How to approach tags in your personal knowledge management (PKM) system

Austin Govella
3 min readApr 17, 2022
Child climbing on a jungle gym
Photo by Loegunn Lai on Unsplash

Tags work best when they’re useful at the level of an individual note.

Updated May 8, 2022

When you use tags, they spread. They want to appear everywhere. And appearing everywhere, we tend to have a global, top-down organization, process, or governance for the tags we use. You see something used everywhere, so you want to optimize it.

Unfortunately, tags, themselves resist optimization.

Tags love sprawl

Tags lend themselves to sprawl. It’s easy for expansive human brains to associate lots of tags with lots of things. Tag sprawl makes it diffucult to approach a collection of information. Tags lump into large, useless lumps of data difficult to navigate and sort through. From the outside, tags look like a mess.

Tags hate maintenance

Similarly, maintaining and evolving tags becomes a pain. To update a tag used on 100s or 1000s of items, hope your system offers an easy way to rename tags. And, if you want to change *how* you tag things across 100s or 1000s of notes, you probably need to visit 100s or 1000s of notes, manually, to add or remove tags.

It’s not tags, it’s you

When a tool like tags creates heavy friction like this or becomes difficult to use like this, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad tool or even the wrong tool. It means you’re using the tool wrong.

It still may not be the best tool for you at the time, but that’s not the source of the issue. Every tool and system and practice has a grain or a current. Work against the grain or against the current and everything is many times more difficult than it should be.

Work with the grain, and things are easy.

The issue isn’t tags. It’s how you use them. So, how should they be used?

Tags provide architecture, not content

Tags seem difficult when you worry about what specific tags are, they’re content. But content isn’t what tags are for. Tags provide an architecture, an information architecture, that you use like…

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Austin Govella

PKM tips to help you work better. Join my email list for updates: https://medium.com/subscribe/@austingovella | PKM, Obsidian, Reflect, consulting, speaking