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How to Build a Personal Knowledge Management System in 5 Steps: an Overview of the Calmer Notes Method

Start where you are. Define your destination. Draft your blueprint. Choose your apps. Build your library.

Elizabeth Butler
Elizabeth Butler
6 min read
How to Build a Personal Knowledge Management System in 5 Steps: an Overview of the Calmer Notes Method
Table of Contents


Hello, friend. I’m so glad you’re stopping by on your journey to create your own custom personal digital knowledge management (PKM) system for organizing digital notes and ideas.

You might've been searching for ideas on how to organize your digital notes. Or maybe you're wondering how to build a personal management system. You might've come across other ways of organizing in your web surfing, like Building a Second Brain (BASB), using the PARA method, or the Johnny Decimal folder system. You might be exploring the idea of bidirectional linking (aka backlinks or wiki-style links). Maybe you're wondering if you should try to build a digital mind garden. Or maybe you started off with finding a great piece of software, and now you’re wondering how to create a personal knowledge management system in Notion, or Obsidian, or Roam Research.

About your guide

I’m Elizabeth Butler, the creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. I've spent over a decade figuring out the best way to organize, process, collect, and maintain digital notes, PDF articles, original writing, images, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and any number of other information sources.

Here's my story in brief: I started my career as a PhD researcher, then became a professor. In my second career, I went to medical school and became a physician. I have years of experience in effectively managing knowledge in both the humanities and sciences.I'm also a working parent, so I understand the struggle to keep on top of all the moving parts of modern life.

The Calmer Notes approach to how to build a personal knowledge management system

I'm currently working on a digital book/e-book and learning bundle about the Calmer Notes methodology for personal knowledge management, which will be launching later in 2021. (If you're quite keen, it is available for pre-order at a discount over at Gumroad.)

While this blog post won't go into the same depth as the e-book and learning bundle, I thought that I would offer readers a quick overview of my approach to create and structure a personal knowledge management system that works for their life.

You're a busy person, with lots to do. You don't need a personal knowledge management system that takes up hours every week. You need something that you can integrate into your workflow and use to support your own unique goals.

So let’s dive in, shall we?

Step 1 - Start where you are

Start off by taking stock of where you're currently sorting, organizing, storing, and collecting information. Are you using notion? Apple notes? Evernote? A series of word documents saved on your desktop?

Most people store information in a wide variety of places. Try to think through every location you store information. This can include your phone, tablet, work computer, home computer, and cloud storage services.

Get specific and get comprehensive. The more detailed you can be at the stage, the more robust a personal knowledge management system you can eventually build.

Action item: Brainstorm and write down a list of all the places you store knowledge.

Step 2 - Define your destination

What are you trying to accomplish? What prompted you to search for “how to build a personal knowledge management system” or “how to organize digital notes” or “how to organize research notes” or “best personal knowledge management system software”? What was going through your mind when you type that into Google? What time was it? Where were you? What were you struggling with?

Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to build a personal knowledge management system. For some people, they are working on a major project like a thesis, dissertation, or book. Other people are trying to establish themselves as writers, whether through blog posts, longform journalism, or via Twitter threads. Other people, like lawyers, teachers, professors, and grad students, are working to organize research information and references for their day jobs. Other people might be entrepreneurs who are trying to keep track of ideas, copy writing swipe files, or prospective clients.

Everyone comes to personal knowledge management with their own agenda. No one is quite the same. It's helpful to get clear on the underlying motivation for you as you start to build your personal knowledge management system.

Action item: What are you trying to accomplish right now? In what way do you feel that having a personal knowledge management system could help you get this done?

Step 3 - Draft your blueprint

Here's where the logistics start to come in. Now that you know where you're currently storing data, and what you want to accomplish with it, it's time to think about your own personal preferences and work environment. Everyone's brain works a little bit differently. There is no one single best way to organize digital notes. The truth is that the best way is the way that works for you, that you can maintain, and it supports your ultimate goals for creating a personal knowledge management system in the first place.

Items to consider as you draft your blueprint include:

  • Where do you need access to your personal knowledge management system? What platforms will you need access on? Web, windows, Mac, iPhone, android, iPad?
  • What features do you particularly appreciate in an app? Do you like markdown? How important are aesthetics to you, privacy concerns?
  • How do you prefer to structure knowledge? Do you prefer tags, folders, or bidirectional links? How important is full text search for you?
Action step: Make a wishlist/outline of all the features you want to make sure your PKM system includes.

Step 4 - Choose your apps

I recommend that people don't even consider which app to use until they've already completed the first three steps. It can be incredibly tempting to jump right to this step. Looking for a new app is, honestly, kind of fun. There are all kinds of new note taking apps for managing digital notes that are coming out right now.

But the problem is that if you start with an app first, you're always going to be disappointed. You need to give considered thought to what you're trying to accomplish with your personal knowledge management system and how you would prefer to structure it. Then you can go and find an app that actually meets these requirements. This will cut down on the all-too-common "bright shiny object syndrome” where do you spend more time searching for new apps, and importing and exporting your data, rather than building and engaging with your personal knowledge management system.

Be sure that you give some thought to choosing apps that meet these 5 key principles of a sustainable personal knowledge management system.

If you're looking for a place to start choosing a digital note-taking app or software to build your personal knowledge management system, you can browse through my archives with the posts labelled apps.

PS: if you choose to buy the Calmer Notes learning bundle, it includes a comprehensive PKM database of notetaking and digital knowledge management apps. This will cut down on the time you need to devote to finding the right software and apps that meet your unique PKM needs.

Action item: Devote some time to search through the features of roundups of note-taking software recommendations, and make a list of contenders.

Step 5 - Build your library

This is the most exciting step. Now that you have gone through the process of clearly sending out your goals for building a PKM system, and mindfully choosing apps to support this, you can import your existing data with confidence.

You will be able to cull and curate as appropriate, since you know why you're saving information. This will also also help you going forward as you continue to grow, collect, cultivate, and curate your personal knowledge management system into a robust, useful, supportive resource for accomplishing your goals.

Action item: Review your action items from above, and get started implementing.

Ready for a deeper dive? Pre-order Calmer Notes

The above blog post is a very short summary of the process I’ll go over in much more detail and depth in Calmer Notes.

Are you ready to create a personal knowledge management system that saves you time? Do you want to free up mental energy to work on accomplishing big things?

My Calmer Notes learning bundle (ebook + workbook + PKM app database) is launching later in 2021. Head over to the Calmer Notes website to learn more. Or join the list below to get updates on the project.

Psst... If you want to join my inner circle of early adopters (thanks so much to those of you who've already pre-ordered - I appreciate your support! ❤️), you can preorder on Gumroad to lock in the lowest early-adopter pricing.

Calmer NotesPersonal Knowledge ManagementProductivityApps

Elizabeth Butler

Your guide to the world of personal knowledge management. Creator of the Calmer Notes method ( Physician, PhD, parent, tea drinker.

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