Setting Up a Personal Knowledge Management System

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This post is part of a series on Personal Knowledge Management, or how to save your notes, files, and other important info in a simple-to-use, organized way.

Intro: Setting Up a PKM | Part 1: Google Drive | Part 2: Zotero | Part 3: Taking Notes in Notion

A Personal Knowledge Management is a way of saving, processing, and organizing the information and files you use every day in your work and life, so that you can access them easily when needed. Basically, it’s dealing with your digital stuff so it’s organized and works for you. 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. I’ve been getting lots of questions, so here’s a walk-through of how I set things up.

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How I Got Out of This Mess

Last summer, my note-taking system, which mainly consisted of Google docs, was straining at the seams. I am an organized person by nature, but with an ever-expanding amount of digital stuff, looking for things was inefficient and I found myself retracing my research steps one time too many.

When I went looking for a solution, I fell headfirst into the world of personal knowledge management. Fair warning, it’s full of gurus, freemium products, and a hefty dose of toxic productivity. That being said, if you take all that with appropriate skepticism, working out a PKM (there’s lingo, of course) can be life-changing. (And low cost.)

During the precious spare time I spent working out a PKM, I honestly wasn’t sure the whole thing wasn’t going to end up being a giant waste of time. On the other side of it, I can’t image life without it. True believer.

Okay, so here’s how I figured out and set up my PKM. But first:

A Quick PKM Manifesto

  • The KISS principle totally applies. If your system is overly complicated, if you have to think more than, like, 20 seconds about where something goes or where you filed it, the system will fail.
  • A PKM requires regular maintenance in order to work. It shouldn’t be complicated or overly time-consuming (KISS again), but that doesn’t mean you can just leave it alone and hope AI will take care of everything for you.(AI can take care of a lot of stuff for you, though.)
  • Don’t keep stuff “just in case,” and don’t buy pretty containers at Target (figuratively speaking) to hold your junk. That just creates busywork for you and makes it harder to find the stuff you do need (is that the practice file, draft three, or the real thing?). If you don’t need it, declutter it. Decluttering is for digital things as much as for physical things.
  • A lot of people out there try to sell you particular systems that worked for them, like Zettelkasten or the PARA method. Some are brilliant, others wonky; some are basic, others mind-numbingly complex. It’s fine to look at examples to get yourself started (I did!) but don’t buy into thinking that there’s one way to do this. Jump in, play around, iterate, and build something that works for you.

Elements of a Personal Knowledge Management System

Think about where you already spend your time working—where do you store you files? Write down your to-dos? You probably already have the scaffolding of your PKM, and now you’re going to systematize and organize what you’re already doing.

My PKM is divided into five primary areas:

  1. Task/Project Management: This is where I schedule my life, block out steps for bigger projects, and set long- and short-term goals.
  2. File management: This is where I store individual files (docs, apps, images, videos, etc).
  3. Knowledge management: This is where I take and organize notes. When notes coalesce into projects, I’ll also do some outlining here (but then break down what I need to do next into action steps in my task manager).
  4. Reference management: This is a specialized database for storing bibliographic information (like books, articles, and manuscripts) along with reading notes.
  5. Photo management: This is how I backup, organize, and share family photos.

I think these cover a lot of use cases. However, your areas might look different depending on your work or interests. If you’re not a writer, researcher, or academic, you might not need a reference manager, for example. If you need to take secure (HIPAA or financial) notes, you might need software for that, and so on.

Software for Personal Knowledge Management

While it’s possible to uses just one or two apps for your PKM, I’ve found seeking total simplicity more annoying than efficient. There are certain programs that are just better at handling certain types of data. For example, I use Notion for notetaking. Lots of people use it for project management and/or reference management as well, but it was too hands-on for me for those uses. So I use it for a single thing: taking notes.

In selecting which apps to use, I recommend starting where you are. If your docs are all stored in OneDrive, then use OneDrive as your file repository. If there are pain points (stuff that drives you bananas), then it’s time to look elsewhere for a solution.

Here are the apps I use, along with some alternatives:

  1. Task/Project Management: Marvin. (Yes, it’s really called this, and yes, I tried it because my friend sent it to me as a joke, and also yes, it’s amazing.) This is the most customizable yet non-overwhelming task app I’ve ever used (and I have used…many). Other options include: Todoist, TickTick (this is Wirecutter’s pick), Things (iOS only), and OmniFocus (iOS). They’re all freemium.
  2. File management: Google Drive. Other options: Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, iCloud (iOS). All of these require you to pay for more than a small amount of storage. I store docs, pdfs, presentations, and image files here. I have the 2Tb plan, which includes data from all Google products, an ecosystem I’m deep into.
  3. Knowledge management: Notion. Other options: Evernote, OneNote, Roam, Obsidian, Miro, Craft, Bear (iOS). I still use Google Docs for writing and source sheets, but I embed the docs in my Notion notes. Some of these offer (or require) premium fees, but I find the free tier of Notion robust.
  4. Reference management: Zotero. Other options: Mendeley, EndNote (paid). I use a number of other services to read and listen to media, but I import any notes/highlights I plan to use in my writing into Zotero so they’re filed along with the reference.
  5. Photo management: Google Photos. Others: Apple Photos, Adobe Lightroom (paid), SmugMug (paid).

These are all automatically backed up cloud drives, but once a month, I do a manual backup to an external hard drive, along with my browser bookmarks and recipe app (the backup is scheduled in Marvin, natch). I use SyncBackPro (it’s a low-cost program) to sync my photos from Google Photos to my external drive. It’s the absolute only non-maddening way to do it, AFAIK.

By the way, I have way more apps in my workflow (for things like listening to podcasts, messaging, navigation, eBooks, etc.) but they’re not part of my PKM; rather, the stuff I want to save from those apps gets input into my PKM.

Customizing your PKM

Once you’ve conceptualized your PKM by picking out the elements you need to have in place, and selected the software you’re going to use, it’s time to set up each one for use. I’m going to go through how I set up, maintain, and use each one of the key elements in my PKM in a series of posts:

How to Use Google Drive to Manage Research & Writing Files

How to Use Zotero for Organizing Research

How to Set up a Note-Taking System in Notion (includes scheduling in a Task Manager)


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