In part 1, we introduced some popular PKM and task management frameworks. Now I’ll share the overlapping core principles between these systems and how to combine them into a single system for managing knowledge and tasks.
Anything useful should be adapted to your specific needs and preferences. Keep these core principles in mind when you customize your system. These principles can help you make decisions on the specifics you implement.
Keep it Simple
The tools and processes should be easy to use and follow. The system shouldn’t over complicate things. The purpose of all this is to make you more productive and effective. Anything that starts to take away from that end state should be cut. Keep things simple and worry about being mostly right. In other words, don’t create a perfect or optimal system. Focus on the important things and iterate over time.
Focus on Understanding
This is specific to your PKM, not your tasks. The whole point of your PKM is to enhance your understanding. It’s a tool for learning. The way we learn from our PKM is to:
- Re-write notes into your own words
- Spend time reading and reflecting on notes you have written
- Make connections between a new note and your existing notes
These steps are both covered by the Zettelkasten and Second Brain. The details of how you implement a PKM don’t matter as much. What matters is that you are using your PKM to support learning and understanding.
Organize by Type of Note, Not Topic
Part of the magic with a Zettelkasten is you don’t know where it will lead. By connecting seemingly unrelated topics you can form novel insights that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Rather than starting a project by brainstorming an outline or a topic to write about, you simply turn to your notes and see what concepts have the most notes clustered or linked to.
In other words, you should resist the urge to make folders and organize by topic and subtopics. This top-down organizational approach was likely instilled in us from textbooks and schooling where everything is nicely divided into units, modules, chapters, and subsections.
The only folders you should have in your PKM are those that help distinguish the type of note that folder contains. Inside that folder everything should be on the same level so you can easily stumble across old notes and form connections with new notes.
It all starts with capturing notes, ideas, and thoughts throughout the day as they come. You need an easy and quick way to capture these things in the moment and send them somewhere to process later.
I have a shortcut on my phone that will open an email already addressed to my alternate email address that I use as my notes inbox. Then every morning when I get to my computer I process the notes in there. Some are tasks that get added to my Next Actions or Ideas lists, and some are interesting notes that get added to my Zettelkasten notes.
When capturing, you should have the mindset of a curator. You don’t want to capture everything just capture what resonates with you. Capturing should be easy and quick to do. Then make it a habit to process your inbox daily or at least weekly to put things where they belong.
The key to a good capture system is to make it frictionless to capture and then follow up with a process of systematically reviewing your inbox.
Task & Project Management
I’m largely keeping the Getting Things Done approach I’ve built up over the years. Using a combination of Google Docs and Trello, I have separate docs/boards per area and project. Projects are considered work that has a clear end state. Areas are focus areas that never end, like finances and house maintenance. This is basically the PARA approach to organization.
For each area I have only two lists. The Now or Next Actions list, which is the 1 or 2 tasks I have to do next for this area. The other list is the maybe/ someday/ ideas lists. This list captures all the ideas of things I think would be nice to do or interesting to try but are not as important, at least not yet. These ideas get captured here so my brain can let go of them but I do not act on them. Oftentimes there is just not enough time to do everything you’d like for a project, so these maybe/someday lists usually do not get done. Occasionally, I’ll pull from there and move something into Next Actions.
They key here is to capture all ideas somewhere so your mind is free to let go of it and think os something new. It’s also important to know what you need to do next. By having a clear place for your tasks and next actions, context switching becomes easier.
Personal Knowledge Management
This is where the learning and writing happens. I am now fully converted to using a Zettelkasten for my notes. This is a big change from Google Docs that were organized in different folders by topic. In that world, I hardly ever encountered old notes or thought to link things. Everything was also organized by preconceived folder structures. It had become unwieldy and not offered much benefit other than capturing notes the first time.
Now I use a Zettelkasten. I try to stay true to the core concepts that make a Zettelkasten powerful without worrying too much about any other rules.
The bare minimum you need for a Zettelkasten is the following:
- A folder called Notes. This is where you store all your permanent notes that you’ve reflected on and written in your own words. Notes can and should try to be linked to other notes.
- A folder called Reference Notes. This folder can be organized by the medium you’ve encountered the note (ie. Books, Podcasts, Articles). Here you capture the note either from your inbox or Kindle highlights for example. You write down an bibliography information on the source. And then you re-write the idea in your own words.
Now there are some rules on how to get the most of a Zettelkasten but in the spirit of keeping it simple and doing what works for you, I’ve adapted the rules to fit my workflow. In my opinion, as long as you are doing the big things right like using your Zettelkasten as a space to capture, think, reflect, and link notes together then the details of how you organize it or what tool you use do not matter as much.
A few extra things I have in my Zettelkasten that I guess are technically not part of it but just are folders next to the main two Zettelkasten folders above, are:
- Projects folder. Here I keep notes that are only useful for the relevant projects. Brainstorms, outlines, thoughts of things to try. These are not permanent or reference notes but just often a place to think through writing on a specific project.
- Journals folder. My monthly reflections or occasional ad-hoc brain dumps where I use writing as way to think through something. I put these in my Zettelkasten now and sometimes after writing, I’ll re-read the journal entry and find a nugget or two that can be extract out into a permanent note or into a to do item for my task management system.
- Tech Notes. This is specific to my work as a software engineer. I had always kept a long running Google Doc separated by headers with various code snippets, commands, shortcuts, and other little bits of information that will help my development workflow. I’ve since started migrating this to my Zettelkasten but I use a naming structure as described in A Hierarchy First Approach to Note Taking.
There is a wealth of information on how to use a Zettelkasten and what the best app is, what templates to use, what plugins, etc. I am not going to get into much more here. Just remember to keep it simple. Do what works for you. The main benefits of the Zettelkasten come from you taking time to reflect, re-write, and think about the notes you are taking. You also get benefits by reviewing your existing notes and trying to determine where to link any new notes. Finally, you have a single place to put everything and it becomes more powerful as it grows and links.
To implement a full task and knowledge management system, keep the core principles in mind and set up the following:
- Establish a lightweight process for capturing thoughts/ notes/ ideas.
- Process these captured notes from your inbox on some regular cadence.
- Task Management
- Have a list of tasks to do organized by Project or Area.
- Separate these tasks into 1 or 2 next actions and the rest as a some day/maybe.
- Knowledge Management
- Pick a note taking app. Make two folders, Notes and Reference Notes.
- Any information you capture from an external source gets written into a Reference Note.
- Upon reviewing your notes, any ideas or insights you frame into your own words or that really resonate with you, rewrite the core idea into a single permanent note in your Notes folder. Try to link these permanent notes if they are related.
- Optionally, create separate folders outside of the Zettelkasten to capture project related thoughts or journal entries. Review these for insights and tasks.
- Just get started and know that you can continually adjust going forward. Change can be slow and awkward in the beginning but things that stick around are worth investing in. So don’t be afraid to try new things and keep what’s working.
Perfect is the enemy here. Keep it simple.
The point of all this is:
- Task Management - capture ideas so we know what to do next without effort.
- Knowledge Management - capture what’s useful and to understand by reflecting, writing in your own words, and reviewing.
I hope you find this useful!
For additional information check out the following: