[book summary] “Building a second brain” by Tiago Forte

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them” – David Allen, Getting Things Done

[Part One] The Foundation – Understanding what’s possible

What is a Second Brain?

It is known that information is power. In these days, our professional success and quality of life depend on our ability to properly manage the information around us.

Based on New York Times, we consume daily more than 34 gigabytes of information, and Times estimates that the info consumed is the equivalent of 174 full newspapers, five times higher than in 1986.

It sounds overwhelming and this causes issues like the incapacity to focus or the difficulty to search in this huge information ocean.

A research done by Microsoft presents the fact that we spend more than one day per week looking for misplaced notes, items, emails or files that should help us to do our work. This research emphasis the need of building a different relationship with the information.

A source of inspiration for the concept of Second Brain comes from the commonplace books which “were a portal through which educated people interacted with the world”. Actually, a Second Brain is a “digital commonplace book…a combination of a study notebook, a personal journal, and a sketchbook for new ideas”.

“Knowledge building block – a discrete unit of information interpreted through your unique perspective and stored outside your head”. These blocks could be combined and the result could be a story, an article, a chapter from a book, etc, just like some LEGO pieces.

“Think of your Second Brain as the world’s best personal assistant.”

The superpowers of a Second Brain

  • making our ideas concrete
    • the Second Brain helps us to download our ideas into a concrete form and after that we are able to start working with those ideas in an effective way
    • the story about DNA as a double helix
  • revealing new associations between ideas
    • “Creative people are better at recognising relationships, making associations and connections.” – neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen
  • incubating our ideas over time
    • “recency bias” – tend to favor the ideas, solutions that occurred to us most recently, even if sometimes they are not the best ones
    • “slow burn” – accumulate ideas over weeks, months, years and use that info when it is needed
  • sharpening our unique perspectives
    • “the ultimate purpose of a Second Brain is to allow your own thinking to shine”
    • based on a study from Princeton University “the jobs that are most likely to stick around are those that involve promoting or defending a particular perspective…Advocating for a particular point of view isn’t just a matter of sparkling charisma or irresistible charm. It takes supporting material.”

How to choose a note-taking app

“A good place to start is to look at the apps you already have and perhaps are already using. You can always start now with a basic option and upgrade later as your needs get more sophisticated.”

Remembering, Connecting, Creating: the three stages of personal knowledge management

  • The first way that people tend to use their Second Brain is as a memory aid.
  • The second way is to connect ideas together. The Second Brain evolves from being a memory tool to becoming a thinking tool

The CODE method – the four steps to remembering what matters

  • Capture: keep what resonates
    • “Keep only what resonates in a trusted place that you control”
    • “Adopting the habit of knowledge capture has immediate benefits for our mental health and peace of mind”
  • Organise: save for actionability
    • “One you’ve begun capturing notes with the ideas that resonate with you, you’ll eventually feel the need to organise them”
    • “The best way to organise your notes is to organise for action, according to the active projects you are working on right now. Consider new information in terms of its utility, asking, “How is this going to help me move forward one of my current projects?
    • When you have this rule, to focus on taking action, the process of capturing information is simplified because the rule helps you to filter the info (to decide what to select)based on you goals and priorities.
  • Distill: find the essence
    • “distill your notes down to their essence”
    • By having the main point of a note, will be easy to cover in a busy day when you do not have time to cover ten pages of content and you just want to move fast, find the right idea and carry on with your tasks
    • Every time you take a note, ask yourself “How can I make this as useful as possible for my future self?”. You are not only a “notes taker” but also a “notes giver”, you are giving your future self that info selecte and carefully distilled.
  • Express: show your work
    • The previous steps help us to achieve the ultimate purpose: sharing our own stories, ideas, knowledge
    • “What is the point of knowledge if it doesn’t help anyone or produce anything?”
    • Take action. We should avoid the habit of collecting info over and over again without using it.
    • “Information becomes knowledge only when we put it to use. You gain confidence in what you know only when you know that it works. Until you do, it’s just a theory.”
    • “This is why I recommend you shift as much of our time and effort as possible from consuming to creating.”

[Part Two] The Method: The Four Steps of Code

Capture – Keep what resonates

Behind the scenes of musicians, artists, actors, inventors, engineers, leaders there is a process they follow regularly turning new ideas into creative output.

