Curating Your Knowledge to Grow Exponentially

After capturing and clarifying, we also need to cultivate data for our purposes

This is the fourth of my series about creating a Knowledge Management System or a KMS. To recap, a KMS allows you to systematically capture, organize, and archive info that we consume every day. This allows you to offload your brain, and allow freedom in terms of creativity and curiosity in putting our ideas into fruition.

The first part of a KMS is capturing the data we consume, through an Inbox or a “landing page” that we implement for every type of media, physical and virtual.

The second part is clarifying the captured data and organizing them into actionable tasks and other buckets of activity (i.e., Projects, “Waiting For” lists, Calendar and Todo lists, etc.) This is where most of the work is being done.

This post talks about managing your References, which holds all of the unactionable non-project info for later lookup.

As I mentioned before, you can practice the parts separately without creating a KMS as these make you more productive by themselves, but putting these together will make your productivity more effective exponentially.

Organizing your References

In my post about clarifying captured knowledge in your workspace, we talked about first checking if the item is actionable or not. If the item is not actionable, we can either put it into Reference or in a Project.

About the Second Brain System

I mentioned before that one of my inspirations in creating a KMS is Tiago Forte’s Second Brain system. To summarize his system, info can be categorized into PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives).

Projects pertain to a group of ideas and actions relating to a goal, Areas are for long-term goals and responsibilities, Resources are items that may be useful in the future, and Archives are for inactive items from the first three categories.

In my KMS, I’ve looped “Resources” and “Archives” into a single References section on its own. It is essentially the same, but I’ve drilled down more into the different forms we can organize the items into.

Forms of Reference

While working on a lot of iterations of my KMS for several years, for References, I tend to categorize them into 5 types:

  • Discrete Ideas
  • Lists for Lookup
  • Trackers
  • Formal Notes
  • Archives

discrete idea stands on its own, and you want to take note of it as it appeals to or resonates with you. It can be a shower thought, something you realized while walking a stroll, or some snippet you read while browsing.

An example of a discrete idea is a specific quote about “Mastery” that I read somewhere — “Mastery is finding gaps in your ability or knowledge and filling it with purposeful analysis and focused experimentation.

Lists for Lookup are your ideas grouped by a topic. You’ve likely done some generic lists before. You created this list because you think you might be able to use this sometime soon. Some examples are “Meal Plan Choices”, “My Laptop Specs” or “My Windfall Wishlist”.

Trackers are data that you need to take note of regularly for a purpose. For example, I keep a tracker of my expenses every day so that in a month I can get actionable data on my spending. I also keep a weight tracker weekly so that I know whether the diet and exercise I’m doing are effective. Usually, this is tracked by a unit of time (like daily or weekly), as we want to track our progress.

Trackers can also be spreadsheets (or even databases) we need to maintain, where lists are not enough to manage the data to our liking.

I tend to use Formal Notes for long reads or courses. I take down what I think is important for later recall and summarize them into lists or discrete ideas. Sometimes they even inspire me to create trackers.

The Archives hold inactive Projects or ideas/notes that may still be needed in the future. This can also contain info that is too important to delete outright but does not need to be readily accessible.

Maintaining your References

Usually, our workspace is our front and center and there is less priority in maintaining references. Most of the time we are focused more on actionable info as it is tied to our productivity, but we should make it a point to update and trim our references in our daily and weekly reviews to prevent them from becoming stale.

Physical references like documents should also be updated once in a while so that they are easy to reach. You might even opt to take a picture or soft copy of them using OCR for even easier recall.

I have an album of pictures for document references in my Google Photos. It contains pictures of IDs, receipts, schedules, QR codes, screenshots, and other things I need to get back to. If I need to refer to it in my notetaking apps, I add the URL.

Use of Links and Tags

We should maintain a system of links and tags, in conjunction with a search function with our KMS. Links allow you to connect related notes and tasks, and you can link to them multiple times, which facilitates creating a web of ideas.

Tags allow us to categorize items by topic. We also know this as a “hashtag” in social media apps. We can add multiple tags to an item, and searching for a tag will yield all of the items that have that tag.

Tags are also pretty powerful as you can link not only concepts but also other metadata, like statuses (ex. #archived, #live, etc), or date time (ex. #20240201). Another way is to create contexts, like long-term goals or responsibilities (ex. #3postsperweek, #kids, #finances, etc).

Using the Zettlekasten Methodology

One of my inspirations for maintaining discrete ideas is Zettlekasten. Since we are already using links and tags, implementing this in some way can be considered, but this is not required.

Basically, for Zettlekasten, you need to decide on a single unit that can constitute a note (Principle of Atomicity). A single idea should be a single note. Then you can link subtopics and create sub-notes based on this one note. This would eventually build into a web of notes connected by links and tags.

I find that my discrete ideas and formal notes can be organized in this way. As an example, I use Obsidian’s graph view to see the various links my notes have organically grown into. I want to see how the links I create can eventually bridge ideas between non-related categories. This is where you will be able to find great value in your KMS.

How to Summarize Formal Notes

Formal Notes are useful in capturing long-form resources, but for these to be practical in our lives we need to take the gist and the lessons from these resources. We can’t memorize a book cover to cover for it to become useful, eventually we should take what is memorable and summarize it for later recall.

The Second Brain system recommends the use of Progressive Summarization. This means that for any notes we take we should optimize for discoverability (making it digestible) and understanding (not losing context).

We can start this by putting our formal notes in the archive, and then create new discrete notes based on the formal notes. We need to distill the ideas into the language that we know so that we can recall them when we look up the notes.

This is why highlighting passages in books does not have a high recall value. It is because it is in the voice of the author. We need to summarize it to our benefit and make it our own.

How to Maintain Trackers

Simple tables are the basic trackers we can implement. But sometimes we may need more ways of handling and analyzing the data, and so we can use spreadsheets or databases. Spreadsheets enable us to use formulas, sorting, and other features that make data analysis easier.

However, trackers need to be maintained often as data can easily rot if left alone. I recommend having only the ones you can practically maintain. And also, don’t track for the sake of tracking. I’ve experienced tracking my meals every day for a year but I didn’t have anything to show for it. I didn’t lose weight and gained some more.

Trackers should help you build a system or a habit you want to maintain. Make use of the data regularly to find trends and ideas to achieve your goals. You should include this practice in your weekly and monthly reviews.

Wrapping Up

I’ve written how to organize our References, coming from our Workspace into credible and contextual notes.

Once we’ve built this system of capture-clarify-cultivate, we will be able to unlock incredible productivity and potential. We will be able to form new habits and be more creative in our endeavors.

At least for me, I’m using my KMS as the engine for my blogs and other personal goals. I can even imagine mine can be big enough to become a huge generational resource in the future, given enough time. Perhaps I can even strap a ChatGPT bot to the data I’ve collected.

In the next post of this series, I will be talking about Calendars and their part in my KMS.