A Personal Knowledge Manager (PKM) is a category of software that combines elements of a personal information manager and a digital asset manager in order to help individuals organize and manage their personal knowledge assets. It works as a way for people to capture, store, search and coordinate all the information they need to make better decisions about their lives.
In this guide, we review the aspects of Personal Knowledge Management Software, What is personal knowledge management system, how to build a personal knowledge management system, and personal knowledge management notion.
Personal Knowledge Management Software
A Personal Knowledge Manager is a category of software that can help you manage your personal knowledge.
Evernote is a note-taking app that can help you manage your personal knowledge. Evernote is available on all major platforms, including web, desktop and mobile apps.
Apple Notes is a note-taking app that’s built into MacOS. It’s available on all Apple devices, and it’s easy to use because it has few features. If you don’t need complex organization or note-sharing, Apple Notes will work well for you.
The best part of using Apple Notes is how well it works with other apps. You can use Siri to dictate notes or create reminders. You can share and collaborate on projects with other members of your team using iCloud Drive or Google Drive through Mail or Messages (both iOS and macOS apps).
Google Keep is a note taking app that’s free to use on iOS, Android and the web. It can be used for lists, voice notes and photos as well as general writing tasks. The Chrome extension allows you to save links from your browser directly into Keep.
If you’re looking for something more comprehensive with more features, many other personal knowledge management apps like Wunderlist or Evernote offer additional functionality such as file sharing and task lists.
OneNote is the personal knowledge manager that can help you keep track of your thoughts and ideas, regardless of where you are. OneNote is available on multiple platforms including Microsoft Office (PC, Mac OS X), OneNote Online, and as a mobile app for iOS and Android devices.
OneNote uses notebooks—the basic organizational unit in the software—to store notes, pictures, audio clips and more. You can create notebooks to represent different areas or subjects in your life such as work projects or home renovations. The notebook’s contents are separated into pages that serve as containers for all sorts of things: individual sections (for example “Project Ideas”), subsections (like “Travel Plans”) and sub-subsections (“Budget”).
The software also features collaboration tools allowing users to create shared notebooks with other people so they can all work on them together.
A Personal Knowledge Manager is a category of software that can help you manage your personal knowledge.
A Personal Knowledge Manager (PKM) is a category of software that can help you manage your personal knowledge. There are many types: some are designed to help you organize facts and documents, while others are designed to help you store and recall information from memory. Some can do both.
Some examples of Personal Knowledge Managers include Apple’s Notes app, Evernote, Zotero (for storing research), Anki (to memorize facts), and Pocket (to save articles).
What is personal knowledge management system
The history of personal knowledge management (PKM) is a history of curiosity. For thousands of years, people have accumulated knowledge in a desperate attempt to find no-nonsense answers to nagging questions.
Ok. Let’s get serious for a moment.
In today’s article, we take a closer look at the concept of personal knowledge management (PKM). You’ll learn how to build a knowledge management system, gather information effectively, and succeed in the knowledge economy (and your personal life).
💡 Before you start… This article is part of our series on knowledge management. Check other guides on the blog when you’re done reading.
🧠 What is a personal knowledge management system?
“Any Fool Can Know, The Point is to Understand.“
Defining Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)
Personal knowledge management is a life-long investment of time and effort into capturing and organizing information. That can include the things you experience, read about, and listen to. It’s a premeditated and systematic collection of information.
Following the Wikipedia definition of PKM:
“Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005) […]”(1)
You can think of personal knowledge management as a more strategic approach to writing things down in a notebook. Instead of scribbling observations at random, you wedge new bits of information inside a deliberate, pre-defined personal knowledge management system.
Professor Paul A. Dorsey argues that personal knowledge management is a combination of traits and tools for the effective handling and processing of knowledge.
