Personal Knowledge Management: Tips & Tricks, Workflows, and Processes

Personal Knowledge Management: Tips & Tricks, Workflows, and Processes

While most discussions of knowledge management focus on KM from an organizational perspective, personal KM practices are just as important – and something we have more control over on an individual level.

In the first post in this series, we talked about principles for personal KM and establishing a purpose. Some typical goals include: wanting to more easily re-use knowledge or information, decreasing the time it takes to find knowledge or information stored within a personal filing system, or doing a better job of applying what you've learned. These goals are achieved in vastly different ways, so the tips and tricks, workflows, or processes described here are only applicable to certain goals.

Clean Up Your Files

Without fail, one of the toughest issues within KM in today's digital era is the sheer volume of content we need to manage. Regardless of if you're working primarily in a paper-based environment, a purely digital environment, or some combination of the two, it's important to keep files organized and purge regularly. There's no sense in organizing files that you don't need to keep, and it takes less time (and effort) to stay organized when you're dealing with smaller quantities. Keep things simple and get rid of the clutter.

Many types of files -- e.g. tax, banking, housing, healthcare, school, and legal records -- should be kept for several years. It should go without saying that these types of records should be organized and backed up as appropriate. But for most of us, the real issue is everything else -- the stuff that ends up cluttering our day-to-day existences. For these other types of records, the things that we aren't legally obligated to keep, it's helpful to start by sorting things into a few broad categories: KEEPSHREDRECYCLE, and ARCHIVE. I leave a shred box and recycle bin near where mail comes into the house so things go straight into the shred (or recycle) bin without first making it into a pile that will need to be dealt with again in the future.

For work-related paper files, sort what you need to keep, even if the sorting is just a first pass and more thorough organizing will happen later. I often use magazine holders (like this 10-pack of Ikea magazine/file holders sold at Amazon for $10) to group together papers, files, and notebooks for a particular project. While folders are great, I often have several for a specific project, and I tend to want all of the materials for a project I'm actively working on within easy reach of my desk. Then, once I finish the project, it's easy to sort through and toss out the bits I don't need to keep. Keeping files contained yet organized helps with the visual clutter as well.

Not All Storage is Equal: Tiered Storage

I generally group things into multiple levels:

  • Current/Active Files: the materials I access on a near-daily basis and other current projects, recent projects, administrative files -- all of the items I need to be able to quickly and easily access.
  • Medium-Term Archive:  materials that I'm not ready to send to off-site storage, but I don't access often. These files are still accessible, either through a file cabinet, a physical storage box, or easily-accessible online storage such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft's OneDrive.
  • Long-Term Storage: files -- both digital and paper -- that I need to retain, but don't necessarily need to be able to easily access. For paper files, these are the sorts of things that go into offsite storage or the equivalent. For digital files, these are backed-up and are stored in multiple places, usually including some sort of cloud storage. For personal files, this might mean putting a copy of a hard drive in a safety deposit box.

This model works for personal files as well as network spaces for work groups and project teams.

For most things, I see tiered storage as a progression. When a project finishes, it moves from current/active to the archive (file cabinet). I tend to store projects electronically by year; at the end of each year, I look through past projects and move anything I haven't referred to in the past 2 years to long-term storage. I follow the same process for paper records.

At every point that I move from one tier to the next, it's important to sort and clean. I frequently end up with many versions of a particular report. While I may need every version of a working draft, I don't need all 15 versions three years later -- and realistically, I'll never be able to spot the differences between them. If you clean out files each time you put them into deeper storage, by the time they hit long-term storage, you should be down to the minimum for a particular project.

Applying & Re-Using Knowledge

Other driving forces for personal KM can be to increase how your own knowledge is applied and re-used. One of my personal goals is to cut down on the amount of time I spend "reinventing the wheel" or redoing prep work. While each project is different, much of the process is similar from one project to another. So I heavily rely on checklists and templates to serve as prompts and starting points so I can focus my attention and effort on the aspects of work that require more thinking and less busywork. For instance, there are a few common administrative tasks I deal with routinely, so I've developed a few files in response to these routine tasks that I use as a starting point and tailor according to the particular situation. Even having a short paragraph prepared that can serve as an outline can be helpful and shaves a few minutes off of each transaction. If I save an hour of time each week, which adds up -- and I make fewer mistakes.

Checklists help in the same way. My trick with checklists -- and templates -- is to review and revise (if necessary) as soon as I complete a cycle. For instance, like all small business owners, I spend a significant amount of time each year preparing tax-related files for the accountant. As soon as I finish prepping the previous year's materials, I immediately assemble folders with the categories I expect to need in the coming year. Likewise, I have a running checklist for recurring expenses and big-ticket items that I maintain throughout the year, starting with the list from the previous year but making expected changes as I'm building the list. For instance, I know I'll have web hosting charges, domain registration fees, insurance costs, etc. Getting all of that organized and documented into checklists early, with short updates throughout the year, minimizes the last-minute scrambling.

The Power of Reflection

Don't underestimate stand the power of reflecting on what you've learned from a particular experience. We encourage organizations, work groups, and project teams to set aside some time at the end of projects -- or ideally, along the way at key milestones -- to pause to think about what worked well, what didn't work well, and what you might do differently in the future. (See the 10-minute knowledge sharing practice for more details.) But this practice is beneficial for individuals as well. I often use time on Friday afternoons to think about the past week, jot down notes with ideas I might like to pursue in the future, plan for the coming week and further into the future. I like to close out the week with a clean slate as much as possible and have a game plan for the coming week including priorities for each day. It saves time on Monday morning when I can jump right into the week without having to refresh my memory about what happened the following week, where I left various projects, and what big and small tasks I need to do. It minimizes the risk of forgetting things or letting small items slip through the cracks.

On a broader scale, it's helpful to set aside some time at the end of each project to reflect and think about the key questions: What worked well? What didn't work as well? What can I do differently next time around? What lessons should I learn from this experience? I learn by writing and process knowledge by writing, so I tend to approach this as a short writing or brainstorming exercise. Lessons learned often feed into checklists, templates, and items for my ongoing To Do List. The simple process of pausing, taking time to think about a particular experience, and trying to apply the lessons learned to other experiences can often lead to process improvements or entirely new ideas.

Most importantly: make time. 

Make time to get organized -- to clean up your files, to go through piles, to delete the junk.

Make time to think, reflect, and plan. What did I just learn? What can I take away from a particular experience?