Types of Notes in a PKM explained with a Gardening Analogy (Part I)
If you’re new to PKM, I recommend starting by reading What is a Personal Knowledge Management system (PKM)?.
A skeptic would call a PKM a glorified set of notes the same way I used to call an SQL database a glorified Excel sheet. It wasn’t until I realised just how much more an SQL database provides in terms of design and features that I stopped belittling it. By applying my knowledge and using it regularly, a database became more than just rows and columns to me.
I think the same can be said about notes in a PKM. They’re not just notes. For us to be successful in creating our own PKMs that will feed us for the rest of our lives, we need to reconfigure the way we view note-taking.
Let’s start with that. Note-taking is an outdated term for describing what people are nowadays trying doing with a PKM.
As Nick Milo puts it, note-taking is just the capture step; the larger process at play is note-making where you don’t just write a note but contend with the idea you’re putting in it to make connections to your already existing notes. Pure capture without deeper consideration leads only to transient notes.
In the last two to three years, the advent of linked notes, ushered by a handful of PKM software developers like Roam Research and Obsidian, have enabled note-making. This is about externalising thinking in a way that establishes explicit and implicit connections among your notes.
One thing that helps me remember what note-making is about is to remember that a note is only as valuable as the contexts in which it can contribute. Seen this way, we reframe the goal from creating many notes to creating many connections among a smaller set of evergreen notes.
I think a good way to start reframing our perspective and mental models is to look at the various types of notes that we might have in your PKM.
Since it’s your PKM, you could invent as many types of notes as you want! But complex workflows only withstand the test of time if they’re whittled down to their essential components. So, our list of types of notes should be short at the beginning so we don’t let complexity build up at the structure level.
Happily, I’ve learned through selective copy-and-use that there are just two main buckets of notes:
- Atomic notes
- All other types of notes
An atomic note contains a single idea and whose sole purpose is for us to externalise what Andy Matuschak calls “a fundamental unit of knowledge work.”
All other note types exist only to assist us in developing those atomic notes and their connections.