How PKM and Note-Taking Tools Help Think More Effectively

Knowledge Management and Note-taking tools help think deeper and reach another level of focus.

How PKM and Note-Taking Tools Help Think More Effectively
Personal Knowledge Management and Tools for Thought (TfTs) help us think more deeply. Image generated using DALL-E

In this short article, I want to discuss how Personal Knowledge Management and note-taking tools help us think more effectively.


The following article is quite interesting, but I think that the author focuses too much on the act of thinking, and not enough on the context in which that happens:

Why note-taking apps don’t make us smarter
They’re designed for storage, not sparking insights. Can AI change that?

He is right that PKM / note-taking tools won't magically help us become better thinkers. That can't happen without plugging some kind of device with our brain... But while thinking does happen within our brains, we can use external tools to help. In reality, PKM tools can't and don't have to make us smarter. They simply have to alleviate the burden on our minds, and to help us go faster and/or further than our brains alone can. I believe that they already do, and they don't even need AI to get us there.

Here's why.

Why PKM and note-taking tools help us think more effectively

Whenever we think about something, we don't start from a blank slate. Our brain loads information from our memory. That information is composed of thoughts, ideas, memories, feelings, etc. Our mind's "whiteboard" is actually a giant patchwork. But we never get to see the whole thing. Instead, we hold a weak "flashlight" that is only able to focus on a few pieces at a time, and only for short durations. We don't see much because our working memory is very limited. Moreover, our shortening attention span leaves us with little time to focus. And if that wasn't enough, our memory is unreliable. Sometimes we can't even retrieve the information that we've "stored" when we need it.

With that in mind (I've helped you create a mental context for our discussion!), it's quite obvious that externalizing (some) of our memory and thinking can be hugely beneficial. It's not about replacing our brain, but about helping it in some way. Note-taking and Personal Knowledge Management tools help because they can be used to:

  • Save/restore our mental contexts
  • Persist information, ideas, knowledge and links between all those
  • Create fully visible "whiteboards" that can support our thinking
  • Let us focus on, explore, and expand specific groups of ideas
  • ...
Saving and restoring your mental contexts to improve mental health and productivity
This article explores mental contexts and the importance of handling those properly to improve mental health and productivity

As Andy Matuschak wisely said:

The goal is not to take notes — the goal is to think effectively — Andy Matuschak

PKM tools such as Obsidian are extensions of our minds. Our brain does the work, but PKM tools assist us. They help alleviate our inherent limitations.

Find Your Perfect Note-Taking app with this Free Database of ~300 Tools for Thought
Discover the Ultimate Database of ~300 note-taking and Personal Knowledge Management Tools.