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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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