Too Much Information: Why Personal Knowledge Management Is Hard

Many people call themselves disorganized when instead what they are doing is a hard thing.

It is a little like calling yourself blind because you can’t distinguish between a female purple finch and a female house finch from several yards away, without binoculars. (Good luck with that: they look almost identical.)

Difficult truth: The more complex the information you manage is, the more complex your systems will have to be.

Because most of us do not employ people* who organize all of our personal admin for us, you probably cannot avoid information dealing with your time and tasks, your finances, your household maintenance, your health, your social and work-related connections.

Some people also pursue information-intensive interests or occupations which means even more information to manage:

  • you’re creating podcasts or videos
  • you’re writing blogs, articles, books
  • you’re taking photographs for fun or profit
  • you’re tracking your consumption of media: reading, music, video
  • you make a lot of notes for yourself (btw IRL most people do not do this, just sayin’)
  • you’re creating and managing websites
  • you’re running your own business, or freelancing
  • you journal a lot

Also, not only do we have far more information to manage than previous generations, we have a dizzying selection of tools with which to do it.

Jillian Hess’s book How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information: Commonplace books, Scrapbooks, and Albums makes clear that personal knowledge management has been challenging for a long time.

In the early 1800s, Sir Walter Scott had no access to Notion, Obsidian or the like. He was making notes with paper and pen.

Still, it was too much:

“Scott makes no secret of his distaste for organizing papers:

” ‘I set about arranging my papers, a task which I always take up with greatest possible ill-will and which makes me cruelly nervous. I don’t know why it should be so, for I have nothing particularly disagreeable to look at; far from it … Yet I feel an inexpressible nervousness in consequence of this employment. The memory, though it retains all that has passed, has closed sternly over it; and this rummaging, like a bucket dropped suddenly into a well, deranges and confuses the ideas which slumbered on the mind.’

“In this entry, Scott confesses to the anxieties of too much information. True to the antiquarian persona he had caricatured, his collection overwhelms its collector.

“It would seem that Scott’s papers overwhelmed twentieth-century archivists as well. Confronted with the author’s “rebellious papers” in the 1930s, librarians decided on the scrapbook as the best form to organize and preserve the author’s documents.” (Hess 2022, p 153)

For many reasons, too many to go into for this post, I believe that managing personal information is harder than managing records at a business or organization.

If you feel overwhelmed by it, instead of calling yourself “disorganized,” perhaps consider that you are tackling an inherently difficult thing; because of the volume of information we encounter, the number of information-wrangling tools vying for our use, and the complexity of dealing with so many different kinds of inputs and outputs.

You’re not necessarily out of shape if you can’t run a marathon.

And you’re not necessarily a disorganized person if you struggle to track your personal information.

For many of us, it’s … a lot.

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Wondering how to manage your paper-based or hybrid paper-digital systems? Ask me a question.


* And the people who do have others managing their admin, often get micro-managed in return: “At 10:00 a.m. you’re meeting with the Grand Poobah. At 10:12 a.m. you’re meeting with the Committee to Elevate the House Cat. At 10:27 a.m. you have an interview with…”


Hess, J.M. (2022) How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information: Commonplace books, Scrapbooks, and Albums. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford textual perspectives).

Tip o’ the Fountain Pen

…to Kimberly Hirsh who posted on about Jillian Hess’s book and newsletter

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