How do we cope with our growing digital lives?  How do we manage the ever increasing amounts of digital stuff we create and use?  This is the challenge of Personal Information Management.   




Mindmaps as personal information managers

Need a better way to organize your thoughts, or better yet, a way to remember those thoughts you had yesterday?  For me, the mindmap is a good answer; or more specifically, mindmapping software.  In previous posts, I have shared links to mindmaps I created to get my head around the topics of personal information management (PIM) and personal knowledge management (PKM).  Here, I used them to visually organize my answers to key questions about the topic.  Likewise, I use them to diagram information in books I am reading, so as to better remember them. (One example is here. Here is a different one.).  It’s no surprise then, that students can be found using mindmaps to organize their notes and classwork.  For an example, see this 23 minute video showing in detail how one student uses Mindjet’s Mindmanager software to manage his schoolwork.  Here is a good definition from Wikipedia of what a mindmap is:

A mindmap is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mindmaps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and writing.

While these maps can be created with pens or pencils, it was the advent of mindmapping software that allowed mindmaps to be used for personal information management.  With software you can link concepts on a map to electronic resources:  web sites, files, images, and notes.  With software you can create maps that are easily shared and reused.  You can also expand or collapse sections of a map with a click of your mouse and control the detail that is visible, especially useful if you have a big or complex map.  This interactivity and the ability to visualize a topic and the relationships between items is what makes the tool compelling to me.

Also, mindmapping software has another key attribute that I rarely see mentioned: you don’t have to draw the mindmaps!  Unlike conventional drawing programs, mindmapping software lets you concentrate on entering the information and it creates the diagram for you.  Yes, you can manipulate the maps and format them to enhance their presentation, but you don’t have to spent lots of time sizing, placing, and connecting individual elements.  This frees you to focus on the topic at hand.

I first learned about mindmapping through my work as an information architect. Someone on a listserv recommended Mindjet’s Mindmanager software as a tool for prototyping taxonomies and creating Web sitemaps (which I now use it for).  But it was in organizing my work where I came to love it.  I used it to manage my task lists and diagram big, complicated projects. Not only did it help me to better understand those projects, but when I shared them with others, it helped them understand those projects as well.  And as a presentation tool it was more fun to use than PowerPoint. 

 Here are other uses I have made of mindmapping software:

  • Task management / lightweight project management – Mindmapping software often includes the ability to manage tasks, with to-do dates and resources.  Icons that show task status and priority can be added to provide easy-to-read, interactive, project dashboards.
  • Outlining writing projects – A mindmap can help you quickly capture and organize all the ideas you have for a document you are writing.  Here, it’s part brainstorming tool and part visual outliner.  
  • Brainstorming – This is one of the original uses of mindmaps.  Some packages include timers to support this.   Used in combination with an overhead projector, an online mindmap can be used to rapidly capture and display the results of a group brainstorming session.
  • Personal information dashboards – Because they can link to other objects mindmaps can be used to create a visual dashboard to tasks and reminders, goals, key bookmarks, documents in progress, and other key files.   These can be organized visually using any labels, images, or colors you desire.  In this scenario, a mindmap becomes your personal productivity home page.

Next Post:  Mindmapping software: how far down this rabbit hole do you want to go?


Personal Knowledge Management: Getting to know what you know (and don't)

A recent article in the journal First Monday has got me thinking about personal knowledge management (PKM).   The author, William Jones, describes PKM as a subset of personal information management (PIM) and states that while knowledge cannot be managed directly, information about knowledge can be and that this is worth doing.   I think I agree.

Roughly speaking this information can be broken into two categories: what we know and what we need to know but don’t.   Information about what we know is useful personally and professionally, especially if we can share it with others and put it to good use.  Capturing this information can be useful because sometimes we forget what we know or what we’ve done in the past.  Reviewing it can help us prevent “knowledge decay.”  

Thus I want tools to help me do this:  tools to capture, archive, and share what I know and what I have done, but also tools that help me remember these things. This can include everything from a basic text editor to sophisticated knowledge-base software for capturing and indexing all the information that I touch or create (stay tuned – I don’t have one yet!).

One tool I use to do this is mindmapping software, which I use to capture course and book notes and to diagram my understanding of different topics. So naturally I have created a mindmap to diagram my first take on what personal knowledge management is or could be, and the activities and tools I associate with it.  Click on the image below to load an interactive flash version of this map.  (If you have a problem viewing that, try an interactive PDF version.)  I will write more about mindmaps in an upcoming post.

The other side of the coin, information about what we need to know but don’t, is also worth capturing.  But before doing this, I think we need to know where we are headed.  This means being clear about our personal mission, and the possibility we are trying to live towards: what our goals are, our values, and our guiding principles.  Thus, I choose to write these things down and refer to them, changing them as needed but keeping them foremost in my mind, so that I can use them to guide my decisions and my quest for knowledge.  This is perhaps the most important “knowledge” that needs to be managed. 


