How to build a simpler personal knowledge management system
I came across this question about personal knowledge management on Reddit the other day:
I am new to knowledge management, currently using a mix of Zettelkasten and BASB but they are too complicated for me. Can someone give me any other systems with a minimalistic approach and a simpler process?
I’m not active on Reddit myself (might make an account one day!), but I figured that if people are seeking answers about a minimalist approach to personal knowledge management on Reddit, they might also be searching Google with the same kind of questions. (So if you’ve come across this article while looking for personal knowledge management examples or ideas for a personal knowledge management system workflow, welcome! 👋)
What does personal knowledge management mean?
Personal knowledge management (PKM) is just a fancy way of saying that you have an overarching system, strategy, or workflow to manage your files, notes, and ideas.
A personal knowledge management system can range from a folder of text files to an elaborate digital mind garden. It all counts as PKM. The distinguishing feature of personal knowledge management is having a trusted system for organizing your digital files, notes, and information.
The hidden truth about personal knowledge management systems
The secret is? We all have personal knowledge management systems in place. You can’t be a person using technology in 2022 without having a digital knowledge management system that you’ve created. But just because you have a personal knowledge management system doesn’t mean it’s been designed to fit your life.
The problem for most people? Your system exists, but it isn’t one that you’ve mindfully designed or chosen. So it never quite feels like it fits properly.
Imagine for example that you’ve started a new job. You probably set up a few folders in your inbox and work computer at the outset. But as your work responsibilities and pace of work changed, your system didn’t evolve very much. As things got busier, you started saving notes in your phone, plus your desktop on your personal and work computers. Now you’re at the point where you can no longer easily find key emails or documents— and feel confused about the best place to save new ones. When you take notes at a client meeting, you don’t have a trusted, central place to save ideas and files. So you end up juggling notes and documents saved across multiple apps and devices— never knowing exactly where to look for information you saved and solutions you already created.
Why it’s so tempting to search for existing best practices to organize your computer files
When you’re feeling frustrated by disorganized files and scattered ideas while working on projects at work, school, or in your personal life? It’s extremely tempting to seek out best practices for electronic file management, or find yourself Googling “organize your computer files in five steps” late into the evening.
You figure there has to be a better way— someone else must have figured out the solution. You feel like there must be one single, ideal way to set up a digital filing system to finally organize your ideas, notes, and files. You go down the rabbit hole of searching for electronic filing structure examples and examples of personal knowledge management workflows.
These may initially feel inspiring and promising. You may feel like if you just follow one of these structures, it will fix all your digital file organizational challenges. You’ll finally feel organized and productive. One of these must be the best way to organize digital files.
You spend hours doing research and setting up systems to try each one out, and yet… none quite fit right. These structures don’t solve your feeling of overwhelm. So you keep searching for ideas on electronic file management best practices, and type in “best way to organize files on computer” more ideas than you can count.
Why it’s so tempting to seek out personal knowledge management apps and software
You have probably already gone down the rabbit hole of seeking out personal knowledge management apps, software, and tools. You may have seen inspiring setups in Notion, or Obsidian, or Roam Research. You feel like it must be the tools that are holding you back. You think to yourself, if only you set up a zettelkasten or second brain or digital garden in the right app, you’d finally feel like your digital notes were fully organized.
Finding the right app— that fits your work environment and life— is absolutely an integral part of building a sustainable personal knowledge management system. But starting with an app and working backwards rarely works. The problem is that you'll find yourself adjusting your own personal knowledge management workflow to suit the constraints of the app— instead of the other way around.
Here’s why starting with structure or apps when building a personal knowledge management system doesn’t work
Here’s the issue. All too often, the “personal” aspect of personal knowledge management can get lost in the shuffle. Everyone who comes to personal knowledge management, looking for a better way to organize their notes and files, has a different reason for doing so. Everyone has different work environments, different schedules, different projects, different constraints. Everyone has a unique set of challenges they’re facing when it comes to organizing digital notes and files.
There are absolutely some commonalities. And that’s why many people do find existing structures (like zettelkasten, build a second brain/BASB, digital mind gardens, or smart notes) and specific personal knowledge management apps to be helpful. But not every tool or approach is the right fit for everyone.
When you’re searching for advice online, you’re going to find people who passionately declare their affinity for one specific personal knowledge management approach or software. They found this structure or app was the right fit for them— so they feel like it must be the secret sauce, the hidden solution, the one single correct approach.
So they confidently and enthusiastically expound on its benefits. They’re quite right— it did work extremely well for them. And that's because it fit well within their own specific constraints, unique group of projects, their work environment, and their own personality and aesthetic preferences.
The problem is that it’s easy to lose sight of these factors. People are excited to share the specifics of a structure or app that’s worked well for them. But unless you have much in common with them (similar work type, work environment, location, personal responsibilities outside work, device/operating system, aesthetic preferences, etc), you’re going to end up disappointed when you try to simply replicate their system. If you don’t build a tailored system that fits your own specific goals and circumstances, you’re going to feel continually disappointed by the state of your personal knowledge management system.
How the Calmer Notes method will help you build a minimalist, simplified personal knowledge management system that fits your life
I created the Calmer Notes method to help guide you through the process of building an individualized personal knowledge management system that truly fits your life. The Calmer Notes method doesn’t prescribe a single app or structure for personal knowledge management. Instead, it’s a big picture, strategic framework to help you craft a tailored, goal-driven system to organize your notes, files, and ideas.
The Calmer Notes method will help you step back and consider what you specifically are hoping to gain through personal knowledge management. By identifying the goals and outcomes you're working towards— and the current constraints of your day-to-day life and work environment— you'll be able to create a sustainable personal knowledge management system that fits into your daily life.
You'll use the Calmer Notes method to get clear on your outcomes and goals. You’ll get specific on why you’re interested in building a PKM system in the first place, and what you’re hoping to achieve with it. Once you've achieved clarity on how PKM can help you, specifically, you will then mindfully and strategically select a note-writing and note-structuring approach.
Calmer Notes takes a mindful, minimalist approach to personal knowledge management. It’s designed to help you consider the key, essential elements of digital note-taking that helps support your own individual goals. A byword of Calmer Notes— that you’ll see repeated again and again in the training— is “find what fits, and leave the rest.”
How can I get started with the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management?
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.
If you'd like to learn more, check out an overview of the Calmer Notes approach or visit Calmer Notes. You can also download your free seven-day plan to craft your personal knowledge system when you sign up for my newsletter.
Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!
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