Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential by Tiago Forte

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 272

Building a Second Brain comes at a good time for me now that I'm well over a year into practicing certain productivity principles from Michael Hyatt (cf. Free to Focus) and using Obsidian for my Personal Knowledge Management. A "Second Brain" is nothing more than a collection of digital notes, but might also be thought of as a digital commonplace book, a "digital personal assistant", or notes to your future self. One key benefit of a Second Brain is how it can be a tool for creating calm and focus by providing an organized dumping ground for the distracting thoughts and actions that would otherwise be bouncing around your head.

I appreciate the emphasis throughout the book on your notes being a means to your productivity and creation, and never an end in themselves. Along these lines there is a strong emphasis on discoverability and actionability of notes, and a focus on building a process that will yield compounding benefit over time.

A few key concepts from the book include the CODE method to describe what a Second Brain does (capture, organize, distill, and express), and the PARA method of organization into categories of projects, [responsibility] areas, resources, and archives. Finally, there is a chapter on checklists and routines.



Introduction: The Promise of a Second Brain

Summary: Most of the information we come across isn’t useful right now so we need a way to package it and send it to our future self.

  • Technology in your life is not just a storage medium but a tool for thinking, or “bicycle for your mind” from Steve Jobs (3)

Part 1: The Foundation

Understanding What's Possible

Chapter 1: Where It All Started

Summary: He became the "project manager" of his chronic health condition launching him on a journey of discovering how to best write down and use information in the future.

  • Rural Ukraine in peace corps to Silicon Valley consulting, strategy was to write everything down: “You know the feeling of satisfaction when you are the only one in the room who remembers an important detail?” (14)

Chapter 2: What Is a Second Brain?

Summary: A Second Brain is your digital commonplace book that allows you to grow your knowledge and wisdom over time.

  • The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul (17)
  • "Information is the fundamental building block of everything you do." (17)
  • Herbert Simon: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." (18)
  • Commonplace books in The Case for Books by Robert Darnton (19)
    • "reading and writing were inseparable activities" (20, [224])
  • A Second Brain is a digital commonplace book, a "private knowledge collection designed to serve a lifetime of learning and growth" (21)
  • "Knowledge begins with the practice of taking notes." (23)
  • A note is a "knowledge building block" (24)
  • A tale of two brains:
    • Without a Second Brain: too scatterbrained to focus with thoughts flooding your brain and selling for chipping away at your to-do list of other people's priorities
    • With a Second Brain: "You're on your smartphone just like everyone else...but you are creating value instead of killing time" (28), start to see recurring patterns in your thinking, plant seeds of inspiration and harvest them when they flower

Chapter 3: How a Second Brain Works

Summary: Use your second brain to capture, organize, distill, and share ideas.

  • A Second Brain is your ideal personal assistant, which helps to:
  • Make your ideas concrete:
    • first need to offload complex ideas out of your mind, and put them in concrete form we can visualize and manipulate
  • Reveal new associations between ideas:
    • creativity is the association of ideas, and a digital brain allows you to mix and match in putting ideas together
  • Incubate ideas over time:
    • engage in the "slow burn" to incubate ideas over time and get over our recency bias
  • Sharpen your unique perspective:
    • our careers are increasingly reliant on selling ideas to others, and for this we need a deep well of information from which to synthesize our own thoughts
  • CODE Method
    • Capture: keep what resonates
    • Organize: save for actionability
    • Distill: find the essence ("how can I make this as useful as possible for my future self?")
    • Express: show your work (create rather than consume)

Part 2: The Method

The Four Steps of CODE

Chapter 4: Capture–Keep What Resonates

Summary: Capture notes on what you are already doing, with a focus on what resonates with you.

  • Taylor Swift: "writing songs is not a discrete activity that she can do only at certain times; it is a side effect of the way her mind works." → build a system so your creativity is naturally a part of the process (55)
  • "Knowledge capture is about mining the richness of the reading you're already doing and the life you're already living." (58)
  • Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo bib: "Crystallizing our thoughts into tangible and digital objects is what allows us to share our thoughts with others." (58)
  • "Twelve Favorite Problems" inspired by Richard Feynman: keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind and throw ideas against them (61-62)
    • A thrown plate in the Cornell dining hall helped him in his equations of rotation (cf. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick bib, 62 [226])
    • I made a list of Twelve Favorite Problems
  • Think of yourself as a curator when taking notes so as to not capture too much: remember the value is not evenly distributed in the original work (67)
  • Capture what resonates, and trust your intuition (70)
    • Isn't the opposite of this true, and why we should use checklists (cf. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande): "making decisions analytically, with a checklist, is taxing and stressful, it is the kind of thinking that demands the most energy." (70)
  • "It's a good idea to capture key information about the source of a note" (72)
    • → I'm fascinated with the problem of how to best capture the lineage of thoughts and ideas, and have made a point of trying to track this as much as is reasonable by leaving breadcrumbs for myself
  • Capture book outlines as it represents "distillation already performed by the author on your behalf" (72)
  • Generation effect: when we generate a sentence (rather than copying verbatim) we remember more (76)
  • Detachement gain: Writing creates new knowledge that wasn't there before (77, cf. The Detachment Gain: The Advantage of Thinking Out Loud by Daniel Reisberg bib)
  • Capturing isn't about doing more, it's about taking notes on the experiences you're already having. (79)

Chapter 5: Organize–Save for Actionability

Summary: Adopt the always-changing PARA system to organize your notes.