On putting together an uber e-mail archive: or why saving my e-mail has paid off

I’ve been using e-mail for a long time and since about the mid-90s have been trying to save or archive my e-mail so it would be available later.  After using Microsoft Outlook for years I switched to a Macintosh, and am now using Thunderbird as my email software.  After a little fancy footwork, I managed to get my Outlook archive files converted and moved over. The process wasn’t pretty, but it’s all there, e-mail from 4 different employers and personal e-mail stretching back 15 years.

As I flip back through old e-mail folders I remember much that has been forgotten, including how much I used to depend on folders to organize my e-mail!   There were times when I doubted the value of saving this stuff, but not anymore.  So much of my life both personal and professional is archived in these messages: so many details, so many particulars that would otherwise be gone, lost in the fog.  In the mail that I sent is a journal of what I was working on, thinking about and saying, nicely time-stamped complete with names, dates, and places.  In the file attachments is a portfolio of my work: projects, reports, plans, diagrams and more—handy stuff when you are updating your resume or preparing for a new project.

This archive is also a scrapbook of things shared between me, my family, and my friends: photos, jokes, cartoons, articles, requests, rants, compliments given and received, and “hard e-mails” written in times of pain and crisis.  

I’m happy to have this information at my fingertips, rather than locked up in some inaccessible archive files on my back-up drive.  It means I can put this information to work for me whenever I want.   Looking forward I need to make sure I can take it with me.   So whenever I move machines or e-mail clients I won’t do it without answering that question.  Do you have any intention of “taking it with you” and archiving your e-mail for life?  Do you know how you’re going to do it?


When does Personal Information Management (PIM) become important?

Learning to appreciate the value of managing your digital stuff doesn’t happen overnight.  What happens is that slowly, over time, you accumulate more and more stuff on your computers—photos, email, contacts, documents, music files, etc.—and then one day you realize that 1) it is a tangled mess, and 2) it has become valuable, irreplaceable even.

A new project has come up and you vaguely remember having done something like this years ago.  Can you quickly put your hands on the documents from that earlier project, and thus save yourself from starting from scratch?   A good friend has died and you want to share some good pictures with loved ones.   Can you find them quickly using a name search, or will you need to browse through thousands of pictures with labels like IMG_939.jpg, IMG_940.jpg?  In which case it’s probably not going to happen. 

In these and many other cases, I have come to realize that managing my digital assets for the long haul has become important.  Like an adjunct to my personal memory, like an “off-line” data store, my digital stuff will be an invaluable companion in the years to come, making me smarter and more productive.   At the end of my life, I envision myself sitting in the nursing home with all of it at my fingertips.  But that’s another story…

It has to survive the many transitions in life: leaving jobs, changing computers, changing software, moving into and out of the “cloud.”  At each juncture there is the danger of losing information—this beyond the obvious dangers of system failure and security breaches.  But more importantly, my information needs to be quickly accessible, for if I can’t put my hands on it quickly I probably won’t use it.

And because nobody cares about my information like I do, it’s up to me to figure out how to not only protect my digital stuff but how to manage it so it stays usable over time and grows in value as it grows in size.   What I need is a process for doing this, a set of guidelines that I can follow, independent of whatever software, device, or online service I am using, as these will change over time.  This, I think, is the challenge of personal information management.


Mindmap of Personal Information Management (PIM) space

I have just created a mindmap showing how I view the Personal Information Management (PIM) space.   Click on the image below to load an interactive flash version of the mindmap.  If you have a problem viewing that, try an interactive PDF version.  Both are around 1.6MB in size.




Startups need a customer development process

Back in 2000/2001 I worked for a start-up that didn't survive the bursting of the bubble.   After a few years doing other things my attention is turning back to startups.   I have joined the Boston Lean Startup Circle, the Lean Startup Google Group, and am reading Steve Blank's Four Steps to the Epiphany, which is considered required reading in the lean startup world. 

These four steps are depicted below in what is referred to as the customer development process.   Step 1.  Customer Discovery:  Finding out who the customers for your product are and whether the problem you believe you are solving is important to them.   If you don't succeed at first (and you won't), repeat.  If and only if you've passed this hurdle, proceed to Step 2:  Customer Validation: Building a proven, repeatable sales process and roadmap.  You will create this roadmap by learning how to sell to a small set of early visionary customers ("earlyvangelists").  If and only if you've passed this hurdle, proceed to Step 3: Customer Creation (driving demand) and Step 4: Company Building.   If not, repeat, or if necessary, go back to step 1 and repeat.  More on this later.




Andy Blog 2.0

Back in 2001 I started a short-lived blog titled, Andy's Trail, in which I posted my musings using Userland's Manila platform.  It was fun for a month or so but I couldn't be bothered to keep it up.  This was back when they were called "Web Logs" and before there was a blogosphere.  So why blog now?

The main reason: I'm looking to connect with people interested in the same problems I am.  To find people who share my professional interests and to start conversations with them and maybe even start a business with one of them.  What I want to talk about is Personal Information Management.  How do we manage our growing digital assets over time?   How do we manage them so that they can best serve us?  How do we protect them?  How do we share them?  How do we ensure they will be there in 20 years when we want to use them?   This is for starters.

-Andy Breeding






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