“Personal Knowledge Management should be viewed as a set of problem-solving skills that have both a logical or conceptual as well as physical or hands-on component. These are skills that will be required for successful knowledge work in the twenty-first century.“
Dorsey breaks PKM down into seven fundamental skills or steps:
By applying this workflow in your intellectual pursuits, you can effectively manage personal knowledge using any permanent medium. That can include plain-text editors, outliners like Emacs to take digital notes, ordinary notebooks, or a bullet journal.
“But where did it all start?” 🤔
🥚 A Bit of Knowledge Management History
– “Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?”– “No,” he said eventually, “what?”– “Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right.”
One of the oldest examples of PKM is the commonplace book, a written account of observations, quotations, and passages from influential works for contemplation.
“In the most general sense, a commonplace book contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler […]”
Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius kept a commonplace book where he documented thoughts, quotes, and spiritual exercises that’d later become Meditations.
Some commonplace books—or as Professor Alan Jacobs calls them “the Tumblrs of an earlier era”—contained sermons and practical daily tips. Others were used to “gather a collection of the wisest statements, usually of the ancients, for future meditation.”(4)
Lewis Carroll’s commonplace book containing sketches of labyrinths and ciphers(5)
When we’re on the subject of note-taking, many of history’s greatest minds took detailed notes of their intellectual pursuits. Leonardo DaVinci would record scientific observations and detailed sketches of his paintings and machinery design.
One of the most famous knowledge management systems is Zettelkasten created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann used small index cards filed into boxes—the archive contained over 90,000 cards—to aid his academic research.
Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten via Niklas Luhmann-Archiv(6)
The origins of modern knowledge management software can be traced to inventor Vannevar Bush. In a 1945 article “As We May Think” Bush conceptualized a device called “Memex” capable of storing books, records, and other information.
Memex, a concept of a knowledge management device by Vannevar Bush via Life (1945)
Bush’s idea inspired others like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Douglas Engelbart who pioneered remote collaboration with the historic multimedia demonstration known as The Mother of All Demos.
And the rest they say is history.
⚡️ The Benefits of Personal Knowledge Management
“Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”
You Can Overcome Cognitive Challenges
Nothing in life, including knowledge, is static. You move around, meet new people, change positions, change employers, and learn new skills, particularly in such a hectic time as the pandemic.
By consciously managing personal knowledge, you’re effectively prepping yourself for professional and personal challenges coming your way.
As our access to information is improving, we need better strategies to filter, process, and organize the information. A robust personal knowledge management strategy helps ingest knowledge selectively, without spiraling down a bad case of FOMO.
You (Don’t) Have to Start From Square One
We’ve mentioned Elon Musk’s “semantic tree” several times on the blog. And it couldn’t be more relevant when discussed in the context of knowledge management.
In a nutshell, attaining competency in any discipline is a multi-level process. To become a top violin or piano performer, you need to learn the scales and chords first. That is unless the ancient gods of music granted you the “gift” and you can rock Paganini’s 24 Caprices “by ear.”
The rest of us ordinary mortals are left with a bottom-up approach.
Incorporating a knowledge management system will help you build a solid foundation—or the bark of a semantic tree—for whatever you want to learn. It will also make it easier to map out the learning path and see how bits of knowledge connect in a hierarchical way.
You Flex Your Intellectual Muscles
Darwin, Franklin, Newton, Edison, and da Vinci all took detailed notes of their intellectual pursuits. Their pocket notebooks and sketchbooks were their versions of personal knowledge management apps, and this allowed them to retain information and, more importantly, further their intellectual prowess.
Whenever you learn new stuff and add it to your personal knowledge management system, you automatically have to confront new information with what you already know.
Each time you juxtapose new and “old” knowledge, you effectively engage in metacognition or “thinking about thinking.” That, in turn, helps you develop essential 21st-century skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and goal-setting.
🧠 Knowledge Management Systems (PKMS)
What Is a Personal Knowledge Management System (PKMS)?
Knowledge management (KM) is the process of accumulating and organizing information. A knowledge management system (KMS) is a combination of tools and strategies for doing that effectively.
