How do you use a personal knowledge management system? Choose between these 5 PKM workflows to conquer information overload.
In the article about building a PKM system, I looked at the three components of a personal knowledge management system.
This article covers how to use the system to handle the different types of information we manage in our personal lives.
PKM Workflow for Dilettantes
As a dilettante who enjoys learning new things, you’re probably most interested in processing book notes and information to expand your knowledge. Workflow number five, the ‘Zettelkasten method’, deals specifically with this information.
But a PKM system covers so much more than book notes on your interests. As someone in the modern age, you have a lot of personal information to juggle, and not all of it belongs with your special interest notes.
So, I encourage you to look at the other workflows as well because implementing a system for all your knowledge will pay dividends for many years to come.
Not sure what a personal knowledge management system is? Click here to learn all about personal knowledge management.
Processing Information in your PKM
Below, I’ll cover five different PKM processes, depending on the goal of your PKM system.
You will probably have more than one goal for your PKM system. It helps to focus on one goal at a time to set yourself up for success.
While there may be five different ways to process information, they all involve three basic steps:
- Capture the information you need
- Process it depending on your goals
- Action the information as necessary
You can get fancy with acronyms like CODE (capture, organise, distil, express) or CCCC (capture, curate, crunch, and contribute), but I feel that confusing things for the sake of being clever (or trademark-able).
Capture is making sure you don’t lose essential information as it comes in. It’s what your inbox is for.
Process is the act of reading (or watching or listening to content), making notes, linking notes, and filing information so it can be retrieved when needed.
Action is what you do with all this information. There’s no point to all this information if we don’t use it in some way.
Time blocking is allocating time to a specific task or batch of similar tasks. In relation to your PKM, it’s about finding time to regularly:
- Triage and your inboxes
- Read and take notes
- Process and link notes
- Action your notes
And very occasionally, giving your system a spring clean.
Blocking time regularly (either mentally or in your calendar) to process information will help you keep on top of the info overload.
Below, I share my method for triaging inboxes (email, instant messages, task inbox, fleeting notes, etc.). It helps to do this in blocks of time so incoming messages don’t take over your day.
I also block time for reading, making notes, and processing those notes as outlined below in five workflows.
The Five PKM Workflows
Most of the information that flows our way can be categorised into five types:
- Archival Documents (Records) – info we just have to keep
- Task Management Information – information we have to action
- Project Information – information we need to complete a current project
- Information we need to Learn/ Memorise – if you’re studying
- Book/Content Notes and Ideas – information we want to write about, to learn, and stuff we’re interested in.
Five workflows feel like a complication.
But you only need to use the one(s) that are relevant.
Not studying? You don’t need that workflow. Not currently working on a project? You don’t need that workflow, either.
Trying to squish all possibilities into a single workflow complicates things.
(If you google PKM workflows and look at the images, you’ll see how ridiculously complex trying to fit this in a single system can get.)
It’s much easier to recognise that there are different types of information with different purposes, and each type requires a slightly different approach.
Archival Document (Records) Storage
Documents storage refers to information we’re obliged to keep.
Things like insurance documents, tax information, medical records, work performance records, essential business information, business cards, and phone numbers, to name a few.
If you need these documents, you want to get your hands on them immediately. They need to be safe and accessible, but they can go into ‘deep’ storage because they are infrequently required.
Document filing is often neglected (understandably – there are always more pressing things to do), but it is super stressful when you need a document and can’t find it.
The process for these kinds of documents is simple: you receive the document (capture), you label it or rename the file so it is easily searchable (process), and you file it in an organised way so that it is easy to retrieve when you need it (action).
This is true for both a digital and paper system, but if you prefer to go 100% digital, an optional step is to digitise hard-copy documents into one system.
For filing, there are three main organisation systems.
- By topic
Filing alphabetically means insurance goes under ‘i’, car maintenance goes under ‘c’, etc.
If you find alphabetical filing too ambiguous, you can file numerically – the Johnny Decimal system is a popular numerical filing method.
Or you could file by topic – all information pertaining to the car, whether it’s maintenance or insurance, goes in the ‘car’ file.
If you digitise your information, the two important considerations are:
- Ensuring data privacy and security
- Backing up your data so it’s not lost.
Before you choose a tool, it’s important to look at its level of security to see if it’s right for what you’re storing.
Potential places to file documents include:
- Locally on your computer
- Google Drive
You’ll probably need more than one tool. Phone numbers, for example, would be kept in a contacts file rather than a note-taking app or document folder.
