Streamline your note taking practice by clarifying your personal knowledge management goals

Everyone comes to the world of personal knowledge management for a different reason. We all have different problems we’re trying to solve. We all have our own reasons for wanting to build or hone our note taking skills.

Unfortunately, sometimes the online advice on note taking tips or personal knowledge management strategies can elide all of those individual, unique goals into one monolithic approach. Generic advice about “the best note taking style” or “how to take perfect notes” flattens out differences between note takers, and pretends that we all have the same goals in note taking.

As students in my Calmer Notes course can attest, my foundational belief about building a mindful, sustainable personal knowledge management system is that any PKM system needs to be deeply individualized in order to be successful. The most beautiful, flawless note taking system will fall to pieces in short order if it isn’t designed to truly fit your life.

The fall season— with the return to school and routines— is the perfect time to build or refresh your personal knowledge management system and to build stronger note taking habits and systems. Use this time to identify your personal knowledge management story so you can build a note taking system that fits your life.

What’s driving your personal knowledge management story?

Sure, you might have started off by searching for “note taking apps for windows“ or “obsidian themes“ or “how to take notes on a book” or “how to build a zettelkasten in notion.” But what is the motivation underlying those searches? What do you want to use those apps for? If you’re looking for the most aesthetic Obsidian theme, what are you hoping to do with it? What type of knowledge do you want to organize in that Notion Zettelkasten? What kind of books are you trying to take notes on, and why?

Have you clarified that pressing need, concern, interest, or problem you’re trying to solve by building a note taking system? Do you know why you’ve tumbled down the online rabbit hole of research into personal knowledge management?

Some common motivations for seeking out note taking advice or personal knowledge management strategies are:

  • Taking notes for school, university, or other educational settings
  • Organizing notes for work or professional projects
  • Building a personal knowledge management system for your personal life

We’ll briefly review some of those motivations below– take note of any that resonate with you.

Note taking for school & university

Our first exposure to note taking habits and formats generally happens in school. As students, we quickly learn that we need an effective, sustainable way to take notes on lectures or textbooks. We need to figure out ways to organize our ideas to write research papers and essays. As we move on to higher education, we need to figure out ways to organize research references and ideas for writing a thesis, academic article, or dissertation.

Are you motivated to take better notes to pass exams? Or write your term paper? Or finish up graduate school? Within the note-taking sphere, students figuring out the best way to take notes in high school are in a different situation than graduate students finishing up their doctoral dissertations. Where are you in your educational journey– and what are your current goals?

Note taking for work

Our need for organized notes doesn’t end when we’re done with school and formal education. One common reason people find themselves searching “how to take organized notes” is because they feel overwhelmed or overstretched at work. You might be searching for better ways to stay organized at work, or ideas for how to improve your efficiency with note taking. Maybe you’ve been tasked with organizing the files on a project or collecting and managing meeting notes.

You might be constrained by the technology available in your workplace, or security issues, or the need to build a collaborative information management system accessible to colleagues. Note taking in a professional environment comes with a different set of constraints and benefits than academic note taking.

Are you trying to build a personal knowledge management system for professional purposes? Are you trying to organize information independently, or on behalf of a group? Why do you feel that better note taking or organization of information will help you accomplish more at work– and what precisely are you trying to accomplish?

Note taking for personal projects

Perhaps you’re working on writing a book, and trying to figure out the best way to organize your writing notes and research for your upcoming non-fiction book or novel (NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, after all…). Maybe you’re faced with managing documents and notes and contracts for a home renovation or major purchase. Or maybe you need to organize health documentation for yourself or a loved one. Perhaps you’re just trying to stay on top of all the school-related information for your kids as you head into a new year.

What projects are you trying to organize in your personal life– and how do you feel that personal knowledge management might make these better, easier, or more effortless?

Not all note taking advice is created equal

Here’s a common issue when you start searching for note taking advice, tips, and strategies online. You’ll find plenty of one-size-fits-all advice– but that’s not truly what you need. There’s a completely understandable temptation for people who have found one note taking approach or strategy to be helpful for them, in their own specific situation, to imagine that it will be equally effective for people across a much wider range of circumstances. I believe this impulse is coming from a good place— they want to tout a solution they found particularly helpful for themselves and share it widely. The problem is, this leaves out the fact that other people have different note taking goals, circumstances, and simple preferences.

Advice on effective Cornell note taking skills, for example, may be useful for a newly minted university student but not helpful in an executive business meeting setting. Setting up a note taking system composed of active recall of targeted, specific question-and-answers will likely be highly successful in medicine— and almost guarantee a failing grade in most liberal arts courses. Every note taking system or format has its own unique benefits and drawbacks. There is no single perfect personal knowledge management setup or system: just the one that’s right for you.

Get specific to set up a sustainable note taking system

The first step in developing a note taking system and strategy that keeps working for you is to make sure that you’re clear on the problem you’re trying to solve. When you get clear on your personal knowledge management story, you can start efficiently breaking down the parts and truly building a sustainable system.

Questions for reflection

  • What problem am I trying to solve with note taking?
  • What projects am I trying to organize by creating a personal knowledge management system?
  • What’s the motivation driving my interest in personal knowledge management?

Further reading

Reflecting on questions like these are just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to go deeper into the project of building a sustainable personal knowledge management system, check out these posts:

Wishing you every success on your personal knowledge management journey!

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