Designing for joy: 3 tips to transform your personal knowledge management system

Joy matters, too

It’s been wonderful to see personal knowledge management getting more and more attention these days. But I feel that, all too often, an important piece of the puzzle is getting overlooked— namely, bringing more joy to the process of building and maintaining a personal knowledge management system.

Is personal knowledge management worth it?

Whether you’re new to the world of digital note taking and personal knowledge management or you’ve been following the PKM space for years, you may find yourself wondering things like:

  • How can I find the time to build and maintain a complex personal knowledge management system?
  • Is building a personal knowledge management a waste of time? Am I procrastinating on moving the needle on my bigger projects by focusing on the little fiddly details of my personal knowledge management system instead… because that feels safer?
  • Does everyone else have a perfect, beautifully complex, flawlessly executed personal knowledge management system except for me? (Also known as PKM FOMO– and yes, I just made up that abbreviation. 😊)

To answer those three questions in brief:

  1. Don’t worry about building a complex personal knowledge management system. Just focus on building a digital note-taking workflow that fits your right-now life.
  2. Personal knowledge management isn’t going to solve your productivity issues in a vacuum. (It would be great if it could!) Building an elaborate PKM system for its own sake may well be a form of procrastination, or it may be an excellent, strategic use of your time— only you can answer that question for yourself, with some introspection. But if you find yourself asking the question… that may be part of the answer.
  3. No, I guarantee it. Everyone has an imperfect PKM system– and that’s just as it should be. Personal knowledge management is about practice, not perfection. We all iterate and improve where we can. But perfection and flawless execution is a myth in the world of PKM (and pretty much everywhere else, to be frank).

It’s all too easy for personal knowledge management to feel like tedious drudgery

When I think about the spirit behind these type of questions, I see a common theme: if we’re not careful, it’s easy to let personal knowledge management turn into a chore.

Just another thing on the task list. Yet another thing we might not be doing right. Just another thing to feel guilty about, or fall behind on. We might start to feel resentful of the time our digital note taking system takes, or envious of other people who seem to have their digital workflow perfectly in place.

When we start to fall into these types of thinking traps, all the joy and ease and fun of personal knowledge management disappears.

And instead it feels like drudgery.

Three ways to bring the joy back to personal knowledge management

There’s another way to work. Our PKM systems can be designed to feel like a pleasure to use, instead of a source of frustration.

Here are three tips to build a more joyful personal knowledge management system— instead of one that feels like a dull, dreary obligation.

Build a system that works on your worst days.

It can be incredibly tempting to build elaborate personal knowledge management systems with complicated tagging, folder, and/or backlink structures and sophisticated automations. It can be satisfying and fascinating to craft these kind of systems as a hobby. And if they truly work for you and serve your needs? Wonderful— please keep enjoying.

But for many people those kind of PKM systems end up being self-defeating in the long run. They become unwieldy, out of date, and scattered. You can’t find the information you know you saved in there. Processing and organizing your system takes up more and more time— until you get frustrated, overwhelmed, and abandon it altogether for a fresh approach. Which makes you feel sad, because you know you had saved some good ideas and research in your old one.

I can’t tell you what sort of PKM system is going to fit your life. You know your own life and constraints better than anyone else.

This is why the Calmer Notes method takes you through a step-by-step process to build a tailored personal knowledge management system that fits your life— not someone else’s.

It’s absolutely integral for you to figure out what type of PKM system you could reasonably maintain on a bad day. Or a bad week. Or heaven forbid a bad month or year. What level of organization could you commit to? How often can you (actually) commit to cleaning out your inbox or organizing your system? How could you build a simplified system that helps support your life where you’re at right now— not where you wish you were?

Be kind to yourself as you design your personal knowledge management system. Dream big, by all means, and cast around for inspiration from many sources. But as you scout out ideas, try to think about how you could adapt them to suit your right-now life.

How you could modify or simplify them.

How you could take the bits that help support your own individual priorities, and leave the rest (for now).

Choose an app you enjoy spending time in.

