Personal Knowledge Management Journey

When I started using personal computers many years ago, I was obsessed with recording and compiling useful data. Now my phone does that and more. Moving forward to the current decade, I’m now obsessed with collecting, manipulating, enhancing, and internalizing useful data. I want to learn more and increase the size and utility of my mental toolbox. The goal is to use my computer/network as an actual second brain with the help of some Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) Software. Per Wikipedia, Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in their daily activities and the way in which these processes support work activities. It is a response to the idea that knowledge workers need to be responsible for their own growth and learning. Here’s my journey so far this year:

I started with Notion. It’s a database. I know databases and the opportunity to automate tasks and display my data in meaningful ways was and is attractive. The more I used it, however, the more I noticed it stifled my creativity, at least my spontaneous creativity. Every piece of data needs a box, that box needs properties, characteristics, and a meaningful way to display it all. By the time I planned it all out, I had lost that creative spark. I just wanted to write and collect words and data as they occurred to me, right then and Notion got in the way. I was also concerned with all my data being in the cloud, possibly being shared with some evil opportunist or being fed to some future Skynet AI. I bounced off Notion. I tried to come back more than once. It’s really powerful but it’s not for me as Personal Knowledge Management Software.

Next was Obsidian. It will do almost everything I can think of. It’s great for long-form writing. I can write a novel in it, and connect any word, phrase, or paragraph with any other inside and outside of my database. It stores locally (not in the cloud). I can just open it up, write, and decide what I want to do with it later. When I do decide what I want to do with it, I can connect similar thoughts and ideas, expand on them, set tasks to make use of them, track those tasks, and create and manage goals and projects. It even provides a graphical representation of the connectedness of my thoughts and ideas. All this at no cost. Sounds perfect right? As I got to using it over a few months, I realized I wanted more and less. This software is text-based and ugly. It doesn’t handle images nicely. There’s no changing the font. Underlining, linking, and creating bullets require you to look up or memorize keyboard shortcuts. It does everything but it’s so plain, and getting it to do what I want requires effort each time. I also found out after using it extensively that I really don’t like folders. I want to write, not figure out where everything lives. Why do I need them when I can just run a search for what I want? I bounced off of Obsidian but I came back because pound for pound it’s hard to beat.

I’m still looking for a replacement. I found Upnote, Capacities, and Heptabase to be very promising. For these, there are costs to consider. UpNote is simple, relatively pretty, and just works but doesn’t have a lot of advanced features. Capacities has a feature-rich free version that does not include tasks. Heptabase is newer with a great deal of potential but only has a short free trial. I tried using Microsoft One Note too and while it is free, it kept feeling like I was asking it to do what it was not designed to do. Currently, I’m trying out Tana. I just recently got an invite and I kind of like it. There are no folders but it is also online only. It feels good so far though.

This is a relatively new movement. Most of this PKM Software is still being designed while we’re using it. We’re beta testers. Updates are happening constantly and many planned or promised features are far in the future. New PKM software companies are learning from their predecessors but are untested. I don’t want to fully commit to one and find that another is ultimately better and being able to cleanly move your data from one to another is far from guaranteed. I have to write though. I have to record and reflect on my ideas, goals, and projects. I refuse to wait until something shows up in a perfect state to manage my personal needs. Right now Obsidian is still the best for my style and I will continue to use it as my primary but I am desperately looking for a fully functional replacement even if I have to pay for it.

My recommendations are as follows. All are mostly free and that free offering is likely more than enough for most people:

  • If you want a notes app that will do almost anything, even things you haven’t thought of yet, at no cost then consider Obsidian
    • Pros: You don’t have to pay to use it, You can start writing immediately and figure out what you want to do with it later. Your data lives on your computer. Offline Access.
    • Cons: Text only, Not great as a cross-platform or mobile app. No GUI. Complicated.
  • If you know exactly what you want to do with it before you take a single note then consider Notion
    • Pros: You don’t have to pay to use it, Very popular, Cross Platform. Great for Teams.
    • Cons: Complicated. Easy to forget things you put in the database, Not easy to change processes if you change your thinking later. Some programming is required to get the most out of it. Your data lives in the cloud. No offline access.
  • If you want something that just works and you don’t need to be smart to use it then consider UpNote.
    • Pros: Fully featured free version, Cross-platform, Offline Access. The paid version is inexpensive.
    • Cons: Your data lives in the cloud.

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