The focus of this article is a subject I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.
What started as a simple Email Friday Newsletter topic, transformed into what you see here; far too long for an email.
PKM = Personal Knowledge Management.
PKM is a systems approach to dealing with the firehose of fragmented information that bombards our headspace daily.
Processes that help to efficiently gather, classify, store, search, and retrieve information that supports work activities and creative knowledge work (idea generation, insights, breakthroughs, big ideas, etc.).
The inefficiencies of a system (or lack of a system) don’t become apparent until we need to retrieve the information we’ve previously been exposed to; information we’ve already deemed important.
… and then can’t find the info or recall where you saw it.
2019 is the year I’ve decided that I need to be more INTENTIONAL about how I deal with *all* information (knowledge) that matters to me.
Have you ever stared at the dreaded “blank page” waiting for the information and insights to come flowing out of your head?
You know it’s in there somewhere, but … crickets.
God knows I have.
The inefficiencies in my own system is, in a large part, why releasing the big update to ARM (AutoResponder Madness) is running a damn year behind schedule.
(This new release of ARM — which I *am* working on now — will be the 10 Year Anniversary Edition; so come hell or high water, it WILL be released this year. But more about that another time.)
Deep knowledge work requires a robust PKM.
This topic *should* matter to everyone: especially creators, marketers, and creative knowledge workers like us, doing important work that matters.
Here’s my visualization of how I see PKM mapping to the overall flow (how I’ve visually pegged it in my mind):
Most people START on the far right.
Those peeps who start with a blank page when trying to write something worth writing (an email, report, article, treatise, essay, manifesto, manuscript, screenplay, novel, guide, book, course, etc.).
They have no system per se. Best case, they have a minimal workflow that is not robust.
To the left of the “blank page peeps” are the people (like me for a long time) who have a deeper workflow that is somewhat “robust-ish.”
Workflow in this context: a system of tools and basic processes for dealing with information.
Maybe it’s Evernote with a browser extension for clipping info and some Zapier zaps. Which is very basic, and isn’t an efficient system for managing knowledge processing.
For me, and depending on the context of upstream information, it would be:
- Workflowy (links and context),
- or Instapaper (for articles),
- or Medium (for other articles),
- or Ulysses (for notes and long-form writing),
- or scraps of paper for quick analog notes and sketching,
- or Notability (and GoodNotes) for digital note taking and sketching.
But I didn’t have a robust system for tying all these abstract tools together so that I could find stuff, connect notes, and make idea babies.
In the past, for example, I would listen to a podcast from Tim Ferriss, hear an amazing insight that I would like to expand on, then screenshot the location for later (or maybe scribble a note somewhere).
But those notes almost never got “processed” into an accessible higher-level knowledge management system for easy reference, expansion, and retrieval later.
Insights and big ideas result from collisions of ideas from different domains and disciplines (polymath), smashing together at a later point in time to berth an “Idea Baby.”
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we?
There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.“
— Stephen King
The PKM component (far left in my scrawl above) comes FIRST. A (robust) method of knowledge processing and optimization at the principles level.
This way, as you move upstream through your system, you have the pieces in place to be able to call on information. Ideas. And have those game-changing unicorn insights.
Because then you already have all the info (notes) you need to write whatever it is you need to write (or produce or make).
The result is to never (or rarely) be in a situation where you stare at a blank page … waiting … waiting … wanting for “inspiration,” until the resistance inevitably shows up and creates that pull like a tractor beam to go shave a yak.
Okay, that’s the big picture. The context.
Here’s a glimpse into “version 3.0” of my note taking and PKM method. But before I open the kimono, know that this (current) workflow is still evolving. It’s a work in progress.
I’ll probably do a followup later in the year with a detailed update. The rabbit hole goes way deeper. But this right here is the big win if you don’t yet have a PKM system to support your processing of information and knowledge.
Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998): Zettelkasten Method
The PKM method that I like the most (there are other systems), and the thread I’m following and now leading you down, is modeled on the German sociologist/philosopher, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998).
