This is a blogpost I published on Medium as an update to my previous PhD Tips posts: https://medium.com/@GenShanahan/phd-tips-the-project-and-knowledge-management-template-a7f67e94d9ae
Some updates for the PhD Tips series:
- I successfully defended my PhD in early 2022 🎉
- I’m still using the Notion system in my new position as a lecturer at Cardiff University
- I’ve made a bunch of improvements!
Back in 2020 I shared my Project and Knowledge Management system for keeping track of my reading, writing, learning and teaching as a PhD student (as well as managing my personal life — see, for example, my pet project page…).
Notion’s developed as a platform since then, so I’ve incrementally added new features, such as synced blocks, template buttons, subtasks, progress bars, and embedded widgets. I’ve also improved my Reference and Zettelkasten database templates to support the two-way connections that make the Zettelkasten approach so powerful.
If you’re not on the Notion boat already, you can get a free account as a student or educator by signing up with your institutional email address here (affiliate link). You can then set up your workspace following the below suggestions — see if it works for you and tweak as you see fit! Alternatively, if you’re not as into fiddling with database settings as I am, you can purchase my fully pre-configured template here.
Databases for project and life management
- Tasks database: Tasks are specific, defined actions. This database allows you to sort your tasks by, for instance, deadline (due date), when you plan to do the task (do date), and by priority.
- Projects database: A project is a defined endeavour linked to a specific goal, such as a particular paper you’re writing. In this template, Project pages allow you to store all of the details relevant to a given project in one place: related tasks, references, zettels (reading notes), and general resources.
- Areas database: Areas are spheres of activity or responsibility that you need to maintain indefinitely. Examples include political engagement, your health, work admin, etc. These pages function similarly to projects, but they don’t have an end date and can themselves contain multiple projects.
- Habit & mood tracker: This database allows you to keep track of your habits and mood, and can be used as a digital journal.
Databases for knowledge management
- Reference database: This database is for keeping track of your notes on academic references: journal articles, books, conference papers, etc. You can cite these references throughout your Notion workspace by typing @ followed by the reference tag.
- Zettelkasten database: The Zettelkasten is a system for storing and connecting your reading and thinking notes. It is designed to help you find unexpected links between ideas, creating a network of knowledge and insight to assist a lifetime of thinking, writing, and publishing.
- Resources database: Academic references are not the only resources you need to keep track of in your research. The Resources database is for storing and organising meeting notes, class syllabi, admin documents, videos, webpages, etc.
- People database: In academic writing you are joining an unending conversation with people both living and dead. This database helps you keep track of who you’re talking to, and who might be interested.
Each of these databases are interlinked via relations. This means that, for instance, when you enter a task in the Tasks database, and specify an area or project to which that task belongs, the task will be automatically entered into the Areas database or Projects database under the relevant entry.
One nice thing about Notion is that you can view the same database in a variety of ways. You can learn more about database views here. For instance, my configuration of the Tasks database includes a calendar view, so you can quickly see your deadlines (due dates), or manage when you will tackle each task (do dates). You can then drag-and-drop tasks to easily modify these dates.
Similarly, the Reference database includes a Kanban board view so you can quickly see, for instance, what’s next on your reading list. You can quickly update the status of each reference by using the drag-and-drop functionality.
Database entry templates
I find Notion especially useful for getting a dedicated view of the specific area or project I’m working on at a given time. I’ve therefore created template pages for each database so that when you create a new entry in the Areas database or Projects database, relevant views of all the other databases will pre-populate, automatically filtered for the project or area in question.
You can also create further templates specific to your own use case. As an example, in the Resources database I’ve created the Meeting Notes template, as seen below. It includes a view of the People database, allowing you to automatically link to these meeting notes from the database entry for each listed attendee. You can also add Action items assigned to others directly from the meeting note, which will be automatically registered as ‘Waiting’ on the Tasks database.
The Zettelkasten system
Two of the knowledge management databases in this template — the Reference database and the Zettelkasten database— are specifically designed for implementing the Zettelkasten system. At first most of your Zettels will likely come from the things you read, so your workflow might look something like this:
- Create a new entry in the Reference database for the paper or book you’re reading.
- When you click the Reference template a pre-filtered view of the Zettelkasten database will appear. This will show all and only the Zettels related to the reference in question.
- Add as many Zettels as you like to this database based on your reading. These Zettels will be automatically connected to the current reference.
- Connect the Zettels you write to other notes in your Zettelkasten database to build a network of your knowledge and thoughts.
On a day-to-day basis, you’ll likely spend most of your time in the Dashboard. Here you’ll find custom views of many of the databases reviewed above. You’ll also find some Quick action buttons to create new database entries, and space for any fleeting notes you need to jot down during the day.