In order to get where you’re going, you need to know where you came from.

When it comes to learning, you need a way to measure your progress toward your goal. How will you know whether you learned it? How will you compare your performance before and after? What concretely will you be able to do at the other end that you can’t do now?

This is why a reliable evaluation is a critical tool for any student.

In sports you might do a jump test, or run the mile, or swim as many laps as you can. To receive a driver’s license, you need to take a written test and a driving test. In any domain where it’s important to measure progress, we need tests.

But when it comes to our personal productivity, measurement has always been incredibly challenging. Knowledge work especially is extremely inconsistent from person to person, or even from one project to another. Every measure of quality in work output is so subjective, that the only meaningful evaluations tend to be performance reviews based on the opinions of the people we work with.

A couple years ago I set out to create an evaluation that would help me understand how my students learn. I teach a course on Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) – how to save, organize, and apply one’s knowledge to solve problems and deliver creative work. It’s called Building a Second Brain, and since January 2017 over 5,000 people have taken it. I’ve drawn on that experience to create a new evaluation called The 4 Levels of Personal Knowledge Management.

It describes the most common path of improvement I see in my students. The definitions aren’t definitive, and individual results obviously vary greatly. But they capture the common experience of the majority of the students who learn my 4-stage process for knowledge management, known as CODE:

  • Capture: Saving valuable information from the internet and the world around you
  • Organize: Breaking that information into small chunks and preparing them for later use
  • Distill: Extracting the pieces of knowledge most relevant to your current goals
  • Express: Turning your knowledge into creative output that has an impact on others

This is a self-evaluation. All you have to do is read the descriptions for each of the 4 levels below, and the one that most closely matches your current experience is likely the level you’re at.

Level 1: Storing Information

You use software programs on your computer or apps on your mobile device to receive, edit, and send information (such as via email, calendars, or a web browser). You have a basic understanding of how these programs work and feel comfortable using them in your day to day life.

You organize your files using defaults suggested by the software itself. For example, a Documents folder with subfolders inside. You may not feel completely comfortable saving files because you’re not sure how or when you’ll see them again. But you feel reasonably confident that you can find your most important files when you need them.

You take notes sparingly on your smartphone or mobile device, and mostly for one-time, practical tasks like keeping a grocery list, notes from a meeting or phone call, or saving bookmarks from websites. You may even occasionally save notes from sources you consume, such as books or podcasts, but don’t do much with them.

Level 2: Managing Knowledge

You have begun to capture not just factual information, but ideas and creative inspiration: lessons you’ve learned, ideas you’ve had, quotes that resonated, connections between ideas, metaphors and analogies, observations and personal reflections, etc. This includes both ideas from your own thoughts and from external sources.

You have a strong command of how and where to save files, which gives you the confidence to invest real time and effort into writing down what you know. Digital note-taking in some form is a significant part of your daily life, and you enjoy capturing information from a wide variety of sources such as documents, books, articles, photos, drawings, screenshots, business cards, videos, or recipes. You are on your devices like everyone else, but you are not just consuming information. You are capturing the best of what you find in your own personal library of knowledge.

At this level your notes begin to work as a thought partner, reminding you of things you’d completely forgotten and surfacing unexpected connections between ideas. The emphasis shifts from capturing more information, to putting to use the knowledge you already have. You regularly refine your knowledge management tools and perform small experiments to discover better ways of doing things.

At this level, maintaining your system frees up more time and energy than it takes to maintain. Your mind is more clear and able to focus because you know that everything important is reliably saved. You have a clear picture of how information flows through your system and ends up as tangible deliverables in the world.

Level 3: Enabling Action

You have started to shift your attention from the world of ideas to the world of action. You aren’t satisfied with generating insights, but want to see those insights manifested in the real world. You are committed to using your insights to tangibly improve your learning, health, career, business, and society.