A robust PKM system will help you:
Putting it all together, a knowledge management system lets you aggregate, organize, and retrieve information strategically using a select number of dedicated tools. The overarching purpose of knowledge management is to build a reliable single source of truth.
For instance, Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten we mentioned earlier utilizes an index-based system of cards, complete with metadata, tags, cross-references, and unique identifiers. And that in itself is pretty impressive considering the analog-first nature of the system.
A Zettelkasten notes with tags and cross-references by David B. Clear(8)
A more modern approach to PKM systems is the Building a Second Brain (BASB) methodology by Tiago Forte. The system uses note-taking and organization tools to create a digital copy of everything you’re working on.
🤹♂️ How to Build a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) System in 3 Steps
Step 1: Decide What to Learn
In teaching, cognitive overload happens when students are pressured with more reading, assignments, and study material they can process. This leads to essential information going by the wayside.
Unfortunately, due to biological and time constraints, it’s not possible to learn, store, capture, and keep track of every bit of information. That’s why selectivity is king.
Here are a few starter questions to help you decide what to add to your PKM system:
Ultimately, everything you add to your system should fit into an overarching hierarchical system, with peripheral concepts branching out from the root/seed idea.
If you’re an average reader, you should definitely look into speed-reading to assimilate key facts quickly. Check this video featuring the world’s fastest reader Howard Berg for some speed-reading tips. 👇
how to build a personal knowledge management system
What is personal knowledge management?
The definition of personal knowledge management, simply put, is to have a structured system in place to organize your thoughts, notes, and files.
Personal knowledge management systems can range from simple to complex. Although most personal knowledge management systems these days are digital (using computer software and note taking apps), you could even have an analog or paper-based personal knowledge management system, such as a paper-based Zettelkasten system on index cards.
Building an intentional, mindful way to organize your notes and files
There’s no single one right way to build a personal knowledge management system, nor is there a singular definition. From my perspective, all personal knowledge management means is this: having an intentional, mindful way to organize and manage all the information that flows into your life on a daily basis.
The purpose of building a personal knowledge management system is, at its core, to feel more organized and in control of your life. Building a personal knowledge management system will save you time, as it makes it easier to find files, links, emails, and ideas that you came across before. You’ll spend less time reinventing the wheel. A personal knowledge management system is intended to help you find new connections between individual pieces of information. The goal of building a personal knowledge management system is to simplify your life and make it easier for you to accomplish your tasks in less time, with less stress.
Why do I need personal knowledge management? Who can benefit from personal knowledge management?
Busy people need personal knowledge management systems most of all
As a busy person, you may feel like the last thing you need to do is to add yet another task to your overflowing to do list. It’s a catch 22: the people who can most benefit from a personal knowledge management system are often the ones who least feel like they can invest the time in building one.
Building a personal knowledge management system will benefit you if you are a knowledge worker in any capacity. If part of your job, or school, or side hustle, involves managing research, writing, and information, building a personal knowledge management system will pay huge dividends for you in the medium and long-term. It is worth a short term investment in taking some time to set up a mindful, intentional system.
Knowledge workers need personal knowledge management
People in these fields particularly benefit from personal knowledge management from having a reliable personal knowledge management system in place:
Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People
What is the best way to build a personal knowledge management system?
There is no single best way (but it would be lovely if there was!)
I wish that there was one, single, simple answer to the question, “What is the best way to build a personal knowledge management system?” As you explore the world of personal knowledge management– as you watch YouTube tutorials, listen to podcasts, and explore forums on the topic of notetaking and personal knowledge management– you’re going to discover that some people feel strongly that there is one singular, best way to build a personal knowledge management system.
To be fair, those people are partially correct. Whatever specific structure they are espousing is, in fact, the best personal knowledge management system setup– for them. This is key. People feel passionately about the structure or setup they have personally found helpful for building a personal knowledge management system. And this is wonderful: we can all benefit from the hard-won knowledge of our peers and those who have gone before us in developing their personal knowledge management system. I am always personally keen to review examples, sample workflows, and set ups from other thinkers in the personal knowledge management space. We are lucky to live in a time when there is an ever-growing abundance of personal knowledge management apps and setup examples.
