Do you enjoy learning new things?
Do you have notebooks full of notes on all sorts of topics? Or a hundred bookmarked websites, notes in files on your computer or cloud storage, photos of book pages and screenshots of information on your phone?
Are all these notes an unholy mess where you have trouble finding what you’re looking for, and all that collected information is forgotten?
If this is you, and you want a system where you can easily store, access, review, and cross-pollinate all the ideas and information you’ve taken notes on, then a personal knowledge management system is the solution.
Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, a student or a retiree, a personal knowledge management system allows you to untangle the mess of notes and turn them into something useful.
What is a Personal Knowledge Management System?
A personal knowledge management system (or PKM for short) is a system for gathering, organising, and maintaining information in a single space.
A PKM is known by many different names, including:
- Second brain
- Knowledge garden
- Personal Knowledge Library/Repository/Base
- Personal Information Management System
While a personal knowledge management system encompasses many aspects of information management and life admin, such as project and task management, calendar management, file storage, personal budgeting, and more, in this article, I’m focusing specifically on using digital tools to manage reference materials for work or personal interests.
A System for Observing and Learning
When it comes to note-taking, a digital PKM is a searchable database of information and ideas you can link together to form a web of interconnected knowledge that’s relevant to you.
While we have many super-convenient digital tools today, including ones that use AI, personal knowledge management is not new.
Lovers of knowledge have been keeping notebooks of ideas and information for centuries. The most famous example is Leonardo Da Vinci and his notebooks, where he wrote down thoughts, made notes on what he learned, drew sketches, and wrote to-do lists. He even wrote a travel packing list that included a human skull (go figure).
This type of notebook was later known as a ‘commonplace book’. Notable people who kept a commonplace book include philosopher John Locke, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, CS Lewis, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.
In her book, Refuse to Choose, written for people like us with many interests, Barbara Sher recommends a Day Book, which is very similar to a Commonplace Book. And in his book Getting Things Done, David Allen used a complicated filing cabinet system.
While digital tools are new, the concept of a PKM is ancient. It could be argued that with all the information we have access to, we need a PKM now more than ever.
“As content becomes more infinite, curation becomes more valuable.”source
Why Every Dilettante Needs a PKM System
“It is useful to constantly observe, note, and consider.”Leonardo Da Vinci
Living in the information age is like drinking from a fire hydrant (I borrowed that metaphor) – we’re exposed to so much information it’s hard to keep up.
For a generalist with many interests and passions, it’s even harder because we actively try to drink up every last drop!
A personal knowledge management system can help you keep track of and manage all of your incoming information.
- provides a central place to store and organise information
- helps you capture information from different sources
- helps streamline and manage reading and learning
- allows you to connect ideas, enhancing creativity and problem-solving
- supports continuous learning, memory, and recall
A Word of Caution: The Goal of a Personal Knowledge Management System
Many dilettantes, myself included, make the mistake of ‘collecting’ information without actually learning or doing anything with it.
Merely collecting notes is known as the ‘collector’s fallacy’ or the ‘illusion of knowledge’, where we feel like just because we’ve read something and maybe made some notes on it, we’ve learned that information.
But try to tell someone all about what you read last week. Or last month. It soon becomes apparent how little we retain and understand.
The goal, then, of having a personal knowledge management system isn’t to collect information. It is to develop a better understanding and insight into yourself and the world.
We want to move beyond the illusion of having knowledge to actually have a deeper understanding of the world and use that understanding to improve our lives.
To do that, the goal is to:
- Capture relevant information in a concise and meaningful way.
- Create structured and organised notes that can be easily retrieved.
- Use that information to support learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity.
- Actively engage with your notes to connect ideas, develop a deeper understanding, and cultivate new insights.
- Become a more genuinely knowledgeable, competent, and effective human being.
Personal Knowledge Management system Tools: Where to keep Your Digital Notes
There are many note-taking and PKM tools available, with new ones coming out every month.
Below are just some of the more popular note-taking apps. I’ll go into further detail on the pros and cons in another article.
- One Note
- Apple Notes
You don’t have to stick to just one app.
You can try some or all of them until you find the one that suits you, your operating system, your budget, and your preferences.
Or, you can use more than one app for different purposes.
I use Evernote for my household stuff, like filing copies of maintenance reports and receipts for the car, partly because I’ve been using it for years.
I use Obsidian for notes about things I’m learning (basically, my main PKM for note-taking and following all my interests). I also use Google Keep for quickly jotting down ideas on the fly and Notion just to play around with databases.
How to Organise Your PKM
There are a few different ways to organise the notes and information in your PKM. Different approaches work best depending on your thinking style, so it’s good to try each to see what suits you.
The different organisation methods include:
- Notebook-based PKM. Writing notes in a notebook is how people have managed personal information for hundreds of years. However, the more modern bullet journal method of organising your notebook makes it easier to find your notes later.
- Folder-based organisation. This involves creating a folder structure on your computer, note app, or cloud storage (or all of them) to organise your files. You can have folders based on topics, dates, file types, or projects – there are many ways to structure your information by folder.
- Tag-based organisation. Instead of relying on folders, a tag-based approach involves applying descriptive tags to your files to make them easier to find and sort.
- Link-based organisation. This approach involves organising and connecting information through hyperlinks, creating a web of interconnected ideas and concepts that can be easily navigated and accessed.
- Task-based approach. This involves organising notes in folders around specific tasks or projects.
- Mind-mapping approach. Mind mapping involves visual diagrams and mind maps to organise your thoughts.
- Hybrid-approach. A hybrid approach uses a combination of the above methods. For many people, a hybrid system works best.
I’ve tried all the different approaches, totally overhauling my PKM several times, and what works best for me is a hybrid approach.
How to Get Started
If you’re anything like me, you already have a bunch of notes in books, on loose leaves of paper stuffed in drawers, in Google documents, in note apps, and in random apps on your phone.
Thinking about consolidating all that information can be paralysing.
So it’s best to start fresh. Start your PKM with the next thing you read. You can add those old notes to your system when you have time.
The next step is to choose a note-taking app, like the ones listed above, to capture your notes.
If you’re unsure which app to use, start with one that seems the easiest & most intuitive to use. If you don’t like the app, you can usually export your files to different apps.
Once you’ve decided on an app, the only thing left to do is to take notes as you read, listen, and watch media.
You can take notes directly into the app or use highlighting tools to streamline the process, which I’ll cover in a different article.
If you enjoy learning new things and juggling multiple interests, then a personal knowledge management system is a valuable tool for keeping track of all that information and all your ideas. Whether you adopt a digital system or use an old-fashioned pen and notebook, the important part is finding a system that works for you.