Master the influx of information with our comprehensive guide to building a personal knowledge management system. PKM tools + workflows + organisation tips.
Are you new to the world of personal knowledge management but need help figuring out how to get started?
Then you’re in the right place.
This is a step-by-step guide to building a working personal knowledge management system (second brain) from scratch.
This guide covers a lot of ground to help you set up a system that is perfect for your needs. However, the most important thing to remember when building your personal knowledge management is to…
Keep things simple!
Your personal knowledge management system should make life EASIER, not be a distraction or a form of procrastination (unless working on your personal knowledge management system becomes a side hobby).
So, even though there’s a lot to this guide, it’s a roadmap of choices for making a custom personal knowledge management system that works for you.
With that in mind, here’s how to build your perfect personal knowledge management system.
The Three Building Blocks of a Personal Knowledge Management System
Regardless of the information you need to manage, the tools you choose, the organisational structure you use, or how simple or complex your system is, the basic building blocks of a PKM system remain the same.
- A place to capture different forms of information
- A place to organise, store, and retrieve information
- A place to action and/or learn information
Before we get into the building blocks, there are a few questions to consider that will help you build the right system to suit your needs.
Before Building a Personal Knowledge Management System, Consider The Following
Here are 7 questions to ask yourself before you start building a personal knowledge management system:
- What information do you want to organise?
- What are your current information inputs?
- What are your current projects?
- What are your personal knowledge management goals?
- Do you prefer digital tools or analogue?
- What are your existing tools (and are they working or not)?
- What level of security, data handling, and sharing do you need?
I go into more information on each question below. The answers will influence the tools you choose and how you manage your information.
What information do you want to organise?
Some types of information might include:
- Work information
- Information related to current personal or work projects
- Household information like maintenance schedules or bills
- Information on hobbies or stuff you’re interested in
- Education notes for school, university, or other courses
- A combination of the above.
As you think of the different types of info you want to organise, consider where you will need to access it. Will you need to access this information at work? Will it need to be synced across devices? Will you need a mobile app or a desktop application?
What are your current inputs?
Your current informational inputs refer to the types of information you need to manage and where this information comes from.
Understanding the what and the where will help you build the right system for your needs and ensure nothing slips through the cracks.
Here are some inputs to consider.
- Books and textbooks (notes and highlights)
- Websites and online reading
- Physical or digital newspapers, magazines, newsletters, junk mail, journals, etc.
- Videos and podcasts
- Live and online lectures, classes, conferences, etc., where you take lecture notes
- Meeting notes or minutes
- Conversations, phone calls, etc. (i.e. conversations with clients or your child reminding you to sign a permission slip)
- Paper notes and snail mail
- SMS texts
- Phone notifications
- Group message services like Slack
- Handwritten notes
- Thoughts captured in an app like Apple Notes
- Dictated verbal notes (sound files)
- Information ‘in the wild’ (i.e. a sign you see in the street about an upcoming concert, a plant you see in the park that you want to grow in your garden, an item you see in the shop you want to buy).
I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a good start, and it goes to show just how much information we all have to juggle, even if you aren’t a knowledge worker, writer, or unashamed Dilettante interested in everything.
What are your current projects?
Listing out your current projects can be a good way to start your personal knowledge management because you’re focused on actionable items and getting things done rather than staying in ‘librarian mode’ of collecting and sorting.
What are your personal knowledge management goals?
Your goals will determine what tools and processes you use.
Rather than starting with someone else’s system or downloading the latest tool, creating a custom personal knowledge management system that suits your needs will be more useful.
Here are some ideas to consider.
Do you want somewhere to store personal and household information for future reference?
(An organised storage file with the ability to digitise paper information – local or cloud-based – might be what you need.)
Do you need a system for learning new information for work or education?
(You might want to look for an app that supports space repetition and recall.)
Are you managing information for writing or academic purposes?
(A Zettelkasten-style knowledge base with a bibliography like Zotero might meet your needs.)
Do you want something to track your many interests with the intention of cross-pollinating ideas and creating something new?
(You might want an app designed for bi-directional linking.)
Do you want a complete system for managing information and tasks?
(You could try Notion to build a life operations dashboard.)
Are you looking for a way to do many or all of the above?
(You might prefer to use multiple apps to cover your different personal knowledge management needs.)
Now that you’ve considered your goals let’s look at how you currently handle incoming information.
Do you prefer analogue or digital?
There’s no point in setting up a complex digital system if you prefer pen and paper (although in the modern world, we probably all have digital information we need to manage).
In the rest of this article, I’m going to focus on digital tools and systems, but if you prefer to keep your personal knowledge management analogue, you have several choices:
- You can use a notebook and pen, called a ‘commonplace’ book in the past. The Bullet Journal method of organising your notebook can help you find information in the future.
