25+ Years of Personal Knowledge Management. From scattered ideas to networked thoughts
In this post, I describe my entire Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system and its evolution over 25+ years
In this article, I'm going to dissect my entire Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system and how it has evolved over the years. I'll describe the information I keep, and where I currently store it. I'll also cover the tools I use and why I chose them. I'll tell you how I capture/organize/share data and how everything fits together. I'll also try to describe the different processes I use to keep the system "under control".
Like many other digital natives, my Personal Knowledge Management system has evolved a lot over the years. I've accumulated many terabytes of data, and store my information all over the Internet. A gazillion 0s and 1s spread across the entire planet. That growth was organic, but I've made conscious design choices over time to keep things manageable.
In this article, I'll use the terms "personal data" and "personal knowledge management" (PKM) interchangeably. Those are separate but closely related concepts, but it's not very important what I want to discuss with you. So don't get mad right away 😂
Take this content with a grain of salt. My system is always in flux and that's the way it should remain. There's no perfect system. It's all very personal. Writing this article is also an opportunity for me to reflect on what still makes sense and what does not.
Alright, let's dive in!
The early days
I started taking notes when I received my first computer, a Commodore 64. Before that, I didn't think much about writing things down. School only taught me how to write, but not why it was great to be able to!
There I was, staring at a blinking cursor for the first time in my life. It was calling me. Hoping for me to write some things down. So I obliged. And I loved it. Writing text and BASIC code was great, but I needed to save my data. When I turned the machine off, my text was gone. I had to start all over again. How frustrating!
I was lucky because I received a floppy disk drive together with my computer. I had a bunch of 5 1/4 floppy disks, each of which could store a whopping 360KB of data (!). To be honest, at the time it felt INFINITE. I could store seemingly endless amounts of text onto a single disk. That is, until the dreaded "RAT-AT-AT-AT-AT" sound indicated that the data could not be read anymore. Gasp...
During those early days, I learned about saving files, naming them, etc. Those were good lessons. Proper data management starts with clear and consistent naming. I quickly realized that the names were critical for me to be able to retrieve the content later on. I made tons of mistakes and lost my journal more than once along the way.
Unfortunately, my Commodore is long gone, and I have no idea what happened to my old floppy disks. It would be fun to find those back. But the lessons I've learned during those early days are still relevant today.
Early PC era
Later on, around 1994, I got my first PC: an Intel i486DX2. I was ~11 years old. That's when I started exploring the Web and collecting information. My uncle was into computers and taught me a lot. He was the one that got me interested in hacking. At the time, I didn't realize that computers were new for most people on earth. My brain did not register the fact that the world was just leaving the "dark ages" (sorry for the older folks 😂).
From that point on, I never stopped having fun with computers. I launched and fiddled with every program I could put my hands on. I could never get enough. At the time, paper magazines were super popular in France and Belgium. There were many publications dedicated to computers and video games. Some of those can still be found online. I remember PC Magazine, PC Loisirs, Player One, Joypad, Nintendo Magazine, and others.
Those magazines often included CDs filled with images, free programs, shareware, demos, and other goodies. It was endless fun to read and explore those. I started collecting the things I found interesting, without realizing I was curating content. I took notes about which programs were cool, how to use them, I saved files I created using those, etc. At the time I simply created
notes.txt files next to the programs.
I tried all the possible tweaks I found and broke my computer a few times along the way. But I didn't care, it was my personal laboratory. I did not imagine for one second that I was actually orienting my future career already 😂
I vividly remember a magazine called La Bible des Tips, which was a compendium of thousands of video game secrets, tips & tricks. I would create text files with those I found useful. I had countless files on my computer, and at the time it was probably an incredible mess.
Internet at home, a world-changing experience
Somewhere between 1994 and 1997, I finally had access to the Internet at home (I remember the joy!). Before that, I had to go to my uncle's to visit Websites (I went over there almost every single day).
By that time, I had become really introverted and was super shy. I preferred the company of computers. Those were predictable, fun, fascinating, and everything felt way safer behind my screen.
I had two passions in life: computers and video games. I was an addict. Every minute of free time was spent in front of a screen (Don't tell my kids... 😂). Everything in my life was centered around learning more about computers, and collecting/playing video games.
I collected paper magazines, programs, tried all the Linux distributions I could put my hands on, and downloaded all sorts of things from the Internet. I collected images, game solutions taken from Jeuxvideo.com, GameFAQs, PC game cracks from GameCopyWorld, manga scanlations downloaded via IRC (DCC transfers FTW!), and god knows what else I found on FTP servers, newsgroups, etc.
