Updated: 19 March 2022
There are books, articles, podcasts, courses and videos out there with the potential to change your life.
The problem is, there's just too much.
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to incredible content to consume and, as a result, (to coin a phrase I heard a lot at school), it often goes "in one ear and straight out the other". This potentially life-changing information hangs around in our short-term memories for a few minutes (hours if we are lucky), and then it's gone.
If you want the content you consume to stand a chance of finding its way into your long-term memory, you need to do something with it - you need to interact with it and create new ideas. Furthermore, you need a system - your input, ideas, and output need a home and an operational toolkit. This is where personal knowledge management (PKM) comes in.
What is PKM?
According to Tiago Forte, PKM is "the practice of capturing the ideas and insights we encounter in our daily life, whether from personal experience, from books and articles, or from our work, and cultivating them over time to produce more creative, higher quality work" (Forte Labs, 2019).
For me, PKM is about ensuring the content I consume (usually, text, audio and video) is not wasted.
Reasons for Consuming Content
It's helpful to consider why you consume certain types of content before you start designing a PKM system.
The three main reasons you might consume content are:
For me, entertainment content is primarily fiction books and dog videos on TikTok (my guilty pleasure). This type of content does not enter my PKM system - I do not need to learn from it or use it again - it is pleasurably passive.
In "How to Read a Book", the authors distinguish between "reading for information" (for example, a newspaper) and "reading for understanding". The latter is described as when "a person tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand" (Adler and Van Doren, 1972). This doesn't just apply to reading - it works for audio and video too.
My PKM system mainly handles content I consume for understanding. The process is active - it involves thinking, asking questions and making notes. The ultimate end goals are learning and creating new content.
How to Design Your PKM System
Start designing your PKM system using sticky notes as you can allocate an item per note and move them around quickly. Once you are happy with the process, draw it as a flow diagram using a free tool like Excalidraw or Whimsical.
Here are the steps I recommend you follow:
First, identify your input sources - in other words, the places you consume content (for example, YouTube, Twitter, Kindle, podcast app and academic libraries).
Then, think about what you want to achieve as output; for example, do you want to write blog posts, create a podcast, create tweet threads or write a dissertation?
You now have the beginning and end of your PKM system. All that is left to do is design the workflow in between. Consider the following stages:
- Working notes
- Permanent notes
The stages and terminology in my PKM system are inspired by Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten.
The 'capture' stage is where content enters your PKM system (input) - this is where you might highlight and annotate what you are consuming. After that, it heads over to 'working' where you can start making notes in your own words and start forming new ideas. Permanent notes are your 'output' location; for me, this means articles and essays for wider publication.
My note-taking happens in Obsidian (see the screenshot below).
You can use any selection of tools for your workflow - I explain what I use and how below.
My PKM System
Here is my PKM system:
You will note that Readwise is integral to my system (affiliate link because I love Readwise). Readwise brings all of your notes and highlights from other platforms into one bucket and syncs beautifully Obsidian. Readwise costs $7.99 per month (billed annually), and there is also a Lite version which costs $4.49 per month (billed annually). Discounts for students and educators are available.
My input sources are:
- Medium articles
- Twitter (usually article links but sometimes threads)
- Other web articles (not including Medium articles)
- Kindle books
- PDFs (usually academic papers sourced from various databases)
I send these to Instapaper where I have a 'to watch' list and then make notes in Obsidian (capture area) while I watch the video.
I save this in the Medium app to my 'read later' list. I then read and highlight in Medium and everything gets sent to my 'article' capture area in Obsidian automatically.
I send articles to Instapaper, where I read, highlight and annotate. Occasionally I want to save entire threads - I do this slightly differently. To send a Twitter thread to Readwise you just reply '@readwiseio save thread' while you are in Twitter. If someone else has already commented on a thread to 'save to Readwise', all you need to do is like the comment, and it will do the same thing. Readwise sends saved threads to Obsidian, where I can re-read them and make working and permanent notes if I want to.
Web articles are captured in Instapaper. Instapaper is a free read-it-later app with a paid option ($29.99 per year). I read, annotate and highlight in Instapaper. My highlights and annotations are automatically synced to Obsidian via Readwise into my capture notes area.
I read, highlight and annotate on my Kindle, or using the Kindle app on my mobile, and these automatically sync to my Obsidian capture area via Readwise.
I use Snipd to listen to podcasts because it allows you to take audio snippets and these sync directly with Obsidian via Readwise.
I spend a lot of time reading research - articles tend to come in PDF format. PDFs are captured in Zotero; at the time of writing, Zotero just released an iOS app, so moving forward, my highlighting and annotation will also take place in Zotero. My Zotero library is linked to Obsidian, and I plan to implement this brilliant workflow from Bryan Jenks shortly.
My workflow does change from time to time, so rather than post my full tech stack here, I recommend you check out the Tools page of my website, where I keep my stack and PKM diagram current.
A solid PKM system will help you learn and generate new knowledge. My setup works for me, but I encourage you to devise something specifically tailored to your needs - everyone is different.
Adler, M. J. and Van Doren, C. (1972) How to read a book, Rev. and updated ed., New York, Simon and Schuster.
Forte Labs (2019) A Complete Guide to Tagging for Personal Knowledge Management [Online]. Available at https://fortelabs.co/blog/a-complete-guide-to-tagging-for-personal-knowledge-management/ (Accessed 16 August 2021).