  • Twyla Tharp described the process of her prolific choreography career in The Creative Habit bib: each new project gets "the box" where all information on that project goes, starting with the stated goals for the project (81-84)
  • Just like physical environments impact our interaction with a space, our digital environment impacts our thoughts (85)
  • "Your Second Brain is like a mind cathedral that you can step into at any time you want to shut out the world and imagine a world of your own." (86)
  • Organize based on how actionable information is rather than what kind it is using PARA
    • Projects: short-term efforts in your work or life that you're working on now, with a beginning and (clearly defined) end
    • Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time; no goal to reach but a standard to uphold
    • Resources: Topics or interest that may be useful in the future
    • Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories
      • there's no penalty for keeping digital stuff forever as long as it doesn't distract from the day-to-day
      • we need clear workspaces to do our best thinking (108)
    • Blog on Para: The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information
    • My PARA note: qq-PARA
  • Separate the capture and organize steps: too much cognitive load to organize while capturing; perform organize in, for example, the weekly review (see 2022-07-15-Building A Second Brain)
  • Where to put a note:
    • In which project will this be most useful?
    • If none: In which area will this be most useful
    • If none: Which resource does this belong to?
    • If none: Place in archives
  • Organize notes according to where they are going, not where they come from (i.e. don't keep your book notes together just because they come from books) (104)
    • When organizing for actionability, what's actionable is always changing
  • It doesn't matter how organized your note-taking system is; what matters is the output it allows you to generate (108)
  • Use PARA folders for all your digital files: notetaking app, My Documents folder, Dropbox, Drive, etc.

Chapter 6: Distill–Find the Essence

Summary: Distillation is at the heart of all effective communication. Progressive Summarization is the process of leaving your notes more discoverable each time your touch them to enable quick navigation of your Second Brain.

  • While making The Godfather, Coppola kept a "prompt book" where he distilled the essence of each scene
  • "Notetaking is like time travel—you are sending packets of knowledge through time to your future self." (117)
  • Discoverability is the most important factor in whether your notes survive in usefulness into the future (118)
    • Highlighting
  • "Distillation is at the heart of all effective communication." (119)
  • Progressive Summarization Technique: note → bolded passages → highlighted passages → executive summary (120-137)
    • Progressive Summarization is a method for forgetting as much as possible (137)
    • Example: Baumol's cost disease
    • Don't over-highlight/take notes: notes are like bookmarks peeking out from pages of books telling you where to go back for the full detail; each level of summarization should include 10-20% of the previous layer (138)
    • Wait until you're going to put a note to use to summarize
    • Every time you touch a note, you should make it a little more discoverable to your future self (139)
  • #wishlist How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens bib: "We have to read with a pen in hand." (141, cf. →About My Reading Notes)

Chapter 7: Express–Show Your Work

Summary: Discretize your output into small "Intermediate Packets" (i.e. the building blocks of your intellectual property), and share these to get feedback.

  • #wishlist The Parable of the Sower (Apocalyptic literature) by Octavia Butler about a apocalyptic future in the aftermath of runaway climate disaster in which small communities must band together in order to survive (147)
  • Protect your attention: "Attention is our most precious resource...The ability to strategically allocate our attention is a competitive advantage in a distracted world." (149-150)
    • Our Second Brain needs to free up attention rather than take from it, so we need to be able to recycle the intermediate work that goes into producing a deliverable (150)
    • ☐ Share your work earlier in the process, more frequently and in small chunks to test and get feedback from others (cf Show Your Work, Share Your Work Online 📅 2022-07-11 [convert to notes page])
  • Divide your work into smaller units, or "Intermediate Packets" (IPs), like distilled notes, outtakes (a paragraph you cut from a piece of writing your working on, templates from your other work-in-progress, documentation)
  • Assemble your IPs: our creativity thrives on examples (i.e. working from templates)
  • Find your IPs by searching or browsing your Second Brain, using tags, or serendipitously
  • Rule of thumb: "only start projects that are already 80 percent done", i.e. don't commit to finishing until most of the work to capture, organize ,and distill the relevant material is complete (166)
  • Share your work: "Once you understand how incredibly valuable feedback is, you start to crave as much of it as you can find. You start looking for every opportunity to share your outputs and gain some clarity on how other people are likely to receive it. These moments are so important that you will begin changing how you work in order to get feedback as early and often as possible, because you know it is much easier to gather and synthesize the thoughts of others than to come up with an endless series of brilliant thoughts on your own. You will begin to see yourself as the curator of the collective thinking of your network, rather than the sole originator of ideas." (168)
  • Everything is a remix (cf (Inside Adam Savage's Cave: Model Making for Movies)
  • Every digital artifact you create is part of the ongoing evolution of your body of work [if you structure it to accumulate over time] (170)
  • Verum ipsum factum (we only know what we make) –Gambattista Vico (170)

