Other People's Personal Knowledge Management Isn't For You

“Personal Knowledge Management” (PKM) feels like a lot of “bullshit” to many people. In this, I will speak to the idea that PKM isn’t bullshit. It’s just that other people’s ways of managing knowledge, just aren’t designed for your brain. They may sound like bullshit, but if it’s working for it’s creator, it’s totally valid.

…a great proportion of the variance in “knowledge management” effectiveness across individuals is genetic. Individuals blessed with high degrees of industriousness and orderliness will build sophisticated media diets, note-taking systems, and automated archiving pipelines much more effectively than those less blessed with these traits.

Next, these naturally organized people realize they’re sitting on a valuable commodity, which they can sell to less industrious and orderly people. Some random nerd who just loves organizing all his little files decides to christen his idiosyncratic personal routine with a catchy name, package it as the best method for helping anyone get organized, and then thousands of less organized people pay him to learn it. - Justin Murphy “Personal Knowledge Management is Bullshit”

Justin’s sentiment is valid. It touches on some real “bullshit”, but this line of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It fails to grasp the incredible variance in human minds. Many of the people who’ve designed successful systems haven’t done so because they’ve been “blessed with high degrees of industriousness and orderliness”. Many of them are as a reaction to significant losses in the “genetic lottery”.

Knowledge Management As A Survival Trait

Let me give you an example from personal experience that I’ve seen repeated again and again in others. People with ADHD have incredibly bad memories. It’s not just that their memories are bad, it’s that they’re implausibly bad by normal standards.

Memories form around interesting things. An event is “interesting” on a chemical level, if there’s some dopamine involved. No dopamine, means no interest. No interest means your squishy greymatter decides it isn’t worth remembering. This is an oversimplification, but the point is, we are literally disabled and lacking one of the primary tools required for knowledge work.

As a result, every knowledge worker you meet with ADHD is essentially guaranteed to have an impressive system. It may not be efficient, or logical, and they’re probably not even aware that that’s what they’ve done, but it’s there.

I don’t spend time building knowledge management systems, and tools because I like organizing information. I build them because I’m fucked without them.

It’s not you, it’s me.

It’s not that other people’s systems are “bullshit”. It’s not that people with impressive PKM systems are inherently more organized than you. It’s that your brain, and their brain, are different.

The deep and urgent sense that we’re all drowning in information and distraction has created a massive market for anything that claims to solve this problem.

He’s right, and he’s right that most of those tools are unlikely to work well for your brain. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in them.

Zettlekasten, for example, is an interesting innovation in knowledge management. It has some rabid fans. The short version, if you haven’t heard of it, is that you build up a collection of small ideas with free-form linking to each other. No folders. No time wasted organizing.

The method originated with paper note cards. These days there are many easy-to-use tools for folks who like Zettlekasten. Many of the popular note management tools have Zettlekasten related functionality built in.

The reason I mention it, is that the Zettlekasten process 100% doesn’t work for my brain. That doesn’t mean it’s “bullshit”, or useless. There is great value in the idea of having a system that makes it trivial to link from one document to another (see also, the internet). I believe that if your notes aren’t linking to each other you’re missing out on a huge piece of value.

There’s great value in the idea of focused notes, but the separation of those notes into discreet chunks is a problem for me. There are too many simultaneous thoughts in my brain (ADHD). If I was constantly pausing, even momentarily, to create new notes I’d loose the thread of what I was trying to express. This means I lean towards tools that make it easy to group thoughts in malleable hierarchies.

Those individual chunks are focused notes. I can use an auto-generated table-of-contents to find them. As content becomes too much for one document I can break things out into multiple documents and cross-link.

Surviving The Torrent Of Information

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the information torrent we live in. Our brains did not evolve for this. Our jobs, none-the-less require us to deal with it.

As a programmer I’m expected to stay up to date with the latest technology options and trends. I’m expected also put in a full day of work on whatever projects they’re paying me for. Meanwhile there are millions of people discussing and releasing software that may or may not be useful to me.

It’s literally impossible for me, or anyone else, to meet all those expectations. Doubly so if you want to actually maintain your mental health and have a life outside of code. I have two choices. Develop a process to help me attempt to stay up to date with things, or fall behind.

Falling Behind

I’d argue that “falling behind” is not only a valid strategy, when applied strategically, but one that can make your life better.

