How to build a personal knowledge management system: the ultimate guide
Getting started with personal knowledge management
What is personal knowledge management?
The definition of personal knowledge management (PKM), simply put, is to have a structured system in place to organize your thoughts, notes, and files.
Personal knowledge management systems can range from simple to complex. Although most personal knowledge management systems these days are digital (using computer software and note taking apps), you could even have an analog or paper-based personal knowledge management system, such as a paper-based Zettelkasten system on index cards.
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You might know personal knowledge management by another name, such as:
- Digital file management
- Digital note taking systems
- Information management systems
- Knowledge management (KM)
- Knowledge management systems
- Note taking systems
- Note taking workflow
- Personal information management (PIM)
- Personal management systems
In certain technical circles, there are subtle nuances between how each of these terms are used. But generally speaking, for the rest of us, they’re all just another way to describe having a mindful, intentionally designed workflow to manage documents, emails, ideas, and other information that crosses your desk and your mind.
Building an intentional, mindful way to organize your notes and files
There’s no single one right way to build a personal knowledge management system, nor is there a singular definition. From my perspective, all personal knowledge management means is this: having an intentional, mindful way to organize and manage all the information that flows into your life on a daily basis.
The purpose of building a personal knowledge management system is, at its core, to feel more organized and in control of your life. Building a personal knowledge management system will save you time, as it makes it easier to find files, links, emails, and ideas that you came across before. You’ll spend less time reinventing the wheel. A personal knowledge management system is intended to help you find new connections between individual pieces of information. The goal of building a personal knowledge management system is to simplify your life and make it easier for you to accomplish your tasks in less time, with less stress.
Why do I need personal knowledge management? Who can benefit from personal knowledge management?
Busy people need personal knowledge management systems most of all
As a busy person, you may feel like the last thing you need to do is to add yet another task to your overflowing to do list. It’s a catch 22: the people who can most benefit from a personal knowledge management system are often the ones who least feel like they can invest the time in building one.
Building a personal knowledge management system will benefit you if you are a knowledge worker in any capacity. If part of your job, or school, or side hustle, involves managing research, writing, and information, building a personal knowledge management system will pay huge dividends for you in the medium and long-term. It is worth a short term investment in taking some time to set up a mindful, intentional system.
Knowledge workers need personal knowledge management
People in these fields particularly benefit from personal knowledge management from having a reliable personal knowledge management system in place:
- Artists and poets
- Entrepreneurs, side hustlers, and indie hackers
- Graduate students (masters-level, PhD, and post-docs)
- Graphic designers
- Knowledge workers
- Non-fiction writers
- Novelists, short story writers, fiction writers
- Online content creators (including bloggers, writers, influencers, YouTubers)
- Professional students (including medical students, law students, and engineering students)
- Professors and adjunct instructors
- Project managers
- Small business owners
- Software developers
- Stay at home parents (moms and dads) and caregivers
- Undergraduate (university and college) students
- UX & UI designers
What is the best way to build a personal knowledge management system?
There is no single best way (but it would be lovely if there was!)
I wish that there was one, single, simple answer to the question, “What is the best way to build a personal knowledge management system?” As you explore the world of personal knowledge management– as you watch YouTube tutorials, listen to podcasts, and explore forums on the topic of notetaking and personal knowledge management– you’re going to discover that some people feel strongly that there is one singular, best way to build a personal knowledge management system.
To be fair, those people are partially correct. Whatever specific structure they are espousing is, in fact, the best personal knowledge management system setup– for them. This is key. People feel passionately about the structure or setup they have personally found helpful for building a personal knowledge management system. And this is wonderful: we can all benefit from the hard-won knowledge of our peers and those who have gone before us in developing their personal knowledge management system. I am always personally keen to review examples, sample workflows, and set ups from other thinkers in the personal knowledge management space. We are lucky to live in a time when there is an ever-growing abundance of personal knowledge management apps and setup examples.
