Many people keep notebooks to jot down their ideas, but few go beyond that stage. If you've already started collecting a large amount of information and don't know how to organize it—a personal knowledge base might be a useful solution for you.
Or, even worse, you've read on the internet that a personal knowledge base will help you fix your productivity. Or creativity. Or life. And now you want to find out which method is better.
In this article, I'll tell you about the mechanisms behind personal knowledge management so that you can choose what's right for you. And not waste money on unnecessary apps, courses, templates, and consultations. This is a compilation of my personal notes that were in DM circulation for some time, as well as some past contributions to the community.
Who Am I to Take a Mic?
When I was active in the local knowledge management community, people mostly came with brand names instead of problems. Rather than asking how to write a thesis or organize a reading routine, they asked questions like: "Will Zettelkasten work for me?", "Is bullet journaling convenient?", "Does PARA really work?" or "Whose Second Brain is Better?".
I have an answer, though. I have been using the Zettelkasten method for four years and have created all my articles with its help. I’ve even co-authored a science fantasy novel, "The Plan of The Silence,” about a TikTok coach joining the Illuminati to fight the multiverse collapsing — which was more research-intensive than a Ph.D. thesis. I know for sure, as I transitioned from an academic consultant to a product manager with the help of my Zettelkasten (I learned how to code , too, but without marks on my belt).
On top of this, I didn't pay a penny to learn that stuff, and I even earned several monthly salaries worth of consultations I got via word-of-mouth.
So, people asked me for advice. In most cases, it turned out that a personal knowledge base was not needed to solve their problems. To-do lists, quality sleep, and notebooks solved most of their problems. People went back to live their lives, and I developed a solid case portfolio.
Then in 2022, I registered on Twitter and discovered where the root of evil had been.
On Twitter, every Tom, Dick, and Harry sells so hard. Second Brain, Zettelkasten, PARA, GTD; Freelancer, Carpenter, Plumber OS. Each method is the best, each method helped earn six-figure sums, and every happy owner generously shares their secrets on Gumroad. The diversity of methods and the breadth of horizons open up so fast it makes you sick.
Personal productivity is like a bustling bazaar in the East. You can bargain for a lamp with a genie, but more likely, you'll trade your cow for ordinary, non-magical beans.
Today, I will explain what knowledge management methods are, what is worth paying for, and what you cannot buy with money. No conflict of interest: here, I sell my fiction book, not consultations or templates.
The Starting Point: A Simple Notebook
When a person has too many ideas that they want to save and use later—whether their own or others—they buy a notebook. It doesn't matter if it's physical or digital; a notebook is already a knowledge base.
If the knowledge base grows too large, tools come into play—bookmarks, highlights, and different categories of entries. Notebooks multiply too, both in quantity and diversity. You install Pinterest for ideas for repairs and beautiful landscapes, iNotes for epiphanies after a shower, and browser bookmarks for articles that you never ever want to open again.
Most people stop here. And become victims of those who risk going further.
Because if luck doesn't favor you, the baggage of intellectual junk grows so much that it's already a set of pages with links, tags, categories, and volumes. It's worth calling it a personal wiki—or a personal knowledge base if you want to sound smart.
Or, you really want your junk to become a personal wiki. Because you can't work without your selection of code snippets, saved YouTube videos, and a collection of meme reactions. But digging through this pile is already unbearable, and it gets worse each time.
In the worst case, you’ve seen people on the internet who regularly dig through piles of intellectual garbage and are very successful. And you decided that if you start your own pile, everything in your life will get better. (You were wrong, and you'll spend a lot of effort and money on practices and apps that you don't need—instead of spending time with your family).
The Point of No Return: Knowledge Management Methods
At this point, you're already using specialized software for knowledge management, like Notion, Roam, or Obsidian. You've watched a couple of videos on knowledge management. And you've definitely heard about knowledge management methods.
You have used methods even in your notebook; for example, you marked important, interesting, and recipe notes with bookmarks of different colors. However, over time, the meaning of the colors was forgotten, and now the presence of recipes confuses you. Or, recipes were the only thing that mattered—but now you have to fish them out of the sea of cringy thoughts from your past self.
Knowledge management exists to solve problems like this.
A full-fledged method implies that you will record information in a certain way. For example, you may (or may not) add links between notes, add (or not add) tags to notes, and write (or not write) exclusively in the format of hierarchical lists. And if you follow the method for some time, you will achieve a specific result.
For example, Zettelkasten suggests creating very small notes, linking them to each other by common features, and regularly reviewing the resulting knowledge base. It claims that this way, you can create new things quickly from past experience, and ideas will remain evergreen and be implemented organically, accumulating additional knowledge via links over time.
On the other hand, PARA states that you should manage not knowledge but projects. If you identify areas of life tasks (family, work, finances) and collect resources to solve them, then you can effectively complete your projects. And any utilized or not-yet-needed information can be put into the archive. PARA promises that by gathering all your knowledge, goals, and tasks in one place—like on an old writing desk—it will be easier to focus and bring about changes in your life.