Ignore the things you don’t need

I’ve been a web developer for a long time now. My primary tool of choice for building interactive web sites is Rails. There are two major aspects to Rails: the back end, and the front end. The back end is all the stuff you can’t see. The database interactions. The gathering of data for reports, etc. The front end is similar but it’s a collection of tools for generating the actual web pages you see.

Every few years the core Rails developers come up with some fancy new way of generating web pages that is objectively better than the old way. Yay progress. Each new way is notably different from the last.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on codebases that are either too outdated to use the new hotness, or don’t even use Rails’ front-end.

My employers want me to “Stay up to date” with the latest Rails functionality, but there’s a huge chunk of it that would be a complete waste of my time to pursue. I can’t use it. Knowing it won’t help me in my personal or professional projects. When it’s relevant, but not something we can use, it just becomes depressing.

Learning it in depth would have been functionally useless, and emotionally depressing. So, I chose to ignore it. Then the Rails devs came out with another bit of “new hotness” and the old stuff I didn’t learn became obsolete. Then it happened again.

Yes, I am at a disadvantage compared to others when I do need to make something with an HTML front end. Accepting that has enabled me to really focus on doing great back-end work. Back-end work is important to me, interesting to me, and valuable to my employers. They’re perfectly happy to have other people who are experts in front end stuff do great jobs there while people like me focus on doing back-end work.

The point is that it doesn’t matter what other people tell you you need to stay on top of. It doesn’t matter what information they claim you need to have. You are the person doing your job. You are the person best suited to determining if that information would actually be useful to you.

I’m not suggesting you ignore the things other people tell you are important. I’m suggesting that you consider their suggestions within your own personal context. Focus on the ones that will help you. Allow yourself to “fall behind” on the ones that won’t.

Less is more

Every time you make a decision to actively ignore something that won’t help you, you lessen the torrent of information. It’s like standing in a rushing river, and then suddenly being able to divert some of it. You no longer have to fight as hard to stand up. You no longer have to filter so much of it to find the tasty fish.

Observe, Try, Steal, Refine, Repeat

Barring a total collapse of society, the torrent of information will not lessen within our lifetimes. No-one has a good handle on the problem. Few people comprehend the variety of human thought patterns. They don’t understand that their techniques aren’t applicable to everyone.

The techniques you and I have developed so far, for dealing with this likely have a lot of room for improvement.

The best we can do is to keep our ears open for things that work for other people. We can try out the suggestions that resonate with us. We can steal the pieces of them that actually work for us. We can refine our process with what we’ve learned, and repeat.

Yes, this is someone telling you that there’s some information out there that you should be paying attention to. That irony isn’t lost.

There are two advantages this type of information has that many of the others do not. The first is that learning how to better organize your knowledge is explicitly a tool for helping you. No-one will argue that you shouldn’t get better and oraganizing your knowledge.

The other is that I’m specifically referring to knowledge management techniques not tools. New techniques are rare. Truly innovative techniques are even rarer. Meanwhile, there will continue to be a constant stream of new tools. They’re not even someone’s “idiosyncratic personal routine with a catchy name”. They’re someone’s idiosyncratic implementation of a poorly understood idiosyncratic personal routine… with a catchy name.

I’m not suggesting you should try and stay up to date with Notion, or Roam, or whatever comes next. I’m suggesting you should try and keep an ear out for how people are using their fancy tools. This is, admittedly, harder. Fortunately there are people like Tiago Forte who are putting out lots of great content about techniques, not tools.

This takes many forms:

  • organizational techniques
  • note taking techniques
  • learning techniques
  • information processing techniques

It’s a deep rabbit hole, but you don’t need to go down it if you don’t want to. Just pay attention to the people who are and listen to what they report back.

What Now?

As I said, don’t focus on tools, and don’t believe that anyone else’s specific process is going to work for you. Focus on high level techniques and approaches.

For How to think about capturing and organizing information I’d suggest Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain is a good place to start. The book is very much about approach not tools. The first two chapters are going to convince you of the value of keeping and managing your info. You can skip them entirely if you already believe that.

I’d also recommend checking out this YouTube playlist of his which does a great job of showing a collection of radically different, but equally valid, approaches for capturing and organizing information. Each one is tailored to the brain of its creator.

Define a process for yourself. If you’re not sure where to start, start with Tiago’s C.O.D.E. + P.A.R.A. technique. It’s described in his book, but there’s a pretty comprehensive summary here.