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Personal Knowledge Management organization

Sébastien Dubois /

11 min read

In this article, I'm going to dissect the core piece of my Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system. I'll explain which tools I'm using, but most importantly how I organize my knowledge.

My notes for the 47th week of 2021

Most people I know don't pay much attention to their personal knowledge. They focus way too much on reading and learning, but never consider the fact that their memory is fundamentally flawed. My goal with this article is not to question your beliefs about knowledge management (I'll give that a try another day 😂), but simply to explain how I manage my own.

Alright, let's dive in!

Goals

One of the goals for my PKM system is to stay out of my way as much as possible. Also, I never consider anything to be set in stone. I regularly revisit the structure, and never hesitate to run experiments. I consider that my PKM system needs to adapt to me as I evolve through life.

Tools

I currently use Obsidian to store my PKM system, but the structure I describe here can be used with most of the other tools out there.

I use a single Obsidian vault to store all of my knowledge. I really don't want to use multiple ones as that would hinder my ability to link elements with one another.

Overview

Here is an overview of my current top-level structure:

The top level structure my Obsidian vault

The base structure is quite simple. In the rest of the article, I'll describe the purpose of each of those folders, one at a time.

Root

At the very top, I have a "_ROOT" folder, in which I store a few notes:

The _ROOT folder
  • Top of mind: whatever is on my mind "right now", and probably the very next things I want to look at. This is my scratchpad. Whenever I want to dump ideas, or save context, the information goes there

    • This note is absolutely essential for me. I keep going back to it many times throughout the week
  • Waiting for: Anything I'm currently waiting for (external dependencies)

    • This note helps me to keep track of important things without relying on calendar events and annoying reminders
    • I just look at those a few times a week
  • Me: Things related to personal development, my current issues, worries, health, etc

    • I review this note a few times a year to evaluate my energy levels, and personal matters
    • It's my own barometer
  • Goals: My short/mid & long term goals (+6M, +1Y, +3Y, +10Y time horizons)

  • On hold: Projects or tasks or ideas that I don't have time for right now, but that I want to get back to at some point in the future

  • Routines: My current routines

    • I like to document those so that I can review those regularly and keep track of how they evolve over time.

Journal

The "Journal" folder is where I keep my daily notes as well as my weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly reviews:

The Journal folder

I move daily notes to folders corresponding to the year and week to avoid ending up with 365 items in the list at the end of the year.

I use the daily notes all day long. As part of my daily notes, I track things such as:

  • The progress towards my goals for the day
  • My achievements
  • My discoveries
  • What I've learned
  • What I'm grateful for
  • ...

I don't necessarily write it all directly in Obsidian, but I make sure to transfer whatever I wrote elsewhere during the day, or the next day at the latest.

At the end of each week, I review those notes to extract knowledge, ideas, quotes, etc. This serves two purposes. First and foremost, it gives me a clear understanding of where my time & energy have gone, and whether I was focused or not. Second, it gives me the momentum to organize my personal knowledge regularly. If there's interest, I'll write another article to explain how I go about doing this.

You can find more information about my journaling approach and the tools I use in my two-part series on the subject:

PARA method

I use the PARA method of Tiago Forte to structure the rest of my personal knowledge management system. Actually, I also use the PARA method to organize my data in various systems; not only for PKM.

The PARA acronym stands for Projects, Areas, Resources and Archives.

Projects

Inside the "Projects" folder, I have one sub-folder for each ongoing project. This includes my main projects (e.g., Dev Concepts), but also secondary ones that I have on the back burner such as launching my Youtube channel or learning more about Web 3:

The Projects folder

Resources

Inside the "Resources" folder, I store reference materials, screenshots, diagrams, templates, scripts, and more:

The Resources folder

Archives

My "Archives" folder contains past projects and resources I don't need anymore, but could want to find back later. I probably hoard too much content, but it has helped me a few times already.

Areas

Last but not least, my "Areas" folder contains the key elements of my Personal Knowledge Management system:

The Areas folder

Contacts area

The first area is the "Contacts" folder, which is my professional and personal CRM. Inside of it, I have notes for different organizations and people I have had contact with. Everything is in there: friends, family, acquaintances, ex-colleagues, business partners, etc. I use my personal CRM to keep track of useful information such as birthdays, e-mails, phone numbers, key information I care about.

Meeting notes area

In the "Meeting Notes" folder, I record my meeting notes, and make links with CRM entries. By tagging the relevant persons/organizations. This allows me to keep track of who said what/when, decisions made, etc. No fancy tools required!

I generally use the following tags for my meetings: #meeting #decision #task. Thanks to those, I can quickly query relevant information.

Fleeting notes area

Next to that, I have a folder for "Fleeting Notes". Anything I scribble to think about later goes in there. Fleeting notes include rough ideas, questions that pop into my mind (e.g., while reading), etc.

By definition, fleeting notes are temporary. Whatever ends up there is destined to transform or disappear at some point.

I currently don't schedule time to review/process those, but I probably should. The problem with keeping fleeting notes floating too long around is that they accumulate quickly and make less and less sense as the context in which they were taken fades away.