- You can use files and a filing cabinet GTD style or binders and paper.
- You can use art books to create mind maps, make drawings, and colour your notes, like Da Vinci.
What are your current tools and operating system?
No doubt, you already have information stored in various places.
What tools are you currently using? Are they working for you? Or do you need to change tools?
If your tools are working for you, stick with what you know! It will save time and reduce the learning curve.
When choosing the right personal knowledge management software, not all apps work on all operating systems, so your operating system will, in part, dictate your choice of apps.
What level of security, data handling, and sharing do you need?
How does your chosen tool handle data? Is it easy to export your notes if you change tools? What level of security does it offer? Do you need to share notes with other people?
Some note-taking apps store the information locally in rich text or other files. That means your files aren’t on the cloud and easily accessible.
Local storage in rich text also makes transferring your notes from one app to another easier.
If you intend to store sensitive information, you should choose an app with encryption and other security options to keep private information safe.
Finally, consider backups so that if anything happens to your note-taking software, you don’t lose all your information.
With all that in mind, let’s start building your personal knowledge management system.
Building Block 1 – Information Capture Centre
The first step is to create a place to capture each piece of information you listed above where it can be easily seen and dealt with.
In many instances, your capture centre will be your inbox, possibly several inboxes, buy try to limit them to as few as possible.
Besides your email inbox, here are some other places you might put an ‘inbox’ for incoming information:
- A folder labelled ‘inbox’ on your computer for local files that need processing
- A folder labelled ‘inbox’ in your cloud storage like Google Drive
- An inbox folder in your note-taking app
- An inbox tray for physical paper information
- An inbox in a read-later app for web-based information
- A bookmark or ‘watch later’ inbox for podcasts and videos
While it’s not possible to limit inboxes to just one because we are all bombarded with information from so many sources, it’s important to keep inboxes to the minimum number possible and then make sure ALL info gets funnelled into one of these inboxes.
Having an inbox is only one part of a two-step process of capturing information. The second step is to regularly EMPTY your inboxes so stuff gets dealt with promptly.
Whether you empty your inboxes daily, weekly, or monthly will depend on your needs and schedule. I go more into the process of emptying your inboxes in the article on developing a PKM workflow.
The short version is to regularly either action items, read what you want to read, file notes in your file storage or notes app, process notes (see Zettelkasten below), or delete information that is no longer needed.
Capturing Digital Notes (eBooks, web pages, etc.)
Digital notes from highlight Kindle books, online reading, watching YouTube videos, or listening to podcasts get a special mention because a couple of tools are available that make online reading and note-taking super easy.
To make reading web pages easier, I use two invaluable apps: a ‘read later’ app as an inbox for online reading and Readwise to automatically export my notes and highlights to my notes app.
The most popular read-later apps are:
These apps strip all the ads and distractions from web content, making it much easier to read. You also can highlight text, add notes, and tag articles as you read them.
You can also send emails to your read later app, which is great for newsletters that aren’t urgent but you do want to read. Send them to your read later app, delete the email, and read it when you have time.
Readwise then takes all your highlights and notes from your Read Later app, Kindle books, tweets, and other sources and automatically exports them to your notes app of choice.
It’s a paid service, but if you do a lot of online reading or make a lot of notes and highlights as you read Kindle books, the subscription is well worth it!
They also have a read later app in beta (currently free but not forever) called Readwise Reader, in which you can (as well as read online content) read PDFs and ePubs, watch YouTube videos and highlight the transcript as you watch.
This app has quickly become my read-later app of choice.
Capturing Fleeting Notes
For capturing thoughts on the fly, a notes app with a phone widget and voice notes, like Google Keep or Apple Notes, is convenient.
Few of us go anywhere without our phones, and having quick access to an app to make a text or voice note, take a photograph or make a reminder means we never forget anything important.
As these apps, particularly Google Keep, aren’t full featured, they make good inboxes before putting your notes in your PKM app.
Building Block 2 – Your Information Repository
While all three building blocks of personal knowledge management are essential, the repository of notes (basically your notes app) is where most of the action happens.
This building block comprises two components:
- A place/places to house your notes
- A system for processing and retrieving notes
A Place to House Your Notes: A Personal Knowledge Management App
A dedicated notes app is more often than not used for PKM, although you could also use folders on your computer or in cloud storage (or a combination of places).
It’s OK if you have more than one place for information. For example, I store my household information in Evernote, my PKM in Obsidian, and use Google Drive for work.
There are dozens of programs dedicated to note-taking, and I’ve written a full breakdown of the popular ones in another article. Below is a list of the most popular and their benefits.
Best PKM Apps
Obsidian (freemium) – best for people who want files stored locally and to create linked notes and have folders. Lots of plugins to extend functionality. Obsidian and Logseq can be used together by sharing the same files.
