My Four Pillars of Personal Knowledge Management (for now)
A long-winded brain dump
Unnecessary Note: You will notice odd formatting below because I write my drafts in an application called Roam Research. The brackets are used to create bi-directional linking. If that communicates nothing of value to you, pretend you didn’t see this 👻.
When I think about Personal Knowledge Management ([[PKM]]), I have a very small number of priority items that I need to develop systems around. That’s really good news. With any systems thinking, I think it’s valuable to locate the highest level components that are forming the structure of what might be a really rich and robust environment.
My areas of focus include:
- To-Do List Management
- Project Management
- Information Actionability
That’s it. To manage all of the information I engage with on a daily basis, these are the four components, if strategized well, should take care of nearly everything I come into contact with.
Now, let me show you how quickly the intensity goes from 0 to 10. First, let’s start with the tools I use to automate some of the actions needed within each system.
PKM Technological Tools that Work for Me
Because PKM is such a broad topic, it can be easy to claim almost anything I own to be a PKM tool, like my computer and phone or even a pen and notepad. I’m going to avoid that broad level by going one layer deeper and stick with digital tools. Here are the things that I use thus far.
For capturing things I want to engage with later, I use Instapaper. Although it shines when dealing with (non-paywalled) articles and blog posts, I can send any link here and access it in the future when I want to intentionally consume content.
For highlighting and annotating/note-taking, I use Instapaper and Hypothesis for all online, text-based content, including PDFs. For all offline text-based content, I use iBooks, Kindle Reader, and Adobe Digital Editions. For podcasts, I use Airr. I don’t currently engage with much content that is video-based, which even typing that feels like I’m living in the wrong century, but I’m just a very text-based learner I guess. That said, when learning how to use Roam Research, YouTube was my best friend. So, as my PKM skills increase, I imagine figuring out a solid note-taking option for video will be of utmost importance.
To bring all of those scattered notes and highlights to one place, I use Readwise and Roam Research. Readwise syncs with most of the tools I mentioned above and will import them to my PKM center, Roam. Right now, I import all of my notes with the same exact outline. In the future, if it seems valuable, I will do some very minor coding, so different import templates are used based on the medium (e.g. article vs podcast).
Four tools that some might not consider as a core part of my PKM technology stack are the Vivaldi web browser, Superhuman, Mailbrew, and Text Blaze.
Vivaldi has really cool customization options, including the ability to view multiple tabs at once (what they call “Tiling”), which increases the speed of my work.
Superhuman is an email provider that connects any Gmail account (not sure if they offer their tool for Outlook et al) and is built on making it easy and enjoyable to get to “Inbox Zero” on a daily or weekly basis.
Mailbrew is great for having all of your email subscriptions get delivered in a single email, rather than 20 individual emails (there are many more features, but that’s my biggest benefit).
And, Text Blaze allows you to develop shortcut snippets that automatically fill in things you do on a regular basis. For instance, I lead a meeting each Friday that involves setting up the agenda and sending an email to co-workers the day before. By simply typing a string of seven or eight letters, I can type out an entire email that includes adding everyone to the “To” line, the subject line, and the body of the email itself (love this tool). Both actions (agenda and email) are so fast, I can have everything for the next week’s meeting all ready to go five minutes after the previous one concludes (this is boosted by Superhuman’s ability to schedule emails in advance as well).
One tool I haven’t used very much is Otter.ai, which is a free audio transcription tool. This would work really well when watching a video. But, I would need to watch the video without headphones, which isn’t very conducive to living in a studio apartment with a partner and dog.
See how we went from four core components to already a long list of advantageous tools? It can seem incredibly overwhelming, but the important part of developing a PKM system that works for you is taking a long-view. This system doesn’t show up overnight. It requires patience, metacognition (i.e. thinking about thinking), and habit building.
Let’s jump into how my four components are showing up so far today. I’ll go from most thought out to least.
It’s ironic that I mentioned my current hesitation to engage with very much video content when it comes to intentional (meaning notes are being taken) consumption because what immediately occurs to me as I write to explain my note-taking system is how much this actually needs to be a video.
