3 steps to building your own personal knowledge management system

Organizing your mind seems like a daunting task, but a personal knowledge management system can improve your learning and retention long term.

Personal knowledge management: different colored notebooks and sticky notes

Imagine your typical workday for a moment. How do you access the information you need to complete your tasks? Do you use a system of folders on your computer or rely on your ability to remember every detail you need to know?

What about at home — do you have a personal filing cabinet or cloud-based storage system for your family's essential documents and information? If you were asked to produce a receipt for a major purchase or a prior year's tax document, would you know where to find it?

Now think about how you manage all the knowledge you've acquired throughout your life. What system do you use to remember the name of that book your friend recommended or the recipe for your grandmother's apple pie?

Most people would likely answer, "I don't really have a system." Although we may handle work documents carefully, our personal information is often stored haphazardly on our computers or in our heads. That means we spend a lot of time and energy searching for the information we need when we need it, eventually losing knowledge in the process.

Personal knowledge management is the solution to this problem.

We'll explore personal knowledge management in this article, learning what it means, who can benefit from it, and what it offers. Discover how to create a personal knowledge management system and grow your own knowledge base.

What is personal knowledge management?

Personal knowledge management: yellow notebook and a yellow pen

Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a process for an individual to deliberately and systematically organize, store, retrieve and share their digital and non-digital knowledge assets. In other words, it's a way to manage our information and knowledge more deliberately and in a more organized way.

The goal of PKM is to help us become more effective at work, in learning, and in life by making it easier for us to store, find, reuse, and share the knowledge we need when we need it.

The concept of storing, sorting, and retrieving everything you know may sound complicated, but it's something we already do to some extent. Consider the way you use folders on your computer to store documents. You wouldn't put a picture of your family in the same place as your work contracts, and you wouldn't put your favorite recipes in the same place as your tax documents.

In each case, you're organizing information into categories so you can find it more easily later — this is personal knowledge management.

A brief history of personal knowledge management

The term "personal knowledge management" is relatively new — it was first documented in a working paper presented at an educational conference in 1998 — but the concept isn't. Since humans have existed, we've been trying to organize information to make sense of the world.

One of the earliest examples of personal knowledge management was the commonplace book. Unlike diaries or journals, which were primarily introspective and chronological, commonplace books documented knowledge. These elaborate writings contained personal observations, quotes, facts, recipes, formulas, and other information gathered under subject headings.

The greatest minds of history kept commonplace books to document their intellectual pursuits. It dates back to the Roman empire and Marcus Aurelius' commonplace books, where he recorded thoughts, quotes, and spiritual exercises that became his Meditations. The tradition continued during the Renaissance with Leonardo DaVinci's famous notebooks filled with detailed diagrams, sketches, and illustrations of anatomy, machinery, and other scientific observations.

Many intellectuals adopted commonplacing during the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond. But knowledge management wasn't always limited to books — other elaborate notetaking systems were also popular. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann created the Zettelkasten, a famous knowledge management system that sorts note cards in a slip box. Luhmann meticulously documented and linked over 90,000 cards during his research using a numbering system.

The notecard system continued with Ronald Reagan's prolific library of notes, collecting the knowledge of many important figures to pass on to Americans in his numerous speeches. Today, gathering and managing knowledge continues to be a powerful tool for many extraordinary people.

Who needs personal knowledge management?

Anyone who needs to remember, store, or share information can benefit from a personal knowledge management system. This includes students, professionals, business owners, knowledge workers, and lifelong self-learners.

Although you might not think a knowledge management system is necessary, if you've ever spent hours searching for a lost document or saved research, you understand how frustrating it can be to lose information. A well-designed personal knowledge management system can save you time and help you find the information you need more quickly.

A PKM system helps you become more productive, efficient, and creative by improving your ability to find and use the information and knowledge you need. Personal knowledge management systems are flexible and customizable, so they can be tailored to fit any need. There's no one-size-fits-all solution — the best PKM system is the one that works best for you.

What are the benefits of personal knowledge management?

Front and back view of a blue binder

Whether you're a student, professional, business owner, or lifelong learner, PKM can help you collect, store or share information in a way that works for you. There are many benefits to using a personal knowledge management system, including:

  • Speeding up your workflow by making it easy to find what you're looking for
  • Being more productive by reducing information overload
  • Improving your memory and recall
  • Generating new ideas by making connections between different pieces of information
  • Sharing your knowledge with others
  • Fostering a growth mindset by documenting your learning journey

These are just a few of the benefits of managing your personal knowledge. The best way to maximize your potential is to tailor your PKM system to your specific needs so that it works with, not against, your natural flow.

Types of personal knowledge management systems

Personal knowledge management has come a long way from the simple origins of the commonplace book and notecard filing boxes. Storing, organizing, and sharing information has never been more convenient due to digital information and the internet. The popularity of productivity and organization apps has resulted in a wide range of digital PKM systems.

