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.   



Entries in PKM (8)


Web-based mindmaps become my primary PIM and PKM tool

I have written about Mindmeister before, a web-based mindmapping service that I am fond of.  During this past year I have used a single mindmap to manage my day-to-day to-dos as well as my longer term goals.  I use this mindmap as an all-purpose dashboard, linking to other documents as needed--such as a google docs spreadsheet I use to track my project work hours and my personal journal, also a google document.  I also use it to store and manage what I refer to as my "directional" information, including my mission, my goals, my key research questions. My daily routine involves consulting this mindmap first. During the day I check tasks off as I do them, and add notes and new to-dos as they come up. 


I also use Mindmeister to capture book notes and thoughts on certain topics, in some cases attempting to capture and outline my current thinking on a topic.  Sometimes I return to these mindmaps and review them so I can increase my retention and memory of the topic.  Sometimes I add to them.  In this fashion, I use this tool for personal knowledge management (PKM).

Although this service is powerful and continues to be improved I have run into two issues.  As a cloud-based service I am dependent on my network connection to use it.  Occasionally this connection falters and the tool is not available when I need it.  Second, I am concerned about the lack of portability of these mindmaps.  So long as I stick with this service, I am OK.  But should it go out of business or change its terms so as to make it unattractive,  I will be forced to save/migrate each file one at a time to get the information out of the service.   Bulk backups are available, but only to large scale business users with a much more expensive subscription.  I will speak more about this in a follow-up post about cloud-based services

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


Keep a list of important problems handy

The blog Taking Note just took note of a kind of information that deserves to be kept handy:

Richard Feynman seems to have given younger scientists the advice that they should keep a list of a dozen or so of their favorite problems. They should have this list constantly present in their mind. In this way they could relate everything they read or heard to one of the problems on the list and then determine whether the new information could help them in solving the problem. The claim was: "If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work."

Although my notion of an "important problem" might be different than Feynman's I like the notion of carrying a list of important problems around with me.  I can see myself including this in my category of important information to keep in touch with and in some fashion "manage."  This includes the directional information that gives meaning to my personal research activities: my goals, my personal mission, and my guiding principles.

To remember or not to remember, that is the question

Having recently trumpeted my aquisition of a tool that frees me from remembering passwords, I came across an interesting podcast on "The End of Remembering" which reflects on how the transition from antiquity to modernity has been accompanied by an ever decreasing reliance on human memory.  The speaker is a journalist named Joshua Foer who researched the culture of memory competitions and ended up becoming a competitor himself (also discussed in this article in the NY Times Magazine).  Given my interest in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) this topic seemed relevant. Here are some interesting points that were made:

  • When books were scarce and few, people read them over and over again. They read them aloud to one another and could recite large passages from memory. Today, we gallop through books with barely a pause and rarely do we read them again.
  • The art of memory enhancement goes back to the ancient Greeks, who learned to use visual structures or "memory palaces" to help them remember large amounts of information. These techniques were widely used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance but have passed out of common use.  
  • The trick is in making things that are unmemorable, memorable.  The use of absurd, bawdy, even obscene imagery is part of the game.
  • People of average mental abilities can learn these skills. The ability to memorize large amounts of information is not limited to savants and extraordinary individuals.  

For me the question is, when would it make sense to memorize lots of information?  Joshua Foer does it because it's fun.  Fun and games aside, I don't see any immediate uses for this.  But I do like the idea of mastering information in a specific domain and being able to quickly draw on it without having to consult a book or a computer. Perhaps some of these techniques could provide better interior scaffolding on which to arrange this information. That, it seems, might be worth pursuing.

Robert Fludd, The Memory Palace of Music



In search of the right notebook and notetaking system

In my last post, I wondered about whether the commonplace book is a good model for personal knowledge management or,  to put it more plainly, whether it is a good tool for capturing and remembering key ideas and concepts.  This has increased my interest in good examples of notebooks in use. This past week the VizThink blog posted an interesting 7 minute video of a designer discussing his notebooks, mostly filled with sketches and how they figure in his creative process.  I have also come across the blog Taking Note, "a blog on the nature of note-taking" which discusses notetaking tools and systems.  The most recent post discusses the diary entries of an Austrian writer concerning his system of notetaking:

Musil tried to make the vast material accessible to himself by assigning to entries a sequence of numerals and letters. Apparently, there are 100,000 of them. This system of reference is, however, very opaque to outsiders. In any case, his approach is not too dissimilar from the way in which other authors and thinkers tried to master the results of their note-taking and thinking. Whether Musil's system was more effective than that of others may be doubted.

