[ Question ]

What is your Personal Knowledge Management system?

by sayan 2mo16th Jul 201922 comments


Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005). It is a response to the idea that knowledge workers need to be responsible for their own growth and learning (Smedley 2009). It is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management (KM) (Pollard 2008).


I am curious about how LessWrongers manage personal information, including but not limited to - research reading/ research output, side-projects/ hobbies, blogging, managing watchlist/ to-read list, social information, incremental-reading, making flashcards, threads-from-unfinished-conversations, braindumps, and maybe even general GTD-stuff.

Information about any of the following will be greatly appreciated.

  • General framework/ philosophy for PKM. Can be very concrete and well-defined like Building a Second Brain or a very a general rule-of-thumb like 'I bookmark everything/ I write down all thoughts in org-mode.'

  • Toolchain. What and How. Everything counts - wikis, org-mode, physical notebook, etc.

  • Workflow. Both local (how you manage fuzzy and perpetually arriving information on a day-to-day basis) and global (how you PKM for bigger and concrete projects over longer time).

  • Comparison of multiple frameworks, if used.

  • Tips and tricks/ info about building PKM habits.

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10 Answers


  1. Capture everything: Do not assume your brain will remember anything. Write it down ASAP. Use whatever will let you capture it quickest, whether that's pen and paper or a digital solution.
  2. Review and process: Make sure you actually look at the things you wrote down regularly and organize it. If it was an idea you need to act on (e.g. a topic for a blog post, or a reminder to look up a particular concept), add it to your task manager. If it was a thought for reference, add it to your 'second brain'/note-taking/archive system, and add tags so you can find it easily later. Once processed, archive or delete the item from your capture system.
  3. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler": There is a balance to strike between using as few tools as possible, and using many tools that are each specialized to do one thing really well (a tool that tries to do everything tends to do nothing well).
  4. Consider sustainability: In an ideal world, I would only use open-source, non-proprietary tools. But often commercial tools do a better job and/or have a nicer interface. In these cases, ensure that you can export your data at any time in a standard format (e.g. markdown, xml). Also, be prepared to pay a subscription fee - this helps keep the tool going!

What I use:

  • For capture: Google Keep. If it's a task, sometimes I add it straight to my task manager (Asana).
  • Info sources: I use Feedly to subscribe to lots of RSS feeds. When an article comes in that I want to read, I add it to my 'read later' board. I also use the 'Save to Feedly board' Chrome plugin to save any article I find on the web to 'read later'. The goal is to maintain inbox zero in my 'read later' board - I remove an item once it's read, so I know that anything in there is unread/unprocessed. I use Goodreads to manage my books, and Castbox for podcasts. I get free e-books and audiobooks from the library, and I also have an Audible account.
  • For archive, reference, notes, and high-level planning: Notion. I use it as a personal wiki. It is very flexible, easy-to-use, and has relational databases(!!) If the mobile app was faster it would replace Google Keep as a capture method for me. It could also in theory become a task manager (using the database feature) but it currently lacks some key features (like recurring tasks). FYI, you'll likely need to subscribe to the pro version to get enough space. I think it's worth it.

Vim + markdown (evolved into standardized DSL for note-taking) + git.

What I'm here to say is that programmers' tooling is a great fit for knowledge management. Fuzzy file finding / fuzzy grep is something you can get for free with plugins, and any interaction like going-to-previous-file-by-date can be easily achieved with editor scripting. Version control (Git in this case) allows per-line editing history & multi-machine granular merge and basically adds another dimension to text editing: time. All versions of the text exist in their own right and can be inspected and rolled back to. I use heavily optimized editor keys for 2-3 keypress commit-related operations, most of it came for free with plugins. The power of Vim for text editing is not to be underestimated as well.

Another thing perhaps worth mentioning is tiling window management + tmux. I have tmux / terminal sessions for different knowledge-management tasks (notetaking while reading an article is a different tmux session than daily agenda e.g.) bound to key combinations so that they can be accessed with low latency. The lowest-latency inbox is just a text field that appends to a file, for use when any distraction is to be avoided.

Basically my point here is, learning Unix is high value, because no premade tooling can be as well-designed as a hand rolled one, for under-explored domains.

Emacs + org-mode + Dropbox


  • I use Pinboard to manage my bookmarks.
  • I have a personal wiki (an instance of my custom PmWiki-based wiki platform) that I can access from anywhere, to store ideas, to-do lists, essays in progress, brainstorming, etc., etc.
  • I use a PDA (a Palm IIIxe, synced to one of my computers) to jot things down.


