Search Results for: personal information management

Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Measuring and Evaluating

If it’s too hard to manage our personal information, we won’t do it. We’ll stop viewing our commonplace book as a strategic asset. We’ll descend into the hell of “information overload.”

This is why it pays to reflect on the ways that we practice personal information management (PIM) and measure the results in some meaningful way.


Once per year or so, we can ask:

  • How well are my current tools—analog and digital—actually working for me?
  • Would new tools work better?
  • Am I using my tools in efficient and effective ways? Can I do something differently to save time, money, and effort?
  • Overall, am I managing information to complete projects and connect with people who matter to me?

Do an annual review to answer those questions. The following suggestions—based on the book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management by William Jones—can help.

Use the critical incident technique

Think about the last time that you had a “information breakdown.”

Maybe you spent an hour looking for a lost document or the information you needed to write a short email.

Perhaps you quickly found the information you were looking for but discovered that it was outdated or incomplete.

Or maybe you invested in expensive new app and decided later that it was just too hard to use.

You can get value from such incidents by asking:

  • What information was I trying to find?
  • Where did I look for it?
  • How did I eventually find it?
  • When I found it, was the information useful?
  • Why did I decide to buy that app?
  • What made the app hard to use?
  • What will I do differently to prevent breakdowns in the future?

Use the experience sampling method

For this method of psychological research, participants are reminded to stop at various points in the day to answer questions about what they’re doing at that moment.

You can do this informally to evaluate the ways that you manage information. Take a moment to ask:

  • Am I working with information right now?
  • What exactly am I doing? Finding information? Keeping it? Maintaining it? Managing information flow? Making sense of information and creating something?
  • Am I doing this in a deliberate way—or just coasting on autopilot?
  • How do I feel about what I’m doing? Am I enjoying this? Am I resisting because the activity seems pointless or difficult?
  • What results do I want from this activity?
  • What can I do differently to get better results with less friction?

Reflect on key activities

William Jones breaks PIM down into 6 key activities. They offer another lens for evaluation. Does your system for managing information (tools plus behaviors) help you:

  • Find information efficiently by searching, scanning documents, or both?
  • Keep information easily by capturing it and organizing it for later use?
  • Maintain your system by archiving information that’s not in active use and backing everything up?
  • Manage how much information flows into your life while controlling your privacy and security?
  • Make sense of information by revealing patterns and relationships between ideas?
  • Measure and evaluate your system by collecting data to answer the above questions?

Find a confidant

William Jones studies PIM by asking people to give him a “tour” of their information collections and talk about the ways that they do the above activities. In the process, people get a new perspective on their system and ideas for making it better.

You can do something like this by sharing your PIM practices with other people and asking about theirs.

Before changing your system, consider the costs

Creating a combination of apps, tools, file names, folders, and tags to manage your information will take time. Once you have a system that works for you, stick with it for a while. If you’re ever tempted to change it, weigh the benefits and costs first:

  • Don’t fall for a flashy new “killer app” right away. Ask these questions first. (Trust me on this. I’ve spent entire days moving from one note-taking app to another.)
  • Do trial runs. Many software developers offer trial versions of their apps that you can try for a limited period at no cost.
  • If you do decide to change your system, then do it completely. Set aside a full day to make the transition to a new app or other set of tools. Trying to maintain two competing systems—your old one and the new one—is a one-way ticket to information hell.
  • Remember: the status quo is always an option. True, you might miss out on the latest bells and whistles offered by new tools. But if you’re currently managing information in a way that supports your priorities, then you’re doing well.




Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Making Sense

Keeping a commonplace book allows you to systematically capture the best ideas that come from your reading, conversation, and thinking on many topics. While that alone is worth the effort, there’s an even deeper pleasure that awaits you—making sense of it all.


Take the information you’ve captured and look at it from many angles. Play with it. Massage it. See if you can link ideas in new ways. Look for connections that no one else has seen before.

The result could be a new blog post, book, course, product, service, career, or relationship.

In his book  Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones explains two primary ways of taking isolated pieces of information and making sense of them.

“Top down” methods

One option is to create a hierarchy of ideas with the main topic at the top and supporting details at various levels below it. This is the “top down” approach, and there are many ways to do it.

