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

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
  • ...

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.

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About Sébastien

Hello everyone! I'm Sébastien Dubois (you can follow me on Twitter 🐦).

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.

Also, check out my Obsidian Starter Kit, the Obsidian Starter Course, the PKM Library, my PKM coaching page, my collection of books about software development and the IT Concepts Wall 🔥.

If you want to discuss, then don't hesitate to join the Personal Knowledge Management community or the Software Crafters community.