What is your system for managing personal knowledge?

Do you have one? 

As previously mentioned, I was stuck in perpetual information overload and searching for methods to survive in today’s knowledge economy.

The intent for this post is to provide an overview of what I found, my personal knowledge management (PKM) system or my “Second Brain.”

During my search, I came across Building a Second Brain (BaSB), a course designed by thought-leader Tiago Forte, that provides a structure for creating our own system. The idea behind the Second Brain is to externalize facts and knowledge from our human brains into a digital system where it can be more efficiently stored and recalled.

More importantly, our human (first) brain can focus on the areas where the human part excels, making connections and being creative. Drawing from the culminating assignment, here’s a look at my second brain.

Step 1: Where to Focus?

The first part of my system, just like solving any problem or challenge, is diagnosing the problem.

The easy way out is to try and learn everything. Until your head explodes in an ever growing pool of  information. It’s hard enough to focus in a single field. We need to prioritize.

Where are we going to focus our attention?

To solve that problem, we identify our “12 favorite problems” to guide our attention, or our “nets in the data stream.”

These questions are most likely to be open-ended and challenging to answer, but specific enough as to remain relevant. 

An example question would be: “How can I better retain, organize, and synthesize information from my daily life to increase goal achievement?” 

When generating my problems, I used productivity guru Chris Bailey’s hot spots activity which I had previously completed, to ensure I did not neglect any life priorities.

In that activity, you: 

  1. Identify the critical areas of your life
  2. Define the purpose of each area
  3. Record any ongoing tasks and goals within the area

Then during your weekly reviews you scan your hot spots as a balancing tool when reflecting and planning forward

Click to view my 12 Favorite Problems (loosely attached to hot spots):

Body

  1. How can I improve and regulate my own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual states through routine and healthy habits?

Mind

  1. How can I better retain, organize, and synthesize information from my daily life to increase goal achievement?

Emotions

  1. How can I overcome my own personal bottlenecks (ie: fear, anxiety, time) to demonstrate vulnerability and take appropriate risk?
  2. How can I stay purposeful and positive while avoiding depressive episodes?

Spiritual

  1. How can I better understand and develop my personal values while conforming my life to model those values?

Social

  1. How can I better build and support meaningful relationships in my life?

Career

  1. How can I be a leader that develops potential, leadership, and self-empowerment in others through education and relationship?
  2. How can I facilitate large scale positive change through building relationships (individuals, teams, and community)?
  3. What factors are the greatest determinants towards individual and organizational success?
  4. How can I create/find a new career that will support the person I want to be and lifestyle I want to achieve?

Financial

  1. How can I structure my lifestyle and resources (mainly time and money) to maximize my own personal fulfillment and adhere to my most deeply-held principles?

Fun

  1. What experiences and accomplishments are most important to me and how do I achieve them?

Step 2: Capture Information in PARA

Ok, we have identified what to research.

Should we just start building folders full of information on my computer?

Do I need specific tags and labels?

Wait! How do I get it to work with my locally stored files, Google Drive, AND Evernote? 

The answer is simple, PARA. 

PARA is an organizational hierarchy created by Tiago based upon actionability. The acronym stands for 1) Projects, 2) Areas, 3) Resources, and 4) Archive.

The structure is meant to be simple and versatile. It’s a rejection of a deeply complex hierarchical system that has a long setup time, adapts painfully to change, and, perhaps more importantly, is cumbersome to maintain long-term (which ultimately results in system failure). 

Breaking Down PARA:

1 Projects refer to any ongoing tasks that have multiple steps, as defined by David Allen in Getting Things Done.

An example of projects in my folders are to “Obtain New Career” and “Publish PKM Post.” The folder has everything pertinent to that project within the folder for quickest access until the project is complete. 

2 Areas, similar to the hot spots that I described above, are parts of life that are ongoing and long-term.

Personal examples would be “Blog,” “Fitness,” or “321st.” The first two describe ongoing tasks (which could be habits) without clear ends. The third folder refers to an organization that I work with and stores pertinent ongoing information. Projects can originate out of Areas and long-term projects can evolve into Areas; the idea is that system is highly fluid. 