I doubt my system needs to be terribly complex but it does need to be electronic. When I used a Windows machine I used Microsoft OneNote  and liked it, but now that I am using a Mac I am looking at tools like Devonnote, Scrivener, and OmniOutliner.  The solution has to have the ability to quickly organize and reorganize my notes and to create links between them which show the relationship of one idea or note to the other.  Thus, outlining capabilities are important as are linking capabilities. Otherwise I would like to keep it simple. One possibility: Mindmanager has the ability to switch between mindmap and outline view modes.  If each topic in a mindmap linked to a file containing a document or note that might work.

 Charles Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)


Old wine in new bottles: the commonplace book as model for personal knowledge management

The ability to keep key information close at hand and easily accessible is a function of personal knowledge management. But in centuries past people didn't have iPads or PCs.

"Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . .They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality."

Robert Darnton,"Extraordinary Commonplaces," The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

I like this idea of taking the best of what I read, write, or see and putting it someplace close, where I can repeatedly read it, organize it, and shape it to match my evolving understanding. By keeping it close, I would make sure that I didn't lose it amid the distractions of everyday life. And through repetition I would make sure that I mastered this content and could speak to it at anytime with ease and with facility.

The closest I come to this now is a series of online mindmaps that I use to capture key ideas, goals, and readings that have intrigued me.  As a tool, my Mindmeister account meets many of the criteria I would have for my commonplace book: the maps are easy to add to, edit, and reorganize. They let me link to related information and I can access them from most any electronic device, though for now I only use them from my PC or laptop.  But they don't resemble a book and they don't follow me around like a commonplace book might if it was in my vest pocket.  It has to be easy to enter new thoughts and to make changes on the go, so the iPhone I carry won't cut it.  Likewise it has to be easy to grab snippets of content from other electronic sources. Outlining software seems like it would be  helpful.  Pen based input would be nice, too, though not strictly required. Right now I'm thinking the iPad might be the right size for this sort of thing. 


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

In a previous post I discussed why mindmapping software is worth using.  Here, I want to talk about the software itself.

This category of software is best referred to as visual mapping software, because it includes functionality that goes beyond what mindmaps were originally designed for.  I think of it as visual information management software because I don't just use it to create and present information. I use it to manage information too: to-do lists, projects, and my research and learning work over time.

What follows is not a comprehensive review of available software, but rather recommendations based on my personal experience and research. I will start with the two products I am using: Mindjet's Mindmanager and Mindmeister, a web-based service.


Mindmanager was the first package I used and is probably the best known commercial mindmapping software package.  Targeted primarily at business users, it is an excellent tool:  easy-to-use, loaded with useful functionality, and available for both Windows and Mac users.  Here are a few things I like about it:

•    Its core mindmapping capabilities are as strong as any I have seen
•    It is good for creating and sharing presentation quality mindmaps
•    It is good for creating interactive maps that you can load on websites

It’s also well integrated with Microsoft productivity tools; so if you use MS-Office, Outlook, MS-Project, and even SharePoint, there are interesting opportunities to use the applications together. More recently, Mindmanager has beefed up its project management capabilities.  It's a Cadillac product, but with a Cadillac price: $350 for Windows users (version 9) and $250 for Mac users (version 8).  Luckily I got mine while I was still working at a university, and got a reduced educational price. 


I began using the second tool, Mindmeister, when I wanted to share my maps on the Web and collaborate.  I was drawn to the convenience of a web application that I could access from any browser on any machine, at home or at work.  What I found was a simpler tool than Mindmanager.  It had less functionality, but was easy to use, and for what I needed it was sufficient.  It has subscription pricing of $59 per year ($18/year for educational users).  In addition, there are mobile versions available for the iPhone and iPad.  The company is constantly releasing new features, and because it's a web application I get the new features when I login; no software upgrades required. 

