David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, describes himself as “the laziest person I’ve ever met.” However, he defines lazy as “making something happen with as little effort as possible.” This isn’t sloth — it’s meeting your goals while having fun along the way.
I like to approach personal knowledge management (PKM) in this spirit. Let’s make it as easy and enjoyable as possible without sacrificing quality. I suggest some ways to streamline the process in Knowledge Management Made Simple — Six Things You Can Stop Doing With Your Notes App. Following are more ideas.
1 Choose a notes app that makes it easy to capture information
One core skill in PKM is capturing ideas on the run — no matter when and where they occur to you. Some people carry a pen and pocket-sized notebook for creating quick notes in the midst of any activity. Voice memo apps and mobile versions of notes apps also work well for this purpose. In fact, I always leave the Notes app on my iPhone open.
If you choose a notes app, strongly consider one with a “Web clipper.” This feature allows you to capture the contents of a Web page with a single click and save it as a note. (Take a look at how Evernote, OneNote, and Bear do this.)
With Evernote and OneNote you can also forward emails to your notes app.
2 If it feels interesting, capture it
Deciding what information to capture and what to ignore is a huge potential source of friction. You can easily end up with a long list of criteria for what to save — a list that’s hard to remember let alone apply.
As in, “that resonates with me.” We know from neuroscience research that “emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking.” Often, when something “resonates” with us, it is our intuitive/right brain/System 1 mind telling us something is valuable before our analytical/left brain/System 2 mind even knows what’s going on….
In fact, I very often find that the most counterintuitively insightful pieces of information I save are the ones whose practical application is initially the least clear. My intuition tells me there’s something special about what I’m seeing or hearing, and only much later does the logic become clear.
Tiago gives an example: While driving and listening to Tim Ferriss’s interview with Brené Brown on vulnerability, he heard some ideas that resonated with him on a gut level. So he pulled off the road to park his car for a moment and create this note.
“I have no idea what vulnerability has to do with my work on productivity and innovation,” Tiago adds, “but I’m 100% sure I will find a connection eventually.”
3 Keep a shallow hierarchy of notes
Some apps allow you to group individual notes into deep hierarchies — folders, subfolders, sections, subsections, pages, and subpages. For me this is overkill. Hierarchies that you have to expand and collapse are invitations to needless complexity.
I like to open up my notes app and see all the major categories at a glance. This makes it much easier to file individual notes and move them around between notebooks.
You can do a lot with just three big categories for your notes:
- Inbox — a place to stash quick-capture notes for later review and filing.
- Projects — notes relating to any outcome that requires more than one action to achieve. This is the classic definition of project in David Allen’s Getting Things Done Finishing a blog post, article, book manuscript, or video script is a project. Giving a presentation, changing careers, and starting a business are projects. Perhaps, as Scott Berkun suggests, everything in life is a project. (Scott Belsky agrees.) So it makes sense to process any note by asking: To what project does this belong? Set up a separate “bucket” (document, folder, section, notebook) for notes about each project in your life, both professional and personal.
- Archives — notes that are worth keeping even if they’re not tied to a project. Examples include lists of professional contacts, financial records, checklists for recurring events in your life, book summaries, and full-text articles that you find valuable. Set up another bucket titled archives or reference for these notes.
For an interesting and useful variation, See Tiago Forte’s posts about his P.A.R.A. system (Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives).
4 Use fewer tools
You can manage a lot of information with just three tools:
- Paper and pen stored in a pocket or purse for capturing ideas on the run (alternative: a cell phone with a notes app)
- A calendar for scheduling appointments and due dates
- A notes app for any other information you want to save
In a summary of Getting Things Done, Josh Kaufman describes his tool set:
Personally, I use a notebook for active tasks, a 3×5 index card in that notebook for projects, the calendar on my computer, someday/maybe and reference files in Backpack and Evernote or physical files, and my 3×5-sized wallet for my capture device.
I offer this suggestion in the spirit of Frank Chimero’s perspective on tools: “Text editor, spreadsheet, email, pencil, paper, Photoshop. OK. That’s enough,” he says:
Everything that’s made has a bias, but simple implements — a hammer, a lever, a text editor — assume little and ask less. The tool doesn’t force the hand. But digital tools for information work are spookier. The tools can force the mind, since they have an ideological perspective baked into them. To best use the tool, you must think like the people who made it. This situation, at its best, is called learning. But more often than not, with my tools, it feels like the tail wagging the dog.
List the tools — both analog and digital — that you currently use to manage projects and reference information. Can you eliminate any?
5 Keep your work flow simple
You can empty any inbox with notes, emails, or paper documents by doing one of the following:
- Deleting items (tossing it in the trash)
- Archiving items for later reference
- Doing a follow-up action immediately (especially if it will only take a couple minutes)
- Scheduling a follow-up action on your calendar (for date-sensitive items)
- Listing — adding items to your projects list, next actions (to-do list), or “bucket list” of things you might like to do in the future
Josh Kaufman offers another useful perspective: Getting Clean, Current, and Complete — 4 Ways to Empty Your In-Box.
6 Name notes for easy finding
This is an exercise in metacognition — monitoring the ways that you think. The basic question is: When I search for this note in the future, what key words will I use? Put those words in the title of the note.
For more specific suggestions, see Never Lose An Idea — Naming Notes to Find Them Later.
7 Focus on fun
Above all, adopt a playful mindset to making notes and creating your personal knowledge base. Fire up your notes app for a few minutes and cruise through it with no special purpose in mind. When you see a notebook or note title that catches your eye, open it up. Surface ideas at random. Cultivate serendipity. Follow the trails and see where they lead.
This is one of the benefits of externalizing your knowledge as an organized collection of notes. All those gems of information are stored outside your head in a second brain. They’re safely tucked away and ripe for exploration.