Avoid the “one-size fits all” trap
However, the danger arises when someone is so happy with the results of their own personal knowledge management setup, and know that it is worked well for them, that they have the misconception that their own specific workflow, app, or structure is going to work for everybody else. The concept of the “personal” is absolutely key in understanding the best way to set up a personal knowledge management system. There simply is no one-size-fits-all personal knowledge management method or app.
You need to build a flexible tailored system that fits your life
The truth is, over the course of your working life, you will yourself need to adjust, iterate, and change your personal knowledge management system to meet new challenges, changing work environments, and different projects. Too often, people can feel that it is their own a personal failing, or a failure of their individual system or app, if they start to feel frustrated with their personal knowledge management setup. During those times of doubt and frustration, it can be very tempting to be listen to confident, persuasive speakers who propose that there is one single, best solution to the challenge of note taking.
The Calmer Notes approach: find what fits, and leave the rest
The signature phrase of my own Calmer Notes training on the topic of personal knowledge management is this: find what fits, and leaves the rest. The Calmer Notes method is, by its very design, not going to tell you one single best way to build your personal knowledge management system. I am happy to share my own experiences and recommendations– but I believe it would be disingenuous to pretend that the apps or structure that I have found personally helpful are going to fit everybody else. Your life is different than mine. Your mind works differently than mine. You have a different collection of operating systems and technology and mobile and browser preference. Your work environment is different than mine. You are trying to create different outputs with your daily work than I am.
(This is why I built the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management: to offer a nuanced, cutomizable, flexible approach that helps everyone from beginners to advanced users build a personal knowledge management system that fits their lives.)
Best PKM software, tools, and apps
What is the best personal knowledge management app for a beginner?
If you’re new to the world of personal knowledge management: welcome! So glad you have discovered this delightful corner of the internet– I am so excited for you. This is a really wonderful time to be getting started with personal knowledge management: there is an explosion of exciting, powerful new software and apps to help you organize your digital notes and build a digital note taking habit. it’s the perfect time to begin building a personal knowledge management system that truly fits your life and reflects the way that your mind works.
But the explosion and digital knowledge management apps can be a double-edged sword. As a beginner, you may find the endless options of digital note taking software and personal knowledge managements apps rather overwhelming to sort through. You may feel stuck on the best place to get started.
Try to avoid letting analysis paralysis stop you from embarking on your personal knowledge management journey. So long as you choose a digital notetaking app with robust import and export options, it shouldn’t take you that long to switch to a new app if you ultimately find your first choice isn’t quite right for you.
Top three apps for beginners
With that in mind, these would be my top three beginner friendly note taking app and software recommendations as of 2022:
2. Bear Notes
3. Craft Docs
All three of these apps offer robust markdown import and export options, which I believe is absolutely central to building a future-proof note-taking app. Notion and Craft both have web apps; Bear is Mac only.
If you want to explore more into my personal knowledge management app recommendations and roundups, check out my blog archives.
What is the best advanced personal knowledge management app?
Avoiding bright shiny object syndrome
If you are a seasoned personal knowledge management system enthusiast, and you’ve been in this space for some time, I imagine you’re just as excited as I am to see the explosion of new PKM and tools for thought (TFT) apps.
That being said, the influx of new PKM apps can lead all of us to experience some degree of overwhelm and analysis paralysis. It can be all too easy to get distracted by bright shiny object syndrome. When an exciting new note taking app comes across your Twitter feed, with appealing screencaps and advanced features, it can feel so tempting to abandon your current setup (which has some frustrations and roadblocks which have been annoying you), in favour of building a fresh system from the ground up.
📱Bright shiny object syndrome tempts us all. Check out this post on choosing your note taking system (rather than the "perfect" software app) to build a more sustainable personal knowledge management system.
Questions to ask to gain clarity
There is always the possibility that a new app is truly what your system needs right now. But before switching to a new app, it’s incredibly important to recognize and get super-specific about:
- The constraints of your current work environment and life
- The reality of your schedule
- The technology you want to be able to integrate
- The goals of your PKM system (what problem(s) you’re trying to solve)
- The output of your PKM system (what you’re trying to create)
What’s your why?