Luhmann used what he called a slip-box (translation: Zettelkasten) to record notes, which he linked contextually using unique note IDs.
Luhmann didn’t try and categorize notes, as this was too restrictive and required planning (which imposed structure and inflexibility).
The more I use this system, the more I LOVE (love love!) not needing to deploy cognitive processing power to figure out where to categorize a note or idea in some hierarchy or folder based taxonomies.
That right there is one of the super-powers of this method (for me).
Instead of asking, “Under what topic do I store this note?” he asked, “In which CONTEXT will I want to stumble upon it again?”
For this reason, “cards” (notes; zettels) were stored in a flat uncategorized structure that was “thematically unlimited” (in that it could be infinitely extended in any direction).
Interesting fact that demonstrates that universal application of this system of filing information: I discovered that my method of labeling password records in my 1Password, which I’ve done for years, closely mirrors Luhmann Zettelkasten Method for linking ideas together.
I have 2422 items in my 1PW, and I’ve always been able to find what I’m looking for. Every record has “context” attached to it so I can find it later.
In which CONTEXT will I want to stumble upon it again?
It’s a simple example, but demonstrates the contextual association (relations between things). I never have to remember Dynalist (a new-ish clone/alternative to Workflowy). Typing in
workflowy) reveals both.
In the same way that when I search my 1PW for
Google Analytics (an easy focal point for me), every web analytics tools I have logins for are displayed (which are a lot: but I never have to remember their names).
The Zettelkasten Method has earned a loyal following amongst academics, writers, journalists, and knowledge workers.
Okay, let’s explore the framework next:
There are two kinds of notes:
- Fleeting Notes (temporary quick idea capture)
- Permanent Notes (zettels)
Any quick method of capturing an idea or thought.
It can be on anything (notepad, napkin, digital, your arm; whatever), so long as it’s quick to capture.
Use keywords and bullets, ideally. Full sentences are too slow. Ideas are almost always fleeting, so you wanna capture quickly.
Permanent Notes (Zettels):
Fleeting notes are later transferred to a permanent note (zettel), typically within a day or two. No longer (ideally).
An important element of a zettel is that the notes need to be in your OWN WORDS.
It’s important to articulate the idea into your own words, which forces comprehension and understanding.
This is very important.
Notes are “linked together” using a reference system of unique IDs, contextual keywords (metadata), and structural layers under the concept of:
In which CONTEXT will I want to stumble upon it again?
Big Ideas for Effective Note Taking
- Writing is not a linear process but a circular one.
- Note taking starts BEFORE you start to write. Writing then becomes a simpler task of assembling zettels (notes) to create the long-form writing.
- The slip-box (zettelkasten) becomes your external memory (whether that’s an analog or digital version; I’m all about the latter).
- Note taking is a form of PKM (personal knowledge management).
- Your PKM implementation should be as simple and seamless as possible. Remove complexity and anything that causes friction (over-engineering is counterproductive).
- Your ideal (“perfect”) PKM will likely be some “homebrew” style/version that closely models the Zettelkasten Method.
- Use your notes to record context and thoughts relevant to a project/task/other activity, and use hyperlinks to connect those notes to the relevant files (wherever they are).
- A PKM system (al la Zettelkasten Method) of CONNECTING notes and ideas is critical (connections to prior information).
- If you go the digital route (like me), choose a system that’s accessible and in a flexible reliable open format; ideally text files. Avoid a closed system with a propriety database tied to a subscription-based service.
- I like the Zettelkasten way of note taking (which I’ll share next), but there are other note-taking systems like Cornell Notes. Use whatever feels the most natural for you, or comes with the least friction.
Okay, here’s a real life example:
To demonstrate this in practice, I’ll share with you one of my notes, how it became a zettel, and then how I visualized the zettel (a third layer of abstraction that’s not part of the Zettelkasten Method).
For this exercise I’m going to show you how I documented a mental model: First Principles.
At a conceptual level, I knew what First Principles meant, and how to apply it, but I had never attempted to document (and then visualize) the mental model for a deeper understanding.
