Building a personal knowledge base

I try to unload all information that has any meaning to me from my brain to external storage because I don’t like to rely on my memory nor do I trust it.

In this blog post, I’m going to describe my current approach of working with a personal knowledge base.

Apps and methods

I tried a lot of different tools and methods to store knowledge. I haven’t found an optimal solution yet, but here are my takeaways working with some of them

Evernote

As far as I recall that was my first app for storing information. It was slow and buggy. After the first major sync issue, which resulted in some documents loss, I stopped using it.

Simplenote

Free note-taking service with great apps both for macOS and iOS. I used it for a couple of years but then abandoned for some reason I couldn’t recall anymore.

TheBrain

This isn’t a usual note-taking app, but rather something similar to a mindmap tool. You create nodes, which might contain text, images, video, or other media. Then you could link them to each other. A very powerful tool for mapping all your knowledge. Check for example Jerry’s brain which he curates for more than 20 years.

The major drawback for me was that such approach requires time to manage the base. You can’t just open it on your smartphone to save a short note or check for some information.

Bear

Great writing app with a lot of features. I used it for a while, but somehow it didn’t work well with my way of storing knowledge.

Zettelkasten method

In a nutshell, it’s a method when you store each piece of information in a separate file with a unique ID (usually the current timestamp). Then you interlink them using these IDs. You can use this method basically with every note-taking app and even with paper cards. The method’s inventor Niklas Luhmann had more than 90 000 such cards.

I used TheArchive app which was created especially for this method. It was great but the lack of an iOS app and no way of inserting images brought me to looking for something else.

Apple Notes

That’s what I currently use. It’s a pretty basic note-taking app compared to the apps I used before. But since it integrates very well with iOS and macOS, it makes note taking and managing very convenient (even on iPhone). I decided that at this point it’s more important for me than other features.

To search notes I use search-notes-app Alfred workflow. To quickly save notes I use the Keyboard Maestro macros (store from the clipboard, store from text input).

When I come across information that I’d like to store I add it to a new temporary note, which is automatically saved in the “Notes” folder that I use as my inbox. I don’t edit nor categorize it right away to avoid interrupting my current workflow. Then every once in a while I go over all notes in “Notes” folder and process them.

Other tools

I haven’t used them myself, but I did read a lot of positive reviews. So if you’re in the seek of the best knowledge management tool maybe one of these would be the one.

  • Microsoft OneNote — Looks similar to Apple Notes, but with tagging and more features.
  • nvALT — A simple app that stores notes as plain-text files. It’s blazingly fast and has a great UX.
  • Emacs org-mode — An Emacs mode for keeping notes. Has a ton of features like TODOs, calendar, tables, and planning.
  • GitBook — Converts Markdown files to a neat web-based wiki. Good choice if you want to make your knowledge base public.
  • Notion — all-in-one web service for managing notes, wiki, spreadsheets, and other types of documents. Seems a bit overcomplicated for managing just the knowledge base.

What to store

It’s totally up to you what worth storing and what not. My rule of thumb, which I try to apply to everything I do, is to start simple, then analyze and iteratively improve the process. Same here, don’t try to archive the whole Internet. Start by unloading your brain from personal information (like people, thoughts, dates) which might be the biggest burden on your brain, because this information is hard or impossible to recover, so you are obliged to keep it in your memory.

Here are also some other not-so-obvious types of information I find worth saving:

Checklists

When you occasionally have to do something that involves multiple actions it’s worth creating a checklist for that, so you don’t have to think about whether you did everything right or missed some point.

For example, I have a list of items I need while traveling. Using it I can make my backpack ready for a trip in 15 minutes.

Important dates

Dates that I want to be reminded about I store in Things and Google Calendar. But there are also dates that I want to refer to occasionally, but don’t want to get reminded about (e.g., when I moved to another country). I have a separate note for them in my knowledge base.

People

I keep a list of all my acquaintances and their related information such as their workplace and where did we meet.

Places

For every country, I have a separate note where I collect all interesting places. So before planning a trip to a country I usually have already a couple of places worth visiting.

Thoughts and facts about general topics

When I stumble upon some interesting fact about a topic, or a thought comes to my mind I save them to the topic’s note.

Check also related blog post by Derek Sivers about benefits of topic journals.

Other people’s knowledge bases

Here are some great knowledge bases where you can find a lot of useful and interesting information, and also see how other people manage their bases.

Hi 👋
My name is Kirill Maltsev. I blog about building and growing web products.
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