A few linked notes go a long way, AKA Personal Knowledge Management for the rest of us

For the last few years, I’ve kept my life organized using the following system. It’s just a bunch of notes + ~1h per week of effort to keep everything in check. It’s not perfect, nothing is, but it is simple enough that I’ve stuck to it consistently, and that’s what matters.

It’s heavily based on Getting Things Done by David Allen and the Second Brain concept by Tiago Forte, but over the years I kept tinkering with it and I think that by now I reached a point where it really suits my needs… and probably nobody else’s (as-is). But it could be a good enough starting point if you care to go down this route.

I’m using Bear as my note-taking (and much, much more) app. It’s my to-do list app, my bookmarks app, my read-it-later app, etc. I like having all my stuff under one roof and not divided into many silos. I know, there are countless better solutions for each of these tasks, but I feel very strongly about this.

In Bear, you can organize your notes with tags, which you can also nest, so they can assume a hierarchical structure. It’s been a while since I used any other note-taking tool, but I guess that many of the “famous” ones can replicate this quite easily (i.e. Evernote, OneNote, Obsidian, Roam Research, LogSeq, …).

Tags structure

So, the way I structure my endless list of notes, my main tags, looks something like this:

  • 0_Dashboard
  • 1_Projects
  • 2_Areas
  • 3_Resources
  • 4_Archive
  • Important
  • Ideas
  • Reading_List
  • Library

For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on how I manage my day-to-day and process new inputs and information. So I’ll zero in on the content of the #0_Dashboard tag (folder?) and a few other notes I use as checklists for periodical reviews that live inside #3_Resources.

The #0_Dashboard tag is really the heart of the whole system. It’s home to only 7 notes:

  1. TODAY - This is basically a to-do list. It contains just a list of things that I hope to achieve during the course of the day, with maybe a link to the main note if the task is part of a larger project. I keep it always open, side by side with my browser, so I always have it readily available, as sometimes it doubles as a quick copy-and-paste text area. The first thing I do every morning is to clear it out from the stuff I’ve done and move in new tasks from the…
  2. DASHBOARD - Zooming out a little bit, this note serves as my plan for the week. On top I have links to the projects notes I’m currently working on, then a list of random things I hope to get done during the current week. Further down, I have links to the other notes tagged #0_Dashboard for quick navigation. This note is always open as well, it lives side by side with the main Bear window on a secondary space on my MacBook.
  3. INBOX - This is my brain dump go-to note. Every idea, link, quick note, and thing I’d like to review later gets listed here. This is the main focus of my Weekly Review, where I sort its content to its definitive location or act upon the thing that needs so. I try to keep the list under 20/30 elements, being mindful of not recording useless stuff and wasting time later during my weekly review.
  4. NEXT - This is everything I plan/like to achieve in the next quarter or sooner. I try to keep it 15 items long. No point in overshooting what you can achieve in 3 months.
  5. WAITING - Here I keep track of everything (emails, text, feedback, etc.) I’m waiting for a reply.
  6. PLAN YYYY (where YYYY is the current year, i.e. 2023) - This is a list of 3/5 goals I want to achieve during this solar year. No bells and whistles, just a list (ok everything is a list around here…) of actionable goals. I try to keep them as SMART as possible.
  7. SOMEDAY - Ah, the everything-else list! This note is a mixture of long-term planning and bucket-list sort of stuff. There is no fixed number of items, anything that doesn’t fit in my short/medium plans ends up here.

Interlude: the #1_Projects tag

Every goal/to-do item that’s longer than 1 single action, is exploded into a project. Every current, ongoing project gets assigned the #1_Projects and is listed in the DASHBOARD note. Every other non-current project gets the #3_Resources/projects_standby tag and is listed accordingly in the NEXT or SOMEDAY note.

The Review Process

Resurfacing it’s the most important part of the process, as every PKM guru out there will remind you, but it took years for me to really let the concept sink in. And I’m now glad it did.

In a sea of loosely linked notes it’s easy for something to slip under the rug, so we need a simple but consistent review workflow. I have four levels of review, on different timeframes: Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly. Let’s dive in:

Weekly Review

Every Saturday morning (but of course you can choose the day and time that suit you best) I pull out my Weekly Review note (that sits for the rest of the week inside the #3_Resources tag/folder) and go through the following routine.

