What has your PKM actually help you achieve?

I’ve been trying to build my own PKM for the last couple months, and I am having doubts whether that effort is worth it. To me, it is worth it if it can help me actually achieve, create, or do something I couldn’t otherwise do as effectively.

In the hopes of drawing some inspiration from the community, my question to you is: how has your own PKM contributed to your achievements? If it hasn’t, I’d be happy to hear about those experiences, too.

(Some part of me is worried that PKMs are simply another fad, another rabbit hole I will get lost in, with little to show for it.)

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KM systems have been a vital “feature” of “professional” life - medicine, architecture, cooking, engineering, legal, tax consulting, management consulting, philosophy, software, etc, for centuries.

They support our daily grind, our craft. We are our KM systems, and live of them, I think.

The “tools” come and go …

One good example, IMHO, is the Enchirideon, a sort of “life operating system”, that is 2.000+ years old, and still being studied, discussed, and used to
this date.

Sorry, I digress.

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The people I’ve seen who get the best value from their PKM have really clear goals around what they want to get out of it.

What do you want to see come out of yours? What do you want to achieve, create, or do?

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I’m not sure. And I would like to see if the community as a whole is equally unsure or if people found success with their PKMs. Hence my question.

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I am a creative, I write novels and illustrate them.
I find ideas through my Zettlekasten thanks to association of ideas. My blog articles write by themselves as well. I gain memory : when I make research for something in order to be acurate in my novels, I write the results in my Zettlekasten and I find them while writing, or remerber it without reading.

For example, I write down the description of a tribes from a videogame. I associate that with an other tribe from History, and and magical story from a novel. It helps me to generate new ideas for a tribe in my novel.

I have notes about the tea culture, because of my novel as well. As I search for the way to cultivate it, I found place where people do that in the real world. So it gave me an idea for a new place as well.

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I’m kind of the same. I use it to learn and process and synthesize my unique POVs on stuff that I turn into blog posts or books or approaches for work.

I also use it to track general stuff from work. It works better than OneNote and other note books.

I also use it to help me remember things about people, so I can develop more authentic relationships with people. For example, instead of saying how are you, again, I can ask how’s baseball going for your son? How was your trip to the Grand Canyon, etc.

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I’m a product manager, and I think PKM has been my competitive advantage in the past few years. It helps me make sense of different product frameworks, compare, contrast and synthesize them into mental models that I can deploy effectively. Outside of my professional life (but not really really outside), it helps me connect the dots between topics that I am interested in psychology, philosophy, system thinking, etc. Realistically, this means I can have interesting conversations, as well as making sense of new inputs effectively by interpreting how they connect to the existing lattice of thoughts.

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I am an academic, and I use my Zettelkasten to take notes about literature (of the short-article variety) and my thoughts about stuff. I have only recently switched from Zettlr to Obsidian, but I have been working with the Zettelkasten technique for about two years. So far, the return on investment has been amazing. It took me some experimenting but now I can’t imagine going back to my pre-Zettelkasten way of working.

One kind of “achievement” is that I can look up notes about articles I read, which allows me to quickly remember the gist of that article. Without these notes, my memories of most reading material would probably not survive the first month. I use this a lot when I am writing manuscripts. I would say that using a ZK has improved the quality of discussions I have with colleagues or students because it allows me to quickly retrieve stuff I had already known or understood a while ago and then have a more informed and more interesting discussion about this stuff. But maybe that’s just me and my terrible memory.

Likewise, I am taking notes about my thoughts (and connections between thoughts) on things: ideas for experiments, insights, questions, collections of reference material, etc. As it turns out, I already have a lot of thoughts anyway, some of which turn out to be useful for something later. This has made my research and teaching a lot easier because now a lot of my thinking can happen “along the way”. More precisely, of course I had done a lot of thinking before I used a ZK, but now I can record, retrieve, and elaborate these thoughts easily so that over time they accumulate to something bigger. For example, last year, I wrote a grant proposal that was largely based on ideas recorded in my ZK. Writing the document was “only” a matter of assembling a few notes from my ZK, because as it turns out, I had done most of the thinking over the last months – one atomic note at a time.

You do have a point, ZK can easily turn into a rabbit hole, but overall I would say it is definitely worth it!

