PKM: How I Organise Myself
Posted on Sunday September 17, 2023
Before starting this article, I don't profess to be an expert on personal knowledge management or anything close to one. This article describes how I've built up my own routine and how I record my notes alongside that. There are loads of articles out there that share other ideas, including Elizabeth Butler's excellent compendium of PKM-related content. Please use this article as inspiration and create your own PKM system from it.
First Of All: Why?
I've always been someone who thrives on making lists and staying organised, the small dopamine hits every time I can cross something off tend to fit well with my personality and provide little rewards during the working day. I already used Google Keep excessively to track things I was working on in side projects, blog post ideas, jobs around the house, what's going on with my cars, even tracking which games I have and have played! However, my day-to-day work still remained something that was organised through an email inbox or a bunch of unread Teams messages.
I first read Oli Wood's post on TODO lists and how he uses them to organise his work effectively for the week, and started on a similar system while I still worked for Tesco Bank.
This was a great start! I was suddenly able to write down each morning what I had coming up for the day and prioritise when it inevitably changed. More importantly I was able to focus on the "big rocks" every now and then, and ensure that each week was working towards a larger goal. Inevitably, things would change and move around enough such that a week's list, even a day's list would never be fully completed, but it allowed me a small amount of control in what was otherwise a fairly chaotic working day with far too many changes for my organised brain to handle.
There were some important distinctions I made early on between Oli's approach and mine:
- I didn't send my list to my manager each week: how we tracked and performed in our roles was less important than what was happening in a broader sense with our teams and projects, and this didn't align well with how I reported this
- Eventually, the big rocks started to disappear and weren't as important as getting through the current week was (this was a good indication of burnout and how things were getting on top of me, a topic for another time)
- Emails didn't tend to make it into the list. This was a mistake on my part, as I in effect had two lists I was maintaining and trying to track against
This was just about cutting it at Tesco Bank, where I didn't have nearly enough time to focus on learning or personal growth and was more focused on surviving the day-to-day, but things were changing. I was going to be moving to Booking.com shortly and becoming an IC (individual contributor) - able to focus more on driving larger business value through more complex projects, and part of that job was going to be managing my own personal and technical growth along the way.
There were some goals I wanted to achieve at the same time as tracking my day-to-day progress:
- Capture knowledge and articles: I wanted to track everything interesting I'd read, but internally and externally, and collect it in a place I could easily dig it back up and find relevant context
- Split the files up a little more, my
todo.mdfile had become quite large over the years and I wanted to have an easily searchable and browsable way to look at historic information
- Review the weeks and larger periods, so I could track if my personal growth was happening or I was running into the same challenges I ahd in the past about becoming overwhelmed
I started looking into personal knowledge management (PKM) workflows and used my notice period to experiment with the right way to set things up. The rest of this article will detail what I use day-to-day in my current position at Booking.com to organise myself.
My primary PKM tool is Obsidian, a lovely Mac application that has a few plugins and extensions that make things easy to manage. I use the following plugins with it to drive my workflow:
- Advanced Tables: makes it easy for me to create tables where I need them, and to format them nicely. I occasionally use these to record and organise more detailed information within projects
- Better Word Count: I don't want to spend too much time writing the context around an article and correcting myself, this helps me to be concise and brief
- Dataview: this is awesome. It lets you build queries and display contextual information within files based on tags, properties and other metadata. I use this to organise my projects and display relevant information in one place
- Kanban: this turns some of todo list items into an actual board, something I've been experimenting with to make my daily list a little more visual and trackable, however I haven't found the right balance here just yet
- Markdown Table Editor: combined with Advanced Tables above, it makes it a lot easier to build and manage tables instead of incessantly typing pipes and hyphens to build rows and columns - tables aren't an easy creation in Markdown
- Periodic Notes: automatically manages daily and weekly notes, a core part of my PKM
In addition, I have some very quick tooling written in Python with Click that I use to perform some common tasks (I never shy away from a quick bit of automation to make my life easier):
pkm start-day- opens Obsidian with my weekly and daily notes in place and pinned, with a new daily note created and my incomplete items from yesterday copied over
pkm start-week- triggered automatically at the start of each week, it copies over my weekly goals I didn't make and creates the weekly list based on my focus items
pkm end-day- commits all changes into my Git repository and closes Obsidian for the day
pkm end-week- triggered automatically on a Friday, it checks I've completed my weekly review before allowing the commit to go ahead
The folder structure for tracking everything has changed a little since the start, but allows me to keep a clear boundary between items without enforcing rigidity too much, as I was originally spending too much time thinking about what should go where and why.