The key is to find the system that works for you and use it consistently. When you’re stressed and need to find your insurance documents after a storm, for example, you’ll be thankful you’ve kept up your filing!
Task Management Workflow
Tasks, the stuff you need to get done, come from all kinds of sources.
Your partner DMs you, asking you to pick up the milk on the way home.
A client emails you details for a project.
You remember you have to call your mum.
You read a newsletter and find an idea you want to implement at work.
You see an exercise video on YouTube that you want to try at the gym.
This type of information doesn’t need to be processed or filed; it needs to be actioned, usually at or within a certain time.
That’s where a to-do list, task management app, or calendar can help.
Many task management apps (I use Todoist) have an inbox to quickly capture these tasks to be scheduled and actioned later.
If, every time you come across an actionable piece of information, you put it in your task manager, you know it won’t get forgotten.
The message from your partner becomes a task. The fleeting thought of calling your mum becomes a task. Your client email becomes a task.
Many apps have a quick widget on your phone to easily capture a task. You can create a task without opening the app, reducing friction and ensuring you don’t forget.
What’s more, task managers and calendars allow you to schedule notifications and reminders so tasks surface at the right time.
For example, you can schedule a notification as you leave work to remind you to grab milk while on the way home.
I want to emphasise the importance of task management as part of a personal knowledge management system because, as dilettantes, we tend to be too cerebral and not very action-oriented.
Having an action-focused system can help dilettantes use all that learning we do.
A project is something you’re working on that has a defined completion date. A home renovation or overseas trip are just two examples of a personal project.
The PARA (projects, areas, resources, archives) organisation system is perfect for managing project information; in fact, it prioritises projects.
Your current, active projects (planning counts as active) live within your Projects folder, and this is where you file all the info for each project.
Projects usually involve four types of information: info that needs to be actioned, info that needs to be read (and often also actioned), info that needs to be filed, and notes you create yourself – like checklists, a budget, or a project timeline.
For example, just say your project is an overseas trip.
You look online for travel and activity ideas (read), you get an email alerting you to a sale on flights (action), receive booking confirmations and receipts (file for later), and write a packing list (note). All of this can be either actioned or saved in a dedicated projects folder for easy retrieval (I would also set up an email project folder/label for filing flight tickets, etc.).\
For research info I want to read, I send it all to my Read Later app so I can read it distraction-free at a time that suits me and put any notes from my reading into my projects folder.
For info I come across online but want to have on hand (itinerary ideas, packing Iist ideas, events calendar, etc.,) I clip the whole article with a web clipper or take a screenshot and save it in my projects folder.
Items I need to action go into my task management app along with the action date and any relevant details I need to complete the task.
And documents like receipts get filed.
Process – Digital Tools
For project information, you can use a local folder on your computer, a folder in Google Drive, or a folder-based note-taking app like Evernote, Obsidian, or One-Note.
Read Later apps include Instapaper, Pocket, and Readwise.io. Readwise also has a service that automatically takes the notes and highlights you make in your Read Later app and puts them in your note-taking app.
There are many task management apps available; I use Todoist.
If you’re studying, then information needs to be understood and usually memorised.
(For essay-based courses, the Zettelkasten method below will be more useful.)
In this workflow, the information comes from textbooks, tutorials, lectures, online videos, library readings, etc. This needs to be read and questioned to make sure you understand it.
You might keep all your notes together in a note-taking app, although there is evidence that actually handwriting notes will help you learn and remember the information better.
A projects folder is useful for keeping all relevant course information and course notes together (see project workflow above).
Creating mind maps is a powerful method for organising material and developing your understanding of a topic.
Another method is the ‘Feynman Method’ of learning. The scientist Richard Feynman argued that if you can’t explain a complex concept in simple terms, you don’t yet understand it. To find the gaps in your understanding, ‘teach’ the idea to someone else.
You can’t beat good old flash cards used with spaced repetition when memorising facts.
Apps like Traverse (note-taking, mind mapping, and spaced-rep flashcards), RemNote (note-taking app with flashcards), and Anki (spaced-rep flashcards) are the modern-day versions of the index cards we used back in the day.
The ‘Zettelkasten’ Workflow
The Zettelkasten Method is a way of getting more from your reading.
How many of us consume interesting books, articles, podcasts or videos, only for that information to be forgotten and wasted?