  • Find reliable, robust, flexible tools that will last a long time, and are adaptable to your needs.
  • When it comes to software, avoid the proprietary and the centralized. Where it is unavoidable, look for what is simplest, has a proven track record, and which can export your data in standard formats (and do this regularly).
  • Don’t overthink it. Don’t start by investing a lot of effort into some fancy workflow or some fancy philosophy. Avoid the urge to yak-shave. Write it down first, organize it later.

1. When learning new things, I use the principles of deep learning to link what I've learned to other things I've learned. This helps me remember the important bits and usefully be able to apply them when they're relevant.

2. When working on a project, I take all the things I've learned that are useful and put them into TheBrain, linking them to relevant parts of the project as well as previous types of knowledge they're related to. The types of knowledge I try to capture in the brain are:

  • Mental Models (Ways of Thinking That Are Useful)
  • Processes (Steps/Flowcharts That Are Useful)
  • Modelling Tools (Specific Ways of Modelling Knowledge and Information That Are Useful)
  • Power Tools (Halfway Between a Mental Model and a Process, a Trick or Technique or Idea That is Particularly Useful)
  • Questions (Things I can ask myself)

By consistently doing this with new projects, over time I develop an interlocked set of knowledge that makes it very easy for me to find relevant tools for my new projects.

3. When I find a particularly useful article/image/etc, I add it into Evernote. I can then search Evernote when I remember a particularly useful article but didn't fully internalize the knowledge or remember the specifics. This can be added to the brain if needed, or sent to other people when they're dealing with relevant problems.

4. I take notes on books in my Kindle, and sync them to Evernote with clippings.io

5. I used to take Shallow knowledge that was particularly important and add it to Anki, but it was very hard to find shallow knowledge that I knew in advance would be particularly important, and gave up on the practice in the favor of just saving important thing in Evernote. I try to err on the side of savings things, and am always frustrated when I'm trying to remember an article but didn't save it in Evernote..

I'll repeat the endorsements of org-mode, and add some links to specific org-mode features that I use.

  • I use org-capture to capture to-do items. I've found nothing quite as streamlined as being able to hit C-c c t and just type what I need to do
  • I use org-agenda to create daily to-do lists for myself. When I org-capture a new to-do item, I will add a deadline (C-c C-d) to indicate when I want to do the task.
  • I use org-publish to write my website. This is nice because it's very immediate for me to write, and I can hit C-c C-e P x to publish a new version of my website
  • For other org-mode tips, you can look at my emacs tips page, which has my emacs configuration documented (in a somewhat haphazard and idiosyncratic fashion)

I've tried other PIM tools, like vimwiki, workflowy, DynaList and Dropbox Paper, and I've found that of all of them org mode offers the right mix of customizability and immediacy for me. That said, I'll be the first to admit that org-mode doesn't have the easiest learning curve, and it's support for mobile devices is pretty much trash. (People have recommended orgzly, but, honestly, orgzly's UI pretty terrible.) What I do when I'm out and about is capture notes in Google Keep and then copy those notes over into org-mode when I get back to my computer.

  • VS Code + Extensions (Markdown + Latex parsing + Graphs parsing + custom snippets).
  • Anki
  • Chromium Extensions (Super Simple Highlighter)
  • Git
  • Calibre (Books manager also I usually convert books to HTML)

This "stack" is very useful for me.

Workflowy. Dynalist and others have more features, but I don't want more features. More features means more decisions. I organize by month and do a review at the end of months, plus a year end review when collapsing into my archive tab. Tags for things like book notes, quotes, routines etc.

I wrote about mine here. Still using it. Contra Romeo, I love features. Sometimes I add my own by writing Python scripts that interact with my notebook.

No particular philosophy: just add some kludge to make your life easier, then repeat until they blot out the Sun.

Non-computer tool is paper for notes & pen, filing everything useful to inbox during daily review. Everything else is based off org-mode, with Orgzly on mobile. Syncing over SFTP, not a cloud person.

Wrote an RSS reader in Python for filling inbox, along with org-capture. Wouldn't recommend the same approach, since elfeed should do the same reasonably easy. Having a script helps since running it automatically nightly + before daily review fills up inbox enough novel stuff to motivate going through it, and avoid binging on other sites.

Other than inbox have a project list & calendar within emacs. Not maintaining a good discipline for weekly/monthly reviews, but much smoother than keeping it in your head.

I have a log file that org-mode keeps in order by date. And references file that don't get very organized or used often. Soon will try to link contents of my massive folder of PDFs with it.