As much as we may all enjoy browsing the latest note taking apps, none of us have come to personal knowledge management with the intent of building a note taking habit or PKM system as an end goal in and of itself. We’ve sought out personal knowledge management as a tool in service of a greater purpose. This purpose might be:
- Writing a book
- Building a business
- Learning a new subject
- Deepening or specializing our knowledge in an existing area
- Organizing the administrative details of our lives
Whatever our goals may be– there needs to be a “why” underpinning the entire structure of our personal knowledge management system. Building a note taking habit for its own sake is simply not enough. We are all busy people, with many demands on our time and schedule. We need to build personal knowledge management systems that support, strengthen, and enrich our lives.
💻 Want to go deeper? Here's my article on figuring out the goals and purpose of your personal knowledge management system.
Top three apps for advanced PKM users
With all of that in mind, I would personally recommend these as the top three personal knowledge management apps for advanced, experienced users as of 2022:
How should I choose a personal knowledge management app?
Want a more in-depth, detailed approach to the process of choosing the best personal knowledge management app? My Calmer Notes approach is founded on the principle of making informed, mindful, intentional choices in building your personal knowledge management system. In step 4 of the Calmer Notes method, you’ll go through a step-by-step approach to efficiently and mindfully select the best PKM app for your own specific needs.
🖥️ The Calmer Notes course includes exclusive access to a Notion database of organized PKM apps. Sort by platform or feature to find the perfect personal knowledge management software to suit your own workflow.
How to choose the best personal knowledge management setup
There is no perfect system– just the best system for you
You might be searching for the best personal knowledge management workflow, strategy, or approach. If you’ve read through from the start of the article to now, you probably have guessed that I am going to remind you of this fact: there is no single best personal knowledge management setup that works for everyone. Everybody’s ideal workflow is going to look different– and should look different. A strategy that works phenomenally well for one person will fall flat for another. The “perfect” personal knowledge management workflow for a one specific person will change and evolve, too, as they juggle different roles, responsibilities, and projects at different times of their lives.
✍️ Focus on system, not software.
Draw inspiration: find what fits, and leave the rest
With all that in mind, there is still huge benefit to looking at example note taking structures as well as personal knowledge management workflows and setups. Going through examples of how other people have structured their tags, folders, and bidirectional links can be very inspiring. The most important thing that I want you to take away, however, is to use these examples as inspiration only. Feel under no obligation to follow them slavishly. As I emphasize in the Calmer Notes method: find what fits, and leave the rest.
It’s exciting to be living in a time of exponential growth in personal knowledge management apps and approaches. There are new workflows and structures being developed on a regular basis. Below, I will go through some examples of personal knowledge management systems and actions, linking through to the websites and blogs of talented PKM thinkers and writers. Let their systems serve as inspiration for you, to see if portions of their approach might be helpful for your own specific needs, goals, and note taking preferences.
The concept of “atomic notes” was coined by Christian Tietze, and comes from the notion that each note in a note taking system should be centered around one singular idea. Atomic notes are part of the Zettelkasten approach, and their use was popularized in How to Take Smart Notes. Small, discrete, atomic notes are also included in many other personal knowledge management structures such as digital gardens and building a second brain. Atomic notes are closely linked with the concept of evergreen notes.
The goal of writing an atomic note is to break each piece of knowledge down into ts smallest, tiniest, indivisible part (i.e. per Dalton’s atomic theory). The goal is to then link these small, discrete pieces of information to related notes to that you can see interconnections between ideas and themes. To continue the analogy, you can then link your atomic notes together to build “molecules” of knowledge.
Building a second brain (BASB) & PARA
The concept of building a second brain (BASB) was created by Tiago Forte of Forte Labs. This structure grew out of his PARA folder system for organizing digital content. Forte was originally a productivity training consultant for software companies, and developed this particular structure for organizing reference works in parallel to organizing tasks and projects.
Maggie Appleton, a talented UX designer, anthropologist, and artist, created a beautifully illustrated infographic of the building a second brain (BASB) and PARA methodology, linked below:
Digital mind gardens
The concept of a digital mind garden reflects the reality that our personal knowledge is meant to always be growing, adapting, and changing. When you build a digital garden, you expect the notes to be added to, deleted, and otherwise pruned, just like a real garden.
