Where Not What - Start Here

This is the best place to start to learn more about my Where Not What System.

Where Not What - Start Here


When people see me use my note taking system, their typical response is one of amazement. They are like, "What IS that?" I have been playing around with creating "a second brain" for several years now, and this page is an overview of what I use and how to start.

The Big Idea

We have so much information to manage, it can be impossible to keep it all in your head. Creating a Personal Knowledge Management System (PKM). Basically, you have a trusted vault where you keep details that are hard to remember. What makes it a second brain, and not merely a file cabinet, is connectivity. Connected notes allow you to see relationships and connections that would otherwise be invisible. Insights literally come from seeing connections that others do not. So you can think of a decent PKM as an insight engine.

The Problems It Solves

A PKM helps you answer questions quickly. Moreover, a good PKM empowers intelligent action, because you are getting "predigested" information in a form you can use.

Everything we touch is surrounded by a halo of complex, detailed information, more than we can possibly remember. Maybe you dream of having a photographic memory but there is no evidence this is a real thing.[1]. If we can't have a perfect memory, what can we do? Use a PKM.

A PKM helps with the following problems:

  1. You think of great ideas when you are least able to act on them.[2]
  2. Technical knowledge can take hours to accumulate, but you don't use it frequently enough to remember it easily. This means you have to learn it all over again. A PKM helps you store what YOU learned.
  3. It is almost impossible to complete a project in one sitting, a PKM helps you save the "context" of your work so you can pick up where you left off.
  4. If you read a lot for self-improvement, how do you get the most out of that information? A PKM can help you integrate and apply more of what you read and learn.
  5. Quickly access and use high-detail low-use information like recipes, and technical instructions. (Exactly how did I BBQ the Turkey last thanksgiving.)
  6. Access important but easy to forget details for home repair projects (what kind of dryer do we own? Where did I find that weird lightbulb that goes in the freezer?)
  7. Track projects that never end, like home finance, your health, or very long-term projects like getting a college degree.
  8. You are drafting a paper, or a blog post, or having a discussion and you need to cite your sources.

A PKM makes it easier for you to have the information you need when you can act on it.

How is this different from a notebook app like Evernote?

First, you can absolutely implement this system with Evernote. However, Evernote is not enough because what typically happens is that we throw everything into these digital notebooks, and then we don't know how to use them. We have no convention for filing and then accessing information. We don't know how to think about it. Digital notebooks have become our digital junk drawer. A PKM in contrast feels like a well-organized pantry. You know where to put things when you until you need them in the future, and you know where to look when it's time to take them out and use them.

What you need

First, the tool you will need is Obsidian. Obsidian is the software you use to work with your notes. Obsidian is free. I also highly recommend getting Obsidian Sync. This is not free. At the time of this writing an annual subscription costs $96 per year. It is well worth it.

Second, you will need a convention, an approach that allows you to preserve "the context" of your information. Conceptually, I organize my information by the mantra GRIT- Goals, Roles, Interests, and Treasures. However, the most popular way of doing the same thing is to use PARA. Para stands for:

  • Projects
  • Areas
  • Resources
  • Archives

As far as I am aware, Tiago Forte developed this model, and ee explains this very well in his book Building a Second Brain.

Finally, there is a third piece. Tasks. I do not do task management in my PKM, I use two different applications - one for work, and one for personal. I use Remember The Milk for handling personal tasks, and my company uses Monday.com. I suppose there is one more piece. If you use multiple computers, it is worth having a shared drive application. My current cloud drive of choice is Microsoft OneDrive. It works great on MacOS and of course on Windows, and it is part of my Office 365 subscription. I have tried DropBox, iCloud, and Google Drive, but OneDrive simply works the best for me. Despite being the creator of Windows, Microsoft has done an outstanding job of being platform agnostic for many of their applications and tools.

Getting Started

Now that you understand what a PKM is and the problems it solves, you might want to get started using one. I suggest checking out my talk on YouTube and my Tutorials


  1. There is no evidence for photographic memories. People with amazing memories often use specific techniques such as a memory palace to remember tons of information. Joshua Foer and his book Moonwalking with Einstein. ↩︎
  2. David Allen, the book Getting Things Done. ↩︎