In the last article (PKM Lesson #1: What is PKM and How to Begin) I introduced PKM and explained the basics of beginning to implement PKM into your life. If you are not familiar with PKM, you should read that article first. In this article, I will explain some of the most important concepts that will help you more deeply understand what it is to manage your personal knowledge and how to implement that management most effectively. You’ll find that PKM has the capacity to not only deliberately alter the path of your future thinking, but also stimulate realizations of insight and even improve your creativity. So here they are:
1. Knowledge comes in many forms
In order to manage something effectively, you have to know what you’re managing. So what’s knowledge? It could be many things and that is what makes managing it sometimes complicated. There are so many philosophical perspectives on what knowledge is that it even has it’s own branch of study called epistemology. But I will focus on giving you a perspective of knowledge that will be particularly helpful for implementing effective PKM.
Knowledge can be broken down into two categories, information and thoughts. Information is everything that is either outside your mind or has not (yet) been internalized deeply enough inside the mind to be truly understood. Thoughts are everything that exists inside the mind that is contemplated. For example, “the sky is blue” is a bit of information but asking yourself “why is the sky blue?” is a thought. Why this distinction? Because this perspective opens the gateway to optimizing mental connectivity, or the ability to develop new understandings, insights and even creative thinking without taking anything new into the brain. The information we’ve picked up on through experiences and education has a wealth of potential if only it could be connected more deeply to our thinking mind. Put another way, thoughts are the mesh that allows seemingly useless information to be tied together and made useful.
2. The relevance and importance of knowledge changes with time
Today you may think that some information you came across or a fleeting thought you had has no value to your life. Next year you may think otherwise. I summarize this principle as “recency does not equal relevancy”. It is a common fallacy that if something happened a long time ago then it is no longer relevant to the present or future. Thinking or pretending this is true has the effect of squashing the great potential that exists inside of every humans mind. We learn from history. So please be open minded about what may come of the information you learn today and the thoughts you have. Later, they may be crucial for unlocking an important insight about yourself, solving a crucial problem or even making a discovery that will change your life or the world.
3. Stored knowledge is communicating with your future self
When I was a student, I developed a habit of taking a lot of notes. I had the thought that I would refer back to my notes forever and that if I took good notes, it would make my time and efforts writing them worthwhile. What I didn’t realize was that the way I was taking notes was burying the important insights I learned inside a vast amount of junk and I would later be disinclined to use them for anything. What happened here? Though I took my notes for future reference, I didn’t think of my notes as a tool for communicating with my future self. The future self often forgets a lot that the present self takes for granted. We have to take care about the way in which we store our knowledge so IT (information and thoughts) will be useful in the future. This has a lot to do with the way we write and organize our notes. There are three categories of tools/methods to facilitate this. I call them classifications, filters and relationships.
Classifications go by several names in the digital era including labels, tags and folders. These tools allow you to sort through notes/files more effectively by preventing you from delving into the actual content in order to find what you may be looking for. I prefer the tagging system since it allows multiple labels to be attached to a single entity (even a single sentence using inline tagging). This creates more avenues to find the content you may be looking for, especially if the classification is a fuzzy one. There is an entire field dedicated to the techniques of classification of things known as taxonomy but I won’t delve into that here. You should also be aware that the way in which you classify content has an impact on how we internalize the content (considered later).
Filters (the computational type) are tools that allow you to easily sift through massive amounts of content and isolate the leftover relevant information by selecting particular classifications. Filters are vastly under appreciated in the digital age but are only as good as the classification system you use for the content you are filtering. Word finders are also a type of useful filter. However, don’t make the mistake of solely relying on word finders and neglecting classification because individual words within content are often not used in the description of those words. Rather, with the advent of filters, classification has become more useful than ever. Classifying more than just topics (ex: ideas, tasks, dates, importance, insights, etc.) brings the power of filtering to another level.
Relationships are similar to classifications except instead of tagging content with a specific label, content is assigned as related to other content. You can think of this as using other content as the tag for some related content. Classifications themselves can be organized with relationships. In fact, the idea of organizing computer folders inside of other folders is a particular form of this known as hierarchical relationships. Hierarchical relationships can be visualized with the branching structure of a tree and so are often displayed with tree maps. Think of a family tree and you'll be able to understand the hierarchical relationship between a parent and child or two siblings. These terms are often used to describe the nature of a relationship.