3 Resources refer to areas of interest, but without any directly relevance to a current Project or Area.

Some personal examples include “communication,” “productivity,” and “running.” In the “running” folder, I have different training plans, notes, and training strategies that I’ve collected from emails, scanned paper documents, previous research, etc., that are not of immediate value, but could be worth using if I try to adjust my own fitness plans or want to help a friend down the road. 

4 Archive refer to projects, areas, and resources that have been completed or set aside so they are removed from your focus. However, they remain easily accessible.

For example, I have archived most of my lesson plans from my time as a teacher. If I went back into the classroom, I might teach those topics or similar ones, where I could easily reuse these resources. Another example might be a sales pitch completed for one project that could easily be recycled and reused for future use. 

More PARA Examples:

A related analogy may be the organization of your clothes:

  • Project: Suit for a Wedding; Vacation outfits for next weekPARA Example
  • Areas: Uniforms for Work; Daily Exercise Clothes
  • Resources: Running shoes; Belts; Style Guides; T-Shirts
  • Archive: Tux from an old wedding; Those clothes that used to fit stored in bins under the bed

Here are two addition examples of the system in use: 

To create this blog post, I created the project called “Publish PKM Post.” To complete the project, I pulled documents from the Areas folders: Blog, Mind, and Systems. I pulled resources from “learning theory” and “productivity” folders. I also pulled resources from the Archived “Complete BaSB Course” folder. I pulled all the useable documents together in the project folder for immediate access. Once the project is complete, the project will be archived; however, I will do a quick clean-up and move pertinent documents into Projects, Areas, or Resources if they still have clear future useage.

A second example would be creating a Project “Complete the Disney Marathon.” If you’re new to running, this could have your training plan, trackers, and pertinent resources associated with the Marathon. If it’s a destination race, it might also include travel arrangements such as flight information, hotels, rental car, etc. Once the race is completed, you might do a quick reflection and archive the folder. You might decide to create an Area for “Running” or “Fitness” if this is a new habit you want to maintain permanently. Your reflection might go into a resource folder “running” if you think it’d be applicable later. Then again, you might swear off running and archive EVERYTHING. (And, as most runners know, once you get home, you may need those archived files as you were unable to stop yourself from signing up for the next race.)

PARA Wrap-Up

As previously mentioned, the premise of this system is actionability. Once something is no longer actionable, it should be archived. If you have new needs, you can easily create new Projects that may potentially morph into new Areas or maybe you now have time to finish your book and it needs to be returned to Projects from the Archive. 

Secondly, this system works best if mirrored across platforms.

For example, my computer, Google Drive, and Evernote are set up similarly with the PARA domains and folders (if there are any appropriate materials for that project/area/resource on that platform).

The idea is not to duplicate your materials across platforms; just  the places they are stored. This can require some effort to set up initially (or you can archive everything and move it back as it becomes useful).

It also requires some regular maintenance, but it’s minimal, and can largely be done ad-hoc as needed. 

Hint: I use an additional area in Drive and Evernote labeled “0 Inbox” to quickly send/drop new information for processing during my weekly review or the next available free time.

Mirroring across Google Drive and Evernote

Step 3: Progressive Summarization

We know what we’re looking for. We know where to store it. But it’s still painful to search through.

How can we make that information MOST efficient and MOST useful?

Cut out the irrelevant. Eliminate redundancy.  Create personalized notes.

Progressive Summarization (PS) is the engine behind the note-taking system.

The idea is that as you interact with your notes over time, you add layers, and they become increasingly valuable. When scanning and searching notes for use later, you know within seconds whether the notes have value based on the work you’ve already done and can easily pull out pertinent information. 

Educational researcher Graham Nuthall demonstrated that people need to engage with an idea at least three times before they actually learn it. PS encourages that and the learning principle spaced repetition which means the more frequently you revisit and engage information over time the better long-term retention.

