Your Brain’s Best Friend: The Benefits of Personal Knowledge Management

The wealth of knowledge we can quickly – almost immediately – access today is astounding. I don’t know about you, but I’m a Gen Xer who grew up without cable TV and had to cross the vast shag carpeting to turn the knob if I wanted to watch something else on the one TV in the house. We had a set of encyclopedias that was probably outdated the second it was printed. Today, all we need to do is use a phone that fits in our back pocket to find information.

However, that abundance of information comes with some challenges. First, we are often inundated with misinformation or outright disinformation, and we must carefully discern and research for ourselves to find out what is true and what is…not so true. Second, so much information is bombarding us that it’s nearly impossible to process and manage it all. In fact, a recent study found that – in 2022 alone – the average person:

  • Read 1,968,000 words on the internet
  • Viewed 1,596 articles
  • Visited 9,888 internet pages
  • Performed 3,528 searches
  • Spent 540 hours viewing, creating, and editing documents


In an age where information is abundant and easily accessible, managing this wealth of knowledge effectively is crucial. A Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system offers a structured approach to handling information. It encompasses methods, tools, and practices that help individuals collect, organize, store, retrieve, and share information efficiently. Such information can include whatever you want: articles, websites, lists, ideas you want to revisit, etc. The primary goal of PKM is to enhance personal productivity, facilitate continuous learning, and promote effective knowledge sharing.

Black archway over door with "Information" writing in orange calligraphy. Text under image reads: “Working with knowledge requires more than simply having access to information. It also requires the ability to find, organize, and use that information effectively.” Erin E. Rupp productivity, design, and lifestyle writer"

Tell Me More

I first became interested in PKMs when I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube, as one does. I was halfway “watching” something about creating altered books and junk journals when the algorithm threw out a video about commonplace books. Since I love using all my pens and notebooks, I was intrigued by a reason to use more of them. Simply put, commonplace books are journals used for collecting ideas, quotes, observations – anything that is important enough that you want to remember them. They became popular in the 17th century. My commonplace book, currently in its early stage, contains a lot of lists: movies to watch, books to read, places to visit, for example. It also contains some of my favorite quotes and song lyrics, revelations from books and articles I’m reading (or videos or podcasts I’m watching and listening to), as well as ideas for future crochet projects. For now, anything goes, as my goal is to simply have a place where I keep information that is important to me and that I don’t want to forget in one place. I manage it by using a table of contents in the beginning so I know where to find what I’m looking for. Others may narrow down what they include. It all comes down to individual preferences.

Today, there is a plethora of digital PKM tools based on the commonplace book and a similar analog system, the Zettelkasten method. No matter the tools you use – analog or digital – the basic idea is the same: collect, organize, and access personal knowledge.

Person drinking coffee while lookinat at computer aon long counter full of other laptops and devices. Text under image reads: "Personal Knowledge Management is my secret sauce. It's how I manage courses, multiple writing projects, guest teaching gigs, my newsletter, this website, etc., etc., as well as stuff like personal finances, family photos, and travel." -Tamar Ron Marvin, writer and educator"

Why Use a PKM System?

Using a PKM system is helpful for several reasons. I’ve listed a few below, but yours may start as simple as mine: a place to keep all the information that I want to find easily again in the future.

Organizational Efficiency

PKM systems provide a structured way to manage information, reducing the chaos and clutter associated with unmanaged data. Organizing your information results in its easier and quicker retrieval. We’ve already established that more knowledge than we can possibly process is only a click away. While we can learn anything and everything we want, we simply don’t have the time to do so. Let’s consciously think about what we want to learn, focusing on what is most important to us. Remember: there’s a difference between spending time thinking and spending time preparing to think. If you’re a “procrastiplanner” like me, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Enhanced Learning and Memory

By actively engaging with information (summarizing, tagging, linking), you reinforce learning and improve memory retention. If you’re dedicated to lifelong learning and personal growth, you want knowledge. But passive consumption is not the best way to learn; we must actively engage with new information to better understand and remember it. Using PKM helps us ask questions about the information we collect, helping us to rephrase it and recombine it with additional knowledge. As productivity guru David Allan says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” While our brain produces a constant stream of thoughts and ideas, it’s less successful at retaining this information. Remember the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve: if you don’t re-engage continuously with knowledge, you will forget it. When using PKM, you’re outsourcing the job of remembering. Instead of having to remember all the facts, you only need to remember where to find them.

