A big change I've made this year is developing a strong personal knowledge management system.
For me, this was about getting more use out of information I was already consuming. For a long time, my approach has been haphazard. I've used different tools and workflows for note-taking and writing. But, I always felt as though I wasn’t getting as much out of my reading as I should have.
This year, I invested a lot of time in energy into understanding what works for me. The twin catalysts for this were reading Sönke Ahrens' book How to Take Smart Notes and participating in a cohort of Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain online course (both highly recommended).
I've had a few people ask me how I approach personal knowledge management now, so I thought I'd try to write up my approach.
Why you need a personal knowledge management method
We're constantly bombarded by information. We have access to more content more easily than ever before. In addition to traditional media like books or printed articles, there are blog articles, social media posts, videos, online courses, meetings, discussions, Slack conversations—the list goes on. It's not just a stream; it's a tidal wave of information.
We've become a society of information hoarders. Something new comes in and we carelessly toss it on top of the pile. By the next time we turn around, the pile's grown exponentially. It’s overwhelming and stressful.
While the volume of content has never been greater, the ratio of signal to noise seems to have never been worse. Finding the insight you need when you need it is more challenging than ever. Many of us collect all of this information in different places, like in email, in different folders on our hard drives, in note-taking apps, on sticky notes, in notebooks, in presentation decks... The list goes on. It's not uncommon to know that the information you need is out there somewhere, if you could only remember where.
Being able to process information is a fundamental skill for any knowledge worker today. But, it's not something people are ever taught to practice. It’s just assumed you pick it up along the way.
This isn't simply an issue of productivity. It can have significant effects on our ability to innovate. New ideas never emerge fully formed in a flash of insight; they grow and accrue over time as concepts and thoughts are put in fruitful contact with one another. We need to be able to feed our hunches, and hone our intuition. How much productivity is lost, and how many good ideas are squandered, because of a lack of basic information management?
We need to develop systems not just for capturing and filing information, but for transforming information into new insights.
Capture information digitally
The place where many people logically begin thinking about knowledge management is capture. That is, how do we intake new information? Most of us maintain (with varying degrees of success) a number of different inboxes, including not only our email clients but also instant messaging apps, social media feeds, and RSS readers among others.
The objective of capture should be twofold: first, to filter out low-quality or low-signal information; and second, to channel high-quality into the location where it can most easily be managed.
There's no silver bullet here. Different people have different needs and constraints. For a long time, I assumed that a paper notebook was my ideal solution. I valued the tactile sensation of writing in a Moleskine or Leuchtturm with a nice pen, and also enjoyed the immediate feedback of seeing pages fill up. Writing notes by hand is also believed to aid long-term memory.
However, for me, a digital workflow is superior to taking notes by hand. Simply, the weaknesses of my physical notebooks outweighed their strengths. For one, an analog system relied far too heavily on my memory. If I took notes on a book, I had to remember which notebook I wrote them in. Then, I had to find the notes within that book itself.
Longer-term storage posed additional problems. If I had notes from a book I read a year ago, it would be useless to me unless I had physical access to the notebook (assuming I remembered that I did have relevant notes). The most important point in time in note-taking isn’t storing the note; it’s when you need to find it again. Paper-based notebooks aren’t necessarily good at this, without a lot of extra work.
Plus, most of what I read these days is digital. My most common sources of information are articles from online publications, like blogs and newsletters, or books that I read on my Kindle. Having to move between media adds friction to the process. Plus, my handwriting is atrocious.
So, rather than a paper notebook, I use Evernote. I've tried a number of different note-taking apps, including Bear and, more recently Roam Research. Evernote is far from perfect, but for me, it has a few strengths that make me willing to accept some of the trade-offs (at least for now):
It still does capture better than any other app I’ve found
I can use it on any device and access my notebook from anywhere
(Note: this has not stopped me from admiring a nice notebook and a good pen.)
Capturing content from digital articles and books
I consume a great deal of information through online publications. We're in a bit of a golden age for online newsletters, and I subscribe to a lot. These reliably bring me something interesting almost every day. As well, I maintain subscriptions to a good number of RSS feeds, which I manage in Feedly.
Any article I come across, I skim quickly to assess if I think it is actually useful or interesting. If it looks promising, I save it to Instapaper. Often, I don't want to or don’t have time to sit down and pore through every word of an article right off the bat. Adding an article it to a read-it-later app like Instapaper means that I'm able to come back to it when I do have the time, energy, or am in the mood to digest it properly.
When I do come back to it, I make use of Instapaper's highlight function to capture any passage that I think are interesting or relevant to me. I probably am a bit too liberal when it comes to highlighting, but that's actually okay, because this isn't where my note-taking process ends. (More on that in a minute.).
Highlights I make in Instapaper are automatically synced to Evernote. They appear, neatly excerpted, in an inbox folder I've created there. This is enabled by another app in my stack, Readwise.
My other main source of information is books. I typically have at least two books on the go, one fiction and one non-fiction. I read almost exclusively on my Kindle; it's hard to beat being able to carry around hundreds of books on a device that fits in my pocket.
When I read on my Kindle, my approach is very similar to that as when I read an article in Instapaper. I highlight interesting passages, maybe adding a brief annotation or comment if I'm so moved. These, too, get automatically synced to the same Evernote inbox via Readwise.
Taking notes with progressive summarization
By the time a note hits Evernote, I've already taken one pass over it with a digital highlighter. The next time I touch a note, I'll read through these highlights again, using a technique called progressive summarization.
It's simple, yet powerful. Basically, I read through the note and bold anything that really stands out. It's almost an emotional reaction: I look for anything that stands out as surprising or that I find gives me pause.