Mind mapping, for example, is a visual way of showing the links between ideas. It’s useful for brainstorming. To create a mind map, take a blank sheet of paper and write your main topic in the center of the page. Circle it. Then write related topics on “spokes” that radiate outward from the center. For examples, see Brett Terpstra’s posts about mind mapping (starting with How I Mind Map).

Concept mapping is another cool option based on research in cognitive psychology. Concept maps look like mind maps, but the main concept sits at the top of the page instead of the center. And instead of connecting concepts with simple lines, you add words to describe the precise links. For the theory of concept mapping, examples, and a free app, see this website from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.

Of course, there’s always the classic top-down method for organizing ideas—outlining. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the traditional outlining format with forbidding levels of Roman numerals, letters, and number. Any method that allows you to create a hierarchy of ideas will work.

For instance, see Workflowy—a robust online outliner that you can use to organize all your project and reference information. Other online outliners are listed here. And if you’re a Mac user, check out Omni Outliner.

There are tons of other top-down approaches. You’ll get more options from my posts on creating a framework for your ideas and writing a message hierarchy.

“Bottom up” methods

The second sense-making method that Jones recommends is something that you already know how to do. Card sorting is one of them:

  • Write down your ideas on index cards—one card for each idea.
  • Sort the cards into piles—one pile for each set of related cards.
  • When you’re done, survey the piles. Each pile represents a specific category or topic.
  • Place the piles in a logical order. Now you have a rough diagram of the structure for your article, book, or presentation.

This is called a “bottom up” method because the main topics emerge only after you sort through a lot of details. In contrast, a top down method starts with the main topic and proceeds through supporting details.

You can use many tools, both digital and analog, to organize information from the bottom up. For examples, see the literature on affinity diagramming. Also see The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book, Using Your Commonplace Book for Creative Thinking, and Organizing 11,000 Ideas—Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It.

More options

Experiment with all these techniques, use them in combination, and invent methods of your own. Also check out apps that are based on the various methods.

But remember that there’s a lot you can do with tools that already own—paper and pencil, index cards, sticky notes, office software, and the way you set up files and folders on your computer.

Any tool is simply a path to unlocking your potential for making sense of information and thinking creatively.

Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Managing the Flow

One goal of personal information management (PIM) is to have current information on hand to meet a current need. But equally important is making sure that your personal information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands or distract you from doing what matters to you.


In his book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones says that there are three distinct issues to consider here:

  • Managing your personal information as it flows out into the world. This starts with protecting the privacy and security of your passwords, credit card information, and other confidential data. It’s also about attending to the public image of you that’s created by outgoing information, including your presence on social media and other online venues.
  • Managing the information that flows in to your life. You’re out of control here if your in-boxes are overflowing with unread messages, your desktop is strewn with papers, and your computer is filled with files and folders that are disorganized or irrelevant.
  • Staying “in flow” as you use information for personal purposes. We use information in order to create things—anything from a text message to a book manuscript. But completing creative projects requires us to set aside time for deep work without interruptions.

Following are ideas from William Jones about how to deal with these issues.

Manage your personal information as it flows out into the world

There are mean people in the world who want to hack into your bank account and steal your credit card number.

Beyond them is all the information about you that’s managed by government agencies, marketing companies, and corporate IT departments. Every link you click and every character that you type while you’re online can be tracked.

“The best place to exercise control is at the points where information about us (e.g., our credit card number or email address) is about to flow outward,” notes William. For example:

  • Find the privacy settings for apps that you use often and websites that you frequently visit. Determine which settings you can change and their resulting effects.
  • Read the privacy and confidentiality policies adopted by websites and app developers. Buried in the legal jargon you might find mismatches between those policies and your preferences.
  • Control how much personal information you put online, especially on social media websites.
  • Use Ghostery or a similar app that blocks advertising and indentifies who’s tracking your online activity.

Manage the information that flows in to your life

You can cope with incoming streams of email and news with shortcuts, such as skimming rather than reading in depth. But at a certain point, even the shortcuts break down.

The best way to control inflow is at the source—not at the level of individual events (You’ve got mail!):

  • Reduce inputs. Review the number of bookmarks in your web browser, feeds in your RSS reader, and mailing lists that you’ve joined. Delete as many as possible. When choosing sources of information, keep the 80/20 principle in mind.
  • Give up on keeping up. “Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” wrote Richard Saul Wurman in his book about information anxiety. Use your personal interests—not some vague intention about “staying informed” or “keeping up with the news”—as your primary way to filter information.
  • When faced with a decision, don’t force yourself to discover and research all the options. Keep searching only until you reach a satisfactory outcome—for example, finding a qualified person for a job even if you haven’t reviewed all the resumés.