I also wrote a lot, even if I kept it all to myself back then.
At the time, I started developing strong opinions about the importance of free access to knowledge, ideas, and culture. I discussed a lot about this on IRC. I cared about those conversations, so I kept copies of the logs. And I did the same with my other online conversations. I kept everything. I still have my old ICQ logs 😂.
I quickly accumulated TONS of data and had no choice but to develop a system to organize my information. I developed naming conventions for files and folders, and learned to love the greatest date format:
Disk space was a real problem at the time. It was a constant struggle to get everything to fit. Luckily the ZIP and RAR formats were there to help. It was a time when Windows users needed to use Defrag for hours and hours. I remember spending so much time looking at the tiny blocks moving around... Sigh 😂
Over time, hard disk drives were able to store more and more data. But those weren't cheap. Luckily, my uncle had a CD burner very early on. It was so cool!
Burning CDs for fun and profit
CDs were cool, but CD burners were next level. Once I got mine, I discovered Nero Burning ROM and fell in love with it. I started creating my own CDs as magazines did. I called those "PlayZone Rxy". I still have the 20 or so first releases. I burned all the cool utilities, demos, hacks, and fun things I found. I also created my own autorun.exe, which would display a nice menu listing the contents. Fun times. I managed to sell a number of copies to other kids at school. It was my first successful business I guess? 😂
I remember the folder structure I used for those CDs:
* Music * Notes * Software * Audio * Games * PC * <Game Name> * Notes * Savegames * PSX * Tools * Cracks * FAQs * Internet * Communication * Downloads * OS * System * Drivers * Tools * Utilities * Video * Writing
Structure brought ease of use and reduced the mental burden of knowing where to find what I needed. And the naming scheme made everything beautiful. I slowly became obsessed with data organization.
The making of a data hoarder
Between 1997 and 2000, I continued burning tons of CDs. I started making copies of PSX games and music albums.
I collected literally thousands of manga chapters. Most are probably nowhere to be found these days. Those were "scanlated" (i.e., scanned and translated) from Japanese to English by hardcore fans.
To organize my Mangas, I used a simple but effective file structure. At the top level, I simply had a folder with a letter:
# A B C ...
Inside each of those, I had one folder per series, with metadata inside brackets:
<Name> [<Metadata>]. The metadata either listed the chapters/volumes I had or indicated that I had the complete collection (for ended series). It also included the language. Some examples:
Captain Tsubasa [c001-c114 EN] Kenshin [COMPLETE EN] Ranma [01-15 FR]
Organizing those by letter was useful for multiple reasons:
- If I didn't have enough space left, I could move a letter or two to a different hard drive
- The operating system never struggled because there were too many sub-folders and files
- It was simpler and faster to find my way around
Within each folder, I made sure to correctly name all files:
If I were to start over, I would probably use something like this. But it didn't exist back then.
Organizing thousands of mangas like that represented a crazy amount of work. I did it meticulously for hundreds of hours. I suppose it was a sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I couldn't stand looking at folders and files that were not properly named/organized. Apparently, I was one of a kind because most files I've seen on other people's computers were so messy that I didn't even want to touch those).
Around that time I also started maintaining endless lists. I had a complete inventory of all my stuff. Thinking about that makes me feel pretty bad, although I know it partly led to who I am today: a very patient, organized, and meticulous person.
Aside from that, I also collected comic books, books, music (back then Napster was king), emulators & ROMs (oh dear GBATemp), PSX games (Thank you Paradox), PC games, operating systems, etc.
I defined specific folder structures and naming conventions for each type of data. I clearly became a data hoarder. I was just eager to "get it all", hoping that I could consume it all someday, somehow. Pretty naive ambition if you ask me 😂
Life didn't get any better at school... So computers, games, and data hoarding were my escape hatch from reality.
Bigger and cheaper disks, faster and faster Internet access
Over time, disks became larger and larger. Prices also dropped. The limits and constraints I had before slowly vanished. I stored even more data. Soon after 2000, I had a DVD recorder and 7–8 hard disk drives still connected to my PC. I burned tons of CDs and DVDs that I kept in numbered spindles. Every single one of those had a label with a unique identifier (e.g., DVD 067). And that matched an entry in my lists where I described the content.
