“I want every day to be as smooth as possible,” says James Altucher. “No hassles.”
I often think about this in relation to personal knowledge management (PKM). My goal is to create and maintain a personal knowledge base in ways that are fun and efficient. If it becomes a hassle, I just won’t do it.
Let’s start by speaking in simple terms about what PKM actually means. For me, it’s ultimately about using a note-taking app to remember more, learn more, and produce more. This involves a continual process of:
- Capturing valuable information from any source
- Structuring information with useful frameworks
- Making creative connections between ideas
- Crap-detecting content so that it’s actually worth sharing
As Ryan Holiday put it: Always be researching, always be writing. He’s constantly collecting facts, quotations, anecdotes, and other juicy information. This allows him to produce a steady stream of meaty books and articles.
If you practice PKM in a similar way, you’ll soon collect hundreds or even thousands of notes. Managing all that information is inherently challenging, and we can easily complicate the process in unnecessary ways. To reduce friction, avoid the following time wasters.
1 Stop switching apps
It’s possible to lose hours tinkering with various note-taking apps and tweaking their preference panes. When that happens, you can kiss productivity goodbye.
Trust me — I know this from personal experience. When I first got the notion to dump all my notes into a single searchable collection, I used Notational Velocity. For my money this is the greatest Mac app of all time. It was designed to do only one thing and do it well — create plain text notes and retrieve them with dizzying speed.
Alas, the developer of Notational Velocity stopped maintaining it. The impeccable Brett Terpstra took the source code for this app and turned it into nvALT. But Brett is a busy guy, and he has priorities other than updating this beautiful app.
The bottom line: Choose one app and stick with it unless you have clear and compelling reasons to change. Also consider staying with one of the major players in this arena — OneNote or Evernote — that is likely to stick around for a long time.
2 Stop trying to save everything
Some people use a notes app only for a single restricted purpose. Josh Kaufman, for example, uses Evernote only to store full-text articles that he clips from the Web.
“I know a lot of people use it for everything: storing documents and receipts, tracking tasks, setting reminders, etc,” Josh writes. “For me, keeping the system simple is best.”
I use OneNote for all my notes, including brainstorms, quotations, book summaries, interview transcripts, and useful lists. But like Josh, I don’t use the app to scan and store paper-based documents. I just keep these to a minimum and file them separately.
Your preferences might be different, and that’s fine. Just make conscious choices about what to not save.
3 Stop copying and pasting Web pages
Until recently, importing text and images from a web page meant creating a clunky PDF of it or doing a massive copy-and-paste job.
Today Evernote, Bear, and OneNote offer “web clippers.” These are extensions that save an uncluttered version of a web page (along with its URL) as a note. This reduces the process of saving a page to a single click.
4 Stop tagging notes
Instead of organizing notes into categories, many people try to rely on tags. On the surface this sounds like a great idea: Don’t worry where to file a note. Just tag it with key words — such as work, personal development, or house project — that describe the content of the note. Add as many tags as you want and create new tags at any time.
Evernote enthusiasts like Michael Hyatt swear by tags. And developers of note taking apps often promote tagging as a time-saving feature.
I side with Tiago Forte, however, who suggests that we forget about tagging notes: “When you rely heavily on tags, you have to perfectly recall every single tag you’ve ever used, and exactly how it is spelled and punctuated.”
The logical alternative to tagging is searching. Tiago makes a strong case for this approach: “We’ve reached the point where search is so good, effectively the whole document is made up of tags, and the cognitive load of meticulously tagging every note becomes truly unforgivable.”
In addition, our memory depends on a sense of place. I find that grouping notes into a small number of categories makes it much easier to locate the information I want. I can almost always remember the notebook or section in which I’ve filed an individual note, even if I don’t recall its exact title or content.
5 Stop agonizing over how to organize your notes
“Information is infinite,” Richard Saul Wurman notes, “but the ways of organizing it are not.” Those organizing methods boil down to the “five ultimate hat racks”:
Richard gives this example:
If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.
When organizing notes, you can often get by with a handful of major categories. Start with just three:
- An inbox for notes that you make on the run and plan to review later
- Project notes with information about what you intend to get done at work and at home
- Archived notes with information that does not require any follow-up action but is still useful to remember
If you collect many archived notes about a specific topic, consider moving those notes into a section or notebook of their own. Over time, additional categories will suggest themselves in this organic way.
6 Stop adding extra steps to your workflow
Reflect periodically on the life cycle of your notes. What you do with a note after you create it? When do you look at it again? And how do you ultimately make use of it?
There are lots of creative possibilities here, and the process does not have to involve many steps. Here’s an example from writer Ben Casnocha — a seamless blend of private reflection and public sharing, done with online and offline tools:
I take lots of notes in paper moleskin notebooks; every week or so I go back with a different color pen and circle the key sentences; I then transfer these ideas to Evernote files on my computer; and finally, I blog/tweet/publish/email out the crispest, most important ideas or quotes.
Josh Kaufman has a different workflow. Every month or so, he takes all the articles he clips to Evernote and sorts them into various topic notebooks. For him this is time to delete any duplicate entries and review the essential information.
“This simple process ensures I have a huge archive of quality information close at hand while writing books, blog posts, and essays,” he adds.
If you create content on a regular basis, having such a useful resource at your fingertips will be like having a second brain.
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