If you care at all about being more productive – and you should do – then you should be aware of Tiago Forte’s work. He’s most well-known for his course and writing on Building A Second Brain, which I’ve previously written about. But he’s also written a lot about some more ‘traditional’ areas of productivity.1
The archive of his Praxis blog is well worth diving into, and most of the key articles are free. I’ve summarised his best posts here, so you can absorb the key ideas, and delve further into any you find interesting. Please note that this is my take on his work, so I might not have expressed the concepts exactly how he would.
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of Forte’s work builds on Getting Things Done, by David Allen. If you’re not familiar with the ideas in that book, I have a summary of The six things you should learn from Getting Things Done.
Building a Second Brain
Building your own Second Brain is all about creating a system for collecting, storing, organising and sharing your knowledge via digital notes. The basic idea is that digital notes, with their essentially unlimited storage, allow us to save every useful bit of information we come across, so it’s there whenever we need it. It’s better to save that somewhere outside your head, so your brain is freed up for creative ideas.
Forte argues that knowledge is the essential unit of currency in today’s world of work, so being able to capture and use relevant knowledge is a strategic advantage. His course is designed to help you develop the right system to do that, and the key elements can be found in his overview article. I’ve also written my own article on this concept, called How to remember everything you learn.
The system Forte uses to process information can be expressed by the acronym CODE, which stands for Capture, Organize, Distil, Express. CODE is the process of taking some knowledge, capturing it in a note-taking tool, organising it into its essential elements, distilling that down further, then expressing it in your own terms.
For example, you might read this article about the four levels of personal knowledge management. You copy a couple of quotes, and a link to the source, whilst adding your own thoughts along the way. Next, you break it down into the key points, perhaps with some sub-headings. You might also link it to other notes in a digital notes app. You then write a short summary paragraph at the top of the note that captures the essence of the article. Finally, you can use that idea in an article of your own, bring it up in conversation, or add it to a note on a wider topic.
When you can explain it to someone else, you understand it better
Through this process, you start with someone else’s information, and make it your own. By the end, you understand it in your own terms, and can use it for your own purposes. It’s not just regurgitating, or even stealing, because you’ve built upon it with your own interpretation.
The Express element of CODE works similarly to the Feynman Technique for learning. That technique, devised by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, says that we have only properly learnt something when we are able to teach it in language someone aged 11-12 would understand. Similarly, expressing knowledge in our own terms makes us engage with it more critically than reading it passively.
You don’t have to actually teach something to learn it properly, and not everyone has to write a blog of everything they’ve learnt. Forte would say that you shouldn’t aim to do all the steps of CODE with every note you take. But for those bits of information that you find especially valuable, CODE is a helpful acronym for processing it.
Here’s the Forte Labs blog post explaining CODE.
Perhaps the most daunting part of setting up a Second Brain is deciding how to organise your files. Forte has a system for that, too. He calls it PARA.
PARA stands for Projects, Areas, Resources and Archives. They make up the four ‘top-level’ folders in your Second Brain, and are defined as such:
Project – a piece of work with multiple steps that has a defined end e.g. ‘Run half marathon’
Area – an area you are responsible for maintaining over time e.g. ‘Health & Fitness’
Resource – something you have an ongoing interest in, but aren’t actively using for a goal at this time e.g. ‘Health benefits of cold showers’
Archive – Inactive items from other categories
Each of your individual notes will fit into one of those four folders. This organisational structure is replicated across everywhere you store files, so you know where to find things, whichever programme you’re in.
If it’s not clear where to put things, the following might help:
- Projects have an end date, whereas Areas don’t
- Areas can change, but they don’t get ‘completed’
- The Archive isn’t a bin. You might want to recycle things from there, either in whole or in part.
- However, you should put things in the Archive, rather than the bin, so you don’t ever lose it.
- Most of the Archive is stuff from Projects that have finished, but there’s a good chance it can be re-used. Before you move
- Projects should be linked to your goals, or they’re pointless. And when you’re setting goals, they should be linked either to a project or an area – otherwise they’re just a dream.
What you have in the sections below each of those top-level folders depends on your current interests. Some of my own examples are as follows:
- Under Projects I currently have ‘Europe Trip 2022’, and ‘Create YouTube video on how to make your time feel longer’.
- I use my areas as a way of evaluating my life as part of my Personal Yearly Review, so include things like ‘Finances’ and ‘Fun & Adventure’.
- Resources include ‘Public Speaking’ and ‘How to read scientific studies’.
- Archive includes my Notion backups, and notes on previous blog posts.
You might want further sub-layers below those, but I find that that depends on the particular Project, Area, or Resource (it’s best not to think about the structure of your Archive). Multi-stage projects spanning a few months might require lots of individual notes, and so it can make sense to sub-divide that project. Most of my Areas also have multiple notes. But if you’ve just got one individual note, then you don’t need to further categorise it.
