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I’m rounding the final stretch on Duly Noted. At this stage in the writing process, the question inevitably resurfaces: why should a reader spend a few hours learning about this subject? (I.e., personal knowledge management.)
Actually, in this case, it’s two questions. I don’t just hope you’ll invest a couple of hours reading the book; the book itself is an invitation to build a knowledge repository — a task that, if done conscientiously, will take up a chunk of your lifetime. What’s the point? Why invest your time in these nerdy practices?
For some people, the answer is simple: it’ll help them accomplish their goals. If you want to write a book, get a degree, remember what you read, or elevate your research skills, learning how to better use notes will be a no-brainer. (Literally, since these systems free your brain to focus on other things.)
But for others, building and maintaining a personal knowledge management system will seem a big ask. Not everyone loves fiddling around with software and learning about information architecture like I do. Nor is reading (for learning or for pleasure) a mainstream activity like, say, shopping.
So, why would a “regular” person care to learn about this subject? Not everyone will — and that’s OK. But some might be drawn to the subject with a proper introduction. Let’s give it a shot.
There’s a category of listicle posts you could label “deathbed regrets.” (Here’s a typical title: The 9 Most Common Regrets People Have At The End Of Life.) They’re usually written by hospice workers or nurses who’ve spoken with many people at the end of their lives.
The upshot: when nearing death, many people wish they’d spent more time with their friends and family and less time working. Many also wish they’d had the courage to live more authentically — i.e., doing what mattered to them despite pressures to conform.
One way to interpret this is that they regret not having lived more intentionally. Many don’t think deeply about what matters to them. And I don’t judge them — it’s hard! Throughout their lives, their attention is buffeted by petty (yet insistent and apparently urgent) concerns that consume their attention. So, they inadvertently squander time on stuff that doesn’t add up.
Socrates supposedly said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I don’t take it that far; life is worthwhile per se. But I also can’t imagine a worse fate than dying alone, knowing I whittled away the hours on petty bullshit. That’s a real risk: given our abundant access to information, it’s never been easier to lose sight of the important stuff among pixellated squirrels.
In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs said,
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Today’s information environments swamp you with other people’s thinking, while tricking you into believing it’s for your benefit. Everything you read on this screen is vying to change your mind. (Including this post.) Which is cool if it helps you grow and improve — but not if it turns you into another agent of consumption, extraction, domination, hate, etc.
Building a personal knowledge management system is a way to take responsibility for your attention. The system’s basic element — the humble note — is a convenient and simple means to extend and augment your mind. Hopefully, you’ll direct that power toward ends that matter to you and those you love.
You already know that living a healthy life requires physical exercise and a balanced diet. But you must also care for your mind and spirit. That means being more intentional about where you focus your attention and what you do with the information you let in. That’s the aim of personal knowledge management, and of Duly Noted: to help you mind your mind. The ultimate meta-skill.