I’m drafting this blog post in Bear Notes App on my iPad. I know that I’ll be able to further edit it on my Macbook, then copy and paste the Markdown into my Ghost blog editor. I enjoy working in the minimalist, responsive Bear Notes editor in fullscreen, with the sidebar turned off. (I’m not an affiliate, just a fan… in fact, I’m such a fan of Bear Notes that they kindly featured me in their blog!) Before Bear Notes, I also enjoyed the minimalist writing environments in Obsidian MD and Typora.

But I’ve trialled many note taking apps over the years (who shall remain nameless…) that were frustrating to use. They had strange interfaces. They took forever to load. Their apps were unreliable and would suddenly crash. Their spacing and fonts were odd and distracting.

It makes such as difference to build your personal knowledge management system in an app (or collection of apps) that you enjoy spending time being in. If you want to develop a note taking or a writing habit, you’ll be spending many hours in this software ecosystem.

If you build your PKM system in an app that annoys you— it’s slow to load, it’s buggy, the font or colours distract you, it doesn’t sync reliably, the formatting is unreliable— you quite naturally won’t want to keep spending time in that app. Maintaining and adding to your PKM system will feel like an unpleasant chore, instead of a joy. You want to make sure you design a future-proof note taking system that will help support your goals for years to come.

Exploring digital note taking apps? You can start with my blog post on the 7 best note-taking apps to get started with personal knowledge management.

Design a purpose-driven personal knowledge management system.

You’re a busy person. You’re exploring personal knowledge management (and the Calmer Notes method specifically) because you like the sound of PKM helping you get more done in less time. The promise of efficiency? Effortless execution? That all sounds great to you.

(You’re not researching personal knowledge management because you’re bored, have tons of time on your hands that you’re not sure how to fill, and are looking for a new hobby. Or if you are, enjoy! There are plenty of fun rabbit holes of elaborate PKM systems around the internet to explore… but the minimalist, purpose-driven Calmer Notes method probably isn’t what you’re searching for.)

Digital note taking can be fun in and of itself, for sure. But the real appeal of personal knowledge knowledge management system is what it can help you achieve with less effort. You want to build a PKM system to get your goals done so you can end your workday sooner, and get on with enjoying you’ve been missing out on the most.

Maybe it’s dinner with the family (without stress-checking your phone every 7 minutes). Maybe you’re dreaming of a relaxed Thursday evening stroll downtown. Or snuggling onto the couch with your partner to binge the latest season of your favourite series, guilt-free. Or staring out the window on a rainy day, sipping a warm cup of tea, safe in the knowledge you have no where else you need to be and nothing else you need to be doing. Or finally– finally– saying yes to that weekend hiking trip with friends instead of sending yet another sad emoji and apologetic text.

For you, personal knowledge management is meant to be a means to an end. The idea of having a made-for-you, organized, easy to search database of information and ideas (kind of like your own personal, bespoke, boutique version of the internet) sounds incredibly appealing— but not in and of itself. It’s the tantalizing idea that a reliable PKM system could save you time. That building the right system could help you stop looking for the same files or information over and over again. That you could have one central, trusted, easy to access place to capture ideas and inspiration— instead of a messy array of screenshots and emailed links and notes scattered across fifteen apps.

The beauty— and challenge— of personal knowledge management lies in the truth that it is, in fact, supremely personal. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. There is not one single best method or structure.

Are you in search of the holy grail, that one single best way to design your personal knowledge management system? The bad news is, it doesn’t exist. The good news is, there are a host of wonderful ways to build a PKM workflow that meets your specific needs. Learn more about the “one-size-fits-all” trap here (and what to do instead).

It can be fun to window shop and look for ideas on how other people have created their own PKM systems. But always keep sight of your purpose as you design your own system. When you have a tailored personal knowledge management system aligned with your own purpose and goals, it can truly spark joy.

Maybe building a purposeful personal knowledge management system sounds good to you… but you’re feeling a bit lost as to how you can actually do that.

I created the Calmer Notes method to help digital minimalists build mindful, purposeful personal knowledge management systems. In this course, we’ll focuses on finding what fits, and leaving the rest.

Wishing you joy on your personal knowledge management journey!

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