I do have complaints though. The maps are not as polished as what I can produce with Mindmanager.  For presentation purposes I prefer Mindmanager.  Also, I occasionally get network hiccups while editing a mindmap, which means I have to wait a few seconds and hit reload on my browser. (Update: the latest release adddresses this lag issue.) Nonetheless, Mindmeister is the tool I use the most.  Right now, I only use Mindmanager for presentation quality mindmaps and for creating mindmaps to embed on webpages.  Although Mindmanager has come out with an online collaboration service, it's more complicated and costly to use than Mindmeister.

Thinking about which solution is best for you

When considering what software or service to use, think about the following questions:

  1. How do you intend to share your mindmaps?

    Do you want people to be able to access them via the Web?  If so, do you want them to be able to have access to an interactive version that lets them open and close branches of the map, or is a static image sufficient?  If you will be printing them out, then look for good print formatting capabilities. Also look at the import and export capabilities.  If you will be presenting them in meetings then look at the presentation features.

  2. How important is the visual look of these maps?

    Is it important for you to make them visually distinctive?  Do you want an "organic" look to your maps?  Do you wish to make extensive use of icons and images?   If so, look for how well a package delivers on this.

  3. Do you intend to collaboratively create mindmaps with others?

    For collaborative creation of maps, I recommend a web-based service (i.e., Mindmeister).  Otherwise, your collaborators will need to get the same software package.  Also, web-based services can support simultaneous editing.

  4. Do you use want to use it for task or project management?

    Then look for calendar integration and the ability to set due dates and easily add icons to designate task status or priority.

  5. Do you want to create big mindmaps or manage lots of information with your mindmaps?

    If so, then look for filters and the ability to easily look at only 1, 2, 3...N levels of the map.  Look into the features for linking different maps together and managing collections of maps.

  6. Do you want to edit or view your mindmaps using your mobile device?

    Then look at applications for your mobile device or the ability to add topics using email or SMS messages.

Other packages to consider

There are lots of options out there and reviews of new and upgraded offerings that are regularly published. Among the many others, these are definitely worth considering (available for both Windows PCs and Macs):

  • Novamind – This is a polished, full-featured offering that is directly comparable to Mindmanager but costs less.  Its current version has been strongly reviewed and its new layout engine and visual formatting capabilities are reputed to be the best out there. The sense I get is that this tool is stronger visually than Mindmanager, but doesn’t have as many bells and whistles.

  • The Brain - This is mindmapping on steroids. I haven’t yet tried it, but I am intrigued by its 3-D interface, its ability to express different kinds of relationships between concepts, and the way it is positioned as a tool for managing large personal knowledge-bases or “brains.”  Check out the short video on their web site, and maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to create a “brain” for yourself.

Lower cost options

  • XMind – This is a capable, free, open-source offering that is a good choice for anybody wishing to get started in mindmapping but who doesn’t want to shell out any money. An upgraded version, XMind Pro, is available for a subscription price of $49 per year.

  • Freemind -  This is the best known open source mindmapping package.  Though not as polished as Mindmanager or even XMind, it's quite capable.  Compared with XMind, it uses less memory, and is reported to be quicker and more responsive. See also Freeplane, which is a splinter offering, based on the original Freemind source code. 

  • Inspiration - This software is targeted exclusively at the education market, which may account for its reasonable price: $69.  It doesn't contain much in the way of productivity features (task management, etc.) but lets you create more than just mindmaps. This includes concept maps, outlines, affinity diagrams and more. Kidspiration is a K-5 version.

My recommendation:  get started

The best way to see if mindmapping software is for you is to try it. Decide whether you want to use a client software package (loaded on your PC) or whether you want to use a web application. If you want client software, and money for a full-featured package isn't likely to be in the budget anytime soon, then start by using an open source or low cost package. Otherwise, test drive one of the full-featured packages like Novamind or Mindmanager. They pretty much all offer 30-day free trials.  If available, take advantage of video tutorials which are often helpful. My choice for a web application is Mindmeister, though if you want to look at other options, look at the list provided here.


A personal knowledge management system?

I'm always interested to see how people cobble together solutions for doing research and writing using the tools and services available.  The screencast below shows what online community pioneer Howard Rheingold is currently using:


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.