First, I review my calendar for the next 2 weeks and take note of things I’ll need to act upon. I use my calendar as a reminder for timely stuff (appointments, deadlines, and so on). Everything else that has not a fixed date gets transferred into my DASHBOARD and tackled, hopefully, during the coming week.

PS. If you have been reading some articles on personal knowledge management, you’ll know by now that there are many currents of thought around the role of the calendar in managing your to-do list. This is way outside the scope of this article and I’m not going to deal with that here.

Then, in pure GTD fashion, I empty all my inboxes (email, messages, etc.). I try to abstain from going into the content of every single communication. Instead, I try to file each one under one of my lists depending on the timeframe I’ll need to get back to them. The purpose of a review is not to do the stuff we accumulated during the week but to clear our minds and set a clean slate for the next week.

After I’ve checked my calendar and emptied my inboxes, it’s time to review my lists. So, on a weekly basis, I review the following:

  • WAITING: I check if I received any answer or feedback to something I was waiting or standing by for. Like an email getting answered or receiving something I ordered online.
  • INBOX: Quick notes, ideas, links, etc that I saved during the week. I’ll try very hard (and sometimes fail) to get sucked into a rabbit hole by anyone of them. Again, the goal is not to act now, but to review each one and file it in the proper destination.
  • PLAN YYYY: A quick glance at my goals for the year. Being five or fewer, I know them by heart, but a quick look puts me in the right mindset and perspective to review the other list on shorter timeframes.
  • NEXT: Whatever is in here that I have the bandwidth to deal with during the next week is moved to the DASHBOARD;
  • DASHBOARD: I review and organize my tasks and projects for the coming week. If I end up thinking that there’s too much on my plate, I might move something back to NEXT;
  • TODAY: As I said, I keep this note side by side with my browser. This is an excellent time to tidy things up and start fresh. The outcome should be a list of tasks to be completed during the day.

I do my best to keep the whole process under an hour long.

Monthly Review

Next up is the Monthly Review! I do this on the first Sunday of every month. I pull up the related note and work my way through the checklist.

Long story short, it largely consists of updating all my devices and backing up all my data to external hard drives, so I’m not going into the details of that since is a bit out of scope for this article (but maybe the topic of a future one).

The only notes I’m going to review at this stage are related to some ongoing projects of mine. Of course, they change month by month, but this is a good hook to remember to keep an eye on them.

Quarterly Review

I do a quarterly review every three months (😂), usually on the last weekend of March, June, September and December. I like to keep it in sync with the changing seasons. Now is the moment to review, among other stuff, 2 peculiar notes of my system:

  • SOMEDAY: yes, the everything-else list. I review it top-to-bottom, maybe move something to the NEXT list, if I plan to tackle it in the next quarter, and sigh at the huge amount of things that I would not do.
  • PLAN YYYY: this is the perfect time to take a more thorough look at how my year’s goals are coming along, if I need to steer the boat in some direction, and where I’m currently underperforming. Or maybe start to work on something that I had postponed for this part of the year.

Yearly Review

Lastly, I‘ll take some time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to review the years that’s coming to a close and plan out a little bit for the year ahead. Among the notes that get reviewed:

  • PLAN YYYY: of course a final review of this year’s goals. What went right? What didn’t work out quite as I planned? In turn, this informs what I’m going to write in:
  • PLAN YYYY+1: I’ve probably started compiling a draft of this note during the last quarter, but now is the time to refine version 1.0 of my goals for the coming year. That’s because goals can change from time to time. Again, like every other note in this system, this is just a simple numbered list of 5 items. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course, goals should be as SMART as possible, but that’s just about it. Simplicity is the name of the game, and that’s what keeps the game going.

Wrapping up

This is my system for staying organized and on top of things. Of course, as previously said, it’s not perfect, for the very fact that perfection rarely applies to this kind of thing. This is the system that suits me best and I can keep up with. No reason to have a system in place that’s never gets used because too complicated or daunting.

If you like to start something similar for yourself, this might serve as a blueprint. Start as small as you can. Then you should really make the system your own, move stuff here and there, add the things that you care about, and remove the ones you don’t.

One last word of advice: review is the name of the game, everything falls apart pretty soon if you don’t keep up. BUT beware of becoming enslaved by them, spending hours and hours reviewing your notes. It will give you the impression of moving along, of doing something, while that is just another form of procrastination. Try to keep each review under the 60-minute mark.

Happy tinkering.