Personal Knowledge Management

Tending to your digital garden.

Source: Garden by Tejvan Pettinger via
Source: Garden by Tejvan Pettinger via

My name is Robert, and I have a knowledge management problem. As I mention in my bio, I'm a prolific notetaker. I would consider myself a digital pack rat, if not hoarder. Very few articles make it through my reading cycle without some highlighting and marginalia. Not a whole lot of meetings go undocumented. I collect, I share.

It wasn't until recently that my patterns of behaviors became a problem. It's not an issue to hoard digitally, you can do it at very little expense and keep things nice and tidy. It's not like accumulating physical assets, where you run out of space and crowd yourself out. Unfortunately, I haven't been keeping my data organized. Here are some examples of the messiness of my digital life.

  1. Sites that I want to return to may be added to Pinboard, or to a Bear note, or to Drafts, or as bookmarks in my browser.
  2. Quotes that I want to keep or reference later may be in Instapaper as highlights, in Drafts as a draft, in a blog post in IA Writer, etc.
  3. Photos and screenshots that I've collected for a blog post might be in Photos or somewhere in my files.

At some point in the last few years, my digital garden has grown a lot of weeds.

After the titular character in Voltaire's Candide had traveled the world, witnessing the atrocities and ridiculousness of mankind, he settled down in a home to mind his own business. The metaphor for his state of domesticity is tending a garden. It couldn't be more apt right now, when we have disruption and human beings at their worst in the chaos we read about every day. A place to withdraw and manage could be therapeutic indeed.

Candide, as he was returning home, made profound reflections on the Turk’s discourse. “This good old man,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “appears to me to have chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honor to sup.” … “Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” “You are in the right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle.” “Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.”

~ Candide by Voltaire

I don't have a lot of energy to expend, these days. A solid system to manage information can actually save me work. So I listened to the hype around Obsidian from those I follow on social networks and decided to give it a try. At first I was skeptical, and feature for feature, could find most of its power in other tools. The app is cross-platform and it shows. You can tell by the UI and controls it's not a native app on MacOS/iOS. However, I still like the design with the Minimal theme installed. It certainly doesn't stick out like running Emacs on a Mac. It looks better than some native apps like Scanner Pro on iPadOS.

Once I started to watch videos of how people, like Chris Wilson, were using Obsidian for Bible study, things started to click for me. You can checkout Chris' newsletter, Biblically Connected, here. It is a good source for collections of his and other's ideas about personal knowledge management (PKM). It's focused around biblical study, but is broadly applicable. The user base for Obsidian is growing, and its fans are devoted. They're using their Obsidian vaults for keeping track of all kinds of data.

If you like plain text and markdown, give Obsidian a look or two.1 The whole system is comprised of plain text files using markdown, so it's future proof, and the risk of adopting the app is low. It might help you beautify your digital garden.

  1. Don't give up on the first try. ↩︎

Robert Rackley @frostedechoes