Manage Your Knowledge Using a System, and Not Tools

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How a system can lead you to be more productive across your life.

Manage Your Knowledge Using a System and Not Tools

     As I work on this site, my professional work as an officer, and my personal life, there is a never-ending cycle of information that I want to do something with, but no plan for how to do something with that mass of information. If you are like me, you are constantly collecting an endless stream of resources, jotting down ideas, and endless lists of things to do so that you can get what you need done.

We collect these things in our email, notebooks, sticky notes, the back of scrap pieces of papers and constant whirlwind of thoughts inside our heads. We are swimming and churning in a sea of information, ideas, and thoughts that are a conglomeration of work, hobbies, and personal life, trying not to drown, distracted by shiny objects and trying to avoid the anchors that will pull us to where we don’t want to be.

To deal with this tsunami of thoughts, we buy and implement tools designed to slay the beast of too much to do and too little time. We buy scanners and binders, apps and filing cabinets, cloud solutions and another beautiful moleskin notebook with crisp clean pages. Each of these tools come with a promise of clarity, to cut through the clutter so that everything we want is in a logical place, just buy and your feeling of being overwhelmed is gone, but that is a lie.

The reason why these tools fail is that they do not deliver on a promise of organization and productivity; instead, they only give you another place in which to put the chaos of our minds. Tools are not the solution; they are a means to an end. The solution is a system to implement these tools.

Of all the recent interviews I have done, the one that made me really start to rethink how I want to approach the New Year is Episode 27 “Making The Most of The Time You Have, with George Smolinski from the Four Hour Physician” and how he spoke about productivity. That episode is the inspiration for this post. After my talk with George and reflecting on my knowledge management problem, I wanted to find a solution.

I started out my military career with the advice of getting a green notebook, the same that many of us found in our company supply rooms, in which to document everything and anything from meetings. In college, people spoke about highlighters and tabs, but these too are only tools. What I lacked was a system.

So how do you develop a system to capture all this information? For me, I found something that works for me. You may find your own, but this is my system.

It’s called the Getting Things Done (GTD) system. The original book and system, by David Allen is available on Amazon. The concept of the system is really a three-step process.

  1. Step One: Capture everything in a mental inbox. Anything and everything you want to remember needs to be captured somewhere. Use the random thoughts: buy milk, write a blog post on productivity, call bill, send an email to Mary, update the expense tracker, read the article on the best new apps to buy, etc.. Find a place to put all these thoughts. Put them on paper, a notebook, To do Lists, emails, and on and on. This place that you choose is basically a large inbox. Things to look at later and organize. The point is to get the thoughts to of your head so that you spend less time trying to remember them and make space for actually getting the task at hand done.
  1. Step Two: Sort your mental inbox. Since you downloaded all these thoughts in a single place, sort that box based on what you want to do with that information. When you sort these thoughts, turn them into things to do, AND BE SPECIFIC! Often our thoughts are incomplete. As you sort, complete the thought, what do you actually want to do related to the task, maybe the task consists of multiple things. A thought like “mom” really means call mom for her birthday. So sort and be specific, it’s about the outcome you want and the action you need to take. All the things in your mind are related to one of the following categories:
  • Reference (things to check out when you have tome like reading articles)
  • Projects (long term events that are easily broken into sub-tasks)
  • Errands (buy milk, mail a package)
  • Waiting (you are waiting from a response from someone else to do something else)
  • Next Actions (something that you need to progress on when you have time) Back Burner (things you might work on, good ideas that don’t need action)
  • Sorting allows you to organize all the thoughts you have on a daily basis into things that can get done.


  1. Step Three: Congrats, the things are now out of your head, and they are organized into executable actions. So start doing them. You don’t need to worry about the things you need to read, they are somewhere you can check them out in the future. What needs to happen now with reference to that important project, yep, you can find that too. So as you organize your time, you know where to find out what to do and when.

In the future I’ll talk about how I use this concept, but for now, watch the video below by David Allen at a TED talk. Think about how you can use a good system to allow you to focus on what you need to do. I guarantee, once you just implement capturing everything on you mind (Step 1) you will feel free to focus on your life. Implement the rest and build a way to build your own knowledge management system to become more productive.

What system do you use? This is my idea, but I want to learn and share as many Ideas as possible. Leave something in the comments below or send me an email at




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