Staying in “flow”

Companies invest heavily in finding ways to capture our attention. That’s the reason for beeps from your appliances, telemarketing calls, online advertisements, pop-up windows, and all those silly noises that your smartphone makes.

Contrast that stimulation with your experiences of being “in the zone” and “flow.” These are times when your attention is so completely absorbed in a task that time disappears. You perform at higher level than usual without a sense of struggle or effort.

You can’t always control the conditions that create flow. But you can take steps to prevent from being pulled out of flow when it happens:

  • Reduce interruptions from others. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t respond to email or text messages. Close the door to your office, studio, or room. Go online only if it’s absolutely necessary for what you’re doing.
  • Reduce self-interruptions. Before you begin a deep work period, get prepared. Assemble all the tools, materials, and information you’ll need to complete your task.

Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Maintaining

Maintaining your personal information collection is a lot like maintaining your car or home. You want to enjoy things for the long-term with the least possible friction.


In personal information management (PIM), this means figuring out ways to:

  • Purge information that’s no longer useful.
  • Organize information for repeated use.
  • Ensure that information is accurate and up to date.
  • Back up information so that you don’t lose it.

In his book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones suggests ways to do all these things.


Personal information management (PIM) is basically about matching information with need and doing what matters to you. With this in mind, review your commonplace book along with the other apps and tools that you use to collect information. How much of what you see there relates to projects that you’ll probably never do? Consider moving that information out of your active files.

Don’t delete that information, however. Simply archive it as reference material. That way you can find it again for possible use in the future.

In addition to reducing the amount of information that you actively use, also reduce the ways that you store it. Use as few formats and organizational schemes as possible. One cross-platform app such as OneNote or Evernote  can handle the bulk of your personal information.

Note the current version of key documents

Skilled writers take their notes and manuscripts through multiple drafts. Consider saving all your drafts—from the roughest beginnings to the final, polished versions.

To stay current and avoid confusion, however, be sure to label the latest version of each document. This can be as simple as adding the word current to the file name.

Use conventional file formats

If you’ve been using computers for as long as I have, then you’ve seen plenty of apps come and go. (Anyone remember Wordstar or Word Perfect?) This is a potent reminder to use apps with file formats that will stick around for more than a few years.

Consider managing your personal information with note cards, paper notebooks, or plain text editors. Chances are good that any software yet to be invented will be able to read plain text.

Another reasonable option is to use apps such as OneNote and Microsoft Word that are established players in the market and frequently updated.

Back it up

You can count on it: Computers break down. Files get lost. Key papers get accidentally trashed. Protect yourself by backing up your key data. Store crucial information digitally and back it up to the cloud, an external hard, drive, or both.


Perhaps you can delegate the management of work-related information to a colleague. At home, you can ask another member of your household to manage specific collections of information, such as personal finances and home maintenance. Maintaining information does not mean that you have to go it alone.

Do a weekly review

This suggestion goes beyond William Jones’s book, but it’s a great way to keep your system current. One of the main uses of PIM is to manage projects, both at work and at home. So, take time once each week to:

  • Empty your in-boxes. Delete items, archive them, take immediate action on them, or write a reminder on your calendar or to-do list to do them later.
  • Review and update your project information—current projects, next actions to take on those projects, and “someday” maybe projects.
  • Review and update your calendar.
  • Write notes about other “stuff” that’s still on your mind—unsolved problems and anything else that’s nagging at you as incomplete or bothersome. Consider turning these items into projects.

For more ideas, see this list from Kelly Forrister.

Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Keeping

Once you find information to meet a specific need, where do you keep it so that you can find it again later?


Perhaps you also collect information that might be valuable in the future, even if you don’t have a use for it right now. So where do you keep that?

Technology gives us countless options for keeping. You can file away information:

  • In a note-taking or writing app
  • As bookmarks in your web browser
  • As archived emails
  • As print-outs stored in file folders

And those are just a few of the options.