So here’s what I did:
STEP 1: Temporary Note
I used paper for speed (A5).
I constrained myself to two pages (front and back). No more. A temporary note is not a zettel.
In most cases, a temporary (fleeting) note is concise. After all, you’re capturing an idea which can have the characteristics of a quickly dissipating dream.
But in this case, I was brain-dumping a mental model that I already had some level of clarity about.
Here’s what my temp note looks like:
STEP 2: Create Zettel
The process next was to take my temporary note and articulate the ideas back into my own words to force comprehension and understanding.
This part is probably the most challenging because the easy “shortcut” is to copy phrases or sentences.
You need to avoid doing this.
The good news is that the anatomy of a zettel doesn’t need to be lengthy. A few sentences are all that’s required. It only needs to make sense to you.
It’s just capturing the essence of an idea and putting it into your own words. Over time you get to add to the note and build it out.
The real power here tho, is how the method CONNECTS ideas into contextual relationships (like synapses in the brain). I’ll get to the tools I use for this in a bit.
My First Principles zettel has expand since first creating it, but I want to only share my first version; which is the important part of this demonstration:
First Principles is about breaking down a thing (or problem) to the fundamental parts through a process of abstraction that is known to be true. Then from that new perspective, reassemble differently.
The idea isn’t to abstract down to the “atomic level,” but just a few layers deep. Deep enough to allow for other ideas, purposes, and opportunities to become visible.
The analogy I loved the most came from Shane Parish’s article. The chef vs. cook analogy. The chef thinks in first principles (think: Grant Achatz of The Aviary). He understands the ingredients and flavors at such a deep base level; he can reassemble them into “art.”
The cook, in contrast, can only see his world as recipes: which are creations from others. The cook starts from a recipe, and tweaks and fiddles from there. They build on top of what chefs, the pioneers, have already created through first principles.
Once a zettel is created, the temporary note can be destroyed. It’s not needed anymore.
STEP 3: Visualization
Like I said earlier, this layer of my PKM is not part of the Zettelkasten Method. But for me — being a very visual thinker — is was critically important.
If you purchased access to LBC (Lean Business for Creators) back in November, you would have seen just how visual I am. All the drawings I shared with students were rough hand-drawn sketches from Notability.
For me, in a lot of cases, the visualization naturally comes first (before the zettel). It helps me map out in “pictures” what I’ll then articulate into words.
Both directions work — it’s not a this or a that; but both — so don’t get too hung-up with which direction is right or wrong or better or worse.
I use a very unique digital tool for this part (macOS only), which I’ll share in the tool section next.
Here’s how I visualized how I see and understand First Principles:
Start on the left: the box labeled First Principles, then follow the arrows.
No doubt I’ll change/tweak the visualization over time. None of this is meant to be perfect. The important part is capturing ideas, then putting them into a system that can operate as your “external brain” for later retrieval and idea connecting (and to berth “Idea Babies”).
These three steps have clarified what the First Principles mental model means (to me), and how I will link it to other notes (zettels) and ideas in my system.
Okay, let’s talk tools.
These are the tool I use for my PKM:
- Paper (temporary rapid idea capture)
- The Archive (permanent zettels: Zettelkasten Method)
- Tinderbox (visualization: Zettelkasten Method)
- Ulysses (long-form writing: external to any system)
Paper is analog and free and assessable to everyone. It should be your go-to method of quick frictionless temporary idea capture.
Use your mobile if that’s all you have on you. But make sure the app you use is very quick to access and easy to use.
I have a ton of note taking apps on my iPhone, but for rapid idea capture I use only Apple Notes or Voice Memos.
Don’t make the decision of what app to use when the moment arrises. Decided on the app now, and position it on your first screen where your thumb can click it easily (one-click access; two at the most!).
I didn’t think I would love this tool as much as I do. It has become my “archive” for all zettels, and all other notes and ideas and knowledge.
The Archive is my external brain.