The power of assigning relationships to content is twofold. First, it allows you to easily find related content at a later time. However, more importantly, it allows us to deliberately harness the natural mental process of association. Association is when the mind relates one thing to another and is largely responsible for insight formation and creativity. When you create relationships between content entities, you are effectively creating a network that becomes more and more interesting (and useful) as it grows since new relationships develop through implied yet unintended connections.
4. Externalization facilitates internalization
Externalization is the act of extracting our thoughts into some form outside of our own heads. This can be done through writing/typing, recording yourself or even talking to someone. Extracting thoughts outside of the mind creates opportunities to explore those thoughts. You can externalize your ideas, feelings, knowledge, beliefs, dreams or anything else you can imagine that may pop into your mind.
Though externalizing by talking to a person is often helpful in making sense of our thoughts, I am a huge proponent of externalizing into digital forms, particularly typed words. When your thoughts are externalized digitally, they can more easily be managed with some of the techniques I’ve described. But more importantly, the very act of externalization affords the brain a much easier way to organize and develop your thoughts at a later time. This becomes a virtuous cycle as old thoughts incite new thoughts which are externalized again. Externalization allows one to overcome the “thinking too much” fallacy and to escape cyclic thinking. There are so many benefits to this for a person’s life that I wrote an article about it (see Why Externalize?)
Externalization was the primary reason I became interested in knowledge management. I strongly feel that externalization is the starting point for making great improvements in your life and that PKM is the next step. I later realized that PKM principles allow externalization to facilitate internalization. That is, when we see and organize our thoughts routinely in the context of other thoughts and information, our brains naturally begin to realize things and our mind evolves. Externalization allows us to take control of the way our brains develop over time. This is extremely important to consider while using PKM and emphasizes the importance of using great care.
5. How you experience knowledge affects insight formation and creativity
We experience thoughts and come across new information so much that we often become overloaded. And when our brains become overcrowded, we have little room to mentally maneuver. New ideas and realizations become suppressed. A high level of presence can counter the natural phenomena of information overload. In a state of total presence, your brain is not distracted by the things that aren’t happening right now. You can experience the world fully in the moment and the unconscious mind has a heightened ability to process that which is being experienced in the now (internalization). Mindfulness meditation can help a person train to develop higher levels of presence. But there are other ways to give our brains a chance to process information and thoughts more deeply. They involve PKM.
When we manage the content of our brain using externalization and PKM, we now have a way to re-experience our thoughts in a place with lots of space to mentally maneuver. Seeing your knowledge in the context of other related knowledge and thoughts allows you to draw insights that you may otherwise have never realized. It also stimulates creative thinking by unlocking hidden associations. Not only that, mental maneuvering can become digital maneuvering since the contents in the mind can be represented digitally on a screen and their relationships can be easily manipulated and then subsequently considered. We don’t have to remember the thought process we had last week or last year when we could save it, view it and build upon it later.
The idea of modelling information and thoughts in the brain as a connected network has been deeply considered in the field of connectionism. Connectionism has been used by neuroscientists to try to understand the inner working of the thinking brain and to aid in the development of artificial intelligence. If our brains learn through connections, then a PKM environment that allows one to physically see connections should aid in enhancing our ability to learn, draw insights and be more creative. The capacity of a digital PKM system to do this is highly related to the UI/UX (user interface & user experience) of the software. I will discuss software products and systems in the next article.
Summary of Principles
The five concepts reviewed are highly intertwined. Taken altogether they suggest that PKM has the capacity to not only aid in remembering things in the future, but also in altering the path of future thinking in a deliberate way. PKM can even stimulate the realizations of insight and creative thinking. But all of these great benefits depend highly on the way in which one treats their PKM over time. The advent of computers and easy to use visual interfaces can make it easier for anyone to more easily develop an optimal system catered to their personal needs.
In the next article (coming soon), I’ll be discussing how some existing systems can aid in applying these concepts effectively to PKM. I’ll also review the pros and cons of each and explain a new product designed for optimal PKM that is coming your way soon.