Console games had beautiful covers. My room was Ali Baba's cave for computer and gaming nerds. But I kept it all to myself. It was my secret kingdom.
Around the time I got broadband Internet access, online piracy became endemic. There were endless sources of content. That's when I became a fan of cinema. I watched 2-4 films each day. I watched more and more anime and discovered Japanese and Korean movies. I couldn't get enough.
And again, I collected the data. I kept the movies, the TV shows, the documentaries. Everything. It was tough for me to just "let go". Once I had watched a good movie, I had to keep it around, like a trophy, just in case I would want to watch it again later.
I had clear naming conventions for everything. For movies:
<Engligh name> (YYYY) (EN|FR|JP|...) (<Quality>). For TV series:
<English name>\Sxy_<EN|FR|JP|...>. Consistency was essential for me to be able to stay sane. It also made it much simpler to automate various operations.
These were the days of QuickTime, RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and all that jazz. Fortunately, VLC came to save the day 🎉
I also explored Photoshop (for 2D) and Blender (for 3D), and started collecting digital assets. Patterns, backgrounds, textures, models, plugins, examples, etc. Even more data.
And there's more. I also collected music. I explored many genres and discovered that I enjoyed listening to various kinds of music. From classical to reggae, dance to metal, and blues to French rap (to name but a few). Again I spent time organizing everything properly. This was long before Spotify came along. Those were the days of Amarok, Winamp, Clementine, etc. I collected MP3 and FLAC files. I actually never heard the difference, but I still wanted to get the FLAC versions 😂.
For music I used the following naming convention:
<Letter> <Artist> <YYYY> - <Artist> - <Album> (<FORMAT>) <Artist> - <Album> - <Track Number> - <Song>
And again, as you can imagine, harmonizing the names was tough. And there was more. Sound also needed to be normalized. Fortunately, there were tools to help with that.
Later on, I became involved in various online forums and hosted/administered some myself. I remember that PhpBB was all the rage at the time. I discussed movies, TV shows, and anime with my community, sharing discoveries, ideas, new releases, subtitles, etc.
I backed up the MySQL databases regularly to make sure I could restore the service in case of an issue. Again this was a good learning opportunity as it taught me key principles about data backup and recovery. I of course also had to organize and store those backups ;-)
I paid a lot of attention to backups. I made sure to save the most important bits regularly: my books, bookmarks, mangas, music, personal notes, and Websites. I couldn't stand the idea of losing my treasures. In real life, I had so few things and people I was attached to that I probably transferred the attachment I longed for into the digital world... Who knows! Backups are a complex topic so I won't dive into that here. But if you're curious, then I'll share some details about my current system.
Aside from all that, I maintained a personal journal. Writing was always a way for me to express what I couldn't otherwise. I used raw text files (one per day <yyyy-mm-dd Journal.txt), and it worked great. I still have those old journal entries safe and sound.
I always had a huge collection of bookmarks (many of which I still haven't explored to this day 😂). I discovered many interesting sites through StumbleUpon (oh the joy of exploring the Web! ❤️). Over the years I used different approaches to manage my bookmarks. I used Delicious (RIP), XMarks (RIP), and others. Nowadays, I've decided to simplify my life, and just let Google take care of my bookmarks. I'm privacy-conscious, but I accept the risks and tradeoffs. Google knows a lot about me (probably more than I do 😂). They've got my mail, my browsing and search history, my position. Bookmarks are just a drop in the ocean in comparison.
The structure of my bookmarks has been very stable over the years:
- Fun: Anything relaxing (I check those out when I'm bored — Never)
- Future: Stuff I'm curious about but don't have a buffer for (i.e., not prioritized)
- Games: Links to board game rules I'm busy learning, Kickstarter campaigns, etc
- Home: Links to various self-hosted Web services running at home (NAS Admin UI, network appliances, etc)
- News: What I avoid looking at these days
- Now: Anything that is currently on the top of my mind
- Open: Links that I open multiple times a day (mail, task list, social media, HackerNews, etc)
- Projects: One sub-folder per project, with links to the project's homepage, GitHub repositories, etc
- Utils: Utilities I need regularly (e.g., Unsplash, calculators, translation tools, grammar checkers, etc)
- Work: Anything related to my work, freelancing clients, etc
Why I love RSS feeds
I started using RSS feeds and Google Reader around 2005–2006. I started collecting interesting feeds when I started my IT studies. Most cool Websites and blogs provided an RSS feed.