I’m not going to do that given the relaxed nature of this “thinking out loud” practice I’m committing to, so rather than be long-winded and potentially sow confusion, I’m going to mention the two inspirations behind my note-taking system: Niklas Luhmann and Beau Haan.
Luhmann was famous for many things but one thing in particular was his Zettelkasten (or note-taking system). A man without a computer (because they didn’t exist yet), Luhmann created a library of over 90,000 index cards he used to spur new thinking and connect disparate ideas.
Beau Haan is a Roam user and developed a really nice adaptation of Zettelkasten within Roam.
The system I’ve adapted for my own needs goes like this:
- When reading any text, selectively highlight information that is new or sparks curiosity (often interpreted as questions are popping up or connections to other things I know are being made). I call these my “Fleeting Notes,” which are not what Luhmann or Haan mean when they use the term. I like having my base layer be the exact words used by the source, so I can always trace things back to where I read them first.
- For each highlighted piece, I write the quote in my own words and then have a conversation with myself — identifying what questions pop-up, extrapolating beyond what is being said, and coming up with my own insights and ideas that generated from the highlighted text. Haan talks about this conversation as “wringing out” all the information and insights a highlighted text evokes. I call these my “Literature Notes” and I believe this is aligned with Haan’s interpretation.
- Next up, I aim to summarize the most important parts of my Literature Notes. I might have 20 notes, but I aim to cut them down to 3–5. This is an extra layer I’ve added mostly due before making a “Permanent Note” because it felt like too big of a leap to go from 20 notes to one note (not to mention 50 to one when interacting with a long book).
- The Permanent Note is where I summarize everything into 2–3 sentences. This note is called a Zettel and is the only thing that officially enters the Zettelkasten. Thanks to the digital age, I still have access to all of the previous layers of notes if I so choose to engage with them at some point in the future. But, the Zettelkasten is always the starting point when digging around for information.
- Finally, as the Zettelkasten gets some legs, each Permanent Note will have “Relevant Notes” linked to it, so if I’m looking up information on something like Note-Taking, I can see a top layer of jumping off points that might take me places I would have never looked to make connections if it wasn’t for this intentional set-up.
This is time-consuming. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And, the most time-consuming piece is also the most valuable, the Literature Notes. Having those conversations with myself are intoxicating and produces so many new insights that the more I get into the habit of using this system, the more I’m going to extract from my brain, and more importantly, create for the world.
To-Do List Management
Ever since I was a kid, the idea of to-do lists has never stuck with me. There is a very large planner graveyard dedicated to me somewhere with annual planners rigorously filled out for the first few pages and beautifully blank for the other 350.
After graduating college, I thought I’d find more use for the simple idea of to-do lists. I explored many iPhone and desktop apps as well as the to-do list managers that come native with programs like Office 365 and Google Suite.
Nothing stuck. Nothing came even kind of close to sticking.
It wasn’t until I began using Roam that a spark showed up and my exploration of keeping to-do lists had new life.
When it comes to developing your own technology stack for Personal Knowledge Management ([[PKM]]), most people go with the philosophy of using tools for the jobs they were created to excel at. Because Roam has so many customization abilities, I’m not heeding that advice very well.
I’d like to have as much happening on Roam as I can, so my to-do lists also reside here.
The question is what system will guide my to-do list workflow?
After lightly exploring a few ideas, I really resonated with the concept of an [[Eisenhower Matrix]]. Split into four quadrants, the Eisenhower Matrix aims to assess how urgent and how important a task is. A task that is highly urgent and highly important should be tackled ASAP. A task that is of low importance and low urgency should only be done when you have absolutely nothing else to take care of. The other variants are split between focused work (low urgency, high importance) and work that should be delegated (high urgency, low importance).
The tricky thing with this idea is what do you do when you don’t have anyone to delegate your work to? And, given that the goal is to make more of your work time fall in the low urgency, high importance bucket, how do you not have most of your tasks show up as high urgency, high importance?