In addition, each tool that you use imposes its own way of organizing information. Dealing with these differences can sometimes turn a “simple” task—such as writing an email—into a time-consuming chore. Finding the information you need can mean opening up several apps and sifting through piles of paper documents, all in different versions and formats.

Following are ways to avoid such hassles. They’re a mashup of ideas from Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management by William Jones and Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

Capture ideas on the run

Some of your best ideas will come at random times—while you’re showering, walking, waiting in line, or engaged in some other “unproductive” activity. Make it as convenient as possible to capture those ideas in any context. Keep index cards and pen in a pocket or purse, use a notes app on your smart phone, or find another option.

Inventory your in-boxes

Think about all the places that you temporarily store new information until you can deal with it later. Examples are your:

  • Physical in-box for paper-based documents
  • Voice mail inbox
  • Email in-box
  • Computer desktop
  • Physical desktop
  • Note-taking apps, such Evernote, OneNote, or nvALT

Keep a current list of all your in-boxes. Can you get away with fewer of them?

Also empty your in-boxes at least once per week. For help in doing this, turn to the GTD method—especially the suggestions for processing and organizing.

Collect project information

Remember that the main purpose of PIM is to do what matters most to you. Information is simply a means to that end.

Here’s where you can steal more ideas from GTD:

  • Keep a list of all your current projects—the outcomes that you want to achieve this year.
  • Store information related to each project in a central place, such as a folder on your computer or a note-taking app.
  • In that central place, include references to project information stored elsewhere—for example, emails, paper documents, and calendar entries.
  • Keep track of the very next action you’ll take this week to move each of your projects forward. Note these on a to-do list or calendar.
  • Also keep a list of projects that you’re not committed to yet but would like to consider in the future—a “someday/maybe” list.

Collect reference information

Reference materials include information that you might want in the future, even if it’s not related to a current project. Examples include your personal book collection, legal documents, insurance policies, and contact information for the key people in your life.

“Soft” information—such as collections of inspiring quotes or useful articles on various topics—also function as reference material.

Again, the goal is to keep this information centralized and easy to find:

  • Organize reference information with a “flat” structure. Avoid complex layers of folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders. Instead, create documents and notes with descriptive names, even if they’re long and look a little weird.
  • For an additional level of organization, use tags. You can only place documents within one folder, but you can assign multiple tags to any document. For example, you could tag a book manuscript by status (first, second, or final draft) and by genre (fiction or nonfiction). For more on tagging, see these articles by Brett Terpstra and Ian Beck.
  • Store most of your reference information digitally. Then you can search it by using key words in file names, tags, or both.
  • Use the logical tool. Some reference information is most easily stored in a specific app, such as a contact manager or calendar.
  • Round out your reference collection with a personal “scratch” file. This is a single searchable list of the names, facts, and numbers that you look up most often. Store this information in a single document, using an app that you have open most of the time.

Notice how you look for information

Whenever you find important information, anticipate how you will find it in the future. What are the first places you will look? Based on your answer, how can you store this information for easy finding and later use?

If you know that you’ll need certain information at a specific time, then instruct your future self about how to find it. Send yourself an email message, set a reminder, or enter a note in your calendar.

Pick your battles

Finally, remember that you don’t have to organize all your information. It’s probably not even possible. There comes a time to stop tinkering and just get some sh*t done.


Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Finding

Finding is about looking for information to meet a specific need. For example, you search the web to find a book that you want to read or a hotel room to reserve for your next trip.

Once you’ve found information that meets a need, you store it somewhere. Later, when you want to find that information again, you face an inevitable question: Where did I put it?


Here is where many failures in personal information management (PIM) occur. Most of us can recall times when we wasted hours looking for a letter, email message, contract, or some other lost document.

For ways to avoid such breakdowns, I turn to William Jones, author of Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management. He suggests the following.

Remember where to look

Make a complete inventory of all the places that you find and keep information, at home and at work.  Examples include your:

  • Computers
  • Mobile phone
  • Table
  • Physical in-box
  • Email in-box
  • Voice mail in-box
  • Calendar
  • Desktops
  • File cabinets

Keep a list of your personal in-boxes and update it yearly. Can you reduce or reorganize them to make finding information easier?

Use descriptive names and subject lines

Use long names for digital documents and bookmarks if this makes it easier for you to remember their content. Include all the key words you might use to search for the documents later.