I started following tons of people who wrote interesting things about IT, software development, technology, and science. I started reading all day long the likes of Jeff Atwood, Joel Spolsky, Steve Yegge, John Perry Barlow, Dave Winer, David Heinemeier Hansson, Bruce Schneier, Ward Cunningham, Chet Haase, Romain Guy, and so many others. They were my mentors without knowing. That's the beauty of the Web.
Google Reader was really important in my life. It was the solution for me to consistently read things I cared about. I had my list of interesting sources, ordered by importance, and I chose what I wanted to read. I read Slashdot, LifeHacker, Ars Technica, Hackaday, etc.
There were countless interesting blogs to follow. Blogs about tech, photography, music, sciences, nature, writing, etc. An endless source of discoveries ✨. When I started working, I couldn't stop printing blog articles. My bag was full of those. I read non-stop during my train commutes and learned a ton.
I still use RSS nowadays even if there are way fewer sources than in the past. I currently use Feedly as my aggregator.
What I love about RSS is the fact that it makes it a breeze to avoid missing posts, but more importantly, the fact that it helps prioritize content consumption. By having an organized list of sources and prioritizing those, I can remain mindful about of I want to explore and consume first. Thanks to RSS I've thus switched from a random/serendipity-based content consumption approach to a systematic one.
Passwords and mailboxes galore
As the Web expanded, the number of credentials exploded. In the beginning, I did what everybody did, I reused a few key passwords. But I learned from my mistakes and was taught better while exploring Linux. I cannot thank enough the people who worked on the outstanding documentation of ArchLinux. It was (and remains) a real gold mine of knowledge.
I started using KeePass early on. I configured a password generator and started using it systematically. Different credentials for each Website, and even different e-mail addresses for different purposes. I had my main mail address under a pseudonym, a secondary one using my real name, yet another one for all the Websites I didn't care about (i.e., a spam box), and I also used throwaway addresses from time to time.
Of course, my KeePass database had to be organized as well. I created different folders for different purposes:
- Domains: FTP and database credentials for my domains
- eMail: e-mail credentials
- Games: CD Keys (also a remnant of the past!) and online game accounts
- Home: credentials for home appliances (routers, modems, etc)
- Identity Card pin codes
- Internet: credentials for most online services
- Computers: Linux, Windows, etc
- Phones: SIM card PIN, PUK etc
To this day KeePass remains my go-to solution for passwords, even if it suffers from really bad UI/UX. It's not perfect, but it works great, and it's safe enough.
One thing I should pay more attention to is reviewing and deleting old accounts I don't need anymore.
I use multiple KeePass databases. Usually one per major project/organization. I don't want all my eggs in the same basket. There's more to the security aspect, but I'll tell you about that another day.
For e-mail, I used Thunderbird for a long time with IMAP but finally switched over to the Web and mobile apps of GMail. As I sent and received more and more e-mails, I also needed to put some order in there. I used folders, labels, filters, and rules to organize everything. I created folders for Conferences, Games, Job listings, Meetups, Newsletters, Videos, etc. Most importantly, I created rules to automate whatever I could: mark items as read, automatically delete some, move others here and there, and even forward stuff between different mailboxes, because why not.
I still rely a lot on this system. It helps me avoid the noise and makes it easier for me to remain at inbox zero. I just added new e-mails to the mix. Fortunately, the evolution of GMail has made switching between accounts easier over time.
Mailbrew is something I should really look into to reduce the clutter and actually read more of the newsletter I'm subscribed to.
Getting Things Done: Staying on top of my time with calendars, task managers, and time trackers
When I joined "the workforce", I introduced new tools and systems into my life. Once I read Getting Things Done by David Allen, I started using Google Calendar, and never looked back.
I use different calendars for different purposes. I have calendars for the family, birthdays, public holidays, work, side projects, vacations, content publication, etc. Multiple ones are shared with other people. I'll write an article about how I use my calendar more in detail another time.
Next to that I also tested all the task managers I could get my hands on. I used and enjoyed Remember The Milk (RTM) for the longest time. After trying many others I finally settled on Trello.
I use one board per major project plus a personal one. In each of those boards, I use different columns. There's always a generic one called "Backlog", and others with endless lists of ideas and things to explore in the future. More importantly, I use temporal columns to prioritize and organize my work (e.g., this year, this month, this week, today). It works wonders and removes a lot of guesswork about what to do next.
I've been using Clockify for time tracking in order to remain realistic about the costs of my projects and to help me prepare my invoices.