“Innovation and impact don’t happen by accident or chance. Creativity depends on a creative process.”

“Knowledge isn’t always something “out there” that you have to go out and find. It’s everywhere, all around you…Knowledge capture is about mining the richness of the reading you’re already doing and the life you’re already living.”

Knowledge is coming from two main areas: external world and internal world.

External world assets:

  • Highlights: insightful passages from books or articles you read
  • Quotes: memorable passages from podcasts or audiobooks or videos
  • Bookmarks and favourites: links to content you found on the internet or on social media
  • Voice memos: clips recorded as “notes to self”
  • Meeting notes: all the notes or ideas you get from your meetings or calls
  • Images: photos or other images or illustrations that you find inspiring and interesting
  • Takeaways: lessons from courses, conferences, presentations, books

Internal world assets:

  • Stories: things that happened to you or someone else
  • Insights: the small or big realisations you have
  • Memories: experiences from your life that you don’t want to forget
  • Reflections: personal thoughts and lessons
  • Musings: random ideas that pop into your head

To capture all the info you should select also some capture tools.

Twelve favourite problems: a Nobel prize winner’s approach to capturing

Richard Feynman approach was to maintain a list of dozen open questions which allowed him to make connections across seemingly unrelated subjects, while continuing to follow his sense of curiosity.

“What are the questions I’ve always been interested in?” – the key to this exercise is to make the questions open-ended questions. The power of these questions is that they tend to stay consistent over time.

Some examples that could offer inspiration:

  • How do I live less in the past, and more in the present?
  • How do I build an investment strategy that is aligned with my mid-term and long-term goals and commitments?
  • What does it look like to move from mindless consumption to mindful creation?
  • How can I go to bed early instead of watching shows after the kids go to bed?
  • How do I start reading all the books I already have instead of buying more?
  • How can I speed up and relax at the same time?
  • What can I do to make eating healthy easier?
  • How can I make decisions with more confidence?

Capture criteria: how to avoid keeping too much or too little ⇒ in any piece of content, the value is not evenly distributed. To use this rule in practice, take on a Curator’s Perspective – you are the judge, editor and interpreter of the information you choose to let into your life. Make sure you also include the source of the content:

  • capture criteria #1: does it inspire me?
  • capture criteria #2: is it useful?
  • capture criteria #3: is it personal?
  • capture criteria #4: is it surprising?

Ultimately, capture what resonates: there is scientific evidence that our intuitive mind learns, and responds, even without our conscious awareness.

“Thinking doesn’t just produce writing; writing also enriches thinking. There is even significant evidence that expressing our thoughts in writing can lead to benefits for our health and well-being.”

“Capture isn’t about doing more. It’s about taking notes on the experiences you’re already having.”

“Don’t worry about whether you’re capturing “correctly”. There’s no right way to do this, and therefore, no wrong way. The only way to know whether you’re getting the good stuff is to try putting it to use in real life.”

Organise – Save for actionability

The Cathedral Effect: designing a space for your ideas ⇒ the studies have shown that the environment we find ourselves in powerfully shapes our thinking.

The Second Brain isn’t just a tool, it’s an environment that helps you to know where to go when it’s time to execute or create something.

PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) – an action-based approach that brings more help in this setup. These four categories are universal and covers any kind of information, from any sources, in any format, for any purpose.

With this system, every piece of information you cover could be saved into one of just four categories:

  1. Projects – short-term efforts in your work or life that you are working on now. To identify the projects notice what’s on your mind, look at your calendar, look at your to-do list, look at your open browser tabs, downloaded files, bookmarks. Here you could include projects like:
    • projects at work
    • personal projects
    • side projects
  2. Areas – long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time. It could be areas from your personal life like:
    • activities or places you are responsible for: home, cooking, travel, car
    • people you are responsible for or accountable to: friends, kids, parents, spouse, pets
    • standards of performance you are responsible for: health, personal growth, friendships, finances
    Or they could areas from your job or business:
    • departments or functions you are responsible for: account management, marketing, operations, product development
    • people or teams you are responsible for or accountable to: direct reports, manager, board of directors, suppliers
    • standards of performance you are responsible for: professional development, sales and marketing, relationships and networking, recruiting and hiring
  3. Resources – topics or interests that may be useful in the future. This section is actually a catchall for anything that doesn’t belong to a project or an area and could include any concept you are interested in gathering info about like:
    • what topics are you interested in? – architecture, interior design, cooking, etc
    • what subjects are you researching? habit formation, psychological safety, communication, fashion
    • what useful information do you want to be able to reference? life goals, stock photos, studies
    • which hobbies or passions do you have? coffee, movies, music, books
  4. Archives – inactive items from the other three categories or things I have completed or put on hold like (it is like a cold storage):
    • projects that are completed or canceled
    • areas of responsibility that are no longer committed to maintaining
    • resources that are no longer relevant

