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These 5 key principles of the Calmer Notes method will help you create a sustainable personal knowledge management system

Design a personal knowledge management system that is universal, simple, flexible, delightful, and quick.

Elizabeth Butler
Elizabeth Butler
4 min read
These 5 key principles of the Calmer Notes method will help you create a sustainable personal knowledge management system

Table of Contents

The goal of the Calmer Notes approach

My goal is to help busy people create a methodical, reliable, streamlined personal knowledge system that works for them. I know that you don't have time to test out every app, or rehaul your entire setup every three months, or spend hours every day keeping your system organized. You need a simple, quick, efficient way to manage the firehose of information that comes at you on a daily basis.

Your structure matters - the tools, not as much

I think one reason it's easy to get fixated on finding the perfect app is that we rarely take a systematic, tool-agnostic approach to personal knowledge management. The goal of personal knowledge management is to solve your problem of information overload, plain and simple. But an app-first approach doesn't put your unique challenges and priorities in the driver's seat.

It can be easy to focus on the features of a note-taking app as a substitute for a system. We can fixate on tags versus folders, web apps vs local-only, or if bidirectional linking is truly essential. It can be all too easy to focus on these details, and fall victim again and again to bright-shiny object syndrome when a new app comes out. Yet when we get overly focused on features and finding "the perfect app," we distract ourselves from the larger, more significant questions like:

  • Why am I building this system?
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • What problem am I trying to solve?

My approach to building a PKM system gives you a methodical, systemic approach to setting up a workflow for your personal knowledge management system. Just like the principles of GTD can be applied to any app (or even just a stack of index cards), the Calmer Notes approach can be used to develop a personal knowledge management system in any app or group of apps.

The 5 principles of the Calmer Notes approach

Here are the five principles of the Calmer Notes approach:

1. Your system should be universal

  • It needs to be wherever you work and easily accessible wherever you have thoughts. Ubiquitous, universal access is key to maintenance.
  • Mobile access is important.
  • Cross-platform and/or web access matters if you work on different operating systems at home and at work.

2. Your system should be as simple as possible— but no simpler

  • Your choice of apps needs to be carefully customized to your own current circumstances and goals.
  • You should use as few apps as possible– but not too few.
  • Your choice of apps should be streamlined yet specific and personalized to your goals. (For example, not everyone needs a reference manager but for those who do, this is a key part of staying organized.)

3. Your system should be flexible and future-proof

  • Your system should change as your circumstances and goals change. You shouldn't regard this as a failing of your system, but rather as expected progression and growth.
  • You therefore don't want to be locked into a single app or a single approach.
  • Any app you use for your system should have robust import and export options.

4. Your system should be delightful

  • If you're going to truly use your system, it needs to be a space that you want to spend time thinking and reflecting within.
  • It needs to be the digital equivalent to a Moleskine notebook (or whatever your analog notebook aesthetic may be).
  • Ask yourself– is it a joy to open and use my system?

5. Your system should be quick

  • Your system needs to move at the speed of thought (or as close as possible). Your system needs to keep up with your brain as much as possible.
  • If it's not quick, you won't use it. You'll (quite reasonably) go back to scribbled notes on scraps of paper, and random semi-cryptic emails to yourself.
  • This is true on two levels: The app itself has to be quick. Also, your system within the app has to be quick. If you have a long, involved, manual tagging system for processing each piece of information, it won't be sustainable. It needs to be low-friction.

Build a mindful personal knowledge management system with the Calmer Notes method

If you're a creative person who would like to create an intentional, mindful, flexible personal knowledge management system that fits your busy life, the Calmer Notes method might be just what you've been searching for.

I've created Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People based on my own two-decade experience of applying personal knowledge management in a wide variety of work environments. The Calmer Notes method will take you through the process of creating and maintaining a tailored, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system to organize your digital notes and files.

This self-paced course (which includes digital book + workbook + PKM app database) is now available for purchase at Gumroad.

You'll learn:

  • What personal knowledge management (PKM) means -- and why busy people need a PKM system to stop feeling overwhelmed 📚
  • How to identify the existing pieces of your PKM system 🔍
  • How to choose the right note-taking app that actually works for you (instead of switching apps every few months) 📝
  • How to design and create a personal knowledge management system that works for the reality of your right-now life 🕰️
  • Years of hard-won, first-hand knowledge about personal knowledge management I've accumulated after years of completing a PhD, an MD, and working as a physician while parenting 👩⚕️

If you'd like to learn more, check out an overview of the Calmer Notes approach or visit Calmer Notes. You'll also get a free guide to the 5 most common note taking myths (that just might be stopping you from building a sustainable personal knowledge management system) when you sign up for my newsletter.

Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!

Calmer NotesPersonal Knowledge Management

Elizabeth Butler Twitter

Your guide to the world of note taking and mindful productivity. Creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. Physician, PhD, parent, tea drinker.


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