I slowly became a productivity nut, to the point of burning out. Since then I've learned to love zen productivity. I still work just as hard, but I also take care of myself. That's why I liked my friend André's idea about building a sane productivity app.
Mind mapping to document and visualize everything
I became obsessed with mind maps. I used those document my processes, my organization system, my naming schemes, my PKM system, my projects, etc.
For many years I also used a mind map to keep track of my long-term goals in life. In it I explored what I wanted to learn, what I wanted to achieve, places I wanted to visit, etc. I followed David Allen's advice and used different branches of the map to explore different aspects of my life at different time horizons (e.g., this year, within 3 years, within 5, within 10). I still use that mind map but now combine it with other tools and techniques to define and review my personal plans.
Adulting, family budget, and filing papers
The transition to adulting happened faster than I had anticipated. Before I realized it, I transitioned from playing Quake and Diablo to working, having kids, and building a home for our family. Along with adulting came the boring parts: tons of stupid paperwork created by stupid administrations desperate to remain in a paper-based world. It was tough for me to accept that IT did not change the world any faster 😂
But my organized mind helped. My wife and I started scanning and filing all documents, getting rid of the paper as soon as we legally could. We had to keep some (grr) like warranty tickets, official documents, diplomas, and the like. But we threw away the rest.
I started adulting around 2007-2008. It forced me to create one more organizational system; the "documents" folder. I organized it like this:
Animals Banks <Bank Name> <YYYY> <YYYY-MM-DD> - Document description Budget <YYYY> Genealogy Home Insurances ... Inventory Invoices Manuals Persons <Name> Health Studies (e.g., files, projects, diplomas, etc) Work (e.g., CV, work-related documents, etc) ... Service providers Taxes <YYYY> Tickets <YYYY-MM-DD> - Event Writing Journal ...
Our family budget was defined in YNAB. The methodology behind YNAB helped us a lot.
Next to that I started investing, so I also needed to keep track of my investments, the costs involved, when I bought what, for how much, when I sold, how much profit/loss I made, etc. That information became part of my personal Wiki, along with tons of other things.
How to organize 100K photos
As soon as I got into photography, I knew I was in trouble. It was one more area to organize. And once you start with photography, data accumulates at a rapid pace (video is worse, indeed 😂).
My organization system for photographs is pretty straightforward:
_Inbox _Shared <YYYY> <YYYY-MM-DD - <Event description>
And that's about it. Nothing fancy, but that's all I need, even with 100K+ pictures! With tools such as Adobe Lightroom, I can directly import from an SD card to the catalog, and move files to my "photos" folder with the right naming scheme ❤️
Today I back up all my pictures multiple times:
- I have a backup on my NAS (second disk)
- I have an online backup along with the rest of my data
- I have a backup on Google Photos
I use pretty much the same structure for Videos.
The Inbox is useful because I don't always have time to process/sort the new files. Sometimes I accumulate videos for months before being able to organize those properly.
I also have multiple backups of my videos as those are so important.
Now that I'm about to start my YouTube channel, I'm also going to have to improve this area of my system.
Sharing media online vs NAS
I've shared pictures and videos on different platforms over time: Flickr, YouTube, WordPress, Facebook, ... In the past, I always saved a copy of the exports to my photo or video folder, just to have a backup of what I shared. I don't do it anymore since we can now share content around much more easily.
I used Flickr for a while and was a happy customer, but it died. Then I started using Google Plus, and it died too 😞. I later started using Google Photos to make sharing Photos/Videos with friends easier (and have one more backup around). But I still consider Google Photos as duplicated content, so I continue importing photos to my NAS.
So, my NAS remains the single source of truth for my personal data.
Organizing loads of data on a NAS
At that time I acquired my first NAS. It was a Synology DiskStation DS107e. I really loved it. Having a NAS was a revelation. At that time I still had 7-8 hard disk drives in my computer, many external disks (with and without enclosures), and a metric ton of data, hoarded over many years.
I finally had a device that would always be accessible from the network without having to leave my PC on and fiddling with NFS and Windows shares!
Organizing my NAS was rather intuitive since I already had a very organized system. I just moved my over to the NAS, creating a different share for each type of data and usage: books, courses, documents, downloads, movies, music, source code, TV series, uploads, etc.
