May 20, 2022
I write for a living. This occasionally means that I write.
Mostly, however, it means getting lost in the internet’s rabbit hole of information in the name of conducting ‘research’. And saving, starring, bookmarking posts, notes, and random links that I urgently need to revisit and organize.
I know that I am not alone. If there’s one problem with the knowledge economy, it is that knowledge is as abundant (and free) as it has ever been.
We are drowning in too much information with too little time to come up for air and make sense of it all.
Luckily, there’s a lifeboat: a personal knowledge management system.
If you’re a Sherlock fan like I am, you can think of your personal knowledge management system as your own mind palace.
A personal knowledge management system is simply a system that a person uses to learn. Learning, in turn, involves
According to Wikipedia, personal knowledge management is a process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005).
This sounds pretty fancy and intellectual, but why exactly would you need to build a personal knowledge management system?
It turns out, personal knowledge management can make you a better, smarter, more interesting individual. No kidding!
Here are just five of the many benefits you can expect from a personal knowledge management system:
1. Building a second brain — saving important information and retrieving it on cue
2. Having a list of ready research for your next DIY project or your magnum opus
3. Improved creativity, problem-solving skills, and decision-making capabilities
4. Not repeating mistakes
5. Exponential growth of your knowledge base to become smarter every day
With all these wonderful benefits awaiting you, doesn’t now sound like the perfect time to get your hands dirty and start building your own knowledge management system?
How do you go about building a simple yet powerful personal knowledge management system?
According to Rob Lambert, there are four stages involved in building a successful framework for personal knowledge management.
They are: Capture, Curate, Crunch, and Contribute.
Let’s explore them one by one.
No matter where information comes from — books, videos, podcasts, webinars, meetings etc. — our odyssey of knowledge management is most likely to begin with note-taking.
Note-taking forms the foundation of a personal knowledge management system.
Notes not only help you recall information captured previously but also enable you to connect separate pieces of information together, manufacturing new ideas and ‘knowledge’ from erstwhile dry facts and data.
Once you’ve this figured out, you may want to isolate the note-taking techniques that suit you best. You could choose (or use a combination) of
1. Outlining the key points and sub-points from the information
2. Creating mind-maps to represent the information succinctly in a visual manner
3. Using the Cornell Method to divide your information into notes, cues to help you remember the notes, and a summary to revisit the information later
Ultimately, everything you add to your system should fit into an overarching hierarchical system, with peripheral concepts branching out from the root/seed idea. This will be your saviour when it comes to the next step.
If capturing is the foundation of your PKMS, curating is the cement that holds the system together and keeps it from descending into a mess.
It’s essentially extracting the most worthwhile pieces of information from everything you’ve captured.
Here are some golden rules for curating notes that I swear by:
1. Revisit and revise your notes often
2. Try to distil your notes into summaries and delete whatever is inconsequential
3. Organize your notes in the right places for easy future reference
Crunching is critically reviewing and analyzing the information to identify patterns that either fit in with what we already know or diverge from our current knowledge base.
And this is essentially what constitutes learning.
As important it is to crunch new information, it is equally worthwhile to revisit your analyses and learnings often, so that they can seep into your long-term memory where they’ll be most useful.
Contributing is the stage where you put your knowledge to use through practical application, experimentation, and by passing it on further.
Ultimately, just collecting information and structuring it into neat systems is not enough. You need to translate learning into actions that help you (and others) grow.
With the rise of thought leadership, it has become much easier to share one’s learnings publicly, say via social media, podcasts, interviews etc. If that’s not what you’re after, simply sharing your learnings with a close-knit community will always be a meaningful exercise.
Now that you know how to build a PKMS that works for you, let’s take a look at a few tools that can speed up the process.
The simplest and perhaps oldest system — Commonplace Books — is as basic as recording bits and pieces of information, facts, ideas, quotes etc. into a notebook.
Since throwing everything together won’t help you find the right information when you need it, the Index Cards system may be a better option than commonplacing. Here, you file related notes in a hierarchical order under the relevant thematic cards.
If you want to have more freedom while filing your notes and not always stick to a hierarchy, you can use the Zettelkasten method to organize your notes flexibly, in just the way and order you like.
All these methods were designed for handwritten notes. But modern PKM tools also replicate them by providing a combination of note-taking and task-management functions.
Evernote is perhaps the first app that comes to mind when we talk about note-taking, which speaks volumes about its popularity! For me, however, Evernote is more than just a place to dump those midnight musings and radical content ideas. It is a mini library of sorts, a place where I go to both document my life in real time and seek inspiration from when needed.