For reducing the time spent to decide where to add a note you could also create a section called Inbox where you add the new notes, and once a week we filter them and send them to a more relevant section from PARA.

This system could be applied on your note-taking app but also on your compute’s folders. When a new piece of information occurs with the help of this system you could decide where it should be placed so you will be able to use it properly and at the right moment.

Organise the information like a kitchen – what am I making? Instead of organising ideas according to “where they come from”, organise them according to “where they are going”. Focus on the output you want to generate with that information, not on where you should place that note, because there is not a “perfect place”.

“Don’t make organising your Second Brain into yet another heavy obligation. Ask yourself: “What is the smallest, easiest step I can take that moves me in the right direction?”.”

Distill – Find the essence

“The most Important factor in whether your notes can survive that journey into the future is their discoverability – how easy is to discover what they contain and access the specific points that are most immediately useful.”

Highlighting 2.0 – the progressive summarisation technique:

Progressive summarisation is a technique to distill notes down to their most important points: highlight the main points of a note, and then highlight the main points of those highlights, and so on, distilling the essence of a note in several “layers”.


Zooming in and out of your map of knowledge

The layers of progressive summarisation offer us multiple ways of interacting with that info, based on our need. It helps us to focus on the content and the presentation of our notes when we do not have too much time to cover pages of articles or books and just want to move quickly and finish the work.

Picasso’s secret: prune the good to surface the great

One of Pablo Picasso’s most famous drawings, Bull (1945), offers a master class in how distillation works. He moves away the unnecessary so that only the essential remains. The simplicity obtained at the end masks the effort that was needed to get there.

Common mistakes of novice notetakers:

  • Mistake #1: over-highlighting
  • Mistake #2: highlighting without a purpose in mind
  • Mistake #3: making highlighting difficult

Express – Show your work

“As knowledge workers, attention is our most scarce and precious resource.”

The final stage of the creative process, Express, is about refusing to wait until you have everything perfect. You should follow the idea of an MVP, deliver often, get feedback and improve based on the received feedback.

Intermediate Packets (IP): the power of thinking small

Work to create intermediate steps (divide-et-impera) or a “rough draft” and later on combine these pieces to create something new.

These small pieces of work-in-progress are called “intermediate packets”. they are the concrete and individual building blocks that help you doing your work. Some samples: a slide deck, a set of notes from a meeting, a set of notes from an article. Any of these could be used in a larger project or goal.

Types of IPs you can create and reuse:

  • distilled notes: summaries from books, articles, presentations
  • outtakes: materials that were not used in the previous projects
  • work-in-process: documents, resources from past projects
  • final deliverables: pieces of work you have delivered already which could help you build something new
  • documents created by others: materials created by other people that you could reference into your work

Assembling building blocks: the secret to frictionless output

How could you acquire or assemble each of the available IPs, instead of having to make them yourself from scratch?

“Our creativity thrives on examples.”

“Your Second Brain is the repository of things you are already creating and using anyway.”

This final step, the Express one, is confirming if the Second Brain is working or not for us. If we are able to easily search, retrieve and combine the information, then its purpose is accomplished.

When talking about retrieving the existing information we talk about 4 methods: search, browsing, tags and serendipity.

Three stages of expressing: what does it look like to show our work?

  • remember – retrieve an idea exactly when it’s needed
  • connect – use notes to tell a bigger story
  • create – complete projects and accomplish goals stress-free

Everything is a remix

“Reframing your productivity in terms of IPs is a major step toward this turning point. Instead of thinking of your job in terms of tasks, which always require you to be there, personally, doing everything yourself, you will start to think in terms of assets and building blocks that you can assemble.”

[Part Three] The Shift: Making Things Happen

The art of creative execution

The process of creating anything follows a simple pattern: alternating between divergence and convergence.