Also fuss over the subject line of emails. Include the main point of the message, the desired response, or both.

Become a power searcher

Learn how to search for files on your computer and other devices by name, kind, and content. Also consider getting a desktop search app that extends the search features built in to your devices.

Analyze breakdowns

When you lose information or spend a lot of time looking for it, take a minute to diagnose the problem. What did you lose? Did you eventually find it? Where? What can you do differently to prevent such breakdowns in the future?

Turn to other people

You might find yourself sifting through piles of paper documents or scrolling through hundreds of emails to find a specific piece of information. Stop and think for a moment. Is there someone you can simply ask for that information?

Choose when to stop looking

Sometimes the information you’re trying to find is optional, not essential. You might have enough on hand to write your article, plan your vacation, or make your purchase—even if you can’t find all the information you originally collected.

This gets us back to a core premise of PIM. Our purpose is not to collect information for its own sake—it’s to get stuff done.

New Paths to Personal Knowledge Management from Tiago Forte

f1iNbCx4_400x400In personal productivity — a field that’s rife with clichés and half-baked content — Tiago Forte offers a new and important voice. His posts are substantive, original, and practical.

I’ve already featured Tiago’s insights on productivity and taking notes for creative thinking. Today I’ll point you to two more recent resources.

First, check out part one of his Evernote podcast on these topics (edited transcript included). I look forward to part two.

Second, listen to Rewriting the Rules of Productivity and Knowledge Management on Rad Reads, a podcast with Khe Hy. Since there’s no transcript for this, I’m sharing the following list of my personal take-aways from this interview.

Skip motivation

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system for “stress-free productivity” is not based on personal inspiration or ramping up your motivation. Instead, GTD is practical and grounded. It’s based on tasks — such as making lists — that you already know how to do.

Move from prescriptions to principles

The path to mastery begins with following instructions and copying the behavior of an expert. The challenge here is that you don’t always see deeply into that person’s workflow. Eventually you simplify the expert’s system by focusing on what you need to learn at any given moment, and by grasping the underlying principles.

The ultimate purpose of any system such as GTD is to work itself out of a job. Over time you internalize the principles so deeply and implement them so often that it all becomes second nature.

Start with core GTD principles

First, develop the “collection habit”: Instead of keeping ideas and reminders in your head, write them down. Use paper or a note-taking app for this purpose.

Second, take the items  that you’ve collected and figure out what they mean. In particular, group them into lists of desired outcomes and the next actions you’ll take to produce those outcomes.

Be sure to separate these two tasks, however. Trying to do them at the same time leads to breakdowns.

Expand GTD with personal knowledge management (PKM)

GTD does not say much about managing reference information — such as notes and works in progress — to achieve creative breakthroughs. For this we can turn to the new field of PKM.

PKM recognizes that each of us monitors a continuous stream of information from many sources of our own choosing, both analog and digital. We need ways to organize and retrieve that information for timely insight and action.

In effect, each of us manages an individualized library of information. We are personal library scientists.

PKM appeals to a psychographic rather than a demographic

Tiago offers a course in PKM called Building a Second Brain. The people who take this course come from many age groups and professions. Their common ground is a desire to think creatively in a structured way — in short, design thinking. These folks worry about where to place their attention and how to turn relevant information into creative breakthroughs.

Job mobility mandates PKM

In the days of lifetime employment at a single company, PKM was not needed. The employee’s knowledge and the company’s knowledge largely overlapped.

Today the average job tenure for people ages 25 to 40 at a job is about 2.3 years. In the old days, that was your onboarding period!

This calls on each of us to curate information for lifelong learning. We need a robust collection of personalized and useful information to take from job to job.

PKM has three pillars

First, capture information with progressive summarization. Take notes to capture information from any source. Then condense that information into a series of shorter and shorter summaries.

Look for the semantic triggers — key words and phrases — in every paragraph of your notes. Boldface those words. Then highlight a subset of those.

Don’t worry about creating summaries on a fixed schedule. Just summarize on the fly whenever you review your notes.

Second, organize all the information you collect by PARA.  This is an acronym that stands for Projects, Areas of responsibility, Resources, and Archives. These categories are not static; they are flows. Your notes will move between categories as appropriate.

Third, retrieve information on a “just-in-time” basis. Tiago presents simple, informal methods for project management that are based the theory of constraints.

