Laptop and crumpled paper

The problem with personal knowledge management

Over the past few years, I have been writing about personal knowledge management, notetaking, and digital file organization. I have slowly built a body of work on this topic, both in my blog and in my Calmer Notes course. I’ve been lucky enough to be interviewed as an expert on personal knowledge management at Creatively and the Bear Notes blog.

But the truth is, these days, I feel a bit uncomfortable being associated with the term personal knowledge management. Here’s why.

Explosion of new note taking apps

Over the past couple of years, personal knowledge meant management apps have proliferated, which is a good thing. More options mean that more people can find the combination of features that work for them. I’m a strong proponent of everyone finding the app that works best for the way their mind works, for the platforms they use, and for their right-now life. (That’s why I designed the Calmer Notes method to work with any app, any platform, any setup). I know that my own preferences and environmental constraints have changed over the course of my life– so why would I expect that someone else’s preferences should match my own at this particular time? My own current specific PKM preferences don’t even match my own from a few years ago.

Complexity for its own sake

My worry is that the concept of personal knowledge management is becoming over-complicated. Needlessly over-complicated. I see too many people focusing on the finer points of plugins, complex automations, endlessly poring over their notes as they write and rewrite them (instead of creating new ideas), or becoming hyperfocused on the most optimized, ruthlessly efficient way to structure and nest tags or folders.

And I’m not against any of these things in principle. I use some automations within my own system. I appreciate having the ability to tag and organize notes. I appreciate the advent of increasingly-powerful search engines for notes, so highly-rigorous folder systems are a bit less required. I’m all for carefully, thoughtfully chosen features. But I feel like there’s a tendency in PKM circles to believe that more (more features, more complexity, more automations) is inherently better. And that’s simply not the case. More can mean more time, more errors, more room for things to go wrong. And definitely more time spent on system maintenance instead of on using the system to create or contribute something.

Moving away from flexibility and freedom: the lost promise of digital vs paper knowledge management

Sometimes I think that we forget that digital personal knowledge management actually (in theory) offers so much more flexibility and freedom in comparison to paper or analog knowledge management systems. If you’re working with index cards or slips of paper or physical manila file folders, you are in fact constrained. When you’re working with paper filing systems, you do in fact need to add a numbering system, or alphabetical system, or other taxonomy to organize your resources and ideas, otherwise it will be very difficult to find them again. Additionally, each note or index card is to live in one single category, because in a physical paper filing system, your note can only be in one place in time in space at any given time.

But that’s not the case with the digital notes. You can apply 10 different tags to a note if you like. You could forget about using folders all together by including robust keywords within the note itself. You could organize folders by project, or author, or use case, knowing that you can search through these the click of a button just in case something is not optimally filed. Digital personal knowledge management is worlds apart from paper, analog digital management system such as the original zettelkasten or a card catalog. With the advent of AI-powered noting apps, like Napkin or Mem.AI, which offer to do the heavy lifting of sorting, categorizing, and organizing notes, the use of a Zettelkasten feels even more quaint and further away. I am incredibly grateful that it existed in its historical moment in time. I see it as a significant accomplishment in the history of information and knowledge management. Even in the early days of computer used, it certainly had a place before more robust search and tagging was available.

PKM as a source of procrastination

But these days, just insisting on using an inflexible filing system, or insisting on one specific, cookie-cutter hierarchy of folders, feels archaic. It seems less like being productive and organized– and more like an excuse to procrastinate. Just another route for perfectionism and overthinking. Just another source of anxiety.

I felt motivated to create the Calmer Notes method because I wanted to help people stop overthinking their personal knowledge management systems. In the intervening years since I first launched the course, I feel that the conversation on personal knowledge management has become more needlessly complicated, not less. And I think this comes from anxiety itself.

What’s driving perfectionism and needlessly complex note taking systems

Over the past couple of years, the whole word has been through a lot (to put it mildly). Lots of upheaval. Lots of uncertainty. Lots of societal change. On the technology front, we’ve gained AI just as Twitter is becoming a shell of itself. Who knows how SEO and search engines will respond to the inevitable influx of the high volume of AI-generated content. Books written by AI are starting to appear. How will this sea-change impact writers, creators, artist, the arts in general? Nobody knows.

So we, naturally, gravitate towards something we can control. If we spend our time worrying, and finessing, and updating, and editing, and even arguing with others about the so-called “perfect” personal knowledge management system? Then we don’t have to worry about those things.

When we get hyperfocused on the scaffolding of our system, we can sidestep uncomfortable questions about why we’re bothering to spend our limited time and energy on this in the first place. When we focus on over-optimizing PKM system setups, we don’t have to worry about what we’re writing down in our system. We don’t have to think about how good our ideas are. We can avoid thinking about what we’re trying to accomplish in the first place. We don’t have mental space to ponder what we’re actually trying to achieve– and if we’ll be able to achieve those things in the rapidly-changing world that we’re living in.

Striking a balance between over-optimization and basic organization

All that being said– we do still need to organize ourselves to some degree. None of the above negates the fact that, at least for now, we still need to figure out ways to organize our files. AI is not yet at the point of being able to magically swoop down into our computer and bring order to all the documents and spreadsheets related to a given project, nor to magically organize all of the half-formed ideas we have as we’re writing our thesis. There is a place for personal knowledge management, absolutely. And I intend to continue writing about this topic, because I feel it remains an important one.

But I am not going to pretend that personal knowledge management needs to be more complicated than it is. There is power in the structure of personal knowledge management systems, absolutely. If you have your notes scattered over ten different apps, you’re never going to make any progress because you can’t find anything. But at the other end of the spectrum, having a meticulously organized set of nested tags and word-clouds and visualized graphs and a dozen different plug-in automations is not going to increase the quality of the notes that you’re writing.

At the end of the day, personal knowledge management systems are meant to be a means to an end. They’re meant to support your creativity, your thinking, your learning, your output. To support your contribution to the world in one way or another.

Use your limited time wisely

Life is short and unpredictable. We all have limited time, energy, and focus in this life. Absolutely, invest a little of it in building a personal knowledge management structure that works for you. But please don’t waste it tinkering with diminishing returns in your personal knowledge management system, when you could be using that time, energy, and focus to write things down, research, learn, and actually get things done that matter to you.

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