Minimum Viable PKM

June 16, 2022

I've recently set up my PKM system, and I'll recommend every knowledge worker to try it out . If you're interested to learn how I get started, you can find it in this post.

The post received some good feedback and I learnt that Personal Knowledge Management system could be overwhelming when you're starting out. This inspired me to think about a 'Minimum Viable PKM' system. The goal of this post is to get you started on your PKM journey, without all the bells and whistles (and rabbit holes).

Your PKM system is a place where you 'create and grow' your knowledge. In this system the inputs comes from the meaningful content you're consuming - books, articles, blogs, podcasts, tutorials, etc. The output on the other hand, could be anything from a PhD thesis to a film script. The usecases for PKM are endless, but I believe the essential setup remains the same.

What do you need to set up your PKM?

  1. Mindset - Most things in life are a function of our mindset, and PKM requires the digital gardener mindset. One needs to be patient, consistent and intentional.
  2. Note-taking app - Most people I know and admire in the PKM world use Obsidian, but you can use any notes app that allows bi-directional linking.
  3. Quick capture inbox - This inbox isn't part of your PKM, but it is a great enabler.
  4. Time - Making notes and growing your knowledge requires time. Therefore, time blocking thirty minutes (or more) everyday for note-making is essential.
  5. Belief - You can't make progress unless you believe in the process!

The above requirements are explained below:

Mindset: - I'll be candid here, if you're someone who always seeks hacks, checklists and action items, this might not be for you. PKM system in my opinion is better suited for those comfortable with the unknown, who value the journey as much as the destination.
My daily meditation practice helped tremendously to develop the PKM mindset. Because cultivating patience, persistence, and compassion are the key outcomes of a daily meditation practice, among many other benefits.
You're overwhelmed with all the information in your life, you can't remember much from the last book you read? Your notes are all over the place, and you want to system to organize them? PKM can definitely help but there are no shortcuts, you need to put in the hours. Once again, sounds very similar to meditation isn't it?

Another way to describe this mindset would be the digital gardener mindset. You can read more about this here.

Note-taking app - The PKM system is mostly tool agnostic, but you need a platform that you enjoy using. I've tried several note-taking apps when I started, and realized there isn't anything like Obsidian. I've documented this journey in my article, and suggest you read this article (focus on the gardener section in the article)

I use Obsidian, and it could be overwhelming for some when you start, but there are enough free tutorials to get you started. The Obsidian community is fantastic, it is one of the biggest reasons I use it. Community ensures there is help and content (and plugins :)) available for both new and power users.

Two more apps that I can recommend are Ulysses and Bear. I won't recommend spending a lot of time discovering the 'perfect note-taking app' though. Try a couple of them, see which works well for you, and commit to it. Many people never go pass this stage, because they'd only work with the 'best notes application'. Don't make that mistake, they're all (mostly) very good apps 🙂

Capture inbox - PKM isn't your one place to dump everything 'interesting', that's your Evernote account or the quick capture inbox. You have to be very mindful of what enters your PKM system. Because, if there is too much going on, it'll feel cluttered, and you'll not feel like spending time inside your PKM.

To avoid this flood of information, I suggest a quick capture inbox. 'Interesting' lives here, but 'interesting and meaningful' goes to PKM. The idea of inbox comes from Getting Things Done, and it helps you work distraction free. Here are some quick capture apps I recommend:
1) Drafts - For Mac and iOS only, I've tried it, and it is amazing
2) Things - For Mac and iOS only, I use it everyday. The 'inbox' in the app helps
3) Joplin - For PC and Mac, as far as I know.

Time - Your digital garden of knowledge and notes, needs time and nurturing. The more consistent you are with your note-making, the more enriched your garden will be. My goal is to spend at-least 30 min every morning inside my PKM. I might not make notes every morning, in fact I haven't made them consistently in the last month or so. Because at this time I've prioritized reading and writing inside my PKM, but the note-making should resume soon. Without note-making this garden can't grow!

