Why Use a Knowledgebase?

My personal journey with Personal Knowledgebases (PKBs) started back in college when I realized that I could barely remember what I had learned the previous semester. When reviewing my notes, I found them to be of little use in recalling the material, and felt as though I had wasted half a year of my life. Going forward, I was determined to truly build up my knowledge instead of allowing it to leak out of my brain every year.

Our brains are good at many things, but struggle with a few areas:

  • We tend to forget things over time.

  • Our ability to recall knowledge tends to be marred by a variety of biases such as the Availability Heuristic or Confirmation Bias.

  • We have a limited amount of working memory, which makes it difficult to hold complex concepts in our minds.

At its core, PKBs help you manage these struggles by externalizing cognition. Placing parts of your knowledge on a computer, which is pretty good at remembering everything you give it, allows you to work with your knowledge outside of your brain, giving you the cognitive bandwidth to focus more tightly on the problem you're working on.

Be Useful

When using your PKB, it's very important to remember that it should serve a problem-solving purpose by helping you mitigate your cognitive struggles. Filling a PKB with random facts or achieving a “dense knowledge graph” is not the point. Many criticisms of note-taking apps and methodologies rest on how they enable this kind of navel-gazing/pseudo-productive behavior. You should be using your PKB as an aid to help you do things better, so if it’s not helping you accomplish your goals, then change how you use it.

For a long time, I tried to capture every interesting fact or article I came across, until I realized that I was basically building a private version of Wikipedia and Google that was substantially worse than either of those tools. Once I shifted my mindset to focus on the things I wanted to do, and how I could use my PKB to be better at those things, I found myself benefitting substantially more from having one.

Just Start

There weren't many resources on this topic when I first started building my PKB, which was secretly a blessing since it forced me to just start. I opened a Dropbox account, created a single file called math.txt, and just started writing notes and dumping my problem sets into a folder. As the semester progressed, I created new folders for different classes, extra-curriculars, and job interviews.

For anyone else getting started with this practice, I'd strongly recommend a similar approach. Take a problem you’re currently dealing with (say, work), create a folder called PKB/, create a file called work.md, and just start writing. Moving files around or starting over is easy at this point, which makes it the perfect time to try things out. Using a PKB is very much akin to exploring your brain, and you really need to use one before you can understand what features will be important to you.

A super common mistake at the beginning is being overly focused on having the “right” structure or setting up a variety of “meta” features (automated web clipping of blog posts, etc.), only to find that these are rarely used as the years go on.

Your Brain is Unique

Ultimately, I think this is because everyone's brain is unique in its own way, with its own unique quirks, strengths, and limitations. The "perfect" PKB for me is going to look different from the "perfect" PKB for you, and this book is written with that in mind.

Think of this book as a toolbox. Each principle, meta-process, or tech option is a choice for you, and it depends solely on what works best for you as an individual. Mix and match, add and subtract until you feel the friction between how your brain and PKB work melt away.