Warren Buffett once said: “knowledge builds up, like compound interest.” The more you have, the smarter you become.
It doesn’t always feel that way.
These days, there are endless amounts of books to read, articles to skim, and podcasts to listen to—and that’s just in your personal time.
At work, we’re inundated with countless emails, DMs, and meeting notes—all of which contain nuggets of information that could benefit us but are hard to organize and find when it matters.
Gartner says the average professional spends 50% of their workday looking for information. And while stats like that can sound far-fetched, let’s face it: you’ve probably wasted your fair share of time searching for a note, link, or screenshot in a digital notebook, Slack conversation, or folder.
Modern times have given us unprecedented access to information. And it’s hard to know what do with it.
That’s where personal knowledge management comes in.
What is personal knowledge management?
Personal knowledge management (PKM for short) is the process of collecting, organizing, and storing information, so it’s easier to search for, retrieve, share, expand upon, and use later on.
In many ways, you’re probably already doing this. Most people use a simple note-taking app to jot down information. And every waking hour, your brain constantly absorbs, categorizes, and recalls things its encountered in some form or another.
But where personal knowledge management differs from the sort of unconscious information capture all of us do in our daily lives is the intentional approach personal knowledge management takes to collecting, organizing, and harnessing information for personal and professional gain.
What are the benefits of personal knowledge management?
Despite being synonymous with productivity nerds, researchers, and hobbyists, personal knowledge management is an essential skill in the modern workplace.
With personal knowledge management, you’re deliberately gathering, classifying, reviewing, and making sense of information, either manually and/or automatically, to better your understanding and depth of knowledge. And this can be done with anything from individual topics to daily tasks and processes, providing you with an evolving record of what you want to know and need to remember.
Using a personal knowledge management system to gather, store, and retrieve information, you naturally engage in critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making by intentionally deciding which information to collect, filter for, refine, and elaborate upon.
What’s the difference between personal knowledge management and knowledge management?
The word “personal” should be a major giveaway here.
As a practice, knowledge management refers to the methods a workplace or organization takes on a broader scale to capture, organize, store, and share knowledge that can benefit an employee when solving a problem, completing a process, handling a situation, or referencing specific information.
Think of knowledge management as building and maintaining a single source of truth. This usually takes the form of a centralized repository filled with files, standard operating procedures, and other referenceable materials.
Personal knowledge management, on the other hand, is just that: personal. It comprises information that can be shared with others. But personal knowledge management is ultimately about building a system or repository of information that’s beneficial to an individual, either in their work or personal life (or both).
To do that, you need a system.
What is a personal knowledge management app?
A personal knowledge management app (sometimes referred to as a personal knowledge management system, personal knowledge base, or PKM tool) is a productivity tool that helps capture, organize, store, and recall information. This can include anything from something you jotted down quickly during a meeting to web pages, images, videos, audio recordings, PDFs, and handwritten notes.
Personal knowledge management tools vary in complexity, but common features include tags to organize notes, bi-directional linking (more on that later), and various levels of search functionality for finding stored information.
How is that different from a traditional note-taking app?
Many people use note-taking tools for their personal knowledge management. But what separates modern PKM tools from traditional note-taking apps is their ability to connect the dots and form associations between the content that’s captured. That’s why personal knowledge management tools are sometimes referred to as personal Wikis or CRMs and have roots in various personal creativity and online productivity circles.
With the New Year around the corner, now’s the perfect time to develop your personal knowledge management skills and find ways to be more productive.
Here are seven of the best personal knowledge management apps to try in 2023:
Evernote – For personal knowledge management beginners
Why? It probably has something to do with its simplistic design and straightforward features, which allow you to easily capture information, organize notes with tags and internal linking, and find what you’re looking for with search (you can even narrow down your results by filtering for tags, attachments, and web links).
On mobile, Evernote turns your smartphone camera into a pocket scanner, making it easy to store documents, images of whiteboards, and anything you capture on the go. Evernote’s web clipper allows you to save full articles and screenshots or bookmark web pages.
Is Evernote still relevant in 2023? With other PKM note-taking tools on this list promising or providing more innovative features, that depends on the person.
Consider using Evernote if you’re just dipping your toes into personal knowledge management, already using the app, and looking for a simple start.
Notion – For people who want to build their own personal knowledge management system
Notion promotes itself as an all-in-one digital workspace for teams. But it also has its fair share of users who use the app for personal knowledge management due to its minimalist design, simple interface, and array of community-built templates.
As a personal knowledge base, Notion has features similar to Evernote and others on this list. But what separates Notion from other apps designed for personal knowledge management is its customizability.
Users can build, share, or implement a variety of tools and features—like Kanban boards, calendars, checkboxes for to-do lists, and templates for databases—and drag and drop different content, allowing you to organize and adjust any information you capture.
Notion can be whatever you want it to be, which is also one of its biggest disadvantages as a personal knowledge management tool. It’s helpful if you’re into no-code style apps, but not so much if you want a more structured and well-defined personal knowledge management system for structured note-taking.
Bloks – For busy professionals who need to capture and organize meeting notes and other interactions
Users can use it as a note-taking app to quickly capture thoughts or ideas and further organize them with a unique tagging system that uses AI to suggest relevant hashtags and other associations.
