A desk with a laptop, a phone, a notes book, and a cup of cofee.

How do I approach personal knowledge management

For most ordinary people like us, the purpose of a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system is not to produce more work in the same amount of time. Such an approach falls under the umbrella of Toxic Productivity, as described in Ali Abdal‘s book Feel Good Productivity, and is usually counterproductive. With time, I have come to the conclusion that, instead, the goal of a PKM is to empower us to make informed and intentional decisions that guide our actions towards our desired objectives. This is especially true in the context of “the new normal” and “work from home productivity”, where distractions and blurred lines between work and personal life can be prevalent.

Misuse of PKM as an Escape

Several authors have pointed out that using a PKM system simply for the sake of it can become an escape from our real responsibilities. It can give us the illusion of productivity management when, in reality, we are not achieving anything meaningful. This approach is detrimental to mental health because the primary purpose of a PKM should be to help us do what we already do more efficiently, freeing up time in the process, rather than creating more work for ourselves.

The Purpose of Liberated Time

The question then arises: what should we do with the time we have freed up? The answer is different for each individual. Imagine John, who spends 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon focused on his desk job. He starts documenting and planning his work using a PKM tool like Notion or a Zettelkasten method implemented in apps like Obsidian, Logseq, or Joplin. He realizes that there are tasks he shouldn’t be doing and repetitive procedures he can streamline. As a result, he frees up several hours of work, allowing him to finish 2 hours earlier each day.

At this point, John has a choice: he can continue working during the two freed-up hours to improve his productivity (to produce more) and become an exemplary employee, or he can use the extra time for personal pursuits. While those who choose the former path may be praised by their bosses and colleagues, it can become a trap where work becomes a means of seeking approval rather than fulfilling personal desires or meeting basic needs. This can negatively impact both mental and emotional well-being.

Reflection and Intentional Planning

The beauty of a PKM system is that it encourages us to sit down and document what we have done. By dedicating time to writing about our experiences and thoughts, we are also reflecting on them. This process leads to two outcomes: first, we intentionally plan our next steps based on our reflections, using methods like “How to take smart notes” and building our own “Second Brain”. Second, we experience less stress and anxiety because we have taken the time to process our thoughts and feelings, contributing to better mental health.

Of course, our plans may not always work out perfectly, and changes may be necessary along the way. This is to be expected, as it is a sign that we are actively engaged in the process and adapting to new information and circumstances. In fact, intentional changes to our plans indicate that we are fully connected to our goals and desires.

Starting Simple and Building Gradually

My personal approach is to start simple and add features only when strictly necessary. A PKM system does not need to include 20 perfectly interconnected productivity apps like Notion, Emacs with Denote, Anytype, Obsidian, and Todoist. In fact, it doesn’t even need a single app. Techniques and methods for managing information have existed since the beginning of time, and some of humanity’s greatest discoveries have been made with nothing more than paper and pen.

At some point along the way, I realized that what should matter most is working towards projects and goals, not having the perfect setup (which, of course, doesn’t exist). This is, coincidently, the approach proposed by Tiago Forte in Building a Second Brain. By focusing on intentional action and personal growth, we can use PKM tools to live more fulfilling and meaningful lives, while prioritizing both productivity and mental health.


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