Avoid the “one-size fits all” trap
However, the danger arises when someone is so happy with the results of their own personal knowledge management setup, and know that it is worked well for them, that they have the misconception that their own specific workflow, app, or structure is going to work for everybody else. The concept of the “personal” is absolutely key in understanding the best way to set up a personal knowledge management system. There simply is no one-size-fits-all personal knowledge management method or app.
You need to build a flexible tailored system that fits your life
The truth is, over the course of your working life, you will yourself need to adjust, iterate, and change your personal knowledge management system to meet new challenges, changing work environments, and different projects. Too often, people can feel that it is their own a personal failing, or a failure of their individual system or app, if they start to feel frustrated with their personal knowledge management setup. During those times of doubt and frustration, it can be very tempting to be listen to confident, persuasive speakers who propose that there is one single, best solution to the challenge of note taking.
The Calmer Notes approach: find what fits, and leave the rest
The keystone phrase of my own Calmer Notes training on the topic of personal knowledge management is this: find what fits, and leaves the rest. The Calmer Notes method is, by its very design, not going to tell you one single best way to build your personal knowledge management system. I am happy to share my own experiences and recommendations– but I believe it would be disingenuous to pretend that the apps or structure that I have found personally helpful are going to fit everybody else. Your life is different than mine. Your mind works differently than mine. You have a different collection of operating systems and technology and mobile and browser preference. Your work environment is different than mine. You are trying to create different outputs with your daily work than I am.
Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People
Best software, tools, and apps
What is the best personal knowledge management app for a beginner?
How to get started
If you’re new to the world of personal knowledge management: welcome! So glad you have discovered this delightful corner of the internet– I am so excited for you. This is a really wonderful time to be getting started with personal knowledge management: there is an explosion of exciting, powerful new software and apps to help you organize your digital notes and build a digital note taking habit. it’s the perfect time to begin building a personal knowledge management system that truly fits your life and reflects the way that your mind works.
But the explosion and digital knowledge management apps can be a double-edged sword. As a beginner, you may find the endless options of digital note taking software and personal knowledge managements apps rather overwhelming to sort through. You may feel stuck on the best place to get started.
Try to avoid letting analysis paralysis stop you from embarking on your personal knowledge management journey. So long as you choose a digital notetaking app with robust import and export options, it shouldn’t take you that long to switch to a new app if you ultimately find your first choice isn’t quite right for you.
Top three apps for beginners
With that in mind, these would be my top three beginner friendly note taking app and software recommendations as of 2022:
All three of these apps offer robust markdown import and export options, which I believe is absolutely central to building a future-proof note-taking app. Notion and Craft both have web apps; Bear is Mac only.
If you want to explore more into my personal knowledge management app recommendations and roundups, check out my archives tagged with personal knowledge management apps and software.
What is the best advanced personal knowledge management app?
The temptation of bright shiny object syndrome
If you are a seasoned personal knowledge management system enthusiast, and you’ve been in this space for some time, I imagine you’re just as excited as I am to see the explosion of new PKM and tools for thought (TFT) apps.
That being said, the influx of new PKM apps can lead all of us to experience some degree of overwhlem and analysis paralysis. It can be all too easy to get distracted by bright shiny object syndrome. When an exciting new note taking app comes across your Twitter feed, with appealing screencaps and advanced features, it can feel so tempting to abandon your current setup (which has some frustrations and roadblocks which have been annoying you), in favour of building a fresh system from the ground up.
Questions to ask to gain clarity
There is always the possibility that a new app is truly what your system needs right now. But before switching to a new app, it’s incredibly important to recognize and get super-specific about:
What’s your why?
