A picture of desktop setup. The general color is dark, with a bit of red in the background. There are two screens and a phone standing in the desktop, with headphones thrown over the table. In the screens we can see some code and applications.

Choosing a future proof PKM application

In the previous article, “How do I approach personal knowledge management“, we laid the groundwork for using a system capable of helping us organize the flow of information we receive in a daily basis in the form of tasks, projects, references, articles, among many others, with the correct approach. There, we concluded that a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system should be used for organization, intentional decision-making, and personal growth, and not just to appear more productive.

This brings us to the second aspect of the discussion: What tools exist, and which ones should I use to achieve manage my information? If you’re starting from scratch, even using a notebook to jot down daily tasks, ideas as they come to you, and anything relevant you’d like to remember later would be a significant step forward. Although I would always recommend that the organization method you use be your own, based on your specific and organically grown needs, I also believe that if you don’t know where to start, a look into Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method could help you out.

However, if you already have some understanding of PKM, if you’re already using an application but don’t feel comfortable with it, or even if you’re taking notes in a notebook but want to explore what digital applications have to offer in this regard, look no further, you’ve come to the right article. Here, we’ll recap the most used applications in the PKM world today, and we’ll also tell you at the end which one to choose, and why.

Understanding the proliferation of information management applications

In the market for applications capable of assisting us with setting up and running an information management system, there are dozens of options to choose from, although a select group stands out (I’m talking about Notion, Evernote, Obsidian, and Roam Research).1

But why so many? Well, they all have some flaw for some group of people, and the demands of this group, or their own initiative, then opens up the possibility of another application being born. For example, the four applications mentioned earlier are closed-source (proprietary), so there is a market for people who want open-source ones. Thus, AppFlowy, Joplin, Anytype, and Logseq have emerged, respectively, as alternatives.2

Proprietary Software vs. Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLaOSS)

There are people for whom if the application works correctly, it’s well-designed, syncs across all their devices, and has an active community on the internet to help you out, that’s more than enough.

However, there are others who take into account a series of stricter parameters, among which the following stand out:

  • The application has to be free (as in freedom) software,3 or at least open source, to ensure that the marketing corresponds to reality.
  • All information must reside on our computers, not just on a server over which we have no control.
  • Information must reside in our file system in a format that is easily understandable, organized, and allows for migrating our notes to another service without sacrifices.
  • All information must be encrypted, so that no one else but us can access it.
  • It must be free (as in money), so that there is no subscription barrier between our notes and us. Imagine not being able to continue paying for a service at some point, as you would lose access to everything you’ve created in it.
  • It must have native applications that are not based on technologies like Electron,4 for example.

Personally, I believe that, depending on where you stand on the spectrum of proprietary software versus free/libre software, you will add or remove elements from the above list as requirements for your selection. But what I would recommend avoiding at all costs is using a recurring payment service because this way we are putting our information, notes, and work in general into applications that, if we cannot afford a subscription, generally a expensive one, take away immediate access to them.

Selecting a future-proof application

There isn’t one. They will all disappear sooner or later in the future. For this reason, there are people who prefer to organize information in txt files on their own computers, but I am aware that this is a method that most of us would never choose, and those who do it know what they are doing, so I will not consider it in the development of the subsequent analysis. At this point, the question then is: how can we choose one that will serve us for a long time?

I think that by choosing one of the main ones, whether it’s free software or not, but with a project supported by the backing of a subscription service or a community that supports it financially, we should ensure a good amount of time to work with them. Consider that most of the software you use today didn’t exist just a few years ago, and it’s possible that within a few more years it will also disappear, replaced by better alternatives. The good news is that, to break into the market and be able to displace what already exists, you have to offer users an easy way to migrate their notes to your platform, so in that sense, we should be covered.

Here the approach that should be applied is to use the tool that serves us best in the present and not worry so much about what may happen to it in the future. Or does anyone worry about what will happen to Microsoft Office in the future, and just because it may disappear, they don’t use it today, for example.5

A quick search on the Internet about information (or knowledge) management will lead you to very successful people who use the applications that generate the most allergy in those who lean more towards free software and the selection of an application that will last 40 years. Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain (Evernote, Notion), Ali Abdaal’s Feel Good Productivity (Notion), and Nick Milo’s Linking Your Thinking (Obsidian) are just some examples of these people, and their methods.

There will always be the perennial argument of “What if tomorrow the company goes out of business, disappears, or makes a very drastic change in its policies? Or what if for some reason it decides to block your account?” And yes, of course, I cannot imagine waking up one day and having years of work disappear for any of those reasons. But it also remains floating, omnipresent, the fact that such events are extremely rare, almost akin to losing all the information due to a computer crash, or accidentally deleting it. Keep in mind that people like the three mentioned in the above paragraph run their businesses on these types of applications, perhaps even more efficiently and enjoyably than others who opt for the use of tools that promise eternal life.