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My view is that, if u can’t think of a use case for a pkm (after u understand what pkm should do), then it’s probably a fad for u. Normally trying to capture pkm around ur hobby might tend to die off if u not so obsess with that hobby. I’ve tried do sort of this on my interest in linux as a personal hub/servers. Not much grow out of it.

That said, there are two areas that work very well for me. First is my work as fiscal economist. E.g. linking my notes between one country taxation vs another and how certain concept of what is deemed as revenue help make the other country more attractive for investment improve my comprehension and arguments at work. Its hard to get those insight if u dont have pkm. One great thing with obsidian/roam/logseq approach is that, whenever i hv a meeting and i want to take note, i don’t have to figure out where to capture it, i just log it go daily notes and tag my project after the meeting (which sometimes can be relevant to multiple projects). I struggle with this when using notion because it was very hierarchical.

I’ve used paper notebook before, making sure i can cross reference. Then i used onenote with page link (but they dont have backlink feature). Then i used notion because i actually dislike onenote page is sort of infinite. I didnt know abt pkm until i discover obsidian and learned abt zettlekasten. So I’ve been doing poor man’s pkm before.

Second is on health - specifically my family health. Ever since my father had a surgery to correct his slip disc and a case of swollen feet. And because i have to oversee all his medication and follow up treatments, using obsidian help me keep track what’s what and along the line understand how one medication can impact another (and how many medication kind of overlap). This is important for me coz we’re seeing multiple doctors for different treatments. I sleep better knowing i can provide cross check although i know the doctors would do that. Before this i use google docs saved within same folder and making links in both documents that link to each other. It work well, but typing double bracket ‘[[]]’ is just awesomely easy.

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Hi @gestaltist (love the handle by the way), this is a really good question. I’m new to Obsidian, but not to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) as I have a professional background in organisational learning and development.

A few people here have already commented on how Zettelkasten principles have helped their thinking, and I have hugely benefitted in much the same way. What I’d like to add to the discussion so far is a simple insight, and the ‘deep structure’ behind it.

In my experience, people often get confused between “what” they want to think about and “how” to think about it. Reading the posts here in the forum, many people seem to start with - and then fixate on - the what, and I would humbly suggest that you start the other way round.

On Borrowing PKM Ideas Wisely

To state what is obvious, there is no perfect off-the-shelf tool and neither is there a “right way” to do PKM or to use Obsidian. And yet you’ll find plenty of advice out there that implies ‘their way’ is superior.

Probably the best advice I’ve found so far on seeking developmental help from others (who know what they’re doing) came from a book by chess grandmaster Joshua Waitzkin called, “The Art of Learning” (2008 I think). He recounts the story of how he chose the wrong mentor when he had outgrown his current mentor early in his career. The full story is too long to tell here, so I’ll just give you the context and punch-line.

Waitzkin was struggling against some Russian competitors who used some underhand, aggressive tactics. So he chose to work with a Russian grandmaster as his new mentor, thinking he’d learn from him how to beat them at their own game.

His error was simple but easy to make: he wasn’t like these players in personality or life experience, and so he couldn’t use their tactics as effectively as they could.

The lesson? Choose a mentor/source of ideas who is like you. A mentor that is like you understands how you think, feel and behave. And you can apply his success insights and make them work for you, precisely because he’s “like you”.

This lesson is highly relevant to PKM: all PKM is not the same to all people. It’s essential IMO to borrow ideas from someone with similar objectives to yours, and it’s highly desirable that they play in a similar field and/or share a similar personality. This increases the chance that their PKM insights will work for you.

PKM vs PKM Tools

We often seek out a new bit of software because the current one isn’t working for us. I don’t know about you, but when I feel this way I often don’t know exactly why… so it takes some deep thinking and reflection to decide a way forward.

To complicate matters, the next leap in my productivity of thought is not the same thing as being more productive in my use of time. “Managing time” is too simplistic a concept for managing thought. Thinking is not linear, nor something you sit down to “make” in a production-line sort of way. Thinking is messy, chaotic, emergent and we really don’t know how we actually ‘do it’.

So how might you go about configuring a “second brain” tool to work for you?

Good PKM Tools Extend Cognition

To state the obvious, we already use methods to “extend” our thinking.