Improved Productivity

A well-maintained PKM system minimizes your time spent searching for information, allowing you to focus on more important tasks. It also helps you track progress and efficiently manage projects. We’re drowning in a sea of information, leading to frustration, wasted time, and lower productivity. When you organize all your knowledge and resources in one place, you can more easily focus on what matters. There’s no need to remember important information if you know it’s all in one place and that you can easily find it.

Better Decision-Making

Access to well-organized and easily retrievable information helps you quickly make informed decisions. You can cross-reference related data and insights, leading to more comprehensive and well-founded conclusions. Knowing something needs to be done is much easier than acting on it. Ask yourself what one action you can take away from reading that book, then write it down. That’s the first step to better decision-making.

Knowledge Sharing

PKM systems make it easier to share valuable information with colleagues, peers, or a wider audience. Your peers may have similar or conflicting information that can create valuable discussions on the topic, where everyone is learning something new. This sharing can lead to collaborative learning and collective problem-solving. Scrintal reports that 70 percent of PKM users publish (online or otherwise) the insights and information they produce using their PKM tools.

Person wearing orange headphones in dark room playing game on large monitor. Text under image reads: "The most prolific output of my Personal vault is creative writing and game development. I use it to maintain notes on characters, locations, plots, maps, and more, and then print out what's needed for the table. I can go back and review notes when I come back to a story later and need to remember what's happened so far." – Craig, Obsidian user"

How to Build A PKM System

If you’ve decided to intentionally manage your personal knowledge, you’ve already taken the first step of your PKM journey. Once you begin, decide which system works best or combine systems to create something specific for your needs. Here are a few tips to get started:

1. What’s your current situation? 

Do you have a system in place or do you keep some information in notebooks, some on your phone, and other information in various folders on your laptop? Take an inventory of all the analog and digital tools and resources you are using to manage your information and knowledge, then ask yourself what’s working, what’s not working, and where your biggest pain points are. Like most things in life, you need to know where you are to determine where you want to go and how to get there.

2. What are your goals for this system? 

Knowing WHY you are creating this system is key to maintaining its usefulness. Some common goals include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Improve productivity
  • Save time
  • Reduce stress
  • Learn new information quickly
  • Stay current with latest information and developments in your field(s) of interest
  • Connect with others who share your interests

Be specific: PKM can be complex, and having a clear plan ensures that your system meets your needs without overwhelming you.

3. What elements do you need to create YOUR system? 

There is no one right way to do this. Pick a system that works best for you and your needs. Find inspiration by researching how others have implemented PKM. Choose a system already in place or create your own; many PKM users create customized systems that combine various methods and tools. You can find a myriad of digital tools, from apps that only offer storage and retrieval to complex apps with multiple features. Notion is the most popular digital app, but other popular tools include Evernote, Roam Research, Obsidian, and Onenote. There are also the analog methods we already mentioned, commonplace book and the Zettelkasten method. Research shows that 60 percent of PKM users prefer simple and elegant tools over those with comprehensive features and a steep learning curve, but find and use the tools that are best suited for you and your lifestyle. Remember, you can make changes later.

4. Get started

Don’t waste too much time in the research and planning process. If you’re a procrastiplanner like me, you may spend too much time preparing to do something because you’re a little scared to take action. Set a timeframe for your research phase, then jump in…a bit slowly. Don’t jump in all at once before testing that the water is deep enough and that there’s not a sheet of ice on the water. (I think we’ve all seen THAT painful video!) Start with one project. Do you have so many bookmarks on your web browser that you don’t use them because you can never find what you need? Check that they are still valid links, then categorize them into folders that make sense to you, deleting the ones you don’t need. Enjoying that book you’re reading? What do you like about it? Take some notes about what you are learning or how you feel about the characters, paying attention to any quotes you particularly like or if anything relates to your own life. Remember, your PKM is not a one-and-done system, it should evolve as your needs change. As you become more comfortable with your system, reflect on your progress, and adjust as needed.

