Elizabeth Butler has been researching and writing about personal knowledge management for almost two decades. Her career started out in English Literature, went to grad school in that field, completed her PhD and worked as a professor for a time. Besides her work as a professor, Elizabeth always had a major interest in communication, productivity, and knowledge management, which was the reason why she decided to dive into those fields.
After studying for the MCAT, going to medical school, getting married, becoming a mother, the life of Elizabeth became flooded with positive and exciting things, but at the same time, it also was overwhelming and fast-paced. Ultimately, Elizabeth decided to increase her efficiency and get things done with less time and stress. Inspired by creators like Marie Poulin and Steph Smith working on projects while building in public, Elizabeth decide to work on a resource about the topic of personal knowledge management.
The product was Calmer Notes*, a super resource for anybody who wants to get into personal knowledge management, focus on goals, identify where your information and notes are scattered, choose the right PKM tool for your needs, and a lot more. It is an honour to welcome Elizabeth Butler as part of Creativerly's interview series. If you want to get insights into how productivity and personal knowledge management enthusiast is structuring and organising notes, managing projects, building in public, and if you want to read about thoughts about the PKM space in general, then I encourage you to read on.
Enjoy this interview with Elizabeth Butler from Calmer Notes.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for taking your time to become a part of Creativerly's interview series. To kick this interview off, please give us an introduction about yourself.
A bit about me: I’m a physician, researcher, and working parent. In my previous career, I was a humanities professor. I’m also a part-time indie hacker, writing about mindful productivity and sustainable digital note-taking systems. In December 2021, I launched Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People*, a digital book and self-paced learning bundle.
How did you find your way into the space of Personal Knowledge Management?
I’ve been working in the area of personal knowledge management for… checks calendar… nearly two decades at this point. Wow, I can’t believe that time really does fly.
I first got into the world of PKM early in my academic career. Before I went to medical school, I did a PhD and worked as a humanities professor for a bit. I started trying to figure out PKM in undergrad when working on my honours thesis back in the day. I started really getting into the area in earnest during my master’s and then during my PhD research. I needed a way to organize my primary and secondary research. There weren’t nearly as many apps at that time— basically, Evernote and End Note were the main players, with Zotero just starting to emerge. I used personal knowledge management to organize my writing, research, and teaching materials as an academic.
While completing my PhD, I also worked full-time outside of academia. I did consulting and training to help individuals build and maintain their personal knowledge management and productivity systems. I also worked at an organisational level looking at higher-level taxonomy (aka knowledge structure and organization) to make sure that corporate knowledge was archived and structured in such a way to make sure it was accessible to all both now and in the future. It may sound a bit dry, but it really helped me to understand the bigger systems-first approach to the philosophy and application of personal knowledge management.
When I made the career switch to medicine, I had to revamp my entire personal knowledge management system. My old PKM system had been a really good fit for my old goals and workplace. I quickly learned that medical training was a very different environment. I had to develop a quick-paced, future-proof, flexible system I could use on the go, from a number of different devices and work locations. My PKM system had to be extremely reliable, yet simultaneously require very little time for upkeep.
Because of the different phases in my own journey through personal knowledge management, I became really passionate about helping people find a PKM system that works for their current season of life. I feel that personal knowledge management is a highly valuable tool, especially for busy people. And I want to make sure that the benefits of personal knowledge management are made accessible for everyone, at all stages of life.
What is your number one goal while building and maintaining a PKM system?
Personally, my number one goal right now is to have a system that is quick. I want to be able to capture notes quickly and find stored notes quickly. In choosing an app (at this stage of my life), I will happily forgo any bells and whistles in favour of speed. I expect this will change down the road as my life circumstances change.
What would you recommend to someone who wants to build a PKM system for the first time? Where should a beginner start?
I’m biased, but I designed Calmer Notes* to be a beginner-friendly introduction to the world of personal knowledge management, as well as having info for more advanced PKM practitioners. I have a blog post giving an introduction to the Calmer Notes approach to personal knowledge management over at ElizabethButlerMD.com, which could be a good place to start for beginners to the world of PKM.
What impact can a PKM system have on our lives, both professionally and personally?
On the professional side, being the go-to person at work who can always find that file, or that email or that knowledge is a valuable role. Good for your own workflow (as you’re not bogged down by reinventing the wheel and constantly spending time searching again and again) and good as a collaborative team player.
If you’re working on any research or writing projects professionally, having a mindfully-created PKM system (instead of a frustrating, ad-hoc group of files and apps) can make a huge impact. You can write more easily and make sure you’re incorporating all your research and references. When you have a trusted note-taking system, you can capture all those random great ideas (that usually come at the most inconvenient times!) and save them for later integration.
Personally, being able to manage all those little details of day-to-day life can really lift a lot of stress. It’s always a relief to be able to quickly call up my insurance info on my phone in a click or two if I go to the dentist or physiotherapist. I have a great recipe management setup in Paprika app, so I always know where to look and where to store recipes. It’s not flashy, but collectively managing all these little details from personal life really helps me feel more relaxed and in control, especially during busy seasons of life.
How do you usually structure and organise your notes? Do you work with folders, or tags, neither of those or something else?
