Getting Started with Personal Knowledge Management
If you have a computer and/or a phone, you likely consume an excessive amount of content everyday. It could be YouTube videos, school lectures, articles, books, movies, TV shows, websites sent by a friend, tic tocs, memes, and really anything that communicates a message.
Whatever form the content takes, chances are it contains ideas, knowledge, and insight that can be of value to you in some way. Maybe it offers meaningful advice or it expands your worldview and opinions. Perhaps it helps explain a concept you are trying to better understand or it contains an idea that resonated with you deeply. The point is, the content may contain something important to your personal interests, studies, work, or life — now and in the future.
Whatever potential value the content contains, it serves little purpose if there is no underlying systematic way to process the content and extract the value in a personalized way. And without properly processing content, it can quickly become overwhelming, leading to information overload.
Enter personal knowledge management (PKM).
PKM is, at the highest level, a way to process the information in your life to create knowledge and understanding (and hopefully wisdom) that lasts with you and compounds in value throughout your life.
PKM is the antidote to information overload in the age of abundant content (just how much content? 46,000 years of YouTube content is consumed annually across the globe). Not only that, PKM opens the way for more effective/intentional learning, more mindful productivity, clearer thinking, and stronger memory. This saves time, reduces stress, and promotes flow states.
A Personal Background
As someone who spent five years studying electrical engineering at UNB, I encountered an enormous amount of information throughout my degree. Sadly, during my entire academic history up until now, very little focus was placed on the process of taking in information (mostly through lectures and labs) and turning it into understanding and knowledge. Rather, the main focus was on “demonstrations of learning” like tests, assignments, and projects.
The problem with focusing on “demonstrations of learning” is that they can lead people, myself included, to prioritize these forms of evaluations and almost completely ignore the actual underlying process of learning. Consequently, for most of my degree, much of my learning was an intuitive process instead of a deliberate and intentional process. I eventually decided to confront this issue, and in March 2020, I leapt into a bottomless internet rabbit hole in search of better note-taking, digital organization, and learning methods (I have yet to come out of this rabbit hole, and am not sure if I ever will — you have been warned: explore at your own risk).
My explorations lead to the discovery of personal knowledge management. What I realized is that effective personal knowledge management becomes the learning. Tests, assignments, projects, instead become deadlines to motivate the learning process. Rather than learning with the goal of good academic performance, PKM opens the way for learning with the goal of developing comprehensive understanding and long-lasting knowledge. After all, learning should be about developing actual insight (and actionable wisdom), not about acing a test.
The State of PKM
Outside of the school setting, and well into the depths of the internet, the field of PKM is excitingly active. There’s a large community of people who have been working on PKM for many years by refining methods, creating tools, and spreading the love by teaching others what it’s all about (what I’m attempting to do). In fact, the ecosystem of PKM is large enough (and growing fast enough) that some people are making a career out of creating online courses focused on teaching PKM for a hefty sum.
In addition to new online courses popping up, a new software program for PKM seems to come out every few months, some with cult-like support. Many knowledge workers and life-long learners are realizing the immense value of PKM and savvy entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this demand (see above images).
I think that PKM is much more profound and important than to only be another market among markets. While I think it’s great that there is growing interest, demand, and supply of PKM related products and services, which will undoubtedly drive innovation, the ultimate value of PKM should be as a public good.
PKM is becoming a new form of digital literacy that enables new forms of thinking, communicating, and understanding (all mediated by the personal computer). Collectively, we have decided that certain basic cognitive skills should not be left completely to market forces, but should instead be provided as a public good. Public education teaches literacy among many other skills, and I hope PKM is soon included in these curricula.
With that said, my goal is to share with you the immense intellectual power of an effective PKM system and to hopefully inspire you to try out some of the methods and programs mentioned throughout this series of videos/articles.
Practically, I like to think of PKM being made up of three main aspects:
- organization and action
Additionally, I like to think of PKM related topics as either:
- conceptual frameworks/methods/techniques
- software programs/tools
Everything I discuss in future articles or videos will be related to the above five bullet points in some way, so it’s important to keep these in mind.