What I like best about it is its structure & simplicity — you can take notes on the fly, group them into notebooks, and group notebooks into stacks. The ability to digitize handwritten notes, task-lists, and other documents is unique and certainly a USP for someone like me who still prefers physical notebooks to virtual ones. It’s like having the best of both worlds since I can easily (and accurately) search even my digitized handwritten notes on Evernote! Simply wow, right?
Where Evernote disappoints me, however, is in its pricing. The free plan has many limitations. How do you build an extensive personal wiki with a 60 MB upload limit on clipped items, for example? You would either want to switch to a paid plan ($7.99 a month for personal use) or make use of competing, free, and often more feature-rich apps like Notion.
Notion markets itself as “A writing experience as simple or sophisticated as you need”. And I agree with this, for good measure. The best part is that the free tool offers more than enough functionalities to build an extensive PKMS. And oh their beautiful, customized templates? Who can complain when the tool does half your job for you? If you want structured notes, or rather a wiki of notes that interlinks to its components, Notion is a strong contender. With Notion, my notes aren’t just texts and web clippings. I can add so many layers to the information using tables; databases; pages; embeds of links, images, PDFs, videos, audio files, and whatnot! Plus I can restructure my notes quickly, create nested pages, and use toggle lists, tags, and other features for better organization.
Exactly what I would expect from a good PKM tool.
The limitations? Notion has a long way to go to be as effective and handy on mobile as it is on desktop. Which makes it tough to work on the fly. It is difficult to find and duplicate notes in a workspace. Lastly, the export feature (to PDF/CSV) is simply atrocious and will have you facepalming at the results.
Roam Research, popularly called Roam, is a relatively new mobile and desktop PKM tool and one with distinct advantages over the likes of older, simpler note-taking apps such as Evernote.
Most of us today easily have about 500 tabs open in our brain at any point in time, thanks to multitasking. And Roam does an excellent job of capturing all of their contents on (virtual) paper. For me, the greatest advantage of using Roam is that it does not confine my thoughts to a hierarchical structure and adapts to their looping, branching, interconnected, and freely flowing nature — much like a huge, huge mindmap.
The result is akin to having a second brain that mirrors how every piece of information inside your own brain is linked to all others.
The only two complaints I have of Roam are that it can be pretty slow and crash-prone at times and that it treats ‘Knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ (uppercase and lowercase) as two separate tags/pages which can get super confusing quickly.
Obsidian is also a PKM tool that has a free-flow structure and tagging system similar to Roam. Unlike Roam, however, Obsidian also works completely offline.
It also lets your data sit in a local folder so that your life’s work is never “held hostage” to the vagaries of the Cloud. All of which fetched it big brownie points from me when it comes to note-taking and knowledge management on the fly.
Word of warning: Obsidian’s interface can be tricky, complex, and quite overwhelming for new users and could use some improvement. As compared to Roam, I struggled with linking and embedding blocks in Obsidian, for instance.
Coda positions itself as a sort of SuperDoc — “a new kind of doc that brings words, data, and teams together.” And this is what I loved most about it too. Essentially, Coda lets you break a long doc into easily navigable and linkable titled pages which to me means endless possibilities for creating beautiful docs for your PKMS!
A single Coda doc combined the functionalities of Google Docs, Google Sheets/Excel, Notion, and Airtable for me and I am still reeling from the fact.
But this is also a double-edged sword for users as the learning curve involved with Coda is steep, especially if you compare it with its closest competitor, Notion. I also noticed that heavier docs and docs with lots of tables/formulae etc. are perceptibly slower to load (which happens to be the experience of many). It may help to take a long look and examine their templates and example documents to understand how to make the best use of all of their features.
Needless to say, there are many more PKM tools out there which you can test and adopt as per your preferences.
Feeling overwhelmed with all the tools you can use to build your PKMS? We may have a solution that ties everything together.
Meet OSlash, the missing link to building your personal wiki!
With OSlash, you can create simple, easy-to-recall, intuitive shortcuts to all your links. URLs are long to type, hard to find, and impossible to remember. OSlash shortcuts are the opposite.
What if the quotes you’ve noted in Notion were simply o/quotes instead of https://www.notion.so/xfghD/quotations-from-books-d60645aa5640422ebcd8238510e156ea
And your to-do list in Todoist was o/to-do rather than https://todoist.com/app/project/2266993447
If you were curious about learning marketing, you could group all links to marketing related resources — such as marketing examples, marketing strategy, marketing advice, marketing analytics etc. — in one collection i.e. o/marketing. And repeat the same for any subject, theme, or topic. And also tag your shortcuts for easy discoverability. Much like having your own virtual index cards.
OSlash uncomplicates URLs for you, so you don’t have to spend your precious time and energy to find information from your PKMS. Your time should instead go to using your information more productively.
And we’re here to make sure you get the most out of it.
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