Whether you prefer digital or paper systems (or a combination of both), there's a PKM system for you. Here are a few popular types of personal knowledge management systems:

  • Notetaking apps: Notetaking apps are digital tools that allow you to store and organize your notes in a way that works for you. Many are cloud-based so that you can access your notes from anywhere. Notetaking apps often come with various features, such as adding audio recordings, images, and files to your notes and collaborating with others. A few popular notetaking apps include Evernote, OneNote, and Google Keep.
  • Notecard systems: Notecard systems can be a great option if you prefer a paper-based method. Students often use the notecard system to study flashcards, and many authors use cards to organize chapters and scenes. The Zettelkasten method is a famous example of a notecard system, but yours can be as simple or elaborate as you'd like. All you need are index cards and something to keep them organized.
  • Bookmarking apps: Using a bookmarking app, you can save and organize links to articles, web pages, and other online resources. These tools help manage your research and save resources as you find them. Some popular bookmarking apps include Pocket, raindrop.io, and Pinboard. Several notetaking apps offer browser extensions with bookmarking features for quickly adding resources to related notes.
  • Commonplace books: Commonplace books are physical notebooks that contain notes, ideas, observations, and any piece of information you want to remember. In contrast to journals, these books aim to collect and catalog useful information instead of being reflective. A commonplace book can be as straightforward or complex as you want, and many people find them more conducive to learning and creativity than digital systems.
  • Personal wiki: A personal wiki is a digital tool for creating and storing personal information. Essentially, it combines the functionality of Wikipedia with your own personal knowledge management system. Wikis can be used to keep track of any digital information in various formats, from docs to photos. Some of the most popular personal wiki programs are Obsidian, TiddlyWiki, and Zettlr, a combination of wiki software and the Zettlekasten system.

No matter which type of PKM system you choose, the most important thing to remember is that there is no single best solution. The winning personal knowledge management system is the one you'll use — one that works with your natural style and plays to your strengths.

Build a personal knowledge management system in 3 steps

Flash drive in a toy case

Now that you know more about personal knowledge management systems, you might wonder how to build your own. Taking the time to develop a PKM can be highly beneficial, personally and professionally. Here are three steps to get you started:

1. Choose the right system for your needs

After learning about the different types of personal knowledge management systems, you will need to select the one that best fits your needs. To help you decide, here are a few factors to consider:

  • Think about what you need your PKM system to do for you. Do you want a simple template to follow, or do you need something more robust to help you curate your knowledge work and research docs? Thinking about what you want to use your system for can help you narrow your search.
  • Look for a system that works with your natural learning style. Do you prefer learning by taking visual notes, such as mindmaps, or do you like to listen to podcasts? Are you more comfortable working with paper or digital tools? Knowing how you learn and what formats you prefer will help you select the right system.
  • Consider how you'll access your knowledge base. If you work remotely or from different locations, you need a system you can access from anywhere, such as one that you can back up to the cloud.
  • Estimate your budget. Consider how much you're willing to spend on your system. Some personal knowledge management systems are free, while others come at a cost.

Once you've considered your needs and chosen the right method, it's time to start building your personal knowledge management system.

2. Start small

When starting your personal knowledge base, it can be tempting to try to build it quickly. You want to bookmark every webpage you come across, save every article and document you read, and take notes on everything. Try to resist this urge because this won’t be sustainable in the long run. Trying to do too much at once will only overwhelm you, and you'll eventually burn out.

The best way to develop a PKM system is to start small and gradually add relevant information over time. Begin by choosing one or two areas you want to focus on. For example, you might want to use your system to streamline your workflow or curate bookmarks for a research project. Once you've chosen your focus, start slowly adding information and resources to your system.

3. Make it a habit

The only way to make your personal knowledge management system truly effective is to use it regularly. To make PKM a habit, start by setting aside time to work on it daily. Even just reviewing your knowledge base for 15 minutes a day can help you get into the habit of using your system regularly. You'll learn what works and what doesn't the more you use it.

Additionally, consider setting specific goals for what you want to accomplish with your PKM. For example, you might want to save bookmarks for a future project or track your progress on a current one. Regularly using your system will be easier if you have specific goals.

Develop a knowledge management system that will enhance lifelong learning

Personal knowledge management proactively and intentionally manages our knowledge to optimize our work and learning. By developing our PKM system, we can take control of our learning and development rather than relying on others to tell us what we need.

Don't worry if your personal knowledge management system isn't perfect from the start. It takes time to determine the approach that works for you. The most important thing to remember about PKM is that it's less about storing information than how you use it to improve your learning. As you use your system and curate your digital information, you'll grow a knowledge base that you can use for years.


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