We extend our thinking beyond what we can hold in short term memory in our heads by using paper notes, mind maps, doodles, annotations, digital markup of pdfs and books… all of which are means of ‘thinking’ about the connections between new ideas and our existing knowledge (stored in memory) and the questions we’re exploring (ie what we want to learn).

The ‘Wrong’ Metaphor for PKM

It’s worth thinking for a moment about the predominant metaphor of mind: that of mental “processing” or in other words, the “brain is a computer” metaphor. Personally, I don’t find this metaphor helpful at all.

It’s a useful metaphor for academics studying how the mind works through neuro-imaging studies, and subsequently for working on theoretical models of mind or for building AI algorithms. But you can’t “use” these insights in practice because the machinery of mind is largely opaque to us as we’re using it.

So let me offer an alternative “frame” for the practice of PKM: that of navigation.

We “navigate the world” with our “mental maps”, making predictions and simulating what might happen in order to make choices. Most of our navigation is achieved on autopilot. And we only make (or find/adopt) new mental maps when the old ones aren’t good enough, or when we enter into “new waters” that we are unfamiliar with. The latter is the stuff of PKM.

In other words, we need to “navigate” the world of ideas. We don’t process new ideas in a computer-processing or production line sort of way.

PKM as Memory-Loss Mitigation and Relevance-Realisation

Returning for a moment to the cognitive science of mental processing, the workings of the brain are highly “analogical” (Google Hoffstadter and “thinking by analogy” to go deeper) in that we categorise experiences, ideas and people by their similarity. We think and reason by analogy, in other words.

The analogies that pop into our thoughts, seem to do so of their own volition. Our ideas and thoughts bubble up to the surface of conscious thought from memory, via a subconscious process of “activation”. And the likelihood of activation is dependent on the neural pathways (ie learning): well-trodden paths are more likely to be triggered as relevant.

A good practical illustration is language learning. I lived and worked in Madrid for a few years, and had to learn Spanish from scratch (I became proficient enough to conduct business). About 9 months in, I said to my language tutor Rocio that I was struggling with the fast-talking pace of meetings, and that everyone talked over each other. And by the time I’d figured out what to say, the conversation had moved on…

She told me to let go of understanding everything, and just be content with understanding what I can at the time, and to focus on keeping up with the gist of the conversation. Then, after each meeting she said I should write down the words I remembered, but did not understand.

The deeper process behind this advice is simple: we have two types of vocabulary when learning a new language, passive words and active words. We are unable to recall passive words until we hear them, at which point we understand them. But when expressing ourselves they get stuck on the tip of the tongue. By contrast, active words are instantaneously available to us whenever we need them.

Words move from passive to active vocabulary with repetition and use, pure and simple. From the brain’s point of view, all new ideas and concepts are the same.

So what does this mean for PKM? PKM can ‘extend’ our thinking in two ways: by helping recall and flagging relevance.

Without recall aids, we will not use thoughts or ideas (ie understanding that is attached to words) that have not yet earned a permanent (ie active) place in memory.

And without relevance flags, we will struggle to navigate new ‘thinking’ waters (which we’re usually navigating in thick ‘fog’), by providing a scaffolding for our learning and thinking in the form of “relevant ideas” that are likely to be productive.

The idea of relevance is connected to, and yet different from, the idea of analogy. Another neuroscientist (John Vervaeke) has coined the term “relevance realisation” for his theory that the brain is a self-organising system of relevance realisation (Google his paper on “relevance realisation” to go deeper). In other words we don’t know, or rather can’t be conscious of, how we evaluate relevance. Ideas just pop into awareness. Clarity about decisions just falls into place.

Since the machinery of analogy and relevance is largely unconscious, I would suggest that relevance is the HOOK we are looking for in our PKM process. But what kind of relevance? Relevance to our goals, problems and questions.

So navigation means ‘seeing what’s relevant’ in this sense. We can “prime” our brains to “look for relevance” by clarifying and thinking about our goals before we start to work on something.

A PKM tool is a relevance-realisation tool, at all sorts of levels.

Obsidian for PKM

Like most people here, I consume A LOT of new information in many different forms. And I lose most of the ideas that I’ve had. So for me, a PKM tool has to mitigate what you might think of as a ‘memory loss’ problem. In this sense, relevance is secondary to recall. Or to put it another way, we lose new ideas and connections before we are able to shape them and then commit them to active memory, and therefore ‘think with them’.

