuschak.org/z2QvtE9w5zs49x7WUeG8Ut1vywHD...

Ah, sorry; some of them are indeed restricted, but that was just a broken link. Here's a correct link for that note: https://notes.andymatuschak.org/z4AX7pHAu5uUfmrq4K4zig9x8jmm...

I watched Andy's presentation at one WWDC (probably 2010) and left thinking "This fella is really something".

In that same vein, I regularly think about a lightning talk on gestures he gave at React Conf 2016.


Thanks for the link. I can't find the link to the WWDC presentation, but it was about the introduction of the same multi touch system he talked about in the talk you mentioned.

Andy and Michael Nielsen put together a set of very nice, flashcard-enhanced introductory lessons for quantum information sciences at https://quantum.country/ where they explore some of the mnemonic techniques that Andy talks about in his notes.

Was expecting to bypass this pretty quickly, but this is great! Lots of interesting ideas about how to gain and use knowledge effectively. Spaced repetition for habit formation, non-linear reading as the norm, needing a writing surface to think...good stuff.

> "PS: Many people ask, so I’ll just note here: no, I haven’t made this system available for others to use. It’s still an early research environment, and Premature scaling can stunt system iteration."

Damn, looks like an interesting way to browse knowledge... I want it!

https://notes.azlen.me/g3tibyfv/ seems to be inspired by Andy Matuschak's notes. They have a Github that might implement this, though there isn't an obvious package to implement this: https://github.com/azlen/azlen.me

Feels like a horizontally aligned version of Tiddlywiki: https://tiddlywiki.com/

Have you tried Obsodian or Roam? The site looks quite a lot like clicking through a Roam graph to me.

Krystal plugin for TiddlyWiki mimics the sliding panes of notes on Andy's website. I have been using it for a while and it's been neat.


Andy's functional programming evangelism back in 2015 helped lead me swiftly down a path away from being a professional Apple ecosystem developer. I am now a professional Clojurist. Thank you very much Andy.

Speaking of notes, is there some simple knowledge base system for someone that wants to keep its note in a web accessible place?

I use GitBook. It just takes in markdown files and renders it nicely on the web.

Scales well with number of notes too. I have over 30,000 lines of markdown thus far:


Yeah I am mostly looking for some place a little more private, so I can store ssh passwords or other stuff that I don't necessarily want google to index...

You might not want to store secrets in anything but a secret store/password manager/application explicitly built for storing secrets.

You can also run DokuWiki locally for notes you wish to keep private, it's rather easy to do.

I do that with this setup too. Just put private things in `private` folder that is git ignored.

Interesting insight into a mind that works absolutely nothing like mine.

> Knowledge work rarely involves deliberate practice

Hacking is playful practice.

cool ux!

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