I can’t see myself using another tool as my primary storage for notes/ideas/insights (and more). For me, it’s close to perfect. It’s lightning fast and near frictionless (the signal for a perfect focal point tool).
It’s a (macOS only) tool created by a german coder (and knowledge worker) named Christian Tietze.
Christian and his partner-in-crime, Sascha Fast, run a fantastic resource for everything zettelkasten (zettelkasten.de: which is thankfully all in English).
The Archive app costs just $19.99 (USD). Insane value. It’s the bargain of the year.
If you do decide to get it, the creator has given me a coupon that’ll give you 20% off (good until April 1st).
(* That’s not an affiliate. I get no commissions from you buying.)
The Archive is basically a font-end desktop search engine for creating and parsing plain text files (in markdown).
I have my “archive” on Dropbox, so all my notes are synced to the cloud, they’re backed as a result, and they are shareable as plain (markdown) text when needed.
I can also access my archive from any iOS tool that can read plain text on Dropbox.
What I love (love love!) about The Archive is how frictionless it is to use (remember: all notes live in a “flat” structure that’s pure plain text).
It creates unique IDs (
cmd+U) to link notes together.
It doesn’t force on you any external PKM system or way of working or thinking (even tho it was created to facilitate the Zettelkasten Method). It gets out the way and allows you to organize your ideas however you choose.
All I can say: I looooove it!
If you’re on macOS, get this. If you’re on Windows, I’m sorry for ya. But I think there are a number of alternatives.
(If you’re a Windows user, and find something robust and frictionless to use, and you like it, lemme know and I’ll add it to the resources section.)
André I found an effective system for implementing a Zettelkasten on Windows. Someone created a great plugin for the Sublime Text editor. It takes a bit of tech setup as you have to install the components individually. But the instructions on the GitHub page are well-written. The guide’s a bit TMI for starting out, but if you just focus on the set up, creating links, and working with tags, you’ll have everything you need to get started. Once set up, it works very smoothly. I’m a Zettelkasten convert now 🙂
Plugin for Sublime Text: https://github.com/renerocksai/sublime_zk
Tinderbox is the final tool I’ve started to use.
Mark Bernstein, a hypertext enthusiast, has been developing it for the past 18 years (shocker, I know!).
Tinderbox is a personal content assistant that helps you visualize, analyze, and share your notes, plans, and ideas.
At $249 is pricey. But then Tinderbox isn’t a simple dumb flow-cart diagramming tool. It’s a tool to manage content, and the contexts and relationships that exist between notes and ideas and concepts.
The screenshot I took of my First Principles visualization isn’t just a bunch of boxes (they’re actually notes in the tool) linked together with arrows.
The downside tho, in contrast to The Archive, is that Tinderbox can have a steep learning curve.
That said, I feel it’s worth learning — at least it is for me. Because I’m so visual, Tinderbox satisfies that deep visual need. So it forms part of my PKM workflow. For you, tho, that may be different.
Tinderbox, like The Archive, is macOS only.
Below are two awesome video series by a PhD student, Beck Tench, who I reached out to (after watching her first series), and which inspired her second series of videos.
- Using Zettelkasten and Tinderbox to Document (Nov 2018)
- Turning Reading Notes into a Tinderbox Map (Feb 2019)
Even if you don’t choose to use Tinderbox, Beck’s videos are a beautiful and insightful look into the note-taking and knowledge processing workflow of a PhD student (who are required to consume staggering quantities of information).
Having a robust system to process knowledge needs your attention if you want any hope of parsing and understanding the information you’re exposed to.
The flow of information you’re bombarded with will only get worse.
Hope you found this useful.
I hope this article inspires you to venture down the rabbit hole and create your own PKM system.
Further Reading (Down the Rabbit Hole)
Some other resources that’ll take you deeper down the rabbit hole surrounding personal knowledge management:
- How to Take Smart Notes (Amazon)
- How to organize personal knowledge? (Hacker News Discussion)
- Zettelkasten.de (blog)
- The Feynman Technique (Medium)