You become more discerning and selective about the information you consume, strongly preferring only the highest quality, most substantive sources that directly relate to the goals you are working toward. You use your notes to take on more ambitious, more complex projects than you would be able to manage on your own. You are dramatically more productive, creative, and relaxed than you would be otherwise.

At this level, you apply just as much creativity to the workings of your system as to the knowledge it contains. You often surprise yourself with new, creative ways of using your notes, or find that they push your thinking in new directions. You change the way you work to integrate your knowledge management system as deeply into your thinking as possible because of the incredible leverage it gives you.

The benefits of your system extend beyond your personal goals and begin to impact the people around you. You make your most valuable knowledge available to others in concrete form, such as through a website, blog, social media feed, podcast, or product. Which means you are constantly attracting new opportunities and collaborations as others encounter your work. When working with others, you often surface solutions or promising leads to other people’s challenges within seconds or minutes. You are more trusting of others, because you’ve learned to give up control and trust something outside of yourself.

Interacting with your note-taking system brings you a sense of excitement and inspiration. You have complete confidence that you can take in any kind of information, break it into small pieces, and prepare them for quick retrieval in future projects, both known and unknown. You understand both the strengths and weaknesses of your system, and know how to use the system to improve itself. You are humbled and reassured that you are not solely responsible for all the thinking and remembering that needs to happen in your life.

Your knowledge management system gives you the confidence that you have more than enough research and supporting material for anything you want to pursue. Which means you have the freedom to pursue the most exciting, inspiring, and important pursuits you can think of.

Level 4: Personal Knowledge Mastery

The final level never ends – it is an infinite horizon of possibilities extending in whichever direction you want to go.

Your knowledge works as a system greater than the sum of its parts, pulling in new material almost of its own will and effortlessly sorting and distilling it to support your long-term projects and goals. There is a constant output from your Second Brain into the external world, taking the form of documents, essays, summaries, designs, videos, presentations, and more. You use these artifacts to make powerfully persuasive arguments, to recruit people to your cause, and to build an unassailable reputation for innovation and leadership. Your system continuously evolves and improves over time using the ideas it encounters, seemingly on its own.

All your digital tools are integrated and work seamlessly together, requiring only occasional intervention on your part. They work together to reliably produce creative breakthroughs. You are able to focus completely on whatever attracts your attention because virtually all of your work-in-process is managed outside your head. You are practically immune to interruptions, and can make progress in any span of time and in any environment.

You use your Second Brain not only to acquire knowledge, but entirely new skills and capabilities. You know that you are not only accumulating a priceless store of intellectual capital, but an encyclopedia of tacit and experiential knowledge that is unique to you. This tacit knowledge allows you to “punch above your intellectual weight,” reliably producing solutions that others can’t imitate.

Eventually you also master the flow of information happening inside you – your innermost thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and desires. You use your system to study your own inner workings like a scientist. Your notes track patterns in your thinking and learning over time, helping you understand your own evolution and direct it intentionally. You are occasionally overcome with a sense of awe at the beauty and elegance of the system you’ve created – what it’s capable of, what it knows, and how it all works together in ways that you didn’t think were possible.

Ideas course through your two minds like electricity, filling you with an expansive feeling of power and potential. It feels like you have a secret key that unlocks the underlying nature of reality – it’s all just information. You are in control of your experience, shaping and tweaking flows of information like rivers across the landscape of your life.

You exist in a state of abundance, where ideas lead to ever more ideas. There is always more where that came from, and you realize that the more you give away, the more comes back to you. You can afford to be generous because there is nothing you lack, and you could never exhaust the wellspring of creativity within and around you.

You have the feeling that you are playing the most fun, exciting game in the world. As you teach it to others, the game gets even more fun and even more real. You can’t fail, because failure is just more information being turned into fuel for your creative process. You are unattached to any particular identity or belief, because you have so many others at your disposal.

You have achieved Personal Knowledge Mastery. And you keep on climbing, because this mountain has no top.

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