Instead of forgetting, you create meaningful notes in your own words (as with the Feynman technique above, if you can explain it, you understand it), you link those notes with others to create a new and deeper understanding, and ideally, you use this information in some way.
It’s important to note the method I outline below isn’t the exact Zettelkasten Method described by Sönke Ahrens in his book Smart Notes (grab the book for an understanding of the original method or check out my summary here).
This updated workflow is for the modern knowledge worker and dilettante who consumes a lot of content in various forms using digital tools.
The main ways to capture reading material notes include:
- Use a Read Later app like Instapaper, Pocket, or Readwise.io to read, highlight, and annotate web articles, PDFs (limited), and other online documents
- Read digital books on Kindle or eReader to highlight and annotate
- Make notes directly into your note-taking app as you’re reading, watching or listening
The Readwise service automatically imports those highlights and annotations into your note-taking app, ready for processing.
Once your notes are all together in your note-taking app, processing them involves:
- Tagging notes or filing them in a folder
- Deleting notes (it’s ok not to process notes further)
- Summarising highlights in your own words
- Pulling out information to create atomic notes
- Creating links between notes and ideas
- Asking questions and refining your ideas
An atomic note is a single idea or concept written in a way you will understand in the future.
In his original Zettelkasten method, Niklas Luhmann had two slip boxes.
One box was for ‘literature notes’ or notes he took from reading, complete with bibliography information. These will be your book highlights, annotations, and direct notes.
His second slip box for ‘permanent notes’ or atomic notes – notes on a single idea pulled from the literature notes.
For example, you might read a book on anthropology with many highlights and annotations from which you create an atomic note about ‘what is ethnography’.
Then, you might link this note to a note about using ethnographic methodology for personal development.
Once you have a few notes, you might create a ‘Map of Content’ or index with links to all relevant atomic notes on a topic.
Note-taking apps that are ideal as a Zettelkasten because of their emphasis on bi-directional linking include:
- Roam Research
Other apps work too, so if you love Notion or are already familiar with Evernote, you can stick with these.
Ahrens recommends that we read as if we intend to produce a piece of writing as it gives our reading purpose. By actively engaging with our reading, asking questions, and linking it to other things we’ve read, it’s less ‘in one ear and out the other.’
Even if you never produce a piece of writing, you will read and think more critically.
If you want to share what you know, a digital knowledge garden is perfect for dilettantes.
A knowledge/digital garden is an online notebook where you ‘cultivate’ and share ‘seeds of thought’ online. It’s an evergreen space where you can add, change, edit, refine, and develop your ideas as your knowledge grows.
For dilettantes who enjoy learning about new things, it’s the perfect way to create something from all that knowledge.
How to Triage the Information Inflow
In the real world, we are juggling different types of information that need to be triaged according to its purpose.
How often should you triage your inboxes?
It depends on how much information you need to manage and its urgency. Depending on your requirements, you might check inboxes once a day, three times a day, or once a week.
The important thing is to regularly block time for clearing your inboxes so you’re not checking them all the time. Constant checking eats away at your productivity and is a sure-fire path to burnout.
Below is the series of questions I ask and the actions I take to triage my information quickly.
Can I discard or delete this piece of information?
Deleting unnecessary information without handling it should always be the first port of call. There’s just too much information to deal with it all. Save time, save stress and delete what you can.
Does this information need to be filed?
Documents like insurance papers or receipts can be filed without further handling, except renaming them as necessary.
Does this information need to be actioned?
If it does, I add it directly to my task manager app, along with any notes I need to complete the task. The original information can then be deleted or archived if necessary.
Is this information relevant to a current project?
If information is relevant to a current project, I either add it to my task manager app to be actioned, send it to my Read Later service (Readwise), or file it in my project folder.
Do I need to learn this information?
If I need to learn the information, I use my calendar to block time dedicated to learning. I use this time to read, make notes, and make or review flashcards.
Is this information about one of my special interests?
When it comes to special interest reading, I either add it to my Read Later app or download it to my Kindle (capture).
I also use my calendar to time-block dedicated reading time (process).
(For me, Sunday morning, in bed with a cup of coffee beside me, is the perfect time to read a fascinating article on my tablet or book on my Kindle.)
I also block out time in my calendar to process notes in my note-taking app, either filing them into a project folder, archiving them, or turning them into atomic notes and creating links. How often I do this depends on how busy I am.
A personal knowledge management workflow helps you stay on top of information overload. Your PKM workflow allows you to easily retrieve information when you need it. It enables you to learn, action information, and get the most from your reading.