This year I got very excited about Personal Knowledge Management systems, and then I got over it.
PKMs are tremendously promising tools that aim to organise everything interesting in your life. Listening to a podcast and hear some amazing fact? Into the PKM it goes. Reading something that triggers a connection to said amazing fact? Link it in the PKM! Look up either one later and you’ve got them both, and the context in which they came up! It’s easy!
The PKM magically links your interesting stuff to other interesting and relevant stuff, and surfaces it at useful times. It’s all structured and easy to review. It’s not the black hole of Evernote, but a world you inhabit: your accumulated knowledge, there for the taking and the growing.
This sounded brilliant, and seemed to satisfy some deep-seated fear that I was skating on top of a lake of potential in which I wanted to swim. It promised something that could do for stuff-I-want-to-remember what You Need A Budget did for my finances: solve the problem. Total Andrew catnip.
And there’s certainly plenty to sink your teeth into. Roam is one of many PKMs: Notion, Obsidian, Logseq. They’re all trying to do the same thing, with overlapping but different approaches. And they’re definitely achieving something.
Roam in particular does some innovative stuff, most notably creating a new ‘Daily Note’ every morning into which you just start typing. This alone is surprisingly pleasing, and it’s fun to scroll back through the last few weeks and watch your thoughts evolve. Roam also has some very clever ways to bring information together. So it’s not a con or a cash-in: the people who make it are genuinely trying to build something useful. The evangelism got a bit much sometimes, but that’s understandable.
So I got very excited about Roam. And Zettelkastens. And methods of implementing Zettelkastens in Roam. I signed up for courses, and completed some of them. I watched YouTube videos of super-psyched instructors waxing lyrical about how these tools will encourage methods of thought that will change the world. I read up on implementations, from the simple to the…extremely not simple. I set up the systems, and started applying them to books I was reading. I introduced it to colleagues. I was all in.
But it turns out: nothing is quite there yet.
It feels like something must be there. A lot of rhetoric flies about. There’s certainly a mini-industry set up around teaching people how to launch themselves into this bright new future. And it’s a profitable little industry, going by the prices of the courses. But it’s much harder to find people actually living the dream.
This is because nothing quite clicks. Nothing quite lives up to the promise of…whatever it is I was after. Daily insights? Making sure I saw notes about the thing I saw a year ago? Making sure I didn’t loop on the same problems over and over? What did I even want to achieve other than a nebulous nirvana in which no knowledge is lost?
Everything claims to help pin this down, but in practice it’s always just over the next hill. And the only way over the hill is via a surprising amount of admin. And the admin overhead is…too much. Which sounds pathetic. But it’s just too much. All the systems require maintenance that just isn’t sustainable outside of specific projects. For a general-purpose my-entire-life PKM, the novelty wears off and it’s just more work. And the bigger it gets, the hard it is to wrangle.
Everyone kinda knows this, but it’s assumed the right system/approach/method is there if we can just find it. And maybe it is! But at the moment the excited community isn’t the tip of an iceberg of productive users. It’s the entire user base.
Also the loudest voices in the community were a bit odd. It’s all very Silicon Valley: I’ve never heard the word ‘startup’ more in my life. It’s a bit like the very early days of Twitter – back when there was a complete feed you could just about keep up with – when all anyone did was talk about Twitter, and the potential of Twitter, and potentially monetising Twitter. After a while it all feels rather insular.
The community then waned surprisingly quickly: as the year wore on more and more people started flocking to the bright lights of cryptocurrency and NFTs. The PKM newsletters started to wax lyrical about the potential of this new financial revolution. Thankfully I was not far gone enough to join them. I have some self-awareness.
I wasn’t getting the promised feedback loops of positivity and insight. So, as you’d expect, I slowly stopped making the assiduous notes, and I stopped writing up my days, and I didn’t complete the remaining courses. Then towards the end of the year I read Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman. It’s his journey through, and attempt to understand, the whole area of productivity hacking. It’s a similar industry to PKM, and and his assessments all felt very familiar. That book deserves its own post, but his ultimate conclusion is that we’re chasing a ghost.
So as things stand at the end of 2021 I am still using Roam. Not as a full PKM, but as a useful repository for particular projects, for freeform notes on stuff, and for easily collating things like ‘books I read’ and ‘films I watched’. I far prefer it to Evernote. This is satisfactory.