How are you saving your knowledge?

We live in a “knowledge economy”. Every day brings with it new information. Do you have an external system to store your knowledge efficiently and effectively?

There’s a constant stream of Web sites, books, newsletters, courses online and a lot of that information is something I need to keep either in my head, or in some place outside that’s readily accessible. My work often needs researching online, understanding a complex code base, or brainstorming new ideas. All of this becomes harder if I don’t have an effective system to represent knowledge, because I cannot use all the information to learn, understand or make decisions. In fact, it degenerates into a non-system: I’ll only remember the most recent, or the most egregious material. So, in order to combat this, I’ve tried a lot of things over the years from the simplest to the sophisticated: browser bookmarks, Post-Its and handwritten notes, folders, both paper and digital, Evernote, wiki. None of these has worked well for me.

Sometime earlier this year, I realized that knowledge is best represented as a hierarchical graph data structure: you have nodes that represent information, and edges that connect disparate information nodes. You also compress information by summarizing them and storing them as higher-order nodes. So you have a hierarchical graph in your head. You constantly move and reorganize nodes, as you digest new information. Do you see the problem now? Some of the tools I tried out are linear, not graphical: such as text notes you capture in a diary or on Evernote. Notebooks cannot capture hyperlinks, pictures, or let us navigate easily. The linear narrative is good for stories, not knowledge. Folders can aggregate information, but they don’t provide enough context on each file or across files.

Armed with this discovery, I started using a system that’s closer to what my brain uses: mind maps. I cannot thank myself enough for trying this out, because it has proved to be exactly the system I was looking for.

A mind map is a graph, again mostly hierarchical. For any node, I can add notes to provide context, hyperlinks to Web pages, and any relevant pictures. For some nodes, I also add icons such as ticks or cautions, or typographical highlights. The graphs are very much alive, because I update them as I incorporate new knowledge. Sometimes a map grows too big, but I can branch it off into its own graph, linked back to the original map. Can you imagine doing all of this on any other system?

Since switching to mind maps, I’ve captured talks, courses, books efficiently. I can go back to them and navigate easily, going down only the hierarchy that interests me. I get a big picture overview by looking at the top-level nodes, but also how they are all connected together by the edges. I can brainstorm efficiently, curating them as I move the nodes around. My code reviews are better now, because I go from code-level nodes to higher-level concept nodes. Spaced repetition assumes you’ve got material to review: with mind maps, there’s material, and it’s accessible. I even collect and manage my TODOs in a map, so that I can see how my projects are making progress. Earlier, I felt a sense of despair that I was losing the battle of information. Now I feel I’m more in control.

I encourage you to try a mind map. I think schools and universities should publish such maps for material they intend to teach. This can vastly improve the effectiveness of education, because what is it if not a transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student?

I made a mind map of this blog post, to give an example. It also has links to two other mind maps of talks I recently listened to.