As much as we may all enjoy browsing the latest note taking apps, none of us have come to personal knowledge management with the intent of building a note taking habit or PKM system as an end goal in and of itself. We’ve sought out personal knowledge management as a tool in service of a greater purpose. This purpose might be:
Whatever our goals may be– there needs to be a “why” underpinning the entire structure of our personal knowledge management system. Building a note taking habit for its own sake is simply not enough. We are all busy people, with many demands on our time and schedule. We need to build personal knowledge management systems that support, strengthen, and enrich our lives.
Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People
Top three apps for advanced PKM users
With all of that in mind, I would personally recommend these as the top three personal knowledge management apps for advanced, experienced users as of 2022:
How should I choose a personal knowledge management app?
Want a more in-depth, detailed approach to the process of choosing the best personal knowledge management app? The whole Calmer Notes approach is founded on the principle of making informed, mindful, intentional choices in building your personal knowledge management system. In step 4 of the Calmer Notes method, you’ll go through a step-by-step approach to efficiently and mindfully select the best PKM app for your own specific needs.
Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People
How to choose the best personal knowledge management setup
There is no perfect system– just the best system for you
You might be searching for the best personal knowledge management workflow, strategy, or approach. If you’ve read through from the start of the article to now, you probably have guessed that I am going to remind you of this fact: there is no single best personal knowledge management setup that works for everyone. Everybody’s ideal workflow is going to look different– and should look different. A strategy that works phenomenally well for one person will fall flat for another. The “perfect” personal knowledge management workflow for a one specific person will change and evolve, too, as they juggle different roles, responsibilities, and projects at different times of their lives.
Draw inspiration: find what fits, and leave the rest
With all that in mind, there is still huge benefit to looking at example note taking structures as well as personal knowledge management workflows and setups. Going through examples of how other people have structured their tags, folders, and bidirectional links can be very inspiring. The most important thing that I want you to take away, however, is to use these examples as inspiration only. Feel under no obligation to follow them slavishly. As I emphasize in the Calmer Notes method: find what fits, and leave the rest.
It’s exciting to be living in a time of exponential growth in personal knowledge management apps and approaches. There are new workflows and structures being developed on a regular basis. Below, I will go through some examples of personal knowledge management systems and actions, linking through to the websites and blogs of talented PKM thinkers and writers. Let their systems serve as inspiration for you, to see if portions of their approach might be helpful for your own specific needs, goals, and note taking preferences.
The concept of “atomic notes” was coined by Christian Tietze, and comes from the notion that each note in a note taking system should be centered around one singular idea. Atomic notes are part of the Zettelkasten approach, and their use was popularized in How to Take Smart Notes. Small, discrete, atomic notes are also included in many other personal knowledge management structures such as digital gardens and building a second brain. Atomic notes are closely linked with the concept of evergreen notes.
The goal of writing an atomic note is to break each piece of knowledge down into ts smallest, tiniest, indivisible part (i.e. per Dalton’s atomic theory). The goal is to then link these small, discrete pieces of information to related notes to that you can see interconnections between ideas and themes. To continue the analogy, you can then link your atomic notes together to build “molecules” of knowledge.
Building a second brain (BASB) & PARA
The concept of building a second brain (BASB) was created by Tiago Forte of Forte Labs. This structure grew out of his PARA folder system for organizing digital content. Forte was originally a productivity training consultant for software companies, and developed this particular structure for organizing reference works in parallel to organizing tasks and projects.
personal knowledge management notion
You have pages and pages of notes you’ve taken over the years spread out on different pages across Evernote, Google Docs, or whatever digital platform you use. All of these notes have been acquired from all the different articles you’ve read, videos you’ve watched, courses you’ve taken, seminars you’ve attended and it’s all in one giant pile or it’s organized in a convoluted mess of folders. You have a hard time remembering what you learned and you have an even harder time finding the valuable information you took note of.
I was totally there. I felt that frustration. Nothing I learned was easily accessible again after I wrote it down and stored it away. So what was the point of writing this stuff down if my notes were just as cluttered as my physical mind?