My PS Layers:

Layer 0/Input is the source document; generally you’re not going to want to save the ENTIRE reference into your notes. That’s too cumbersome and prohibitive for a quick scan. It may also pop into searches far frequently than the source is necessarily relevant.

Layer 1/Notes is the information pulled from your source document. It can be highlights from a web page or kindle book, typed up notes from a marked up physical book, or even a paper scanned into the computer with notes.

Layer 2/Bolding is the identification of key information within the notes. I’ll bold the key information for easy identification on a quick skim. If I need more detail, I can always stop and read the notes around the bolded area. 

Layer 3/Highlights further compartmentalizes your key informationto be even more concise. At this stage, I highlight the critical insights or concepts from already bolded areas to emphasize main ideas and make them stand out even more on a quick skim. (I often do Layer 2 and Layer 3 together). 

Layer 4/Mini-Summary is putting together a synopsis of the notes. I’ll do this if I have a lot of notes to clarify what’s important or to make sense of my notes, especially on complex topics. 

Layer 5/Remix is the pinnacle stage where I am re-sorting the notes to make them increasingly useful or relevant. This could include an infographic or creating a small deliverable like a blog-post. 

Example: Click here to see a Layer 4 progressive summarization of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Probably a little TOO much bolding and highlighting, but it’s more an art than a science. 

It’s important to note that it takes time to progress through each layer.

Recognize that you will selectively progress through multiple interactions over time; there are many notes that will never get higher than Layer 1 (which indicates they are likely of little value or have not been relevant to current projects). If your note reaches Layer 5, it’s likely that it’s a reference that has significant value and/or frequently used.

Step 4: Putting the System to Work

Still with me?

So, we’ve got this great system, full of great information. What the heck do I do with it? 

If you’re looking for a quick reference, you can easily search through your file system, either deliberately scanning through folders  or a using an automated query and seeing what results pop up.

If you’ve progressively summarized some notes, you know within seconds whether they are valuable. How great is it to have processed information readily available rather than starting a web search from scratch? 

If you’re working on a larger project such as a research paper or a blog post, think back to English 101. Here is what that process might look like:

1. Brainstorm/Plan what you want to create
2. Create a checklist of places and topics to search

Example — and remember to check all your platforms because you didn’t duplicate data:

  • Search Evernote for Knowledge Management, Organization, Productivity
  • Skim Evernote folders “Building a Second Brain”, “productivity”, “organization”, “note-taking”
  • Search Google Drive resources for Knowledge Management, Organization, Productivity
  • Search Computer Archive/Teaching Folder for Digital Training, Knowledge Management, Organization

3. As you’re conducting your search, capture all relevant notes into a source note

  • Here is an exampled of a reference document from my first post
  • If the project is significant in scope, you might find it’s easiest to create mirrored Project Folders and move related files into them for the duration of the project (for example: create a “Publish PKM Post” folder on my computer, Google Drive, and Evernote)

4. Create an outline of topics/supporting references
5. Write! 

Hint: If you are looking for inspiration, scroll through random notes, occasionally progressively summarizing along the way. It’s surprising the ideas that are triggered randomly or the spontaneous connections between topics.

Step 5: System Maintenance

To help manage the system, I have integrated some of the clean-up into my weekly routine (clearing out the inbox) and monthly routine (cleaning up projects/areas), but as mentioned, most of the movement can be done ad-hoc. The best thing about PARA is that it’s versatile. 

Once you have your system setup, you can establish processes to help access the information such as  planning your task, how and where to execute your search, and how to create your deliverables. 

Here’s a quick checklist for my process.

Lastly, with any personal system, use your discretion. There’s no one way that works for everyone. If you have a better way, use it and tell me about it!  

As for Tiago’s Course, Building a Second Brain, the course is excellent and highly recommended, but he also has an ebook in the works by the same name that I’m sure will be worth reading and progressively summarizing!


As always, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts! Connect with me via Twitter or email!

About Scott

Writer. Teacher. Learner. Keen on process and individual improvement. And running really, really far.

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4 Comments on “Managing Knowledge with my Second Brain”

  1. It was great to learn about “hot spots.” I will definitely start incorporating them in my processes.

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