Part 3: The Shift

Making Things Happen

Chapter 8: The Art of Creative Execution

Summary: A creative process begins with divergence and ends with convergence. Convergence is typically more challenging: manage this by creating an outline, building bridges from one work session to the next, and dialing down the scope to focus on delivering small pieces of work to quickly receive feedback on. Move fast and make things.

  • A Second Brain is about standardizing the way you work, a creative routine (177)
  • A creative process begins with divergence and ends with convergence (178), convergence is typically more challenging (180)
  • Strategies to converge:
    • Give yourself stepping stones in an "Archipelago of Ideas" our outline
    • Create a "Hemingway Bridge" from your work today to your starting place tomorrow, or "end with the beginning in mind"
    • Dial down the scope to ship something small and concrete and get feedback on it. "Sharing before I feel ready has completely altered the trajectory of my career. Whatever you are building, there is a smaller, simpler version of it that would deliver much of the value in a fraction of the time." (190)
  • Move fast and make things

Chapter 9: The Essential Habits of Digital Organizers

Summary: Use checklists (i.e. processes) to build some structure into your system that you can improve over time.

  • Being organized is a habit (198)
  • Clean as you go, aka Mise-en-Place (cf. Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind by Dan Charnas bib, 199)
  • We need both inner discipline and outer discipline, the system of habits that are the "maintenance schedule" of your Second Brain (200)
  • Project Checklists (cf The Checklist Manifesto)
    • recycle knowledge from past efforts to be used in future efforts
    • Project Kickoff Checklist
      1. Capture current thinking
      2. Review relevant notes
      3. Search for related terms across all notes
      4. Tag relevant notes for the project
      5. Create an outline of collected notes and plan the project
    • Project Completion Checklist
      1. Mark project as complete
      2. Review Intermediate Packets and move them to other folders
      3. Move project to archive
      4. Answer postmortem questions
      5. Communicate with stakeholders
      6. If becoming inactive, add "current status" note to enable you to pick it up in the future
  • Weekly and Monthly Reviews
    • A Weekly Review comes from David Allen in Getting Things Done, and is a weekly reset
    • Weekly Review Checklist (completed every 3-7 days to clear inboxes and digital workspaces)
      1. Process emails
      2. Review calendar
      3. Clear computer desktop
      4. Clear notes inbox
      5. Choose tasks for the week
    • Monthly Review Checklist (to step back and reflect)
      1. Review and update goals
      2. Review and update project list
      3. Review areas of responsibility
      4. Review someday/maybe tasks
      5. Reprioritize tasks
  • Noticing Habits
    • "It's crucial to stay organized, but it needs to be done a little at a time in the flow of our normal lives. It needs to be done in the in-between moments of moving your projects forward as you notice small opportunities for improvement." (219)
    • "organize as you go" (220)
    • Don't try to build a perfect system, but one that you will use and improve over time.

Chapter 10: The Path of Self-Expression

Summary: Your Second Brain can free up your First Brain to do what it does best, including creating and sharing with others.

  • It is never a person's toolset that constrains their potential, it's their mindset (224)
  • Use your Second Brain to free up your First Brain to be the "CEO of your life" and turn information into results; hand over the job of remembering to an external system (227)
  • A Second Brain enables a shift from:
    • scarcity to abundance (let go of things you don't need)
    • obligation to service
    • consuming to creating (Michael Polanyi's Paradox: We know more than we can say) (233)
  • He started writing in public with David Perell → self-expression is a fundamental human need (235-6)
    • "The world is desperate to hear what you know. You can change lives by sharing yourself with others." (236)

Bonus Chapter: How to Create a Tagging System That Works

  • Link
  • Don't liberally apply tags at note creation: this is an unnecessary burden, and search is powerful enough that every word in a note is effectively a tag
  • "tagging should facilitate effective action, not just abstract thought. Your
    time and energy are much better spent thinking about how the contents of your notes can be used to advance your projects and goals."
  • Instead of using tags to classify your notes, use tags to track the
    progress of your notes.
  • Tags can facilitate a different way of viewing your notes without a massive reorganization (it's a cross-section from a from a different perspective than PARA)

Topic: Productivity, Personal Knowledge Management, Notetaking

Source: David Perell / Nat Eliason


file:(2022-07-15-Building A Second Brain)


Created: 2022-07-01-Fri
Updated: 2023-01-13-Fri