My day job is in the field of communications with an organization that only has about 10 people. Everyone, every day is dealing with high urgency, high importance tasks, can’t delegate much of anything, and low urgency, low importance tasks never see the light of day. When it comes to focused work, it has to reach the level of high urgency before it gets tackled.
I don’t want to shy away from this urgency/importance framework because its level of difficulty is signaling opportunity more than impossibility. I WANT to be engaged in low urgency, high importance work far more often than I am today. It may not become available within my current work environment, but it does give me a future to aim at where I’m not stuck in a weekly cycle of deadlines and instead find myself working on 3, 6, even 12 month long projects that have time to go through a slow burn with great intention along the way.
The other thing I’m trying to think through is the desire to have all of my tasks have due dates. Due dates naturally determine the urgency of a task, so when does something move from low urgency to high urgency? This is a question of relativity and opens an interesting door.
Even working with tight deadlines, if everything is always “due in a week,” that might be a baseline that measures the crossover point between low urgency and high urgency. That might also be a completely ridiculous game to play. I can play with relative baselines all I want but at some point, high urgency is simply high urgency no matter how you try to frame it.
I think what I want to declare for myself is if a due date is 10 days or less away, it has high urgency. If I have more time, it has low urgency.
I can even imagine in my head, as due dates get closer, the item is moving up the urgency line and becoming a higher and higher priority.
When it comes to daily task completion, one idea that has really worked well for me is the idea of “one thing.” What is the one thing that if completed today will take a huge weight off your shoulders? That “one thing” should be the first thing you complete each morning. Most mornings, I take “first thing” quite literally. I’ll wake up around 5:45 or 6, go straight to my computer, and knock out some or all of my task over the course of the next hour. Then, I walk my dog, and get right back to it if it isn’t complete. The goal is to have that task done by 8:30 or 9am.
My “one thing” task highly urgent and highly important 100% of the time. And, I really wish it wasn’t. In the Eisenhower Matrix, given that low urgency, high importance tasks are considered the holy grail, I would love to shift my habits to making those tasks my “one thing” for the day, but it’s hard to see how they will ever be what alleviates the most stress.
More thinking to be done here, but this is where I’m at for now.
This is an area, along with the next one below, where I’m at the very beginning stages. Project management entails so many this at both the high level across projects and the low level within a single project. Importantly, it overlaps with the systems I’m hoping to set up with my to-do list and note-taking systems.
This overlap is where decisions made above start hindering or enhancing how I’m able to manage projects, which requires all of these systems to truly be alive. They aren’t set-it-and-forget-it systems. That would be catastrophic if I approached them from that mentality.
Rather than create any project management templates based on past activities or, worse, hypothetical ones, I’m thinking about this system in real time as real projects start, develop, and finish.
I do have a top-level structure for my projects, however. The first and most obvious is the project title, which in Roam is at the page-level. On the first parent-block, I have Keywords (or tags), Status, Due Date, and Related Goals. I use line breaks within a single block for these items so when I see my list of projects in the linked references, I can get all of this information upfront.
Two keywords I plan on putting in every project are my generic [[🎯 Projects]] tag and the Area the project is connected to. Areas, as defined in [[Tiago Forte]]’s [[PARA]] system, are roles and responsibilities that need to be maintained over time (i.e. there’s no due date). The great benefit of Roam is that I don’t have to worry about what folder something goes in. Rather, I can use tags to appropriately locate items, so they show up in the contexts they have meaning.
As a simple example, I’ve created my list of Areas on an [[🌐 Areas]] page, with each area on it’s own block. Within the child block of each Area, I’ve put in a query that calls for all projects within that Area. I don’t know if and when I will refer to these queries, but it seemed like it might be useful in the future and does me zero harm if I choose not to use them as they can remain hidden with all of the parent blocks collapsed.
I’m contemplating two different things for how I would like to hand my “Status” section. It makes a lot of sense to describe where I left off with a project. And, there are some projects that really don’t need much more than a word like “Editing.” To have universal status tags across my projects would be really useful for determining where I’m at and if I need to pick up the pace.
