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Here's why busy people need personal knowledge management (+ the three essential parts to any PKM system)

Personal knowledge management (PKM) means having an organized system for the information, documents, and notes you encounter on a daily basis.

Elizabeth Butler
Elizabeth Butler
6 min read
Here's why busy people need personal knowledge management (+ the three essential parts to any PKM system)
Table of Contents

Introduction

If you spend any time around this blog, you're going to discover that I'm quite passionate about personal knowledge management (or PKM). But why do I care so much about it? And why do I feel it's so essential for busy people?

In this article, we're going to cover:

  • What is personal knowledge management?
  • What does life without a systematic personal knowledge management system look like?
  • What difference does having a personal knowledge management system make?

What is personal knowledge management (PKM)?

Personal knowledge management (PKM) means having an organized system for the information, documents, notes, and data that you encounter every day. We all have reams of information coming at us on a daily basis– news articles, emails, work documents, school documents, family responsibilities. For some of us, we're also producing notes and documents ourselves, whether for work or as a hobby.

It can be incredibly easy to get lost in the chaos. When time is precious, it can be frustrating to spend our limited time and energy finding and re-finding information, or trying to re-capture great ideas we know we had written down... somewhere...

What does having a personal knowledge management (PKM) system look like?

To me, having a system for personal knowledge management (PKM) is the process of:

  • Collecting information from the world around you (and ideas from your own head), then...
  • Structuring it to make meaning out of it, so you can...
  • Easily search through your organized resources and build new connections and insights between ideas.

The three essential parts to any PKM system

So, there are basically three essential parts to any PKM system:

  1. Collect
  2. Structure
  3. Search and Discovery

This means that you need to get information together, then bring some type of order to it, then have it organized in such a way that you can actually find stuff when you need it later on.

Why busy people avoid creating a personal knowledge management system

I’ve spent the past decade or so spending quite a bit of mental energy figuring out the best way to manage information, notes, ideas, documents, references, and information in general. (My story in a nutshell– I started my career as an academic, working as a researcher and a professor. Then I went to medical school and became a doctor, which required a whole different approach to knowledge management. I'm also a working parent, which adds another layer of complexity to life.)

Wrestling with the time investment

I know that busy people really need personal knowledge management to keep on top of their commitments. But busy people are also going to feel like they don't have the time to set up a personal knowledge management system. It's a classic catch-22. Over-committed people, who most need a system to manage all the inputs coming through their email inbox, voicemail, work Slack group, kids' school newsletters, and feed reader? They're the ones who feel like they couldn't possibly take the time to set up a whole system.

So you muddle through. You lose track of the occasional important email, feel frustrated that you can't Google that helpful article we found last spring, and generally feel frazzled. You have wise ideas as you fall asleep, then can't recall anything useful about them in the morning. You come up with clever solutions to work problems while waiting to do school pickup, but can't remember it the next day. You think of the perfect present for you aunt's birthday back in January, but can't remember what it was when you're frantically trying to pick something out in June.

Creating a personal knowledge management system absolutely will take some time from your busy schedule. But trying to power through without a system in place will ultimately take up far more of your precious, limited time and energy in the long run.

Recognize the trap of perfectionism and analysis paralysis

One problem with creating a personal knowledge management system is that it can be a never-ending quest for perfection. There's always another tweak to find, or a slightly better app to implement. It can be paralyzing-- it's easy to put off starting until you find the "perfect solution." Or conversely, you have ten or twenty different apps with a few notes or documents in each. They all seemed promising at the start, but something went wrong with the app and you let the fledging notes wither, isolated. Maybe the app was too slow. Or not available on your work computer. Or crashed now and then, making you feel nervous about trusting your ideas to the cloud.

From theory to practice

Let's bring this from the theoretical to the practical. Let's think of your average day– and how having a PKM system can make a difference.

Life before personal knowledge management

(Think of this version as the before-the-makeover, at the start of What Not To Wear...)

You just finished working late at the office, yet again. You've driven over to pick your kid up from music lessons, and miraculously arrived with a few minutes to spare. You're sitting in your car, trying to process emails on your phone so you don't have to stay up quite as late to catch up on your inbox tonight.

You see an important email with an attachment you know you'll probably need to refer to in a month or two, but have no idea what to do with it right now. If you put it in a folder, you'll never find it again later. So you leave it clogging your inbox, in limbo.

You quickly scan an email newsletter, and spot an interesting professional article. You flag the email, hoping you'll remember why you flagged it– whenever you get a chance to properly clean out your inbox. You know in the back of your mind that there's only about a 10% chance that you'll ever get around to reading that useful article, because you're probably just going to delete the flagged email in a few weeks when you feel frustrated by your cluttered inbox.

A friend sent you a text earlier, and you finally have a chance to read it now. She mentioned an interesting idea that she thought might be useful for your research project. It's a great thought, but you have no idea where to write it down.

You half-heartedly copy and paste it into a notes app on your phone, along with some notes to yourself, but you know that you're sending it to a black hole of disorganization and chaotic thoughts. You're pretty sure that when you get a chance to work on your research project for an hour or two this weekend, you won't remember where you stashed those half-formed thoughts– or even that you had any ideas about the research project.

You drive your kid home and start on dinner while they put away their school stuff. There was that yummy-looking recipe you'd come across a while ago to use up the tofu and broccoli in the fridge– where did you find it? You peck out a search on your phone, but you're just getting vaguely spammy recipe blog hits instead of that recipe you half-remember. You end up grumpily heating up a frozen pizza.

Life after a personal knowledge management makeover

You're sitting in the car waiting to pick up your kid after music lessons with a few minutes to spare. You read an email with an attachment you know you'll need in a few months. You forward the email to a trusted file repository, and feel a sense of calm. You know that, in a few month's time, you'll be able to do a quick, full-text OCR search through the PDF and easily find just the info you'll be looking for when you need it.

You read through a text from your friend that sparks a great idea for your research project. You jot down and tag a quick note in an organized notes app that is synced perfectly between your phone, your work computer, and your home computer. Your mind knows that you'll easily be able to find this note later on, when you have more time to work on your project.

When you get home, you open the fridge and spot the tofu and broccoli you wanted to cook tonight. You set up your tablet on the kitchen counter and instantly open the exact recipe you'd saved from your phone on your lunch break at work today. By the time your kid has put away their school stuff, dinner is almost ready– and smells delicious.

What's the difference between these two scenarios? Having an efficient, trusted, reliable personal knowledge management system.

Next Steps

Are you ready to create a personal knowledge management system to save you time and energy? Or maybe just curious to know more?

Elizabeth Butler

Your guide to the world of personal knowledge management. Creator of the Calmer Notes method (calmernotes.com). Physician, PhD, parent, tea drinker.