I was an early adopter of Evernote way back, and tied myself up in knots with all these problems of thought. I then moved onto DevonThink, which doesn’t require perfect foresight about your future self. For example, a particular problem is how you might search for something long after you’ve forgotten how you stored it, why you thought it, when you thought it and where you thought it. An even worse problem is not even thinking to look for thoughts you had in the past, because you ‘lost them’ or didn’t think them ‘relevant’.

I still use DevonThink, which is fantastic storage tool for its metadata and AI-based advanced search, with fuzzy logic (eg it ‘understands’ typos) and ‘smart’ filing (ie automatically-filling folders based on Boolean-style search queries). It gives me the best chance of finding stuff that might be useful, without knowing where I put it.

My mind is not as organised as that of Bri Watson! I’m a messy thinker, working on messy problems. Categorisation systems help, but they’re not a “thinking tool” for me in the way they probably are for most academics. I think of myself as a practitioner: I ‘use’ insights from science and academia by figuring out how to apply them to the messy real world, so the formal categories of academia don’t usually match the practical ones of my ‘problem world’.

So if intelligent storage still isn’t helping me to “think”… what’s missing? The “connections” between notes represent my current state of “understanding” and my judgments about “relevance”.

Understanding is about integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge and experience, and relevance is about discovering the right knowledge and applying it to problems and questions.

In other words, if you agree with my framing of the PKM process, the links in Obsidian can be used to navigate the processes (which are iterative, not linear) of learning and problem solving.

Andy Matuschak (former research head at Khan Academy) has written on his blog about using Anki cards and writing good questions/prompts, and I’d recommend Googling him to figure out how to use Obsidian as a way of filtering the wheat from the chaff and committing the wheat to memory via Anki cards. Andy’s blog is what led me to Obsidian in the first place.

I hope this helps in some way.

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PS: I wrote another post in the Knowledge Management area about my folder structure, thinking process and apps I use - in case of interest.

I really love how you put this. I think this is in a sense more accurate than “a system for connecting the dots” or “knowledge management tool” or “second brain”. “Knowledge management tool” lacks a purpose and “second brain” is too vague". A system for connecting the dots" doesn’t really take into account what dots are relevant, which is actually what matters in the real world. I think “relevance-realization tool” really captures what’s missing.

On a related note, I think the process of realizing what’s relevant for a particular difficult problem is also another way to say “that’s an insight”. I’ve read a bit into the Insight Problem Solving literature, and insight can be thought of as a representational change that leads to solutions, which is maybe a more rigorous way to say that “you suddenly notice what’s relevant to the problem at hand”.

There are two (among several) widely known mechanisms that lead to insights - the kind of insights you can study in labs through nine-dots problems and the like, they are: constraint relaxation and chunk decomposition.

Making notes is, in a sense, externalizing representations, which means you can better detect constraints that are being imposed unnecessarily. Interconnected notes is a way to facilitate chunk decomposition, because an Evergreen note is similar to a chunk in that you can decompose it into other chunks which can help reconfigure your representation - or how you look at a problem. I think that’s how practicing PKM can facilitate the processes that yield insights.

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This is such a great question. It prompted me to think about the practical outcomes of using Obsidian and how it tangibly helps me in my life. For me at least, I’d say it’s not a fad, but rather an approach to organizing and recalling my thoughts. It helps me to avoid that awful, overwhelming feeling of things “slipping through my fingers.”

I use three vaults in my day-to-day life: a Work vault for notes relating to my employer; a Personal vault for notes about my life, family, and creative work; and a Reference vault for notes that are useful to both (but particular to neither).

Since they are useful for different reasons, I’ll answer separately for each one:

Reference Vault

My reference vault is the most academic of the three, and I use it to remember and recall solutions to problems, especially technical ones.

Remember how-tos, examples, and other notes as I discover solutions to problems. It feels good to know that a tutorial or clever solution I discovered is saved for future reference.

Organize notes into meaningful topics. It’s hard to overstate how valuable this is. Since Obsidian is primarily a wiki, it’s easy to create useful topics and link pages in multiple places to make them easy to discover later.

Recall those how-tos and examples on demand. I use the vault in this way daily. Because the topics and notes are organized in a way that reflects the way I think, I’m never more than a click or two away from the information I’m looking for.