The second huge benefit of the Synology NAS was (and still is) the package system and the community around it. Over the years, I've used many packages. There were packages to download (e.g., Transmission, Sabnzbd, Sickbeard, Couch Potato, Mylar, ...), packages to take care of backups, copy files around, index media files, expose photos and videos to the outside world, serve Websites, create VPN tunnels, etc.
The NAS slowly replaced all my old hard disks and allowed me to finally stop the madness of having a PC with 7-8 disks, partitions all over the place with a mix of NTFS, HFS, EXT, etc.
Things became even more interesting around 2013 when I received an 8-bay NAS for my birthday (I loved that present ❤️). It was a Synology DS1812+, a NAS with an Intel CPU; how awesome 🤩. I still use that one today. Just with much larger disks 😂
An online drive for better experience
As the Web evolved, so did my use of online services. I introduced Google Drive into my personal data landscape and started using it as an extension of my NAS. An extension that I could access anywhere, anytime, and easily share with others. I could already do that with my NAS, but I needed to fiddle with OpenVPN tunnels, open ports on my home router, etc. Not a great experience to say the least. Google Drive was just more convenient. I suppose I've hit the point in my life where I don't want to fiddle with tech just as much as I did before.
I still use CloudStation on my Linux and PC to synchronize more sensible data, but Google Drive has been a great addition to the mix.
What I do now is synchronize some folders between Google Drive and my NAS using Synology Cloud Sync. For instance, some personal documents that I need regularly, the documents of my company (contracts, coaching notes, invoices, processes, etc) shared with my accountant, my Obsidian vault, etc
Never lose a line of code
To this day, I still have most of the code that I've written. My first Websites, my school projects, my open source projects (Ok, that one is easy, thanks to GitHub). But it's all still part of the overall picture. Private Git repositories on my NAS, on GitHub, and Gitlab. Public ones on GitHub and Gitlab. I've kept it all. This includes projects, but also my books (yes, I do version my books), my dotfiles, etc. There are also a number of public and private GitHub gists. I don't have any backups of those, so that's a risk. Moderate, but still a risk.
Courses and YouTube videos
As YouTube slowly took over the world, I wanted to capture whatever I found interesting (data hoarder, I told you). For a while, I downloaded all the videos of YouTube Channels I cared about. No, I'm not kidding, I even wrote a few scripts to help me do that easily. And to be honest it was a good call. There are so many guitar lessons that have disappeared entirely or are now behind paywalls 😂. I don't do it anymore though.
I also kept courses and curated interesting articles about subjects of interest like piano, guitar, photography, 3D modeling, etc. I used to download entire Websites to make sure that I would never lose access. For some, I'm glad I did because they went dark.
Contacts and Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
For the longest time, I didn't put much thought into how I managed my contacts. Initially, I only had contact information on my phone. Then I lost contacts because those were only stored on the SIM card. Then, fortunately, Google Contacts came along and helped me improve the situation. I started centralizing everything in there.
I revisited this choice when I decided to start freelancing. I now consider contact management and CRM much more seriously. At first, I used my wiki for that, but have now migrated that to my Obsidian vault.
Movies, TV shows and games lists
I like tracking my progress for various things: progress towards my goals (yay for productivity), but also for content I consume.
As a big fan of Movies, TV series, and anime, I needed ways to track what I had seen or not, what I had access to, etc. In the beginning, I used text files to track the media that I owned, and the status (watched, deleted, etc). I later switched to Ant Movie Catalog, which I used to fetch information from IMDb.
But as online platforms matured I started relying more and more on those: IMDb for movies, TV Time and Netflix for TV Shows and Anime, Goodreads and Calibre for books. It's again a tradeoff between "safety" and user experience.
For video games, I still maintain a list in my wiki with the games I own on different platforms and their completion status. My gaming backlog is abysmal. I still haven't played most of my PS2, PS3, PS4, and PC games. And it's not going to happen anytime soon, I'm not playing much these days 😂
For board games, my most recent addiction (costly both in terms of money AND space :p), I maintain my list on BoardGameGeek (BGG). BGG is nice because it allows marking games as owned, previously owned, for trade, pre-ordered or in our wishlist (among other things). It's also possible log plays and game details.
In the future, I'd like to take ownership of my data again and find other solutions to keep track of it all, instead of relying on third-party services that could disappear at any time.
Letting go of the past
With the rise of Netflix, Spotify, and all their competitors, holding onto my collection of movies, TV shows and music makes less and less sense. There are of course gems that I won't find anywhere else, but those are quite rare. Also, older movies that I keep on offline disks were in SD, and I'm certainly not going to try and find better quality versions. I don't have time for that anymore.