If I see a project with a status tag #[[Research Phase]] and the due date is next week, I likely need to jump in and see if that due date is actually realistic now OR if I need to end the research and start developing the product (taking advantage of the urgency the deadline is creating).
The due date section is self-explanatory, so I won’t delve into that other than to say this is the due date for the entire project. There will be tasks with due dates that come sooner and can be listed within a “Tasks” section on the project page.
The related goals section is to remind me to consider what the project is helping me get closer to achieving. If I’m about to create a project that doesn’t align with my broader goals, it’s a good moment to stop and consider why. And, if the project still feels relevant, consider if I need to shift a current goal or add an entirely new one (likely being conscious of deleting a different goal so as not to end up with 100 goals and making no progress on any of them)
When I get below the top level references on my project, this is where the “build it as I create” mentality comes into play. For my day job, I have articles I’m responsible for publishing on a weekly basis. So, I have created a project for each week along with two different templates depending on the style of article it is (e.g. interview vs. guest article). As a result, all I have to do now is type “;;” and my list of templates will show up in a drop down, I select the relevant template, and it’ll fill the space.
For anything in my template, like due date, article title, author, that needs to be filled in, I’ve simply indicated this need by highlighting and bolding the word “FILL” in those relevant sections. I find this useful so I don’t have to scan the template each time after it loads, looking for those empty spaces. Rather, they will show up immediately, I’ll make the adjustment, and keep on working.
With projects that have a longer timeline (in the range of months), I expect there will be some universal components like “Research,” “Task List,” and “Resources” that I will want to be actively filling in. I haven’t done too much thinking here, but the resources section will play two roles:
One role is pulling in resources I’ve already gathered during past projects and intentional consumption.
The other role is to put resources I created as a result of the project itself. For example, I just launched a conversation series at my day job. I documented the path we took from ideation to implementation and used those notes to creating a [[Standard Operating Procedure]] (SOP), so the next time we do a similar series, I can pull that straight into the project and have all of the promotion strategy ready to go without wasting time in more meetings — reinventing the wheel over and over again.
Having written this over a few days, I run the risk of saying things I’ve already mentioned and leaving some gaps in thinking. But, such is the nature of publishing first draft, thinking out loud pieces. And, such is the flexibility I’ve allowed myself to create without any regard for perfection.
That said, I’ve made quite the nice segway to the final pillar of my [[🌐 PKM]] system — Information Actionability. This idea of actionability came directly from Tiago Forte’s [[BASB]] course. In his [[PARA]] system, projects come first because they are most actionable and archives come last because they hold the least value when it comes to taking action.
That doesn’t mean archives don’t hold any value. There will certainly be times where past projects (complete and incomplete) will be resurfaced to support current projects, but for the most part, they will exist mostly as a nice place to store past accomplishments and ideas to reminisce on and remind me that, every now and again, I have actually done something I’ve set out to do — taking something from a dream to an actual product.
This article itself is a result of this actionability bias. While thinking about the ways I wanted to or could set-up my [[🌐 PKM]] systems, I, out of habit, wanted to set aside any concerns about not creating or bringing something to the world that might be valuable to someone. I wanted to hold on until my systems were set up and new habits were gaining some traction, resulting in something that might be of value to be created, before actually creating.
I ripped that band-aid off and decided what I would create would just be my thinking as I create those systems and build those habits.
Information Actionability currently exists as an idea for me more than a specific thing I could point to with anything I’m setting up at the moment. It’s more of a question I want to remain at the foreground of anything I do, so when I find myself leaning into my comforts of research (often without intention), I can knock myself out of it and go create.
I can’t claim to be a creator at this moment in my life and I want to change that. It brings me a sense of joy every time I engage with it, which makes me constantly wonder why I don’t do it more often.
Most of it comes from chasing the wrong goals, which opens the door for the next article I’ll likely dig into writing. What are my goals? Why are they my goals? And, what am I going to commit to that will get me closer to them?
Until next time.