How to organize your digital notes: build a personal knowledge management system with the Calmer Notes method
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, MD, PhD, creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. I’ve spent nearly two decades 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’ve recently launched a self-paced course to help busy, creative people adopt my Calmer Notes methodology for personal knowledge management.
While this blog post won’t go into the same depth as the self-paced course, 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Ready to build a personal knowledge management system that fits your life? Enroll in the Calmer Notes Course
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.