Logseq (freemium) – best for people who want files stored locally, organise notes chronologically and create links between the ideas in your daily log (there are no folders in Logseq). It also includes a flashcard function for learning.
Zettlr – (free) – similar to Obsidian and Logseq, Zettlr is best for those looking for a markdown-based note-taking software (desktop only) with Zotero integration to organise notes by tags, folders, and/or links.
Roam Research (paid) – best for academics and writers looking for a note system based on links (similar to Logseq or Obsidian) and who can afford the premium price tag.
Simplenote (free) – best for beginners and those looking for a free and simple note-taking system based on tags (no folders) that syncs between devices. Notes can be published in markdown for easy export to other apps.
Mem Notes (paid) – best for those looking for a minimalist app with cloud syncing and AI integration to ‘self-organise’ the workspace along with tags (no folders), bidirectional links, and a powerful search function.
Evernote (freemium) – best for people who want to clip whole web pages to store offline and digitise physical information.
Notion (freemium) – best for people who want to organise notes by database and share notes with a team.
Microsoft OneNote (freemium) – best for those who are familiar and work with the Microsoft system and want a folder-based app with features such as web clipping, drawing, highlighting, ‘inking’ with a stylus, tagging, and sharing.
Apple Notes – (free) best for those who already have an Apple device, are familiar with Apple Notes and want a simple and easy-to-use note-taking system.
*See the Learning Tools section below for apps geared towards learning with flashcards and spaced repetition.
Processing and Organising Notes in Your Personal Knowledge Management System
Once you’ve decided on the information you want to capture and have a PKM tool picked out, the next step is to have a system for processing your notes for easy retrieval later.
What do I mean by processing notes?
Processing notes could include one or more of the following tasks:
- Filing notes in their relevant folder
- Deleting notes that you don’t need
- Archiving notes just in case for later
- Tagging, linking, or combining notes
- Reading draft notes and polishing them
The most important part of processing a note is making it easy for your future self to find and use.
Ask yourself, how would I search for this in the future?
You might need to add a heading, keywords, tags, or links to a note that makes it easy to find.
For example, just say you read an article your friend Kasey sent you. You could add Kasey as a keyword to the article, so if the only thing your future self remembers is that Kasey recommended it, you can still find it by searching for the word ‘Kasey’.
Adding keywords, relevant headings, tags, and links is particularly important for non-text-based notes like images.
The other way to future-proof your notes is to add context to them.
- Why did you save this note?
- What were you thinking about?
- What did it remind you of?
- What connections did you make with other information?
- How do you plan to use this information?
All too often, we highlight something interesting and then come back months later and have no idea what that highlight means or why you highlighted it. By adding context, your future self will get far more value from your notes.
I go into more depth on processing notes in the article on PKM workflows.
Organising Your Notes
There are many systems for organising notes, such as the PARA method or the Zettelkasten method.
For a full breakdown of the different ways to organise your notes, check out the article 7 Ways to organise Notes in Your Personal Knowledge Management System.
Building Block 3 – Actioning Information
Many of your notes will need further action.
Notes for projects or work will have tasks to be completed.
Notes made for personal development will have ideas to be implemented.
Notes made for education will need to be memorised or used in assignments.
For notes on your special interests, you might want to create a digital garden to share what you’ve learned, write an essay, or create an MoC to link all your ideas.
Actioning your notes is the most important part of personal knowledge management. After all, what’s the point of collecting & processing all that information if you don’t use it?
By scheduling actionable items from your notes, you won’t waste the information you’re consuming.
Therefore, the third building block of your personal knowledge management is your task management system, where you can schedule the tasks that arise from the reading and note-taking you do.
There are many options for managing your tasks, from a pen-and-paper to-do list to your calendar (paper or electronic) to one of the vast array of task apps available.
Below are some of the more popular task management apps (I currently use Todoist).
- Todoist (personal task manager)
- Trello (manage tasks and projects)
- Asana (manage tasks and projects)
- Tick Tick (personal task manager)
- Google Tasks (linked to Google Calendar)
- Microsoft To Do
- OmniFocus (Apple only)
If you’re using your personal knowledge management for study and need to memorise information, an app that integrates flashcards and spaced repetition will help.
There are a tonne of apps that support learning; some of the most popular include:
In the grand adventure of knowledge management, remember that simplicity is your best companion.
Embrace the tools and techniques that resonate with your goals and lifestyle. As you craft your personalised personal knowledge management system, you’re not just curbing the chaos of information; you’re creating a smoother path to productivity and learning.
This article is part of a series on creating and using a PKM system. For the whole picture, check out the other articles in the series:
Organising your personal knowledge management
personal knowledge management workflow
Ways to use a personal knowledge management
Note-taking apps in-depth overview