The goal of all this activity is to clear your head. Instead of relying on memory, you offload information into an external system. Then you retrieve information in a way that’s useful to you in the future.

Tagging does always not work well for this, by the way. Tags that make sense to you today can become unclear or irrelevant over time. If you tag, supplement this practice with organizing by PARA.

PKM and creativity work together

Many of us have culturally-based stereotypes about creative people: We assume that they are chaotic thinkers and chronically disorganized.

In reality, artists can be highly organized. And CEOs can be highly creative.

“Inbox zero” only lasts until your next email

The attempt to keep your email inbox at zero often promotes guilt. Another option is to see email like Twitter — as a continuous stream of information to monitor. It is not a “bucket” or “container” to “empty.” Dip into email periodically to retrieve and act on what’s relevant in the moment.

Note: This approach requires a good GTD system. Develop the habits of capturing ideas and clarifying them as outcomes and next actions. Use a “read later” app for articles that you don’t consume immediately.

Behold the generalist

Being a freelancer used to mean monetizing a specialty — a specific skill and knowledge base. Today, self-employed people can be entrepreneurs with a portfolio of various products and services. The challenge here is to create a personal identity that is fluid, flexible, and not fully defined by your work.

Solving “Information Overload”—Matching Information With Need and Making It Personal

My previous post described what’s really behind “information overload.” It’s not about quantity—that is, too much information. It’s about quality. Information is a burden only when it lacks context or becomes inaccessible—incomplete, unorganized, or outdated.

This is hardly a new problem. In the early twentieth century, Paul Otlet invented the card catalog system—adopted by libraries around the world—as a solution.

Vannevar Bush, author of As We May Think, envisioned another one in 1945:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Today the memex actually exists. I call it a commonplace book—a system for collecting and storing information that’s centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained.

A commonplace book can take many physical forms. People such as Ryan Holiday fill a box full of index cards. Others prefer to write by hand in a bound journal. And others use an app such as Evernote or OneNote to create a digital, searchable collection of notes.

book_cover_smallAs it turns out, there’s a whole body of knowledge about how to effectively create and maintain a commonplace book—personal information management (PIM). William Jones, author of Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management defines PIM as:

… the practice and the study of the activities a person performs in order to acquire or create, store, organize, maintain, retrieve, use and distribute the information needed to meet life’s many goals (everyday and long-term, work-related and not) and to fulfill life’s many roles and responsibilities (as parent, spouse, friend, employee, member of community, etc.).

In essence, PIM is about matching information with need and making it truly personal.

Matching information with need

“One ideal of PIM is that we always have the right information in the right place, in the right form, and of sufficient completeness and quality to meet our current need,” notes William Jones.

The need can be small, such as finding the phone number for someone we want to call. It can be large, such as managing all the information needed to make a career change. Or it can be anything in between.

William reminds us that “we manage our information so that we can manage our lives.”

When we’re skilled at PIM, we seldom waste time looking for information that’s lost. We have the information on hand that we need to solve problems, make decisions, and achieve goals.

This is the ultimate context for the information we manage. PIM is not essentially about using any particular set of tools—apps, notebooks, or index cards. It’s about completing the projects and connecting with the people that matter to us.

Making information truly personal

Consider for a moment all the concrete ways that information shows up in your life, such as:

  • Documents, digital and paper-based
  • Photos, digital and paper-based
  • Music in CDs or MP3 files
  • Videos in any format
  • Books, printed and digital
  • Emails
  • Notes stored on paper or in a note-taking app
  • Bookmarks in web browsers
  • Articles saved in a “read later” app such as Pocket or Instapaper
  • Social media updates

Add all of this together and you have something that William calls a personal space of information. “We inhabit this space as surely as we inhabit a physical space, he writes, and it “affects the way we are seen, categorized, and treated by others.”

With the Internet, our information spaces can extend across the world. They overlap with the information spaces of millions of other people.

William states that “PIM is about extending our control, or at least our influence, out over this sea of personal information. We will never have perfect control. We do what we can. And most of us can do much more than we’re doing now.”

PIM is worthwhile because we want to protect our privacy and security in the online world.

But we also practice PIM in order to create a personal information collection. Steven Berlin Johnson captured this beautifully in a New York Times article:

There’s a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library [commonplace book]. When you’re freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated there’s something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking.