Progressively summarized notes from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. The text itself was a Kindle highlight that was imported into Evernote via Readwise. Then, I bolded, and then highlighted, what really struck me (in this case, the idea that conventional wisdom about protecting innovation actually stymies innovation).
Then, the next time I touch that note, I do the same, but focused only on the bolded passages. On this pass, I highlight whatever bolded passages that I find to be especially compelling. While I go through, I'll usually add my own comments in a different colour, either summarizing the point, identifying what’s interesting about it, or connecting it to something else I’ve read before.
If I find the source to be really valuable, I compile notes in my own words at the top of the Evernote document. Sometimes, I'll also write a summary. I won’t get to this level of compression with every note in my collection; only the really good stuff. This has the added benefit of making it easy for me to see at a glance how I’ve gotten out of any page of notes. If there’s a summary in my own words, I know it’s a keeper; if there are just a couple of bolded passages from a whole book’s worth of notes, it might not have resonated with me.
When I do all this, I try to keep my future self in mind. The context I am in today is not going to be the same as the context that when I come across the note again in the future. So, I try to ensure that my notes are as clear as possible. I'm explicit about why I found the note interesting, and try to make sure that the note is completely modular. That is, if I were to stumble upon it in total isolation of any other information, I'd be able to understand the idea completely.
Organizing Evernote with PARA
I have organized Evernote following Tiago Forte's PARA system. Beyond the inbox, I have four notebook "stacks" (as Evernote calls them): Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archive.
Projects are notebooks related to things I am actively working on. A Project usually has some kind of defined outcome or deliverable at the end. An example might be an article I want to publish to my blog.
Areas are less contained than projects. They're Areas of Responsibility: territories over which I have some responsibility to manage or maintain. Whereas a Project has a clear deliverable at the end of it, Areas take regular care and feeding on an ongoing basis. A specific article for my blog would be a project; my website itself is an area.
Resources are assets I keep that are related to topics that interest me. These can be somewhat broad, though if I find them getting too big that's usually a sign that they should be broken up into more specific notebooks. This is a kind of cold storage: I maintain files here that might be of use to me, or to others, later on. For example, I have a Resource folder on "Strategy," and another on "Food and Cooking."
I think a key to understanding PARA is recognizing that notes can move in and out of different notebooks. We're working in bytes, not atoms; we're able to easily slide a digital note as much as we like.
For example, if I initiate a Project to, say, redesign my website, I might look in both my Resources folder and the corresponding Areas folder to find notes that are germane to that project and move them into its folder.
Or, if I start to write a blog post on brainstorming, I would create a Project notebook and into that pull together some other notes from various Resources folders.
Then, when a project is done, I will take a look in its notebook and move anything to the folder in which I think it will next be most useful. Whatever is left moves with the notebook into the Archive.
Creating evergreen notes
So far, what I have described is a fairly by-the-book implementation of Tiago Forte's PARA method. However, I found that one of the limitations of PARA is that I was still losing ideas. That is, I would read something, get some hunch or seed of an idea, but didn't have a good place to keep it.
PARA's based heavily on Getting Things Done, which means it is heavily focused on a well-defined next action; however, an idea I have today might not really have the legs to become a full-blown project (of any size) until much later. I needed a way to incubate ideas a bit better. As well, I am a firm believer that writing is a way to master information. Translating my highlights and summaries into my own words, sentences, and paragraphs doesn't just help me better capture knowledge; it facilitates the generation of new knowledge.
For this purpose, I've added an additional layer to Forte's progressive summarization: a zettelkasten. In the zettelkasten, I try to capture those hunches or original ideas that come up as I am reading. As I read more, these connect with new ideas, hopefully (though not always) blooming into paragraphs. Then, those paragraphs connect with other notes in the zettelkasten to form constellations of ideas that can may develop into essays or blog posts.
These notes either represent strong opinions or strong facts. I've taken inspiration from Andy Matuschak's idea of evergreen notes. I see them as the place in which I develop my personal perspective on the kinds of things I read. I try to write these in something approaching final copy, including extensive links to other evergreen notes.
I'll also sometimes compile Maps of Content (MOC) notes, which curate and comment on relationships between notes on a related topic. They often start as a hypothetical outline that will help guide my future self.
Per Ahrens' advice, I keep my zettelkasten notes separate from the fleeting notes I take in Evernote. For now, I am using Obsidian. One of Evernote's weaknesses is how it handles linking. You can create links to individual notes, but it's quite effortful compared to markdown or wiki-based approaches like Obsidian or Bear. And, Obsidian offers the additional ability to quickly see what notes link to one another. This can help to identify unexpected connections and foster serendipitous discovery of new ideas.
Weaknesses in my approach
I don't think my system is perfect. Writing it out like this over 2000+ words makes it sounds pretty convoluted, I admit. But it seems to be working for me, and has been the driver behind a number of creative projects I've completed already this year (this blog, and my newsletter, among them).
I think the biggest weakness in my process remains capture. In a sense, it works too well. It didn't take long before I had a huge backlog of articles in Instapaper, to the point where I am considering hitting reset on the whole thing. But, my hoarder tendency kicks in and instead I periodically try to batch process a lot of articles at once. I don't think this is actually conducive to actually using that knowledge in the long-term.
On the software side, I know Evernote's not perfect. I've come to grips with the idea that there's no single, silver bullet solution. So, I have a selection of best-of-breed tools that seem to do their individual jobs well. I'm content with most of the trade-offs I make using Evernote. But, I hope they read the market and start to invest in delivering features like automated back-linking.
And, there are times when, yes, it does feel like a lot of work. I've been at it for a few months now and, fortunately, I'm enough of a nerd that this is a bit of a hobby for me. But, I'm also wary that the effort will begin to outweigh any utility or enjoyment I get out of this and I'll end up back where I started.