Once upon a time, I was hooked on personal knowledge management (PKM) — building a second brain, a personal Wikipedia, a centralized collection of notes with all the information that matters most to me.
This was a deep rabbit hole, and I went all the way down. I blogged about PKM extensively. I also spent hours consuming books, podcasts, videos about other people’s PKM systems. (You would not believe how many of these exist.)
In addition, I tried to invent the perfect PKM system of my own, hoping to increase my creative output while reducing my writing time.
PKM is often sold as a life-changing practice. For me, it changed only one thing: Taking notes involved lots of friction.
Over time I came to understand why — and what to do about it.
Problems with PKM
When I analyzed what went wrong, I discovered some specifics:
- I spent as much time tweaking my PKM system as actually writing — in effect reducing my overall output.
- I switched from one note-taking and writing app to others, shuttling data between different and sometimes incompatible file formats.
- This switching became a time and money suck that screwed up my files and riddled me with guilt.
- Over time I amassed hundreds of files, most of them hiding in folders that I never opened.
- Organizing and maintaining all those files became huge tasks that I put off.
- In the process of accumulating so many notes, I spent more time consuming the work of other creators than producing original work of my own.
Tiago Forte once expressed the ideal state for PKM: “Imagine if every interesting idea or useful fact you’ve ever encountered was accessible any time you needed it.”
I no longer believe that this is possible. I am not sure it is even desirable.
In short, I bottomed out with PKM. (And I’m not alone: See the links at the bottom of this post.)
Releasing the PKM paradigm
But it’s all good. Perhaps bottoming out is exactly what I needed. Finally I was able to come up for air, let go of the past, and begin anew.
And that was key — starting fresh. Rather than simply tweaking my PKM system, I went straight to the roots: I released the whole PKM paradigm and replaced it with something much simpler.
In this post I share what works for me. Perhaps you can use it to avoid the problems I encountered and jumpstart your own creative process.
Before you spend real money on PKM apps and courses, consider the following options. They’re all free.
Start with one Big Ass File
The hardest decision to make after writing a note is choosing what to do with it. Many PKM systems break down here, right from the start.
So let’s prevent this problem immediately: Put all your notes in one Big Ass File (BAF).
This file can be created with whatever app you like — preferably an app you already own. I prefer plain text files for all the reasons that Derek Sivers presents. You might prefer Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or an outliner such as Workflowy, Dynalist, or OmniOutliner.
For ease in capturing ideas on the run, choose an app that:
- has a mobile version
- opens quickly
- allows you to create new files with zero friction
Whatever app you use, start with just one file. This answers the toughest question up front: Where do I put notes after I create them?
The answer is easy. There’s only one place for notes to go — the BAF. Just dump ideas there, add the current date, and then get on with your life.
Another tough question is How do I organize my notes? My answer: In the beginning, don’t worry about it. As Dan Shipper points out, most notes defy organization anyway.
To locate information in your BAF, just browse the file or use your app’s search function.
If the notes in your BAF are dated, then they are already organized by time. That is a big plus, since many of our memories are encoded that way.
Like Tiago Forte says: “Organize as little as possible, as late as possible.”
Consider your BAF to be a work in progress — a file that you update and revise over time. Three specific kinds of revision can make a huge difference.
First, look for ways to reduce your notes. Distill them to their essence, and delete any that you’re unlikely to use in the future.
Reducing helps you manage file size and ease navigation. It also promotes clarity. When I truly understand something, I can often express it in fewer words.
Second, restructure. Over time you’ll discover patterns in your BAF. For example, you might notice that a lot of your notes cluster in groups such as:
- Daily events and how you felt about them (a personal diary)
- Thoughts on topics that interest you
- Tasks to do
- Possible creative projects — such as blog posts and books you could write, products you could develop, and services you could sell
Consider moving each group of notes to a separate section of your BAF — or to a separate file.
The key is to let new sections or files emerge organically based on clear and personal use cases. Instead of adopting someone else’s system, notice how your own notes “ask” to be organized.
Finally, use your own words whenever possible. This deepens comprehension and prevents one of the major problems with PKM — the collector’s fallacy.
When starting PKM, I copy-pasted a lot of quoted material into my BAF. I also collected hundreds of files filled with book highlights, full-text articles, and book chapters.
Once in a while I took the time to summarize sources in my own words up front. These are pure distilled gems — the notes that I actually use. The quoted material is gathering dust in an archive and possibly headed for the trash.
Take your own path
Many of the people who teach PKM are brilliant and well-intentioned. And yet much of what they say amounts to legislating personal preferences as absolute requirements.
Take any PKM technique as a possibility rather than a prescription. Eventually you will create a system that’s uniquely your own.
And that’s perfect. The only system that works is the one you will actually use.
Most of all, focus on outcomes. Taking notes is not an end in itself. The whole point is to harness information in the service of results. If your workflow violates every sacred cow of PKM and yet works for you, then ignore PKM and follow your heart. You are in contact with a deeper wisdom.
Where to learn more
My ideas align closely with these principles of incremental note-taking:
- Create new notes with no friction.
- Add new notes rather than revise or replace previous notes (append only).
- Choose an app with great search features.
- Organize notes by time.
I cannot imagine using paper for PKM, but some people swear by it. Christine Dodrill has good ideas.
I’m fascinated by the growing backlash against PKM. Check out:
- Sasha Chapin on Notes Against Note-Taking Systems
- ElrioVanPutten on Is the concept of personal knowledge management flawed?
- John Duffney on taking dumb notes rather than smart notes
- Dan Shipper on The Fall of Roam and The End of Organizing
For other takes on note-taking, see:
- Tiago Forte on building a second brain
- Derek Sivers on keeping a diary and “thoughts on” journal
- Eric Jorgensen on developing The Almanack of Naval Ravikant
- Josh Kaufman on how he reads, takes notes, and writes
- Robin Sloan on taking notes for novels
- Steven Berlin Johnson on keeping a spark file
The BAF is not a new idea, by the way. It was originally called a Big Ass Text File. I’m simply reviving the idea and tweaking it. Enjoy.