I feel like I've come to terms with the idea that it's time for me to let go of the past. I don't pressure myself, but I'm getting rid of more and more things. I do this slowly. Thoughtfully. Not so much because I fear losing something important, but rather because I have fond memories, and I realize that it takes me time to accept deleting some things, even if I know I'll never need those again. While discussing with my friend André he mentioned emotional attachment to things and gently letting go of those, as Marie Kondo recommends. I gave it some thought, and while it's true that I'm not attached to many actual things in my life, I'm actually attached to many digital ones.
Using a wiki as a single source of truth
Since my old Commodore 64 days, I've used countless tools to write and retain information. I started with simple text files, and tried various note-taking/journaling apps, before realizing that Wikis were great. I was a very early adopter of MediaWiki. I hosted an instance on my NAS for years and used it to centralize tons of information both for myself and my family:
- Configurations (e.g., Windows and Linux setup, Network setup at home, routers configuration, KODI, Plex, RPis, etc)
- Family stories
- Hardware inventory: What we bought, where from, when, warranty duration, etc
- Lists: Games, ideas for vacations
- Project ideas at various stages and plans
It was a bit messy at first, as I also stored notes about work, things I was learning about, etc. But I later extracted the "knowledge" part.
A few years later I switched to DokuWiki then to Atlassian Confluence. I continued using Confluence until Notion came along. I've finally moved over last year and said goodbye to my old wiki.
Wikis have been my single source of truth for a long time. Whenever I need to find information, I always know where to start looking: at my wiki. I still own many hard disks, each keeping some pieces of my data puzzle. Since my lists are on the wiki, I can simply go there and check which disk holds the thing I'm after. In this sense, my wiki is also a metadata store.
Another example is my user profile. Like most people, I have countless online profiles, each with a picture, a small bio, and other information. If I decide to change my profile picture, I need to go to 30+ different places. I don't want to have to remember those kinds of details, so I documented that in my wiki.
The same goes for my PKM system, my processes, my naming schemes, etc. Whenever I start storing new information or moving things around, I make sure to update my wiki to reflect the new situation.
As the number of online services exploded, having a wiki is really critical to be able to keep track of what is where.
Writing and Tools for Thought (TfT)
So far, I've barely discussed the elephant in the Personal Knowledge Management room: the notes, the journals, the notebooks, and their treasures. I've used Evernote for years. It was the neuralgic center of my "external knowledge". It stored my notes, my ideas, my thoughts, my discoveries, etc.
For years, I took notes and maintained a journal regularly, capturing things while learning, but I didn't put a lot of thought and energy into that activity. My primary focus was learning more about software development. I really missed out!
Aside from note-taking, I've been blogging since ~2009. Initially, I wanted to share my photographs as well as ideas about software development, code quality, and Web design. I wasn't very consistent; it was just for fun. I started blogging much more seriously on Medium at the end of 2018 when I was about to start freelancing. My rationale was that writing more articles would be a win-win. I would help people learn, and I would get more recognition, hopefully helping me find new clients. That's also partly why I've accepted to write a book about TypeScript. Later, when I started working on my startup project, I simply wanted to share my journey, the problems I faced, how I resolved those, etc. Over time it became a lot more about sharing my journey in IT and trying to grow my audience. I decided to rebuild my personal Website and to cross-post my articles on Medium, HashNode, and DEV.to. Once my book was published at the end of 2019, I had a lot more time to write blog posts, and so I did. I published ~70 articles in 2020, and many others since.
Next to that, I started working on my Dev Concepts collection, a project that has become way quite ambitious. Out of the 12 books that I've imagined, I've self-published two so far. The third one should soon be ready.
Around June 2021, as my startup project was dying, I became more and more interested in modern note-taking tools, and the whole wave of Tools for Thought. That's when I realized that a lot of things had changed since the last time I checked the PKM space. I discovered Obsidian, Roam Research, and a ton of cool innovations. Needless to say, I got super excited. Although, instead of rushing to build something, I entered into research mode. Probably as a way to cope with the failure of my startup and to avoid repeating some mistakes I made before. I decided to turn the results of that research into a small info product at the end of last year: the Personal Knowledge Management Library.
