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The Quick & Dirty Guide to Personal Wikis

The Quick & Dirty Guide to Personal Wikis

    Personal wikis were a big fad for productivity geeks for a while, but that seems to have toned down a lot through 2008. Wikis are still incredibly useful, and can make you more productive. You can think of a personal wiki like a bit of a catch-all binder.

    Whether you want to manage personal information, use it as a freelance web-worker, or to manage your corporate work, this article will introduce you to a few of the options out there and kickstart you with some ideas for getting productive using your wiki.

    Personal Wikis You Can Use

    This is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you have a favorite wiki, let us know about in the comments section. Here are a few of the popular options. I’ve listed some web-hosted, self-hosted and cross-platform wikis. There are plenty of great desktop apps for each major platform, but we’ll discuss them in another article.

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    Luminotes is a personal wiki with both free and paid options. The free option allows one user account on your wiki and provides 30mb of storage space. It’s WYSIWYG, so no need to learn a whole new markup language.

    Wikispaces offers free public wikis, and private wikis that cost between $5 and $20 a month. For a personal wiki, you’ll usually want private, but $5 is pretty cheap.

    @Wiki is completely free and offers WYSIWYG, file importing and multiple authors. If you’re going beyond the traditional personal wiki and using it for team organization, @Wiki allows you to monitor your wiki through RSS feeds.

    Wikihost is another free service that provides private and public wiki options.

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    TiddlyWiki is pretty unique in the field of wikis and if you want simple and minimal, this is the one for you. Your TiddlyWiki wiki will consist of one page, where you append entries and notes. It has a good search feature for wading through the page and finding the right info as your “wiki” gets longer.

    Wikidot is another free wiki option. It’s unique feature is AdSense integration, but since clicking on your own ads is against Google’s policies, this isn’t likely to help you much. ;)

    MediaWiki—if you’ve got the know-how to get the software that Wikipedia uses running on your computer and the patience to customize it, this may be a good one for you. You’ll need to have a PHP/MySQL server running on your computer, or if you want to use it in multiple locations, on your hosting account.

    Getting to Know Wiki Markup

    Many of the options provided come with WYSIWYG editors, but others don’t. For instance, if you set up a MediaWiki installation on your local server, you’ll find yourself without one (I believe there are plug-ins that’ll add it, though). WYSIWYG or not, getting to know wiki markup is handy, even if it’s just to troubleshoot pages that just won’t behave.

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    Fortunately, Wikipedia has an extensive and comprehensive guide on the subject. You’ll want to pay attention to how links are done—internal (inter-wiki) and external links are two different monsters.

    Note that not all wikis use the same markup language and you’ll have to see what your selected service is using. It’s a pain to learn a whole bunch of markup languages for the one purpose, so choose carefully and then invest the time in just one. Using a system that adopts the MediaWiki markup language is a good move, since it’s the one you’re most likely to need if other people invite you to participate in their own wikis. Honestly, I wish wikis had just used HTML and perhaps added some extra tags for wiki specific features, but you get what you’re given. Unless you’re a developer.

    Got One! Now What?

    Now you’ve got your wiki, what can you do with it? There are all sorts of possibilities.

    Empty your head—use your wiki to empty your head of thoughts and get them down so you don’t need to worry about them. Insomniac? Try this! This is also a core principle of GTD, so if you’re unhappy with your current method, this could work for you.

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    Note-takingEvernote too much for you? Blasphemy! Just kidding—a personal wiki can be a great note-taking app, whether it’s for ideas throughout the day, meetings, or lectures.

    Personal Knowledgebase—keep forgetting how that fancy can-opener works? Write the method down in your wiki (no kidding, I once had a can-opener that I kept forgetting how to use). What about moving house? There are a million and one things that need doing then—least of which is the endless list of companies and organizations you need to inform that you’ve changed your address. Get that list completed in your wiki and you can check it off next time you move.

    Writer’s Desk—I know a freelance writer who used a wiki as a word processor and client tracker in Internet cafes until she could afford a computer of her own. Unusual, but effective!

    Client manager—as I mentioned, my friend didn’t just use the wiki as a word processor, but to keep notes on clients. Keep your client contact details, invoicing dates, project details and past work in a wiki for easy reference.

    Joint projects—work on documents collaboratively with colleagues, or a freelancer you’ve teamed up with. It’s not the best collaborative word processor ever, but it’ll get the job done.

    Project Management—got a big project from a client or your employer to plan out and execute? Perhaps you’re planning a wedding and need someplace to keep track of all the annoying details and headaches involved (I wish I’d thought of this for my own!). Wikis can be highly effective project managers.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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