  • divergence ⇒ you open the space of possibilities and ideas and options
  • convergence ⇒ eliminate from the possible options, make decisions about what is truly essential to keep

Capture and Organize build the divergence and Distill and Express the convergence.

Powerful strategies to build projects by using the existing content you already have (convergence):

  1. The Archipelago of Ideas – give yourself stepping-stones
    • divergence ⇒ bring together a group of ideas, sources, materials that will form the backbone of your new creation and when you have a critical mass of ideas to work with we switch to convergence ⇒ link those items together in an order that makes sense, has a logic
    • this technique separates two activities: choosing ideas or selection and arranging them into a structured flow or sequencing.
  2. The Hemingway Bridge – use yesterday’s momentum today
    • this technique is inspired by Hemingway’s writing strategy: always end a writing session only when you know what will come next and jot down that idea which will be used in the next writing session as a starting point
    • how to apply this strategy: in the latest minutes of your working session
      • write down ideas for next steps
      • write down the current status
      • write down any details or ideas that are likely to be forgotten
      • write down you intention for the next working session
  3. Dial Down the Scope – ship something small and concrete
    • it is like the MVP term from software development plus divide-et-impera: deliver fast and often small pieces, get feedback, address the feedback, deliver again

The essential habits of digital organisers

Important habits for building a Second Brain (these habits are something like the “maintenance schedule” of your Second Brain):

  • Project Checklists
    • Project kickoff
      • The checklist
        1. Capture my current thinking on the project
        2. Review folders or tags that might contain relevant notes
        3. Search for related terms across all folders
        4. Move o r tag relevant notes to the project folder
        5. Create an outline of collected notes and plan the project
      • Questions to address
        • What do I already know about this project?
        • What don’t know that I need to find out?
        • What is my goal or intention?
        • What are the objectives? Are they measurable?
        • Who can I talk to who might provide insights?
        • What can I read or listen to for relevant ideas?
        • What do I want to learn?
        • What is most likely to fail?
    • Project completion
      • The checklist
        • Mark project as complete in task manager or project management app
        • Cross out the associated project goal and move to “Completed” section
        • Review IPs and move them to other folders
        • Move project to archives across all platforms
        • If project is becoming inactive add a current status note to the project folder before archiving
      • Questions to address
        • What did I learn?
        • What did I do well?
        • What could I have done better?
        • What could I improve for the next time?
        • Were the objectives of the project achieved? Why or why not?
        • What was the ROI?
  • Weekly and Monthly Reviews
    • Weekly review template
      • Clear my email inbox
      • Check my calendar
      • Clear my computer desktop
      • Clear my notes inbox
      • Choose my tasks for the week
    • Monthly review template
      • Review and update my goals
      • Review and update my project list
      • Review my areas of responsibility
      • Review someday/maybe tasks
      • Reprioritise tasks
  • Noticing Habits
    • noticing that an idea you have could potentially be valuable and capturing it
    • noticing when an idea you are reading about resonates with you and taking the time to highlight it
    • noticing that a note could have a better title
    • noticing you could move or link a note to another project
    • noticing opportunities to combine some IPs

Your turn: a perfect system you don’t use isn’t perfect

The path of self-expression

The working process:

  1. Decide what you want to capture
  2. Choose your notes app
  3. Choose a capture tool
  4. Get setup with PARA
  5. Get inspired by identifying your 12 favorite problems
  6. Automatically capture your ebook highlights
  7. Practice progressive summarisation
  8. Experiment with just one IP
  9. Make progress on one deliverable
  10. Schedule a weekly review
  11. Assess your note-taking proficiency
  12. Join the PKM community

“You are developing a new relationship to your own attention and energy. You are committing to a new identity in which you are in charge of the information swirling around you, even if you don’t always know what it means.”

How to create a tagging system that works

  1. Create personalised tags for your use cases. (How will my notes be used?)
  2. Use tags to track the progress of notes. (How are my notes currently being used?)
    • Tagging according to its role in a project: [Meeting notes], [Timeline], [Budget], [Decision], [Action], [Idea], or [Objective]
    • Tagging according to the current stage of their workflow: [Planned], [In process], [Waiting for approval], [Reviewed], [Approved], [On hold], or [Finished]
  3. Tag notes retroactively and only as needed. (How have my notes been used?)

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