Personal knowledge management: Three pitfalls to avoid

Some PKM tools users do too much. Don't make your note-taking feel like work, if it should feel like play.

Many people, who regularly dabble into the “productivity sphere” have heard of the proclaimed benefits of starting a “second brain”, a “personal knowledge management system” (try saying this three times, and you will end up saying “knowledgement”) or a note-taking system. However you want to call it, it basically refers to outsourcing your thinking to a system outside your brain. Most people use something like Roam Research, Obsidian, or LogSeq for it, even though there are many other programs as well.

Some folks have asked me stuff about how I use these tools. I have a somewhat negative perspective (or realistic? Hit me up if you disagree!) on this topic, because I think there are some caveats to it, that people starting the practice should care about, especially those that potentially hinder your productivity more than they enable it.

Here I will talk about the three main pitfalls somebody might fall into if they start their own second brain journey and how you can navigate them:

The “productivity”-trap
The “simplicity”-trap
The “cognitive overload”-trap

My main purpose of this is not to talk people out of it – I just want you to have a more realistic view of it, so you aren’t disappointed at the end, after spending too much time with it. I also want to provide you with strategies to navigate these pitfalls and some additional resources that might be helpful.

Another disclaimer before we start: even if you fall into these traps, that’s okay – you will learn a lot, like me when I realized that I shouldn’t just copy and paste stuff in my system, basically creating a second Wikipedia. If you fall into one of these traps, you still have a great note-taking tool, and that’s better than not having one.

The “productivity”-trap

With so many productivity gurus, claiming that their system is the best, or they found the next “perfect” note-taking app, it’s easy to spend too much time on how you can exactly set up your second brain or which tool is the best, in hunt of the proclaimed, magical productivity and creativity gains. This has been true for me at least, as I tend to “overoptimize” everything.

In this trap, you spend too much time creating the perfect hammer for a nail that is never to come. You take “improving your personal knowledge management system” as an excuse to actually work.

Now, you can just trust your guru-of-choice and buy their $700 personal knowledge management course, but I highly suspect that you throw the adapted system overboard because it didn’t fit your needs.

Instead, you could, what I find to be a more intuitive and cheaper alternative, let it adapt itself to your needs, by working more with it.

Think of it as a climbing shoe made with leather. Normally, when you buy climbing shoes made with leather, you buy a smaller size, because it adapts to your size. The more you wear it, the faster it adapts. You take the trade-off of having a shoe that is too tight because you know it will fit perfectly the more you wear it.

Similarly, you could think of your second brain. Choose any system on how to set up a second brain. Just choose any, that you think will most likely fit your needs (this doesn’t matter so much, as you will change it down the road). Then work with it. Like hard. Test out your edge cases. What are typical tasks you will need your note-taking system for? Adapt the system where you need to.

The “simplicity”-trap

In essence, second brain tools look pretty simple. In most programs, you have an empty page, where you can write down stuff. In some, you have the ability to link pages and blocks with other pages and blocks. No black magic here.

Some deviate from this, but most attend to this standard.

So what is it all about?

I believe that having a second brain and working on it is easy in practice, but hard theoretically.

Personal knowledge management systems are a very niche topic on the internet. Especially, the more detailed it gets, the more religious it gets too. There is this grand confusion in the community on questions like “How do I link stuff up, so I can find it later?”, “How can I maximize serendipity in my notes?” or “Where do you write stuff down?”. When hard, unobvious questions arise, people tend to make their answers part of their identity. The more dogmatic your answers to these questions are, the harder you distinguish yourself from these clueless people, who don’t know how they can use the true benefits of a personal knowledge management system. And the more you believe yourself that you are not wasting time on building a system you are not using.

What I am trying to get across here is: personal knowledge management systems look simple from the outside, but if you jump down the rabbit hole, it’s hard to come out of it again. Be adaptable and don’t make a system part of your identity.

Be aware of the fact that you will have a quick grasp on how the tool you chose works, but be prepared that it will feel like you don’t know anything truly about how to build a good system. And that’s okay. You will learn on the way.

The “cognitive overload”-trap

The further you get into building a PKM system, the harder it gets to actually write down information.

Think of your first baby steps on your initial pages. You had no clue on how to write down stuff properly, so you just did it. It felt like play and not like work.

Now, the more you know (the more you jump down the rabbit hole) about how to write down stuff properly or how it could be done, the more you are worried about how and where you write down information and in which way. This can lead to the extreme, where the productivity benefits you hope to gain from using such a tool are hindered by this additional effort. Sometimes you won’t even write stuff down, because you are anxious it will just clutter up your note-taking system.

How can you reduce the cognitive overload when you want to write stuff down? Again, build a system that works for you. Something that doesn’t feel like work to you. Something that is brain-friendly to your brain.

Many people in the community treat [[Niklas Luhmann]] as their prophet and argument, why you should keep a rigidly managed system. Some who “did” it.

But what many people miss is a quote from one of his interviews (sadly in German, sorry).

“I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it, if I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”

Niklas Luhmann, this interview. English subtitles available.

Similarly, there are many people, e.g. Seneca (and other ancient philosophers) and Leonardo da Vinci, that keep a so-called “Commonplace Book“: Books filled with insights, thoughts, quotes or other thought-provoking information in an unorganized manner.

That’s as easy as a PKM system could get. And it worked for them – probably because it didn’t feel like work to them, rather like play.

Conclusion

All the traps are connected and intertwined with each other. When you avoid one, you are most likely avoiding another trap too.

So my advice to you, setting on for your note-taking journey, is, don’t be harsh on yourself and don’t make something as helpful and freeing as having a smooth note-taking experience feel like work, ruining the experience in the process.

Choose any system you intuitively like, work with it, and adapt it to your needs as you go. Maybe your system ends up being “I just randomly input information on my daily notes page and tag it with relevant pages” or something more sophisticated, like [[Niklas Luhmann]]s [[Zettelkasten]].

Final Words

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