The deeper I dived into modern PKM, the more energy I put into my note-taking. I chose to use Obsidian and started migrating some of my existing content to it. I resumed journaling consistently since then and started taking better notes while reading non-fiction books. Obsidian is now my second brain. It holds my Zettelkasten (literature notes, permanent notes, etc), my personal plans, my meeting notes, my article drafts, my CRM, etc. In the future, I intend to rely on it more and more in favor of third-party SaaS.
Finally, I decided to become consistent with my newsletter and started publishing a new edition each week. I've written 50+ so far, and it has become my place of choice to explore ideas in public.
What about analog notes?
I've always taken analog notes, and won't stop anytime soon. My analog notes are almost always transient. The problem with paper is that it takes a lot of space, and it quickly becomes unusable and gets lost. That's why it's very rare for me to keep those for more than a week. I review my paper notes regularly and digitize what I can then before ditching the paper. I've described my approach a while ago on my blog.
Wait, that's it?
I think that this article is quite long already, so I won't go deeper today. But there's indeed way more. There's my health data, my running sessions, my hikes data, how I handle the list of groceries, my Twitter lists, where I sell board games, my board game files (e.g., custom tokens, rules homemade translations, etc), how I organize my books/my guitar tablatures/my sheet music, my how I take notes at work, how I organize my personal and professional projects, how I organize my downloads, my text expansions, my Lightroom presets, how I create/store diagrams, how I store my recipes, ... It's endless 😂
Tips to keep your digital mess organized
Since I've been doing this for many years, I can probably share a few ideas:
- Choose a single source of truth for information
- Choose a single source of truth for data (preferably on a device you own such as a NAS)
- Use a common structure across data types and silos (e.g., the PARA method) to find your way more easily
- Use consistent naming conventions and automate what you can. If you don't, you might go nuts
- Reduce the number of storage locations
- Reduce the number of tools you use for the same purpose to 1 if you can
- Rely on Open Source software whenever you can
- Rely on open data formats whenever you can
- Synchronize files across devices using automated tools; don't duplicate stuff manually
- Keep source data whenever possible
- Work on copies ONLY after making copies/backups of the original
- Use a single inbox for each type of data (e.g., an inbox for videos to process/sort)
- Apply the Zero Inbox principle (GTD) on all your inboxes
- Be serious about backups (gentle reminder: RAID is NOT a backup solution!)
- Avoid hoarding tons of content if you can. Dealing with huge amounts of data can hurt your mental health
- Learn to let go of the past (the sooner the better)
Most importantly, don't ruin your life trying to organize everything. Life is way too short for that. Design your own system and try to apply the Pareto principle. Organize what matters most, and don't feel bad about the rest.
If you want to further explore Personal Knowledge Management, then take a look at starter kit for Obsidian. It will give you a solid starting point for your note-making efforts.
Also check out my Personal Knowledge Management Library. It’s a huge collection of resources (articles, books, videos, YouTube channels, and a lot more).
By the way, I publish a weekly newsletter about PKM, note-taking, lifelong learning, and more!
If you find PKM interesting (I really hope you do!), then you might want to join our community.
As a digital native, most of my information is stored in digital form, and that's the way I like it. But the more data you have, the more important it is to have it organized:
A place for everything and everything in its place.
Most people I know in real life don't pay much attention to their personal data. They accumulate and scatter it all over the place without even realizing the risks. They fail to organize their content, lose track of what is where, and often end up losing precious memories and important documents. I don't want that. It did happen to me once or twice when I was younger, and it was really painful! Since then I've learned my lesson. I'm very organized (probably too much so), I keep track of what is where and take multiple backups of the key pieces of my personal data puzzle.
As the quantity of information you have to deal with increases, so does the need to create a system. It doesn't have to be perfect, but you have to think about it. You need to define naming conventions early on to avoid ending up with a huge mess. You also need to decide what goes where, and you need to document it somewhere. Create a single source of truth for yourself and your family. That way you will be able to stay on top of it all instead of drowning and wondering "where is my data?" all the time.
Hopefully, this story about my own journey as a data hoarder will give you a few ideas about what to do and what to avoid! No need to change everything overnight. Just think about it from time to time, and make small improvements, one step at a time.
That's it for today! ✨
Hello everyone! I'm Sébastien Dubois. I'm an author, founder, and CTO. I write books and articles about software development & IT, personal knowledge management, personal organization, and productivity. I also craft lovely digital products 🚀
If you've enjoyed this article and want to read more like this, then become a subscriber, check out my Obsidian Starter Kit, the PKM Library and my collection of books about software development 🔥.
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