A notepad for sketching out thoughts, jotting down temporary notes (like this one), and experimenting with ideas. The Excalidraw plugin is great for this.

Work Vault

My work vault is a combination of project management tool, reference folder, and CRM.

Project management: Track status of hundreds of tasks and their projects. Provide regular reports to my supervisor on status of active, delegated, and stalled projects. The Kanban and Dataview plugins are instrumental for this.

Product management: Maintain summary and details of dozens of products. For example, it makes it easy for me to quickly review all our products’ backlogs, or provide a high-level review.

Reference: same as Reference vault above, but reserved for topics and notes specific to my employer.

Contact list: Having my common contacts as their own notes makes typing their names and referring to them very easy. For some contacts, I also retain interaction history so I can be reminded of important details in the future.

Design and Drawing: As a software developer, I often use this vault to sketch out software designs, system interactions, flow charts, and other diagrams. Excalidraw is excellent for this. And these diagrams are first-class notes that I can organize and search the same way as my text notes.

Journal: Maintain years of history on meeting notes, contacts and interactions, completed projects, and more. Useful when I want to see my notes from meetings, conferences, or past reports.

Personal Vault

Perhaps the most loosely-organized of the three, my Personal vault is where I work on creative ideas, games, keep notes on books and other research, and many other things.

Create stories and games The most prolific output of my Personal vault is creative writing and game development. I use it to maintain notes on characters, locations, plots, maps, and more, and then print out what’s needed for the table. I can go back and review notes when I come back to a story later and need to remember what’s happened so far. I use the vault in this way about weekly.

Help process books, articles, and other items as I read them, research them, and try to understand and integrate them. These notes are somewhat ephemeral, but they help me focus my thinking, find patterns, and explore new ideas. I find this method especially helpful for digesting non-fiction.

Reference: As the Reference vault above, but for tracking things for myself and my family. For example, I keep how-tos for helping family members, links to manuals for our tech, and more.

Overall

I hope this summary is helpful – it was helpful to me to ask the question: is Obsidian is a practical help to my life or not? I think the answer is a resounding yes. :slight_smile:

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I must say that was a damn good read ! I’m currently in the process of rebuilding the PKM part of my system because I realised it didn’t fit my needs at all. I struggled to re-use the knowledge stored in it and there was too much friction.

I work in mechanical engineering and now realise that I might be looking for very different functions in a PKM than somebody working in a more literate field. Your post helped me realise that second-brain, LYT, zettelkasten or frameworks such as those might not be suited to my needs. I need to figure out a purpose-built solution that works for me, and hope it will help as I undertake my upcoming PhD.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time of writing a post with so many details. Down the rabbit hole I keep going !

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Can you please provide a link to this blog?

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This?

https://andymatuschak.org/

Angel

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Reading a book on the history of knowledge management.

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age: Blair, Ann M., ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0300165395

Some of the “challenges” of knowledge management and knowledge sharing were already being discussed 2,000+ years ago.

:slightly_smiling_face:

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That book looks fascinating! I teach Latin at a classical school where “commonplacing,” keeping a copybook, researching with index cards, etc. Are practices we teach kids. I’m using digital PKM to teach high school students to write papers, and I think it helps that they’re already somewhat aware of analog PKM systems.

From the opposite point of view, I think we modern PKMers learn a lot by studying the knowledge systems of thinkers from before the computer age. I find it instructive to look at Cicero’s discussion of sententiae, medieval florilegia, and Isaac Newton’s commonplace books. In Latin class, I talk to my students about the use of pocket wax and ivory tablets, and how they played the same role as personal whiteboards, notepads, and note taking apps do today. Obsidian might be too young to give us accurate insight into what it can accomplish, but PKM as such is thousands of years old. The question that arises is—if these people could accomplish so much with such primitive tools, what am I able to do if I’m doing the exact same thing as them but much more efficiently?

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@JAndrews2 I share your enthusiasm.

And it is good to know that we do not need to (re)invent the wheel.

:slightly_smiling_face:

I had similar reservations. What is the purpose of all of this? I came to the conclusion that I don’t know, I don’t care and why does it matter? I do plenty of things in my life that don’t help me achieve anything beyond enjoyment. If you’re not enjoying your time with Obsidian, that’s a different issue. But if you are enjoying yourself then just have a bit of fun. Who knows. Something may eventually come out of it.

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