In this post I would like to introduce to you my favourite way to gather and organize information and ideas, so that once in a while I am able to pick some of them, write a blog post, and publish it here.
From the very beginning of my blogging, I was clear that using only a traditional writing application like MS Word, or in my case Apple Pages, would not satisfy my needs. The reason being, that the writing part is only the final stage of the whole process.
At the beginning it has to be some kind of inspiration, an idea, that needs to be captured in a form recoverable after a few days or weeks. I don’t know about other people, but I have made too many notes and have written down too many “great” ideas, that after a while I was not able to remember what the whole think was supposed to be about.
That is when my search for a better solution started. I was not clear at all what I was looking for, but with the fast growing power of personal computers it became more and more obvious to me, that what I needed was some kind of a system. A system which would start with capturing inspirational ideas and information the way I could decipher and use it later. It would continue by reading and researching topics I am interested in, gathering information from various sources and storing it in an easy searchable form and system. That would follow by deciding about a suitable topic for an article, retrieving relevant ideas and information, possibly finding other links to an additional information, and subsequently to write on a platform, that makes all this as simple and clear, as possible.
Probably everyone needs to go through various stages if searching for such a system, but just clarifying this all for myself was a good achievement. Obviously, I couldn’t do it only by myself. So I used a few online sources, that seem to be suitable for what I wanted to do — and the most importantly, that I was willing to trust. Trust is important here, because I got “burned”and have been taken advantage of a few times, even have paid for promised things and services that never got delivered. Therefore I have decided, that I will not pay for anything, that I could find and learn online for free. And the truth is, that YouTube is a fantastic source for this, if you do your due diligence.
So I started scouring internet and the YouTube for ideas how other people use computers for researching and writing. After sifting through many videos, online courses, and names, a few of them became clearly of more value for me, than others. Among those I could count Thomas Frank with his clear explanation how to be more productive. The next level was Tiago Forte and his Second Brain system, which is rather expensive, but Tiago puts out a lot of information for free for people like me.
Another was Ali Abdaal, whom I have caught at the early stage of his YT career, where he was showing how he was using computers and technology to make his life easier and him more and more successful as a YouTuber. It has been clear to me that I would never become so eloquent and speak as fast as him, but he was fun and simply, he made a sense.
Later I found (or he got recommended by one of the previously mentioned guys) Francesco D’Alessio and his YT channel Keep Productive. He would regularly go over dozens and dozens of various applications, programs, and workflows, reviewing and comparing different ways to organize ones life and be productive.
Another YouTuber who helped me in this search, was a fellow Canadian Steve Dotto and his website and YT channel DottoTech.
When I liked some of the computer programs these guys would talk about, I would download and try them myself. And I tried too many, so I will mention here only those, that I consider a really good value, even if I don’t use many of them anymore.
Everything started with my search for a more robust and comprehensive calendar. What I wanted was to have information from the Apple applications Calendar and Reminders, in only one place. I tried too many calendar applications, but at the end now I am back with Apple native apps. I like the simplicity of how they sync over all my devices from the iPhone to the Mac computer. And with the recent updates of iOS 16 and MacOS Ventura, they give me almost everything I need. And for free!
Next thing I wanted to use, was an app that would let me save information, articles, or websites, I was reading on the internet — a web clipper. I tried Instapaper and Evernote, but was not willing to pay for the service, neither I wanted to spend too much time learning how to use the tool. At the end I am happy with the Pocket.
Web / Cloud Storage
For the comfort of storing data and synchronizing work across devices, using a cloud based file storage is unavoidable. Apple’s iCloud works well, but not for all apps equally. So I have been using now also following services – Dropbox, Box, and the Canada based Sync. Each one has a different purpose and at the end they function just like other folders in the whole system.
I have been subscribed to a few universities and online services, where I look for documents, white papers and books relevant to my topics of interest. But it was quite demanding to copy those that I needed, paste them to my computer system, and organize them so that I could search through them afterwards. I have been playing with apps like Mendeley and DEVONthink first. Then I heard about a great app Zotero, that automates some of these necessary steps and makes a simple database of added documents. Once Zotero finalized their iPad app, it has become an important part of my workflow.
Finding an app for this has been a painstaking process for me. There are too many of them, newer and better ones are appearing almost on a weekly basis, they use different approaches and philosophies that don’t necessarily fit into your workflow. So I tried Bear, Craft, Evernote, Agenda, ClickUp, Logseq, Roam Research, played for quite a while with the Notion, but ended up regularly using three apps – Apple Notes, Drafts, and primarily Obsidian.
Apple Notes is there for me all the time, recently it became quite robust with what all possibilities it offers, so all my personal information that I want to have access to all the time, ends up there.
To jot down a brief idea, the simplest way for me is the Drafts. As it is a separate application, it forces me often to get back to what I put there and decide what to do with it next. This is where most of my writing ideas start.
The next, and the most important step in my workflow, is where I put all my notes and information. For that purpose I really like Obsidian. The most important thing for me is, that I own my data — they are stored on my system primarily. So I can work on my notes, do my research, and do my thinking, without a requirement to be constantly online, like other similar applications do. I store my Obsidian folders also on the iCloud, so whenever I am online, they automatically synchronize with all my devices. I also like that I can choose a visual theme for each of my Obsidian vaults and I can change the aesthetics if I like.
From the start I had to learn how to use the Markdown computer language, but with the recent upgrades of the application, it is getting way simpler to use it. Or much more complex, if that is what you need, while using hundreds of specialized plugins.
Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities and the way in which these processes support work activities.Wikipedia
Obsidian functions as the main part of my Personal Knowledge Management system. It is like my Second Brain, where I store all my professional data. I also use it for the Mind Mapping (I used the SimpleMind app before), when searching for new ideas, or trying to summarize and clarify different topics. The integrated GraphView is a great tool for that. There is a whole group of specialized apps like this, also called Tools for Thought.
Through Obsidian I have learned about the ZettelKasten system of gathering, filing, and especially LINKING notes, information, and knowledge. It was invented by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and Obsidian is very well suited for this purpose. If you would like to learn more about this system, I’d recommend a book written by Sönke Ahrens – How To Take Smart Notes.
There is a new generation of note-taking apps coming up and some of them look very promising and attractive, like Capacities, Tana, or Anytype. But none of them covers such a broad space as Obsidian, so for now I am clear to stay with it.
The final step in this whole process (before publishing the blog) is writing. I never really liked the MS Office and as I use now only Apple devices, their app Pages would be an obvious option to write. But as I was doing my research, I realized that there are better tools available. Many writers would swear by using a writing program Scrivener. So I had to try it — and never looked back.
Scrivener is best suitable for the long form documents like books, but I have found out, that it is equally great for shorter documents. I have found a few templates for bloggers, which I adapted for my needs. Unlike other similar programs that are now mostly subscription based when you have to pay a monthly fee, Scrivener is a one time payment. I’ve also purchased the iPad app on which I am writing this. It is synced using my Dropbox account, so once back at home, I can continue working on my Mac right where I stopped, with no issues. The only important requirement is to close the app once you are done, otherwise syncing can cause problems.
So here you have it — my PKM, or the Personal Knowledge Management system. I hope that if you are looking for some kind of a system to do your research, to keep important information, to make extensive notes, or to write regularly, some of the programs, applications, or approaches mentioned in this post could help you to find , or improve, your own system.