I needed to find a way to organize my knowledge outside of my brain in a way that was categorized, tagged, and flexible to view in different mindsets.
So I built my own personal knowledge management system using Notion.
What is a personal knowledge management system?
A personal knowledge management system is a way of organizing your knowledge and lessons you’ve learned in a way that’s accessible and easy to refer back to. Think of the old-school method of having a filing cabinet with different tabs and folders for different subjects that has all your notes organized.
Good personal knowledge management systems make it easy for you to enter and organize your knowledge as well. It should create a productive workflow for you to gain knowledge, store knowledge, and recall knowledge easily.
Why is personal knowledge management important?
Anyone who wants to have productive life needs to have some kind of knowledge management system.
To solve the problems I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s important to have such a system to organize your knowledge in a way your brain can’t.
The three main reasons you should have a personal knowledge management system:
Store and organize your learning content
Consolidating all of your learning content from videos, articles, and seminars in one centralized place is a great way to create your own personal library. This allows you to take notes easily while reading and refer back to library items when using them as references for articles or research papers.
Refer back to learned lessons easily
Taking notes from what you learn or found useful from items in your library and housing them in a database tagged and categorized will allow you to access your knowledge easily. By breaking down what you learned into bite-sized lessons that are each tagged creates for you a second brain that you can organize every bit of knowledge and refer back to easily.
Share your organized knowledge
Having your knowledge organized and grouped into themes or areas can give you the advantage of sharing curated knowledge with specific audiences. For instance, if you’re running a blog about underwater basket weaving, all the knowledge you’ve acquired in such a subject should be grouped or tagged accordingly for you to refer back to it fast and easily produce content for your audience.
Why use Notion for your personal knowledge management?
Notion is a growing software company that has built one of my favorite apps that I use every day for my personal and work life.
The most powerful thing about Notion’s app is its databases. These databases allow you to sort and filter data, view and edit the same data in different areas of your workspace, and create relations and rollups to other databases.
Because of the powerful capabilities of Notion’s databases, they are, in my opinion, the best and most flexible way to build a personal knowledge management solution customized to your needs. For me, Notion has become my personal knowledge management software.
The components of my personal knowledge management made in Notion
I built my personal knowledge management system from scratch in Notion. It is broken down into four databases:
The Library database stores all the videos, articles, course notes, etc. that I clip from the internet. Each Library item can be categorized by Content Type and tagged from the Tags database.
I created a template for new Library items to populate the necessary linked databases right on the page for easy editing.
The Knowledge Base
The Knowledge Base database stores all the bite-sized lessons and notes I take from Library items and allows me to tag them from the Tags database in order to categorize them.
I use tags to organize Library and Knowledge Base items. I created a “Tag Template” when creating new tags so that they’ll automatically have the necessary linked database instances on the page.
The Areas database is used to group all of my tags into relevant areas of expertise, skillsets, or hobbies. I also designed an “Area Template” when I create a new Area to populate the necessary linked databases on the page of the Area.
How I use my personal knowledge management in Notion
Acquiring and Organizing Library Items
The first step of my personal knowledge management process is acquiring library items from the internet. Whenever I find a video or article that I find insightful enough to take notes from, I use Notion’s Web Clipper Chrome extension to clip the content into my Library database in Notion. It’s super simple: just click the extension icon in your toolbar, select the database (your most recently used will be pre-selected) and a record will be created in your Library database with the content transposed on the record’s page.
After I clip a piece of learning content into my Library database, I need to add relevant tags to it and select the content category. For this, I created a linked instance of the Library database that’s filtered to only show items that need to be tagged and need a type selected.
For each Library Item, there is a checkbox for whether I have watched or read it yet. This helps me keep track of what content I’ve consumed or not. I created another linked instance of the Library database that’s filtered to only show items that need to be read or watched. This allows me to have a queue of content I need to go through to keep productive.