An image of a filing cabinet with the Text The Intellectual Life over the top

Live an Intellectual Life with a PKM System

I’ve seen plenty of hoarders on television, but I’ve only met one in real life. I’m not talking about the kinds of people that like to keep lots of things; I’m talking about the excessive extreme of mental illness, where all things must be kept, including mountains of dirty diapers, carcasses of dead pets long gone, and other horrific items.

I was invited to this person’s home to help them with an accounting project for their business. I had no idea what I was about to face. When I crossed the threshold, the first thing that hit me was the smell.

I’m sure you can imagine it.

One often wonders how people allow their lives to get so far out of control. What decisions and life experiences lead to someone living that way? To walk into the home of a true hoarder was traumatizing. What’s worse was to see how embarrassed and hopeless they felt amid their mess.

The PKM Community Loves Hoarding

Over the past ten years, PKM, or personal knowledge management, has become a popular concept among self-learners. Sönke Ahrens published How to Take Smart Notes in 2017, which seems to have lit a fire under the “careful reading” community. This book, along with a wave of “second-brain” enthusiasts like Tiago Forte, has created a group of knowledge-hungry people obsessed with the idea of remembering everything they read. The idea is simple, as you come across a piece of knowledge that you find interesting, you capture it in your PKM and then synthesize that knowledge into something useful for later on.

Do you see the parallels?

Our PKM systems often fail us because, over time, they become a hoarder’s den of disparate information. There are three reasons for this: entropy, overcomplexity, and what I call the “missing destination,” which is the biggest problem in my estimation.

Principle #1 – Entropy

Systems scatter by nature. A system is your family, your home, your career, and your PKM. Each has individual parts working together for the whole. The idea of entropy can be complex, but the concept is that everything contains energy and that energy is available for work to be performed. What physicists have discovered is that this energy tends to spread out over time, creating disorder and inefficiency. Many define entropy as a measure of a system’s disorder. It’s not the best description, but it’s a starting point for our purposes.

Consider the universe in its ever-expanding form as planets and stars move away from each other or the fact that no matter how hard you try, your house finds a way to get dirty. Entropy seeks to explain these phenomena, that systems are always on the move, and unfortunately, they tend to seek chaos unless they are maintained.

A PKM is a system for keeping track of your knowledge. It makes perfect sense that something like this will naturally get cluttered over time and that the entropy present in your personal knowledge management system will continue to grow unless you maintain your notes and keep your metaphorical house clean.

Principle #2 – Overcomplexity and the administrative burden

There’s a big debate about which is better, online PKM tools or analog ones like a zettelkasten. The tech camp proclaims that tools like Obsidian, Readwise, and Notion have made knowledge gathering more convenient and easier to reference. The analog camp argues that all of that technical wizardry has become a distraction to the real work of gathering knowledge. They claim that “online thinkers” focus more on optimizing their systems than learning.

Here’s the rub.

Both are too complex by nature. While it’s true that technology leads to distractions rather than learning, the analog camp is faced with creating complex referencing systems to navigate their notes. They don’t have a convenient search bar. They have to dig, which means building in a level of complexity.

If you’ve been in the PKM community for long, you will likely hear of Niklas Luhmann and his “Zettelkasten” or “Slipbox” method. The idea is simple enough. As you read, you take notes on 3 X 5 cards and store them for later use. As Luhmann amassed more of these cards, he needed a way to find them later and had to invent a referencing system to do so. In order to benefit from his notes, he had to create index cards, complex branching codes, and more. Many people today still use a zettelkasten, but there are lots of debates on how you are supposed to organize the thing.

My point is that complexity will find its way into your system regardless of the tools you use. It’s your job to be on the lookout for it and then to do whatever you can to tame the thing because complexity is expensive. The more a system grows, the more administrative effort it needs to maintain it.

If you must spend more than an hour a week keeping your PKM organized and useful, you’ve backed yourself into a logistical problem. A PKM should be a tool for intellectual expansion, not a weekend project that always needs organizing.

Principle #3 – Missing destinations

The biggest reason most PKM systems fail is that they’re missing destinations. A destination is a purpose for the knowledge you’re acquiring. It may be a project you want to launch, an essay you want to write, or a branch of philosophy you want to understand.

Most PKM systems are full of random knowledge that we collect (hoard) over time. We simply gather things we find interesting as we meander through life, and before we know it, our knowledge tools are bursting at the seams. It feels impressive to have such a trough of data, but secretly we worry that most of that information is unconnected and, therefore, unreachable.

We become hoarders of knowledge, never using what we collect. We fill our intellectual homes with the ideas of other people which, in turn, makes us feel smart and accomplished.

The fix is to consider the second half of the equation. Your personal knowledge management tool should know about your projects. It should aid you in completing them. This means that your PKM should collect ideas not for the purpose of storage but for the purpose of work.

Start by opening your PKM tool and defining the projects (destinations) you want to tackle. Get very specific. Now, go through the past few days of research and connect your newest PKM entries to those destinations. Use your knowledge to get you to your destination.

The best form of destination is an essay. When you sit down and seek to turn your ideas into written words, you must crystalize them, consider what you actually believe, and face your ideas and prejudices head-on. It’s in the act of writing that you discover what you truly think.

Getting More from Our PKM Systems

Consider this experiment. Begin by asking a question that fascinates you. Enter that question into your PKM tool of choice. Then, when you come across a new entry for your PKM, ask how that idea would help you understand and explore your question. If it does, file it away under that idea. Do this until you have enough information not only to understand the topic but to add to it. Once you reach that point, write a short essay and watch what happens.

This process will naturally help you clean up your PKM because you’re now using your research rather than simply hoarding it. And isn’t that the definition of a successful PKM system? If it’s nothing more than a fancy file cabinet (analog or digital) for hoarding other people’s ideas, then our tools are failing us.

It’s not until we write that essay that the PKM system works well.

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