Through my explorations, I’ve realized that note-taking is the most important habit for effective, long-lasting learning (and really any sort of intellectual pursuit). But, smart note-taking isn’t trivial. There are certain ways of note-taking that make you think about ideas in a way that leads to better learning and understanding. The most popular smart note-taking method I am aware of is called Zettelkasten (I go into more detail in this article).
In addition to note-taking methods, there are various note-taking software programs that enable you to implement something like a Zettelkasten easily. Whatever note-taking program is being used, typically you will want them to have a few features, the most important being bi-directional linking (so you can make a network of thoughts and navigate through them back and forth — no more clicking through folders looking for the right note). Just like how this article links to other websites, your notes could similarly link to other notes you have written.
It’s also important (for me, at least) to differentiate between the different forms of note-taking. Generally, I think of two main forms of note-taking:
- idea, knowledge, understanding development. These are your thinking notes. Notes you write when you are thinking about something or reading about something. These notes live and grow over time and don’t necessarily serve any specific purpose.
- organization, project, task management. These are notes you use when organizing files, working on projects, managing your tasks, etc. These notes are typically used to accomplish a specific task or outcome, and usually fall into specific categories.
When I talk about note-taking I usually mean the first type. The second type I put under the organization and action category of PKM.
The two main note-taking programs I am currently using are:
- Obsidian (I use it almost exclusively for Zettelkasten, although it can be used for so much more than that, for example, daily work logs)
- RemNote (I use this for breaking down concepts and learning specific material, like studying German or reading textbooks)
Both of which are free (with paid premium options). Some others include: Roam Research, Athens Research, Zettlr, The Archive, and many others, start by looking up “networked note-taking apps”.
The next section of PKM is memory. Part of managing our personal knowledge is internalizing it and memorizing it. Long story short, there are memorization techniques and software tools that help build long-term memory — well beyond a semester and even a degree.
One of the best ways to develop long-term memory is by using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS). Spaced repetition is a way to train your brain to recall information actively from your memory using flashcards. There are several SRS programs to pick from, but the two main ones I use are:
RemNote is my favourite because the flashcards are built into a note-taking system. This means that the flashcards you make are not isolated from your actual notes, but live and grow as your notes do.
Organization and Action
We all have tasks to do, deadlines to keep track of, projects to work on, paperwork to fill out, emails to follow up with, and on and on. This amount of information can pile up really quickly, and is usually spread across many platforms, folders, and files. These are the kinds of things that lead to a cluttered and disorganized file system on a computer. There is a conceptual framework to help organize any and all digital resources we want to save somewhere called the PARA method. The PARA method is really just a way to think about what function some digital resource serves, and then to store it appropriately in one of the four PARA categories.
I use a PARA structure on my computer in the file system, and I also use it in the all-in-one productivity platform called Notion. Basically, if I’m not reading, writing and thinking about ideas, or I’m not learning something specific, I’ll use Notion, or just my regular file system, to manage, organize and work with all the digital resources.
Notion has a ton of built in features to help organize your information and break projects and tasks down into manageable chunks. I also use Notion as a “universal inbox”, and whenever I come across something interesting on the internet, I save it to a Notion “inbox” page where I will go through it at a later time.
There are a lot more details I can get into, but I will save those for future articles focused on specific areas of PKM or specific programs. My goals with this article was to introduce PKM, explain why it’s important, outline the main aspects of PKM, and introduce various methods and programs that are quite helpful.
It’s important to remember that PKM is a very personal undertaking and the best way to figure out what works best is by experimenting. My advice would be to have no short term expectations, but to simply give some of the above programs a try and see what you think. It will likely take a significant amount of time to get used to many of the programs and their features (I’ve been in the PKM rabbit hole for 10 months and counting), but with a small amount of consistent exploration, you will start to get the hang of them and be well on your way to becoming a PKM enthusiast.
Lastly, PKM is a lifelong process that will last with you and evolve throughout your life. In this sense, there is no need to feel rushed to “figure it all out”. You’ve got plenty of time to figure it out, what matters most here is that you are actively exploring and experimenting.
I hope you find this stuff as exciting as I do!
See you soon and happy exploring.
UPDATE: I’ve made a video that goes along with a more interactive project to help get you started with PKM, check it out here: https://github.com/weswalla/PKM-guide