Then, are those who choose Notion over Anytype making a mistake, with the latter being open-source and E2EE while Notion is not? Or those who choose Anytype over Obsidian, with Obsidian being able to keep notes in a format readable by a text editor and Anytype not? Or those who choose Obsidian over Emacs because the former uses Electron and Emacs is native? Or those who use Vi over Emacs because the latter is bloated and Vi is lighter and simpler? And so on until we reach the starting point: pen and paper. But of course, what if companies stop producing pencils? Well, there will already be someone, preparing for that moment, who has started writing on stones.

Application selection criteria: How to choose the right note-taking tool

In my post “Final thoughts on the series BASB with Emacs and Obsidian“, I explain that in addition to the four categories proposed by Tiago Forte, namely Architect (Notion), Gardener (Roam), Librarian (Evernote), and Student (Apple Notes), there is also a significant influence from the type of work you do. For example, if you spend your day programming and use Emacs, it’s logical to use Denote or Org-roam for note-taking and Org-Mode capabilities for organization, as it doesn’t make sense to leave the efficient ecosystem you’ve built over time. But if, on the other hand, you’re a medical doctor, it doesn’t make sense to use the aforementioned tools because they are somewhat complex for your needs.

My recommendation for the general public: opt for Notion

Taking all of the above into account and my own experience over the past few years, I would recommend using Notion. However, I acknowledge that Notion has several disadvantages, such as notes not residing on your computer, which means you need to be connected to the internet to access the content, it’s proprietary software, and what you write in it is not encrypted. For this reason, if you’re not comfortable with these negative characteristics, you can use Anytype, which is very similar but younger and with many fewer features. The latter is what I personally use.

In Anytype, notes reside on your computer, although they can be easily synchronized with your phone, and they are always encrypted. The downside is that it doesn’t have as many features yet as Notion.

But if even Anytype seems invasive to your privacy and control over your notes, you can try AppFlowy. It has fewer features than Anytype, and consequently than Notion, but it still manages to fulfill its function. (See links to their websites in the footnotes).

Why this recommendation

Of course, this is a personal recommendation. But I think it’s better to be straightforward with it rather than saying that all applications have advantages and disadvantages and that you should try them all until you find one that suits you. While all of them have their pros and cons, what they have in common is that they are equally capable, in one way or another, of helping out as an information management system, with all the basic and necessary features required to do so.

I choose this style of application because I believe they allow us to have everything we’re working on in sight. Whether we look at the sidebar or create a dashboard page, we’ll always be able to see on a large scale everything we’re dedicating our time to currently, and consequently correct what needs to be corrected and work on what interests us most at any given moment. Simply put, in them, links, objects, everything in general seems more familiar, more tangible, than just writing text every day and hoping it will appear in the future through the links we create (this is the style of Logseq and Roam Research). With them, you can build your space from scratch, your way, and I think that helps us a lot in organizing ourselves.

Where to Go Next

If from this point you want to jump straight into using Notion (or Anytype, or AppFlowy), but don’t know how, then I recommend Tiago Forte’s video “How We Organize Our Life in Notion“, where you can also get some ideas from the method he uses, called Building a Second Brain, and whether it might suit you or not.

Conclusions

The most important thing in this article is not the selection of the application itself; I could have told you that in a sentence, and we would have finished faster. Rather, it’s the analysis of all the alternatives that exist, why they exist, who prefers them, and finally introducing a barrier so that your selection criteria don’t call into question insignificant flaws and you can settle on an app and stay there for a long time, which is what matters.

As I mentioned in the previous article in the series, and reiterate in this one, it’s not worth going out there to watch videos, read books, read articles, and spend a month learning how to set up an information management system. This would be a huge waste of your time, and it would fail because the system you set up is not responding to your needs, but to those of those who devised it. I always recommend starting as simple as possible. Open Notion, or the app you’ve selected, get familiar with it, read a bit of its user manual, and you can even watch a video or two about its basic functionalities for a more visual approach. Then start using it slowly in your daily life, adjusting it to your needs. Eventually, you’ll feel the need to do something more efficient or something new, and then you’ll search how to do it on the internet. But never, ever, copy someone else’s system 100%, take ideas and apply them to yours, that’s all.

Footnotes

  1. These are their websites: Notion, Evernote, Obsidian, Roam Research. ↩︎
  2. These are their websites: AppFlowy, Joplin, Anytype, Logseq. ↩︎
  3. Strictly speaking, Free Software is not the same as Open Source Software. You can read more about it here if interested. ↩︎
  4. You can see why so many people dislike ElectonJS in this section of their Wikipedia page, and references therein. ↩︎
  5. This analysis takes into account you are a regular person, who uses Windows or Mac, Microsoft Office, etc. In case you are a tech savy using Arch Linux and groff, evidently this doesn’t apply to you, because you have well defined what tools to use and why. ↩︎

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