Ideally, I would like to be able to create fleeting notes from anywhere (mail, phone, Slack, Discord, IM, etc), but I don't have tools that can do that yet (hint: I'll want to create those!).

Literature notes area

Inside of my "Literature Notes", I store everything that I find inspiring through my days: expressions, quotes, book highlights, book summaries, interesting tweets, etc. Literature notes are always inspired by content produced by others that pique my interest.

Anytime I read non-fiction, I try to take notes and store those in there:

The Literature notes folder

As you can see on the screenshot above, I have a literature inbox. I use that as a temporary space for rough literature notes that I need to review and split up. I review those notes once a week during my weekly reviews. As part of my review, I complete the drafts, add tags, etc.

Most importantly, whenever I add literature notes, I think about the subject for a few minutes and create fleeting/permanent notes that I link with the newly added literature notes. This step is crucial as it helps me surface the ideas, thoughts and questions I have about that subject.

As I mentioned above, I systematically tag my literature notes. Here's a simple example for a quote:

A quote example from my literature notes

Tags allow me to quickly find content back. The difficulty with tagging is to be consistent.

Permanent Notes area

The most important piece of the puzzle are my "Permanent notes". Those are my own thoughts, ideas and ramblings. Those notes are the core piece of my PKM system.

I split those into two parts:

The permanent notes folder

Again there's an inbox so that I give myself a chance to review notes before adding them to the main content (usually when I'm in a rush, don't have time to pause or don't want to lose my current focus). As with my literature notes, I review those regularly to ensure that the context of those notes is still fresh in my mind.

While reviewing the notes in my inbox, I focus on the subject (just like with literature notes) to see if it triggers some additional thoughts/ideas that I can add to my fleeting or permanent notes. I also tag those properly, link those with relevant content (e.g., literature notes and other permanent notes). Finally, I also add important permanent notes to my Maps of Content (MoCs). I'll tell you about MoCs another day!

Writing area

As you probably know if you follow my blog/newsletter, I really enjoy writing a lot. The "Writing" area of my PKM system is where I write my initial drafts and keep a copy of my main pieces.

Future

My "Writing" area is one that I really want to improve in the coming months/years. Currently, only a fraction of what I write is available in my PKM, and it is a growing pain that I feel. It is frustrating because it means that I have a sort of split-brain, and I'm unable to link all my ideas together. The thing is that it is difficult for me to accept duplicating my content. Ideally, I'd prefer to have a single tool where I can host my content, but also share it with the world and keep it up to date everywhere. I haven't found a solution yet, which is why I'd actually like to build it myself.

Another area that I'm keen to explore is the productivity aspect. So far, I use another information silo for my tasks: Trello. But I'm not using any of the advanced features it provides. My PKM could actually host my tasks, as long as I can create Kanban boards. One reason for which I'm interested in merging my productivity system with my PKM system is that I would be able to archive past tasks, tag those, and keep notes of the context and related discoveries. Oftentimes, I archive Trello tasks that contain a lot of useful information and lose it forever.

Finally, a key aspect that I'm currently missing in my PKM system is keeping track of content I'm interested in consuming/exploring (e.g., articles, books, Tweets, Twitter threads, etc). Currently, I use other information silos for that (e.g., IMdb, Goodreads, TV Time, etc). And silos are never great for integration. I intend to take care of this curation issue myself.

Going further

If you find Personal Knowledge Management interesting (I hope you do!), then you might want to join our community.

If you want to further explore PKM, then take a look at my Personal Knowledge Management Library. It’s a huge collection of resources (articles, books, videos, youtube channels, etc): https://developassion.gumroad.com/l/PersonalKnowledgeManagementLibrary

Also, make sure to check out Sönke Ahrens’ wonderful book about how to take smart notes.

Conclusions

Those are the core parts of my current PKM system. Hopefully, this will give you a few ideas about how to better organize your own. ✨

To be honest this is actually only a fraction of my entire knowledge management system. As you saw, I've mentioned a few others systems that I use such as Trello, Goodreads, IMdb, TV Time, and more. But I'll tell you more about the rest in a future article!

As I said at the beginning of the article, nothing is set in stone. If you ask me in a few months, I'll probably have changed quite a few things 😂. But that's the cool thing about PKM; it can evolve together with you. 🎉

If I can leave you with one piece of advice, it is to experiment. To different things, and don't hesitate to revisit your choices.

Expect more articles about PKM on my blog in the future!

That's it for today! ✨

About Sébastien

Hello everyone! I'm Sébastien Dubois. I'm an author, founder and CTO. I write books and articles about programming (TypeScript, Web, React, Angular, NestJS, etc), personal knowledge management, personal organization and productivity.

If you've enjoyed this article and want to read more like this, then subscribe to my newsletter and check out my Dev Concepts collection of e-books about Software Development 🔥.

You can follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dSebastien 🐦

If you want to discuss, then don't hesitate to join one of my communities: the Software Crafters community, the Personal Knowledge Management community, and the focusd Productivity community
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