Belief - This might sound cliche but I'll still say it - Believe in the Process. There is learning curve to PKM, and you'll experience the value only after a couple of months. To get past the initial phase with a learning curve, and to consistently show up for note-making you'll need belief in this system. You can read 'How to Take Smart Notes' or follow Nick Milo (and other PKM influencers) to feel inspired.

My PKM System Flow

How do you set up your Minimum Viable PKM?

Think about your input system - How will 'meaningful' information flow in your PKM? This is the information you want to interact with and grow. At first everything feels meaningful, but of course it isn't. Capture 'interesting' in your Quick Capture Inbox, and let it sit there. Revisit after a week (or two) and see if its still interesting for you. Ask if it helps you expand your knowledge, it yes, move it into your PKM. In the above flow diagram, I've marked my inboxes.

When starting out protect your PKM from anything that falls outside 'personal knowledge and growth'. People often confuse PKM as their Life OS. For some people PKM should have their notes, minutes of business meetings, journal, task management, ideas repository, and so on and so forth. The more clutter inside your PKM, the less likely you'll make notes. Therefore, be very mindful of what goes inside your PKM. There are dedicated apps for task management, minutes of meetings, kanban boards, etc.

Organizing your PKM system - Every PKM is unique, and the use-cases could change over time. But for a Minimum Viable PKM you can start with the following folders:

  • Permanent Notes/Atomic Notes: All your (original and handcrafted) notes live here.
  • Readwise - This is a default if you read on Kindle and sync it to your notes app. I think this qualifies for literature notes, and it is helpful for referencing.
  • Posts/Newsletters - This is the output, I am writing this post inside my PKM right now. You could have a folder for this if you have a specific output in mind.

Note Making - Note-taking and note-making are very different. While note-taking involves transcribing, highlighting or copy-pasting, note-making is strictly re-writing in your own words. It was difficult when I started because I've never made notes, but it gets easier with time. So what does a note look like?

An evolving 'permanent note' from my PKM

The notes are often called Permanent notes or Atomic Notes or Evergreen notes, and it is one and the same thing.

Connecting notes - This is where the magic happens. When you spend time connecting notes, those neurons in your brain fire-up. Once you start doing this consistently, you're expanding your thinking and becoming smarter 🙂 Wish they taught this in school.

So how do you connect notes? When starting out, you'll need some prompts to build this habit. Here are two prompts to help you:

  1. This is similar to…
  2. This made me think of…

Let's see this in action.

I read about Neuroplasticity in the following books:

  1. Soundtracks
  2. The 12 Week Year

Since I am interested in personal growth, I created a note on it:

The power to physically change our brains by changing our thoughts. Building healthy/wholesome thoughts is crucial, therefore.

The above note made me think of a meditation book I read titled 'A Lifetime Doing Nothing'. This book talked about how 'Buddha confirmed neuroplasticity by looking inside'. I created a new note titled 'Buddha Neuroscientist' and connected it with 'Neuroplasticity'.

A few weeks later, the note 'Buddha Neuroscientist' was connected to 'Addictions' note which said:

According to [[Neuroplasticity]] the more we repeat a thought or an action, the more likely we'll do it again. This explains why addictions are so hard to overcome, and habits so difficult to change.

The more time you spend in note-making the more connections you'll create. Therefore, this process should be always 'work in progress. Notes get updated, edited, and connected frequently as your PKM grows.

Reviewing and Updating Notes: This is where the Digital Gardener mindset will be useful - every note is W.I.P. Don't let the term 'Permanent Note' fool you, it isn't permanent (like everything else)

As mentioned in 'Connecting Notes', notes (and your PKM system) should be regularly edited and connected. Make time to review notes without connections, and see if there something relevant you can connect. Of course, the connection must be logical and shouldn't be forced. Regularly spending time in 'connecting notes' will make you good at it.

This is the 'Minimum Viable PKM', and I believe it should help get someone started and see the value of PKM. Wishing you all the best, feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

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