Some examples from my own ‘Second Brain’ are as follows:
Project = Europe Trip 2022
Sub-heading = Germany
Individual notes = COVID restrictions | Accommodation | Things to do
Area = Business
Sub-heading = Writing
Individual notes = Jordan B Peterson’s writing tips | Template for new blog post | David Perrell’s writing tips
Further structure to your Second Brain might depend on the particular note-taking app you use, and your own personal preference. But the overall structure of PARA helps organise your thinking on, and provides a good place to start.
One Touch Email
Maintaining inbox zero isn’t an unusual idea, but the way Forte does it is particular. He calls it One Touch Email.
The central idea is that you treat email just like any other input to your system, rather than a system in itself. You therefore deal with each email by replying straight away (if it can be done in less than two minutes2, deleting, or moving it into another part of your productivity system. This is in line with David Allen’s ‘Four Ds’ (do, defer, delegate, drop) in Getting Things Done.
Set up downstream systems
For most people, that means not using email to store your tasks. As he notes, “your email inbox is someone else’s to do list”. Where you have an email that implies a task, move that into your task manager.
The reason for this is that email wasn’t built for tasks. So whenever you delve into it to look for a task, what you see is not a prioritised list of ‘next actions’, but a mixture of things: newsletters, social messages, project updates, small tasks and big tasks, meeting requests, and new notifications popping up every minute.
Similarly, email wasn’t made to store calendar appointments, reading lists, or notes. Forte recommends having have separate, bespoke ‘downstream’ systems for these, such as iCal, Instapaper, and Evernote. Whenever you get an email that has one of those things, you move it immediately and delete the email (or save it in an archive if you prefer).
Another key part of this process is batching your email, an idea usually associated with Tim Ferriss. If you turn off email notifications, and instead check them at periodic intervals, you’ll tend to get more done, because you won’t get sucked in to replying, which begets more emails, and more replies. Plus, you’ll get used to quickly deciding what to do with your emails if you do them in a dedicated time block, rather than giving them small fractions of your attention every few minutes.
Even in jobs where email is the main communication tool, you can ‘train’ your co-workers to send you fewer emails over time. You might also find that the ‘quick question’ type emails people send you get dealt with before you come to them, which saves further time.
Forte has a full step-by-step guide to how he does One Touch email, including Gmail shortcuts and detailed ‘buttonology’.
One Touch Weekly Review
David Allen calls the Weekly Review the “master key” to his Getting Things Done methodology. Yet plenty of people skip doing a weekly review, which undermines the whole system. For example, if you don’t clear out your email inbox at regular intervals, you lose confidence that you’ll do the tasks in there, and so you go back to dealing with them as they come in.
Tiago Forte suggests this is because people make weekly reviews into more than they need to be. People re-evaluate their goals, dramatically change their systems, and also get sucked into active work. He therefore suggests a pared-down Weekly Review process, which should take no more than 30 minutes.
How to do the Review
Forte’s Weekly Review consists of three things: clearing your workspaces, updating your tasks, and deciding your priorities for the coming week. He does this by going through the following checklist:
First, you get down to Inbox Zero, using the ‘One Touch Email’ process outlined above. You process anything in there into one of the four things further down in the list.
Then you look at the calendar, scanning two weeks back and four weeks forward. Any outstanding things from there go into your Notes or Tasks.
Next you clear your Desktop or Downloads folder by putting any items into your Notes. If there are things there that aren’t finished, you add a task to your task manager
Fourth, you go through any notes you’ve made throughout the week, and make sure they’re filed properly in your Second Brain. That might include things you just moved from one of the previous steps, things you’ve saved to read, or notes you’ve made on random thoughts. If any of the notes trigger an action, put that in your task manager.
Finally, you go through your task manager inbox, and make sure all the tasks are properly defined, with a clear next action. You then decide where to put them in your task manager, depending on the priority, and where the item sits in terms of Projects/Areas.
I’ve previously written about my own Weekly Review process. Mine is similarly ‘lean’ in that it doesn’t advocate changing your systems in any way, but it does include a greater mental ‘review’ of how well your week went.
You can read the full details of Forte’s Weekly Review here.
Getting the fundamentals right
One of the reasons I like Tiago Forte’s work is that most of it is about fundamental things. On one level, we all know how to use email, but few of us have a good system we use to process it. All of us have a responsibility to learn from things we encounter in our day to day lives, yet few of us ever take notes on things, let alone have a system for organising and using those notes.
So if you do nothing else in terms of productivity training than reading this article, and using it as a jumping-off point for thinking for a while about how you organise your information and process your email, you’re probably a way ahead.
And if you’ve enjoyed that, then please have a look through Part II.
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- I usually write more original pieces, remixing the thoughts of other thinkers. I’m doing this series differently because I think a) Forte’s specific methods and ideas are important enough to be written about in their own right b) I hope anyone reading this website is inspired enough to also read Praxis and c) I can hopefully provide value by condensing some of his work whilst retaining the key ideas.
- Forte actually says this time should vary – if you receive thousands of emails per day, you can’t apply the two-minute rule, or you’ll never do anything else – the same applies if you’ve just come back from a vacation.