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Newsletter #33: Personal Knowledge Management

The last few years have been a boon for those interested in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) tools. The purpose of PKM tools is to help individuals effectively manage ideas, projects, and thoughts alongside the deluge of information consumed and processed daily. These tools are also described as personal knowledge bases (PBMs), personal information management tools (PIMs), "second brains," tools for thought, and simply note-taking apps.

While it’s not my intention to provide a comprehensive list of these tools, popular ones include Notion, Roam, Obsidian, RemNote, Craft, Supernotes, and Agenda. Naturally, these are preceded by stalwarts like Evernote, OneNote, and DevonThink.

Note-taking tools are a critical piece of my blogging and newsletter workflow. It's essential to have a place to capture, explore, expand, and refine my ideas over time. PKM tools facilitate this process.

The habit of note-taking enhances memory, starting with the simple act of recording a thought or idea. While some of my notes are temporary to-do items meant to be discarded, other notes are saved for the long term. Some call these “permanent” or “evergreen” notes. These types of notes are not one-off events. After being recorded, they can be revisited and reconsidered. Nor are they static; they can grow, change, and evolve. More time spent with these ideas fosters the discovery of new facets, angles, connections, and insights. It's a great way to have an ongoing conversation with my past, present, and future selves about something interesting. It’s also a great way to engage with others through writing or conversation—two natural outputs of an effective knowledge base.

My current setup is a combination of index cards, email, Ulysses (for writing), Bear (for Zettelkasten), and Craft (for everything else)—apologies Windows and Android users, the apps are macOS or iOS only.

Lately, however, I find I'm not using my current tools the way I'd like.

Sometimes it's worth asking if you’re using the tool incorrectly or if it’s the wrong tool altogether. While it’s possible to conform to a tool and its workflow (as with "opinionated software"), there are some cases where I prefer flexible solutions that better conform to my preferences. In the case of note-taking, the tool should facilitate the desired activities—idea capture, processing, exploration, connection, composition, revision, publishing—not hinder them.

The well-regarded PKM tool Obsidian recently launched a private beta for mobile users (iOS and Android). Since my iPad is my primary note-taking and writing device, I decided it was time to give Obsidian a serious look and reassess my workflow. Though I'm wary of "shiny new object syndrome,” Obsidian ticks almost all the listed criteria I wrote about last year in my search for the ideal iOS Zettelkasten solution.

So far, I'm impressed with Obsidian on several counts:

  • The standard application is free (unlike alternatives like Roam which is quite pricey). However, if you want access to the mobile beta, you need to make a one-time payment for access to early builds.
  • It’s available on multiple platforms (not just Mac and iOS).
  • The app uses local files and plain text. This is an important feature, it ensures data portability, durability, and app-agnosticism.
  • It offers standard Markdown support (Markdown Guide for Obsidian).
  • The customization features and plugin extensibility are great: first party and third-party functionality can be added to suit individual needs without encumbering the app with dreaded feature creep. Here’s a list of official plugins.
  • The bi-directional linking (aka backlinks) and graph view features are cooler than I anticipated.
  • The interface, while not as slick as Ulysses or Craft, is better than expected.
  • I was surprised that I like writing in Obsidian. So much so that I drafted and composed this week’s newsletter with it (though I still performed the final editing via Ulysses).
  • There's an active and friendly community which is a helpful resource and a great indicator of user enthusiasm.

While I'm still early in my evaluation of Obsidian, I'd love to hear from others on their note-taking setup and system. If you have any advice or strong opinions on the topic, I'm all ears.

Shoutout to newsletter reader Eszter C. whose thoughtful correspondence on note-taking inspired me to revisit Obsidian and reassess my current workflow. She writes about innovation, creativity, and science at her excellent blog Enlightened Cloud.

She also recommends this excellent piece by Joel Chan Knowledge Synthesis: A Conceptual Model and Practical Guide which provides great insights for note-taking and observation. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Now onto this week's recommendations…


  • How Fit Can You Get from Just Walking?: You can lose weight and develop a consistent habit, but it won’t change your body composition (i.e., you won’t build muscle).
  • How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian: Josh Duffney describes his implementation of Zettelkasten using the popular personal knowledge management tool.
  • The Identity Hoaxers: “What if people don’t just invent medical symptoms to get attention—what if they feign oppression, too?”
  • India’s Mini-Craze for Bicycling around the World: Nearly 100 years ago, before paved roads and satellite communications, a trio of adventurous Indian cyclists embarked on a four-and-half-year, 40,000-mile journey through 27 countries.
  • The Learning Loop of Knowledge Work: Nick deWilde’s approach to managing information overload and making ourselves smarter: cultivate your inputs, mine for insight, and share your learnings.
  • Long Feedback Loops: The pros and cons of long vs. short feedback loops (i.e., activities that provide delayed validation vs. instant validation) and how they fit into the learning process.
  • The Weak Case for Grit: Is grit overhyped? Journalist Jesse Singal questions the lack of evidence for grit as a predictor of success.
  • Why You Should Never Quit too Early: An entrepreneur reflects, with regret, on the positive signals he missed in his failed venture.


Odds & Ends:

  • Coffee aficionado James Hoffmann recently published a 3-part video series on the AeroPress (watch Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). The AeroPress is an inexpensive manual coffee maker (Wikipedia link) and my favorite way to brew a quick and delicious cup. Of particular interest is Part 2 where Hoffmann rigorously tests several variables: grind size, water temperature, steep time, stirring vs. swirling, and plunger pressure. If you want to skip directly to his recommend AeroPress brewing technique, jump to Part 3. For what it’s worth, this is my preferred brewing method: dark roast, medium grind, inversion method, water temp just over 180 °F (82 °C), a two-minute steep time, and light pressure on the plunger. I can honestly say, having used an AeroPress for more than a decade, the results I get from this device bring a smile to my face every morning.
  • How many artists overshadow their band after going solo?Using Spotify followers as a proxy for popularity, the clever folks at The Pudding put together some interesting infographics tracking how artists like Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child), Ricky Martin (Menudo), and Teddy Riley (Blackstreet) have fared on their own.
  • Ad Fontes Media’s Media Bias Chart can help navigate a range of English-language publications (link to full publication list). The chart’s x-axis indicates left/right bias and the y-axis measures the degree of factual vs. fallacious information. I’ll leave it to readers to determine the validity of Ad Fontes’ methodology and summation.
  • I chanced upon the Media Bias Chart while checking out Their News, a site helps readers find news from across the spectrum of political bias (ostensibly to challenge your thinking, rather than confirm it). It’s bookmarked alongside similar sites I previously highlighted in this newsletter: AllSides, Ground News, and Newscompare.

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