I’m a folder person by nature, though I appreciate the flexibility of tags. I use Bear Notes app as my main note-taking system right now, so I’m using tags functionally structured as folders. (I love Bear Notes so much— adding folder support would probably be my only wish list item.) Bidirectional links aren’t the main feature of my PKM system at the moment, but definitely a possible area of interest down the road.
Is there a specific PKM system that you would recommend checking out?
I really enjoy looking at a wide variety of PKM systems and setups for inspiration! I’m always on the lookout to see other people’s systems, to see if there are any structures or apps that I might like to use in my own system.
I’ve put together a couple of roundups of inspiring personal knowledge management setups (roundup 1; roundup 2). I will probably continue to make this a series, as I keep coming across other great examples from fellow PKM enthusiasts and talented creators.
As more and more PKM tools are launching, and more people are getting into that field, what is the reason for the current PKM boom in your opinion?
It’s such an exciting time for personal knowledge management apps and systems! I’ve been in the PKM space since way back when there was just a handful of apps and options. Now there is really a plethora of amazing, flexible options to fit everyone’s preferences.
I think that the boom is growing out of an interest in both productivity and mindfulness. People want to be able to create interesting things— but they don’t want to feel frantic and overwhelmed while they’re working on these projects. The first round of productivity apps was focused on task management, often to support the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach. I think we’re now going through the same process with productivity apps focused on digital note-taking and personal knowledge management. It’s such a promising area of growth right now. Really lovely to see.
You recently launched Calmer Notes, a superb resource for anyone starting out in the field of PKM. How did you manage the whole project while building it?
Thanks for your kind words! I appreciate it.
I initially drafted Calmer Notes* in Markdown format. I started off using Obsidian (with mobile sync using 1Writer for iOS, as this was before Obsidian had a mobile app). I ended up moving my Markdown notes over to Bear Notes when I bought a MacBook Air after my old Windows laptop died. I was already using Bear Notes on my iPad and iPhone, and have been delighted to be able to use it on my laptop too.
Once I had the first draft done, I moved over to creating the manuscript in Google Docs so I could manage the layout as well. I made the supporting images and flowcharts using MindNode and Whimsical. I built and hosted the companion PKM app database using Notion.
I’m currently using Gumroad to sell the digital learning bundle (which includes the Calmer Notes book in PDF and EPUB format, the PKM app database, and a companion workbook). I’ve found Gumroad to be intuitive, straightforward, and reliable. I’m super happy with it and grateful how it made the tech side of the launch feel easy.
You have built Calmer Notes in public by sharing behind-the-scenes on your website. What led you to the decision to build in public?
I’ve followed build in public-type posts within the indie hackers community for a while. I’ve been so appreciative of other founders, who have themselves generously shared their projects in progress. Creators like Marie Poulin and Steph Smith, for example, have been so open about going behind the scenes and discussing the ups and downs of their journeys. I feel like reading build in public posts really helps to demystify the process, and makes taking that first step feel more achievable.
Tools and Apps are not everything but they are giving us access to workflows. What is your preferred PKM tool?
Bear Notes in the backbone of my PKM setup right now. (Obsidian has played that role in the past, and I could certainly see going back to that given all the interesting developments recently.) Dropbox is key for syncing my files between devices, and Raindrop is my go-to for bookmark management.
Do you follow any productivity techniques? If yes, which one? If not, why?
I’m a huge fan of the philosophy of Getting Things Done (GTD). I’ve used a modified version of GTD from undergrad onwards. I think I first discovered GTD back in the day thanks to Gina Trapani of Lifehacker fame. Depending on what I’m working on, I do sometimes use time blocking and the Pomodoro technique as well.
How do you handle times in which you feel less focused, stressed, and experience a blockade? Do you still manage to maintain your PKM system during those times?
Basically, you’ve described my life for the past number of years! High stress, low focus, and low time have described my existence lately. I have managed to maintain my PKM system over this season— but I had to make sure that I set it up to reflect the reality of my day-to-day life.
For me, it made sense to prioritise apps with:
- Access on my phone and iPad as well as laptop
- Super quick capture and search (for example, I really love the flexibility of Notion, but the extra seconds of loading weren’t right for me right now)
- Forgiving structure that would let me search and browse notes even if I hadn’t yet gotten around to processing my inbox of notes
Going through times of high stress was part of my inspiration for Calmer Notes, in fact. I wrote Calmer Notes* because I feel like a high proportion of current PKM articles, advice, and examples are focused on highly complex, intricate PKM setups that require a large amount of time and energy. And for some people, those complex setups are absolutely the right fit, and truly do help them meet their goals or achieve their projects. In developing Calmer Notes, I wanted to establish another method and clarify an alternative approach to personal knowledge management. I wanted people with busy, overwhelming lives to still be able to adopt the benefits of PKM to help simplify their lives— instead of personal knowledge management becoming yet another task on their overwhelming to-do lists.
Since Creativerly is all about creativity and productivity-boosting tools, let us know what your current favourite tool is, and why?
I feel like I’ve listed most of my favourite productivity-boosting tools above in my PKM setup, for the most part. The others I would add to the list would be Things (for task management in the Mac ecosystem) and Typefully (for its beautiful minimalist yet powerful approach to tweet scheduling).
Thanks so much for the interview, Philipp! I really appreciate all your insightful questions. And thanks so much for helping to spread the word about Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People*! Much appreciated.
Till next time! 👋
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