5. Be consistent

When creating and maintaining most systems, the hardest part is consistency. However, PKM is only powerful when used and maintained in a consistent manner. This system doesn’t just grow by itself, it requires self-discipline. The more you use it, the more valuable it becomes. Make it a habit. Include it in your daily and weekly routines, set aside a specific time every day to check in with it. Also, try not to get caught up in the process. There are so many tools and methods out there that it’s tempting to try a new one before giving your first choice a chance. Yes, adjust as necessary, but don’t give up too soon on your tools or methods.

Person in light clothes and head covering sitting in front of window using mobile phone and laptop. Text under image reads: "I'm a product manager, and I think PKM has been my competitive advantage in the past few years. It helps me make sense of different product frameworks, compare, contrast and synthesize them into mental models that I can deploy effectively.” - minhthanh3145, Obsidian user"

How to Use a PKM System

Now that you have some ideas about setting up your PKM system, let’s go over how to best use it. I’ll note some digital tools that can help, but remember you can also go the old-school way with pen and paper, or combine analog and digital. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s important: Do what works best for you!

1. Capture

The first step is gathering information from a variety of sources. Some good digital tools for this step include NotionEvernote, and Pocket. Depending on your reasons for creating a PKM system, your information may come from a combination of reading, listening, observations, and experiences. For example, you may have read a book about Anne Boleyn, then listened to a podcast with quite different ideas about her. Note what you learned in both, then use that information to delve deeper into the topic through YouTube lectures and social media discussion groups, for example.

2. Organize 

Now that you’ve captured the information, it’s time to organize it. Ideal digital tools for organization include ObsidianRoam Research, and OneNote. Using the example of Anne Boleyn, you could separate the information into categories like Early Life, Marriage to Henry VIII, Protestant Reformation, etc. Use tags to add context to your notes so they are easily searchable, and create links between related pieces of information.

3. Process 

Now you need to review and refine your captured information to find key insights. Try tools like Zotero and PDF Expert. Summarize the information by condensing it down to key points, then annotate it with your own thoughts and comments. Highlight the most vital information for quick reference. Once again using our Anne Boleyn example, I’m sure you have a plethora of information about this both honored and reviled historical character. Condense this information into the main points that are important to you — maybe her belief in the Protestant Reformation, how some see her as a feminist icon, accusations of witchcraft, and her alleged love affairs. Include your thoughts on this information and highlight what is most important to you. (Remember these are just examples. This is your system, categorize and process what is meaningful to YOU.)

4. Store

Keep your processed information somewhere you can easily retrieve it while keeping it secure. Backups are critical, whether on physical media or a cloud storage service like Google DriveDropbox, or iCloud. You don’t want to do all this work, only to lose Anne Boleyn to corruption…er, corrupted files.

5. Retrieve 

Efficient retrieval of information is crucial: If you can’t easily access the information you need, the system is essentially useless and you won’t use it. Evernote and Notion work well. You want to easily search keywords to find specific information, use filters and tags to narrow down search results, and maintain an index or table of contents for larger collections of information. If you require information about Anne Boleyn’s coronation, searching “coronation” should immediately bring it up. Then, filter by “procession” for stored knowledge regarding her coronation procession details. Finally, your table of contents should include a section about her coronation.

6. Share

Sharing involves disseminating valuable knowledge to others. Are you working on a group project about Anne Boleyn? Try a community collaboration tool like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Discord to share (and politely argue about) information and insights you have. If you have a lot to say about Anne Boleyn, write a blog post. Perhaps you REALLY want to get a conversation started and post one sentence about Anne Boleyn on social media to watch the fireworks. If this is a more professional interest, write a white paper about Anne, or create and share a presentation. Who knows? Your PKM system may help you develop new insights for a critically acclaimed book.