Some people choose to make their digital mind gardens public, usually powered with a wiki software or similar. Other people prefer to keep them private. You can see some examples of digital mind gardens, as well as tools and resources over at Maggie Appleton’s digital mind garden guide at GitHub.
A digital mind garden might be right for you if you are working on learning a subject or writing a project that has many interconnected ideas, and you’re not yet clear on how some of those ideas may interact with each other. A digital mind garden can be a useful tool for structuring and connecting ideas you may not otherwise have linked together.
The Johnny Decimal system, created by John Noble, is a numerically-based structure for organizing digital files. Inspired by the Dewey Decimal system, it is a practical approach to the challenge of sorting and finding digital files.
The essential steps of this approach are to:
- Break everything up into 10 areas (or less).
- Break each of those areas into 10 categories (or less).
- Assign ID numbers to those areas and categories.
- Assign IDs to files and folders.
John Noble has an excellent, easy-to-follow summary of his approach over at his site, where he also hosts a dedicated forum.
The Zettelkasten (“slip box”) method, created by academic Niklas Luhmann and popularized by Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes, was originally an analog knowledge management system composed entirely of slips of paper or index cards. With the advent of digital note taking apps, the possibilities inherent in the Zettelkasten system became even more exciting. You no longer needed a large filing cabinet of notecards to organize your thoughts, ideas and research. Instead, you could use note taking software to accomplish the same thing digitally– with the addditional benefit of full-text search.
Zettelkasten systems rely on discrete pieces of knowledge, such as those in atomic notes, linked together. A Zettelkasten has three types of notes:
- Fleeting notes
- Permanent notes
- Project notes
For a deep dive into the world of Zettelkasten, check out the English-language section of Zettelkasten.de for a thorough overview and guidelines on implementation.
💻 Want to create a digital Zettelkasten? Check out my guide to building a Zettelkasten in Notion.
The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management
An alternative approach
Some people wonder if Calmer Notes is an alternative structure to organizing notes: they may even assume Calmer Notes must be an alternative or competitor to atomic notes, building a second brain, Johnny Decimal, digital mind gardens, PARA, or zettelkasten. Quite the opposite– I have a high regard for the above-named personal knowledge management thinkers. I think that each approach has something valuable to offer, and I encourage anyone interested in the world of personal knowledge management to explore any and all of the methods that sound appealing to them.
The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management is a different approach. To borrow a concept from the Category Pirates, Calmer Notes is in a different category altogether. The Calmer Notes approach isn’t about the how. (Though we still address that, too.) It’s about the why.
The Calmer Notes approach offers an existential and practical approach to personal knowledge management. Calmer Notes gives you a framework for considering precisely what you’re trying to achieve with your personal knowledge management system, what your roadblocks are, and to imagine how your ideal system would work and function. Then, and only then, once you have clarity on the unique needs and goals of your individual system, will you begin the practical side of building your system. You’ll be well-equipped to mindfully select the best apps (for you) and to build a customized structure– borrowing from the inspiration and examples above– that truly fits your life.
If you appreciate the existential productivity writing from thinkers such as Khe Hy and Oliver Burkeman– Calmer Notes is the personal knowledge management approach you’ve been waiting for.
The Calmer Notes approach offers an existential yet practical approach to personal knowledge management. Here’s the reality: we don’t have unlimited time or energy available to us. Building a personal knowledge management system using the Calmer Notes method will help to simplify your life. So you can get on with creating the things you want to make and the life experiences you want to enjoy.
End the overwhelm and finally get organized with the Calmer Notes framework
Are you ready to stop searching for the “perfect” note taking app and ditch rigid, inflexible note taking systems?
The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management helps busy, overwhelmed, overscheduled professionals create one-of-a-kind, perfect tailored, minimalist note taking workflows to finally organize your notes and ideas, once and for all.
- Discover the five most common note-taking myths that might be holding you back
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- Enroll in the Calmer Notes course (a self-paced, high-yield, asynchronous course designed to fit into even the busiest of schedules)