What is “Information”? (Part Two)

In part one of this series, I defined information as data plus context. This is key for anyone interested in personal information management. After all, we want to know exactly what we’re managing when we create a commonplace book.

But when it comes to understanding things, what lies beyond information? The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid offers two answers.

The layer immediately above information in the DIKW Pyramid is knowledge.

And on top of knowledge lies wisdom.


Knowledge emerges when we see information in multiple contexts.

Consider a JPEG file that displays a red edible thing that grows on vines. This data becomes information when we say, “I recognize that—it’s a tomato.” That’s one level of context.

When we label the tomato as a fruit, we add another level.

We could add many more contexts, increasing our knowledge with each one.

It is knowledge that allows us to teach. The best teachers operate from a crucial context: they remember what it’s like not to know something. They can take concepts and processes and explain them to a novice—someone who has none of that knowledge.

Ironically, we can only manage knowledge through information. We share knowledge through text, images, audio and video. All of those are tangible things that we can format, store, search, copy, and distribute.

This is why I avoid the term “personal knowledge management” and talk about “personal information management” instead.


Wisdom is the pinnacle of the DIKW Pyramid. Wisdom arises when we have so many contexts that we can apply our knowledge in new ways and novel situations.

We have concepts for explaining concepts.

We have processes for using processes.

We also have values — understanding not just how to do things but why they are worth doing in the first place.

What we understand at the level of wisdom is intimate and private. It recedes into a world beyond words and images that’s been described as “enlightenment.”

So, how do we share wisdom? Consider the example of the Buddha. When he taught the Four Noble Truths, he didn’t even try to define “nirvana” (the end of suffering). Instead, he described the path to nirvana. He gave a set of instructions for ethical behavior and meditation. People who follow these instructions can experience nirvana first-hand.

The paradox is that instructions are information. While wisdom and knowledge are abstract and private, information is concrete and public.

That’s the big context for personal information management.

What is “Information”? (Part One)

I’m fascinated by commonplace books as tools for personal information management. But what is it that we’re actually managing?

What is “information”?

I’ve discovered a framework for answering this question. It’s called the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid. This is not an intellectually air-tight concept. Yet it does make distinctions that promote clear communication and crap detection.


The bottom layer of the DIKW Pyramid consists of data. Data includes raw symbols or facts that are presented without context.

Think of the random sequences of 1s and 0s that fill your computer’s hard drive. That is data. It’s meant to be read by a machine—not by you.

We can also understand data in a larger sense. Think about all the factoids thrust at you via the daily news. Much of this is actually data that’s masquerading as information.

For example, many of us feel more afraid of traveling by airplane rather than car. Yet your risk of dying in a car crash is much greater than dying from a plane crash. The sensational coverage of plane crashes—full of isolated facts—makes it easy to forget this. As a result, our cognitive biases kick in and we feel afraid.

It’s no wonder that Richard Saul Wurman—author of Information Anxiety describes the news as “violent wallpaper.” He also cautions us to remember something about isolated facts and figures: “If it does not inform, it can’t be information.”


When we make the leap from data to information, we land on the next layer of the DIKW Pyramid. Data turns into information when you add a missing piece—context.

You know you have context when the data turns into a message. For instance, the following is data:


Let’s organize that data:

Doug Toft, 333 Main Street, Minneapolis, MN 55000-0012

Now we have information. We format that initial string of alphanumeric characters into something that we recognize — a name and address. That’s data + context.

Another example: Look at a spreadsheet filled with raw data about a company’s quarterly revenues. Now put those figures in context: “In the third quarter of this year, sales increased.” That’s information.

Information has been defined as “the difference that makes a difference.” In short, information leads to change. It reduces uncertainty and answers questions. It helps us make decisions. Armed with information, we become different people in a different world.

Also remember that information is a thing. It’s tangible. Information is something that we can store, search, copy, and distribute. It exists in analog form as documents printed on paper. It also exists in digital form as web pages, email messages, images, podcasts, and videos.

Ironically, information also exists as data—text files, MP3 files, audio files, and the like. We turn that data into information by formatting it, organizing it, tagging it, copying it, sending it, and even deleting it. Data that we “touch” becomes information.

We’ve still got two more layers of the DIKW Pyramid to go—knowledge and wisdom. That’s for my next post.