I’m leaving the dozens of other methods for you as a home assignment. You can get into any now, as the main thing is always to ask yourself three questions:
- What do you need to do specifically according to the method?
- What will the specific result be?
- Imagine doing it 1,000 times. Is it still worth it?
Try to answer these questions with “
cause” —> “
effect” + “
cost” pairs. For example, "if I write down notes from books I read into separate cards"—>"it will be easier for me to connect ideas from different books for a big picture.” And, to touch some grass, add “I’ll need to process every book after I read it” on top.
Which method is the best?
The hard-to-swallow truth is:
- Knowledge management methods do work.
- There is no single method that works the best due to biological reasons.
Yes, if you keep a personal knowledge base using a method —any method—you won't have to waste your energy on remembering everything. You won't lose progress, you'll learn more effectively, and you'll be able to process big sources like books or courses easily. Unlike memory, the knowledge base persists over time.
Additionally, there are powerful creative tools that are built on these methods. Obsidian is so great as it was built with the Zettelkasten method in mind. In heavyweight, there's Panda OMICS, which replaces reading hundreds of medical articles with studying patterns of diseases, drugs, and symptoms—by using a method (and AI). And that’s to name a few.
But, there's still no right method for managing personal knowledge. This is due to three reasons.
- Different methods are designed for different tasks. For example, Zettelkasten is for processing large amounts of data and literature, followed by its compilation into a creative project on a large time scale. PARA is for keeping all tasks and records in one place in order to stay focused.
- These methods work primarily by forming a habit. Your brain learns to rely on the external environment to solve problems. Any method that you come up with yourself—if it's not too complicated—will help your brain create more effectively and quickly.
- Methods won’t work without positive feedback. That is, if you don’t immediately apply your knowledge base into action—to reap tangible fruit—your brain will give you a cortisol treat so you stop wasting time on nonsense.
That's right, three reasons. A person can only remember seven things, and five of those slots are already taken up by things like food, sex, and cat videos by default. Thus, the
hollywar debate over which personal knowledge management method is the best will not cease by design.
This is because comparing the effectiveness of methods is hard, and reproducing such comparisons is harder. In addition, most people don't face tasks and live lifestyles where they need a second brain. As a result, they crack nuts with sledgehammers and write blogs comparing which helium is best to fill their MRI machine—which they use to find small coins in pants before doing laundry.
And at the end of the day, an opened notebook on your table in plain sight, with today’s tasks handwritten, is very likely to improve your productivity better than any app. And sticker notes on your screen (and fridge) will nail personal knowledge management and habit tracking.
Why do people get caught up in it all?
Because selling magical rituals that will solve all your problems is a great business, probably the oldest on the planet. Especially if getting rid of the existential futility costs only $10 for a book, $50 for a Notion template, or $2,999 for a course with Tiago Forte—depending on the depth of your wallet and despair.
Due to aggressive advertising and social comparison, people actively implement personal knowledge base methods. Then they retransmit how good it feels as part of their post-purchase behavior. And due to the already invested efforts and money, as well as self-mythification, they deny the lack of results due to loss aversion. The circle is closed.
And after seeing happy and successful people on the internet, another business decides to implement a Zettelkasten. For themselves and their employees, hoping to increase yields from their cows without increasing the feed portion. I did it, too, and the article about my knowledge management sins will follow.
No method of creating a personal knowledge base gives positive effects without investments of time and effort. Even with AI. Period.
Even PARA, designed to make life easier and clearer, won't have an effect if you don't spend hours on meticulous note-taking and task management.
So are personal knowledge bases bad?
No! If you are working with large quantities of information, create a lot, and need to mobilize your resources fast, knowledge management methods are created for you.
Take video editors, researchers, or developers: they are loaded with data and code. They keep asset libraries, organize sources and citations, and use version control to manage code. They all do a form of personal knowledge management to survive. But would they do it for fun?
Finally, let’s consider the cost.
Two hours a week for note-taking add up to eight hours a month. That’s enough to finish a bad or start a good Photoshop course. Learn how to photobash and use Midjourney to create exactly what you want, not what the AI-god giveth. Down to the smallest details. And you can do it for other people who care enough to pay.
Voilà—and you have a portfolio and that infamous side hustle™.
What’s a better return on 8 focused hours of your life—getting started with this, or a dozen notes with deep thoughts™, 3 resources (2 Medium articles and that only video you weren’t lazy to save), and 5% progress in the "Self-Improvement" area of PARA?
Everybody answers for themselves.
For me, the best thing would be if you went and bought our book. It will give me a financial incentive to write more stories for you based on experience and experimentation. A great contrast to heroic capitalistic fantasy ads in disguise, isn’t it?