My workflow was heavily inspired by Michelle Mac's walkthrough. There are tons of helpful articles on PKM on her website!
My vault is stored in Git so I have a history of the changes I've made over time and so that I have it nicely backed up too.
This is where I place all of my new notes as I'm writing them and I don't want to worry about where to put them just yet. Once a week I'll run through these and organise them into other sections, tagging them appropriately so I can easily find them later. I keep a couple of files here permanently to keep me occupied when I have some downtime too, such as when I'm on the train:
- ideas - I document any ideas I have for small or medium projects or improvements I can make to systems and tools under my scope
- links-to-read - Self-explanatory, every time someone sends me something I should have a look at, I'll track it here so I can read it and compile some more information on it later when I have time to digest it properly
I usually have multiple large-scale projects on the go that I am involved in from various angles, and this allows me to track the progress of each of the projects and the goals, progress and notes for each one. I use tagging and the Dataview plugin to bring in relevant contextual information here.
Once a project is deemed to completed, or handed over, I'll conduct a self-review of how it went from my perspective, and make sure I document any areas of improvement I can make for next time.
This section is still a bit of a work in progress, but right now I use this to track my people related notes. There are over 2,500 people working on engineering at Booking.com, and I often meet someone new. I want to be able to build context and a relationship where I can, and this allows me to easily record what everyone is doing so I have a way to take that out of my mind. In the future, I may use this to track 1-2-1 notes for us as well.
I'll example this eventually to cover different departments and areas within Booking.com that I want to capture information on separately.
My links and articles go here, along with the primary summary of learnings I took from each one. I heavily use tagging and properties to make sure I can easily find relevant information again.
I keep my yearly, quarterly and weekly reviews in this folder. I have templates for each section that prompt me to think about what I achieved each time and what I could be doing better.
This is where any files that are linked into the notes are stored - it keeps them from clogging up individual folders.
Any Kanban boards I've created or am trying out live here. THere are some for individual projects and an overall one at the moment.
All of my daily notes live in this folder.
Templates for each of my folders are grouped in this folder, and are used in some of my automation to drive through automatic creation of the relevant files and notes.
My routine hasn't changed much since my TODO list days.
At the start of each week, I record what I want to do for each of my big rocks and tag them appropriately so they link back to projects, people or areas. These tend to be larger TODO list items that may take a bit more time and can't be broken down so easily, but the important thing is that they should be achievable.
There are a couple of major differences from my original routine. I now record what I'm not going to be working on each week - things that I have de-prioritised or simply don't have time for. This is important as I'm making an active decision not to focus on these items as much as I am to focus on the aforementioned important ones. Secondly, I use this list to build my weekly plan for my director and my peers, so they know what I'm focusing on and why. Then, if there are any opportunities for collaboration or cohesion, we can make time for each other.
On a day-do-day basis, when I start work in the morning my routine now looks a little more like this:
- Make a big coffee and turn on my laptop. Restarting my laptop each day keeps my mind clear first thing in the morning, and forces me to make any notes on what I need for the following day before I finish each evening
pkm start-dayand take a look at what I had left from yesterday
- Open Slack, Gmail and my Calendar. Make any adjustments to my calendar or meeting acceptances, and then record these within the daily list so I know what I'm attending and why
- Add any more items I need to for my list ahead of my meetings (they come last in the list, focus items are first)
- Anything that's outstanding in Gmail should be added to the list as a follow-up, and then get started replying to folks on Slack
Working predominately remotely in an asynchronous culture means we're all using Slack as the primary means of communication, which suits my working pattern immensely. My inbox is always fairly empty and this allows me to record everything in one place, something I lacked in my previous position.
At the end of the day, I'll make sure any open tabs or articles I haven't had a chance to review or ponder are marked in my list, and that everything is in a good place to close down for the day, and will then shut down my laptop. I have Slack and emails on my phone, but without notifications - if there's an emergency I have a phone number and this allows me to maintain a healthy separation despite being WFH for most of the time.
Additionally, on Friday evening, I'll review my progress and how I've performed in a "Start/Stop/Continue" mantra so that I can fully decompress over the weekend ahead of the next week's focus.
As always, there are some improvements I'd like to make to how I currently operate.
Consolidation: We use multiple tools including JIRA, Google Workspaces and Google Docs. I'd love to integrate with these where I can to automatically add my meeting invites, pull in Google Docs I've been tagged in and automatically align with JIRA issues TODOs and Kanbans: My daily list items are hand typed and not tracked with any aligned dates or larger items from my weekly or project lists. I'd like to establish a bit of a relationship here and automatically create and run Kanban boards for each day, week and project to help organise this a little more