Pile of wooden analog clocks of various shapes and sizes, showing different times. Text by image reads: "Using a PKM system frees time so that you can spend time on critical tasks. These systems also foster creativity as they allow users to quickly access things they've read or saved for future use." -Lisa Hirst Carnes, Chief Operating Officer, ArcStone"

A Quick Look at Popular PKM Tools

I don’t want to get in the weeds regarding PKM tools, as there are too many to list and the hows and whys are more important, but here’s a quick look at some of the most popular digital tools:

Notion
  • Features: Customizable databases, calendars, kanban boards, note-taking, task management, rich media embedding.
  • Use Cases: Versatile for managing projects, tracking tasks, and storing knowledge in a highly customizable workspace.
Evernote
  • Features: Web clipping, note taking, tagging, search within images and PDFs, integrations with other apps.
  • Use Cases: Ideal for capturing and organizing diverse types of information, from internet articles to handwritten notes.
Obsidian
  • Features: Local markdown files, bi-directional linking, graph view, plugins for extended functionality.
  • Use Cases: Excellent for building a personal knowledge base with interconnected notes and visualizing relationships between ideas.
Roam Research
  • Features: Bi-directional links, daily notes, networked thought, queries.
  • Use Cases: Perfect for research, note-taking, and connecting ideas in a non-linear, flexible manner.
OneNote
  • Features: Digital notebooks, sections, pages, multimedia notes, collaboration, integration with other Microsoft apps.
  • Use Cases: Great for hierarchical organization of notes, collaboration, and integrating with the Microsoft ecosystem.

Person wearing beige clothing sitting in serene neutral room, writing in journal in front of open laptop.

Final Thoughts

The amount of knowledge available at our fingertips today is both a blessing and a challenge. The sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, and distinguishing between credible sources and misinformation is a continuous task. However, by implementing a PKM system, we can effectively navigate and control this abundance of information. PKM systems provide structure and efficiency, enhancing learning, productivity, and decision-making. Whether you choose digital tools or prefer traditional analog methods, the key is creating a system that works best for you and your needs. By capturing, organizing, processing, storing, retrieving, and sharing information systematically, we can transform the chaotic influx of data into a manageable and valuable resource. Ultimately, a well-maintained PKM system not only aids in personal growth and productivity but also promotes effective knowledge sharing and collaboration, making it an indispensable tool in the information age.

 

Related Blogs

AI-Powered Knowledge Management: Productivity and Innovation

Rediscovering the Joy of Reading in a Digital Age

Reclaim Your Desk and Recharge Your Productivity

 

References

“6 PKM Benefits You Can See in Everyday Life.” Better Note Taking. 4/5/24. Accessed 6/27/24. https://betternotetaking.com/what-is-pkm/pkm-benefits/

Carnes, Lisa Hirst. “A Guide to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) Systems.” ArcStone. 1/2023. Accessed 6/27/24. https://www.arcstone.com/personal-knowledge-management-pkm-systems/

David Allen Quotes. Goodreads. Accessed 7/1/24. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/348103-your-mind-is-for-having-ideas-not-holding-them

Eagan, Kevin. “The Commonplace Book as a Thinker’s Journal.” Bullet Journal. 4/3/23. Accessed 6/27/24. https://bulletjournal.com/blogs/bulletjournalist/the-commonplace-book-as-a-thinker-s-journal

Frank, Matthias. “Personal Knowledge Management for Beginners.” Matthias Frank. 5/12/24. Accessed 6/26/24. https://matthiasfrank.de/personal-knowledge-management-for-beginners/

“Information overload: How much information we consumed in 2022.” Heyday. 12/5/22. Accessed 6/28/24. https://heyday.xyz/blog/information-overload/

Marvin, Tamar Ron. “Setting Up a Personal Knowledge Management System.” Rabbanit Dr. Tamar Ron Marvin. Accessed 6/26/24. https://trmarvin.org/setting-up-a-personal-knowledge-management-system/

Rupp, Erin E. “How to create your personal knowledge management system.” Able. 9/1/22. Accessed 6/26/24. https://able.ac/blog/personal-knowledge-management-system/

“Scrintal 2022 Personal Knowledge Management Report.” Scrintal. 2022. Accessed 6/27/24. https://scrintal.com/guides/scrintal-2022-personal-knowledge-management-report

“What has your PKM actually helped you achieve?” Obsidian. January 2022. Accessed 6/27/24. https://forum.obsidian.md/t/what-has-your-pkm-actually-help-you-achieve/3024

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