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Notes should be atomic

TODO: review this concept further…

Evergreen notes should be atomic by Andy Matuschak

It’s best to create notes which are only about one thing—but which, as much as possible, capture the entirety of that thing.

This way, it’s easier to form connections across topics and contexts. If your notes are too broad, you might not notice when you encounter some new idea about one of the notions contained within, and links to that note will be muddied. If your notes are too fragmented, you’ll also fragment your link network, which may make it harder to see certain connections. Evergreen notes should be densely linked

There’s no clear litmus test or correct answer here—just a bunch of tradeoffs.

The notion is quite similar to the software engineering principle of separation of concerns, which suggests that modules should only be “about” one thing, so that they’re more easily reusable. But likewise, if you fragment modules too much, you’ll have a cohesion problem. In this way, Evergreen note titles are like APIs.

A Zettelkasten Is a Personal Tool for Thinking and Writing: It adheres to the Principle of Atomicity.

Second, a Zettelkasten needs to adhere to the Principle of Atomicity. That means that each Zettel only contains one unit of knowledge and one only. These units are the atoms to which the principle of atomicity refers. To figure out what the atoms are, it helps when we ask ourselves what we want the molecules that we create from our note atoms to look like. What are the units that have their own address? The answer is: One thought. Let us explore some examples that do not use thought as their atoms.

Books, for example, have addresses and cross-references. They have chapters, sections and pages. All have unique numbers that can be referred to. However, you cannot refer to a thought, an idea or any content. Chapters, Sections and Pages are more like coordinates. A thought might spread over the whole book! You cannot refer to it directly with just one reference. A book is not a web of thought.

Wikipedia, also, is not a web of thoughts, because you can only link to articles and sections within them, but not to individual thoughts inside the text. None of the addresses matches with any thought. Wikipedia is not meant to be such a thing. Rather, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with each article containing information on a topic. Wikipedia is not a thinking tool but a tool for information retrieval.

In contrast, referring to an atomic note is unambiguous: when you reference it, you will know what the ‘thought’ is. There should be no room for guesswork. That is what the rule of atomicity means: Make sure that the layer of content and the boundaries between notes match and are well defined. Then and only then can it be a reference to an address identical to referencing a thought.

The Zettelkasten is a tool for thought, thus it needs to treat individual thoughts as its base unit. In order to connect individual thoughts, give each thought an address to refer to. In the words of us “Zettlers”: Create one Zettel per thought.

Create Zettel from Reading Notes • Zettelkasten Method

The underlying principle I’d call the principle of atomicity: put things which belong together in a Zettel, but try to separate concerns from one another. For example, I might collect a list of assumptions in one Zettel which serves as an overview. like hard determinism . A related argument and its conclusion will be kept in another Zettel.  Moral responsibility under hard determinism is a good example. I can re-use the arguments without buying into the assumptions because the arguments are of sufficiently general form. Atomicity fosters re-use which in turn multiplies the amount of connections in the network of Zettels.