It's the information age. There's too much to learn, see, do, watch, read, etc. How do we handle it all? How do we manage this flood of information? How do we free ourselves from this madness while creating space to thrive? Forget just getting a handle on things, can we somehow capture all that needs to get done and all that we find interesting in a way which propels our careers and our lives forward?
Imagine having a living repository of your knowledge that gets exponentially more powerful as it grows. Imagine knowing exactly what to do when you wake up in the morning. Imaging having a place where you can connect ideas with seemingly unrelated concepts to form novel insights. Imagine a place you could turn to and instantly have content to write about or at the very least review for your own learning.
This is where personal knowledge management (PKM) and task management systems come to help. For the past 10+ years I've been taking notes in largely the same way. Similar to learning how to write well, note taking and organizing your notes are likely something you don't pay much attention to. But with a little effort it can greatly enhance your productivity and the value provided by your notes.
Over the past few months I've done a deep dive into the world of PKM. I've taken the core principles from several popular PKM methods, merged it with David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) task management system, and my existing workflows. The result of this work is a powerful and simple system to capture and prioritize tasks as well as organize, reflect, and learn from anything useful I come across.
Part 1 here will provide some background on the topic of PKM and task management, while part 2 will examine the core principles and provide my new unified framework for both.
What is GTD, PKM, Second Brain, etc?
There are many different organization systems out there. But a lot of them share some core principles that I’ll point out later and which form the core of my personal system. These systems fall into two categories:
- Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)
- Task Management
Personal Knowledge Management
PKM systems are a method of collecting information and organizing it in someway with the purpose of externalizing your learned knowledge. These tools help us in the learning process. Think of your notebooks in school. They are focused on facts, principles, and ideas. I recently read two books on this topic which really capture the essence of PKM from slightly different angles.
How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens describes the Zettlekasten system. Zettlekasten is a German word that means slipbox. It is a concept popularized by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmanm who credits his slipbox for the more than 70 books and 400 articles written over his career.
The way a Zettelkasten works is you capture any notes to some inbox. Then you create either a reference note or a permanent note in your slipbox for it. Reference notes are things you learn from a book, podcast, blog, etc and re-write into your own words. Permanent notes are a single idea you have that could come from a reference note or a combination of ideas. But after you write a permanent note, you need to consider all your previous permanent notes in the slipbox and link the new one to any existing ones that are related.
The benefits here are significant. You don’t have folders or categories, ideas and larger works are built from the bottom-up. Wherever you have deep clusters of notes that are related. You also can really enhance your understanding by re-writing ideas in your own words and then reflecting on what that means given the context of your existing notes.
The other book, Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte, offers a slightly different PKM approach but there are many similarities. Second Brain starts with a capture system. It then requires a period of distilling your notes down to what’s most interesting to you. And finally organizing it via the PARA Method. This means to sort your notes by project, area (ie. a never ending project like parenting, finances, health..), resources (similar to reference in the Zettelkasten), and archives (stuff you aren’t working on anymore).
Task management systems are the to do lists. They tell you what to work on next given your goals and priorities. I didn’t do much work here recently as I’ve been pretty happy following some of the core concepts from the foundational Getting Things Done by David Allen (GTD).
I don’t follow the full GTD system but as with anything in life, take what works for you. The GTD system has a concept of an inbox where you quickly write down anything you need to address later. As you process your inbox you decide if something can be done in a few minutes, then you do it now. Otherwise you put it on a to do list. I have a list of things to do and a list of someday/maybe to do. These lists are organize by project, similar to how PARA organizes things.
Each project I am working on has one task that is clearly labeled next action. This is the task I am currently working on. By highlighting the clear next step, it’s easy to context switch and pick this work back up later.
My Previous Task + PKM System
For the past 10 years I’ve lived in the world of Google docs with a folder structure pretty close to PARA before knowing what that was. I had a loose idea of health, wealth (ie. career), and relationships as how to organize things by area. With a separate folder called projects that were more ephemeral projects with clear end states.
I used an e-mail inbox as my inbox for things to do later. I like this way of capturing ideas since it’s easy to do and most of my focus time happens when I am in front of the computer. So I have the time to think, reflect, and make decisions on how to handle things in my inbox.
I sometimes use Trello to assist with larger projects like writing my book and managing this blog. Having different swim lanes helps balance writing ideas and operational tasks.
However, my notes in this system were very strictly organized by folder. And I was starting to feel the pain of not being able to find things, not knowing where to put new things, and rarely looking at old notes. The Zettelkasten promised to solve this for me and turn a mountain of notes into a super power.
In part 2, I’ll share the core components and principles from these various PKM and Task management systems so that you can build your own robust way of handling information and tasks. I’ll provide my new system that combines the best of these various approaches.