Connect your Gmail and Calendar, and Bloks will associate meeting notes with relevant events and create dedicated pages for people you interact with, so you can see notes from recent interactions and relevant email correspondences at a glance (sort of like a lightweight CRM). Bloks' home screen also shows users a timeline of previous events and recent notes, making it easy to review the information you’ve captured with a quick scroll.
In addition to apps for macOS and iOS, Bloks' Chrome extension lets users save anything they find noteworthy on the web and add them directly to their notes. Users can also use Bloks' built-in screen capture to take screenshots and quickly add them to specific notes.
Bloks is currently free in private beta. Click here to get early access.
Mem – For productivity nerds who want AI to do all the work for them
According to the makers of Mem, many notes apps are just “dumb containers of information.” That’s why Mem is setting out to create the first-ever “self-organizing workspace.”
So far, Mem functions like a standard note-taking app but with a few powerful features. (It also provides functionality for team collaboration, but we’ll get into that in another article.)
With Mem, users can capture notes (or “mems,” as the company calls them), send links and images to their accounts using SMS (or Mem’s mobile app), and save threads from Twitter by tagging @memdotai and replying with the phrase “mem it,” which creates a shareable link and automatically saves Twitter threads to your inbox in Mem.
Users can search for notes and view them chronologically in a timeline. They can also add topic tags and further organize their notes by adding a calendar and associating Mems with specific events. And, for the truly forgetful, users can set reminders and create tasks to follow up on later.
According to the Verge, the app is “hardly a triumph of design,” and some users find the amount of information it asks to sync a bit nerve-wracking. (By their own admission, the amount of data they’re looking to collect in the future will put “a huge target” on their back.)
But with recent funding and plans to further leverage AI with their digital work assistant (and the next iteration of their personal knowledge management system), Mem X, the company is clearly focused on the future. (So far, Mem X mainly helps fill in the blank and resurface mems in a sidebar for easy reference when users are writing about a particular topic.)
Roam Research – For note-takers who need a personal knowledge base for academic-style research
Roam Research has only been around since 2019, but the self-described “note taking tool for networked thought” has already amassed a dedicated following of academics, engineers, and artists who use the app for serious note-taking.
Compared to other knowledge-base software, Roam has a very simple interface: it looks like a basic note-taking app or document management tool. But the true power of Roam comes from its bi-directional linking and tagging, which allows users to link individual notes (or keywords within notes), forming a literal web of associations between all their information.
Like other personal knowledge management tools on this list, Roam’s organizational structure looks less like a traditional filing system and more like a mind map. Each note becomes a node, making it easier to sort through content and find bigger, broader connections in Roam’s graph overview, which allows users to physically zoom out and see the connections between all their notes.
While writing and organizing their thoughts, users can view specific notes in the sidebar—handy when referencing information or working on a project—or quickly jot down random thoughts and to-dos in the Daily Notes section.
Thanks to a Readwise integration, many people also seem to use Roam for managing their book notes and reference articles they’ve come across. But overall, it may not have enough features to sustain someone who wants to do more than just in-depth, focused research.
Obsidian – For people who want total control of their personal knowledge base
Obsidian takes the customization and bi-directional linking of Notion and Roam and puts it together in one future-proof package.
Similar to Roam, Obsidian lets you organize notes in a non-linear manner. You can create different vaults for different topics. But if you want to be more ad hoc, you can also link notes together (or link your notes to websites, files on your computer, particular paragraphs, and even images) and form associations that, similar to Roam, can be viewed in a personal knowledge graph, with each node representing a note or topic that grows larger the more that information is linked to it.
Almost everything is customizable, with an array of themes, CSS, and plugins for task management, journaling, outlining, and automation tools available directly from Obsidian and its community of users.
But perhaps Obsidian’s biggest selling point is that it stores information locally and uses markdown, so you have more control of your notes and never have to export them if you want to switch PKMs. (One downside, though: syncing to other devices costs extra).
Tana - For personal knowledge management practitioners who like customizing with tags and templates
Tana brands itself as “the Everything OS” and aims to end context switching.
People who have tried the app (currently in private beta) say it combines the database management and low-to-no-code customizability of Notion and Airtable with the PKM functionality of Obsidian and Roam.
The interface is similar to the latter, with a blank page as your main workspace, a sidebar containing pinned notes and a calendar view organizing recent notes by day, month, and year.
Similar to Obsidian, any information you capture—be it a task, note, or file—is represented as a node that can be linked together. But what separates Tana from Notion, Roam, and other PKM alternatives are “supertags,” which (as far as we can tell) are essentially like templates for your nodes, allowing you to create rules and tables that users can apply to other nodes.
It’s hard to visualize, but apparently it makes sense the more you use it...
(Here’s a still of productivity expert and product reviewer Francesco D'Alessio trying to wrap his head around it in a recent video):
According to reviewers, Tana’s steep learning curve, lack of mobile options for capturing notes on the go, and load times that lag behind others (the app is currently cloud-based) may not make it the first choice, but it may be worth a try for uses beyond traditional personal knowledge management once it becomes publicly available.
Personal knowledge management isn’t just for productivity enthusiasts. It can help anyone—from salespeople and support workers to engineers and high-powered CEOs—take and organize their notes (and other information) more efficiently.
Every app is different and requires patience when transforming your note-taking into more of a knowledge management habit.