This is the second part of a series on Tiago Forte’s best posts. As with the first article, it’s intended to be a summary of the important parts of his work, rather than the final word on them. If you’re interested in the ideas, I encourage you to consult the original sources, which I’ve linked to at the relevant parts.1
Whilst it’s also intended to be a condensed version of his ideas, rather than the way I use them, there will inevitably be bits where my interpretation strays from the original idea. I’ve also used a few of my own examples where I think that makes it clearer.
Building A Second Brain isn’t just about taking lots of notes. You might remember a fraction more of what you read if you take the time to write notes on it, but it’s unlikely to make much difference to your life. The point is to make your notes discoverable and understandable for when you actually need them. The system Tiago Forte advocates for this is Progressive Summarization.
Progressive Summarization is the process of going through a note you’ve made and a) bolding the key parts, b) going through the bolded parts and and highlighting the key bits of those, then c) putting the note (largely based on the highlighted bits) into an executive summary in your own words d) remixing the note into something of your own.
The main point of this exercise is not to learn or memorize the note as you go, but to make its key ideas more discoverable by your ‘future self’. Then when you have an active Project that can benefit from the content, you can quickly see the most important parts, and pluck them out to be used. This is because the point of making a note isn’t to learn the information, but to use it.
Don’t aim to Progressively Summarize every note
Rather than doing this for every single note you make, Forte argues you should do it ‘opportunistically’. By this he seems to mean that every time you come across a note you’ve previously made, you should put it through the next level of summarization, but only one level per time.
You might stumble upon a particular note because you’re searching your Second Brain for information on a particular topic, or because you have a resurfacing tool2 to randomly serve you notes at given intervals. You shouldn’t aim to progressively summarize every note you make, because that would be a waste of time. You’d also be likely to give up, because it would be such a mammoth undertaking.
Forte estimates that 50% of his reading makes it to stage 1 (note saved), 25% of the total original reading gets bolded, 20% of the original gets highlighted, 5% of the original gets an executive summary, and 1% of the original gets remixed into something else.
Progressive Summarization sorts the wheat from the chaff
By Progressively Summarizing as you go, you also get a sense over time of what notes are more important or ‘ripe for use’ than others. If you keep coming back to a note, and bolding, highlighting, or writing a summary on it, then you’ll know that it’s useful. You’ll be able to see this on your first glance at the note.
Progressive Summarization ties in with the CODE (Capture, Organize, Distil, Express) process I mentioned in Part I of this article. At each level of summarization, the note gets more distilled. Some notes mainly just get Captured and slightly Organised, but the notes that have gone through several stages of Progressive Summarization are more likely to be Expressed.
Progressive Summarization should be quick and easy
Forte sees Progressive Summarization as a system you can fall back on even when your energy/motivation is low. Whereas making a summary takes a lot of effort, bolding and highlighting takes hardly any at all. So it’s a system you’re more likely to stick to than some more complicated ones.
The quality you should be looking for during the process is resonance. Earlier I mentioned picking out the ‘key’ parts – but rather than those being the objectively ‘important’ parts, they should be whatever strikes you personally as being significant. You should be deciding this quickly, based on your first impressions, rather than logically analysing and weighing pros and cons.
Criticisms of Progressive Summarization
It’s worth noting here that – at least by my reading – PS has received more criticism than some of Forte’s other ideas. At least some of the criticism seems to miss the point that the process is about making notes more discoverable, rather than memorizing more of them. Highlighting has been shown in scientific studies to do little for memorization, and so it’s an easy thing to attack. But it’s hard to argue that highlighting things fails to draw your eye to them, and thus makes it easier to get to the key points more quickly.
Mise-en-place for Knowledge Workers
In this article, Forte suggests that knowledge work is “unique among skilled professions” in that it lacks “a culture of systematic improvement.” He notes that while we spend thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on education and workplace training, very little – if any – of this is dedicated to getting better at managing our work.
He then takes a number of features of the mise-en-place system and mindset that chefs use to organise their craft, and applies them to knowledge work. I’ve changed the titles of these six points for clarity.
1. The order of things matters
In a kitchen, sequencing is really important. You can’t chop chicken before it’s defrosted, for example. But we often overlook this in knowledge work.
Some tasks will have more value if they’re done now, rather than tomorrow. If I change all the Amazon links on my website to be affiliate links now, they will start earning me money. If I don’t do it till next month, I’ll miss out on the earnings in between. Having greater appreciation of sequencing will bring more value.
2. Get stuff out of your head
In a kitchen, things are left out to remind us to take action. Placing herbs on a chopping board reminds us that they need to be chopped and put into the pan. This saves the chef from forgetting to do the task, or having to keep it in their mind.
Similarly, putting tasks in a task manager gets them out of your head, whilst ensuring they get done. Not having places for your key bits of information will cause you stress, or mean things get missed.
3. Leveraged activities
In the kitchen, some activities require constant attention (immersive), whereas others keep going in the background (process). You have to focus while you’re chopping vegetables, but once you’ve put them in the oven to grill, you can leave them there without constantly watching them.
Some elements of productivity are the same. You can’t start writing a blog post, then leave it and expect it to be done when you get back. But if you can hand over the editing of your posts to someone else by teaching them your system, they can be doing that while you work on something else. In other words, the teaching is a leveraged activity, whereas the writing can only go as fast as one person can work.
Forte argues this distinction is really important, and that where we identify ‘process time’ activities, we should get those started early, or hand them off. Your job might not necessarily involve teaching someone to fish, rather than feeding them one, but if there are places you can invest a bit of time up front to automate, delegate or improve a process, you should consider it.
He even goes as far as to say we often overvalue immersive time because it feels like we’re getting more done. This can run contra to Cal Newport’s mantra of ‘Deep Work’, which is setting aside big chunks of time to focus on challenging tasks. Of course there will be some things that only you can do, and you might need such chunks of time. But ideally you should be looking to minimise these, as they aren’t scalable. We often overlook leveraged activities, because the benefits are further off.
4. Finished is miles better than nearly finished
For a chef, a dish doesn’t have any value until it’s 100% done. Knowledge workers think they don’t have that problem, because they can just come back to a task later if it goes unfinished. But Forte says this is often a mistake. We underestimate the costs of leaving tasks before they’re finished.
As well as the mental cost of switching between tasks, unfinished tasks cause burdens for the knowledge worker. You need to track them in a task manager. You have to think about if and when to start them again, relative to other priorities. And they stay rattling round your subconscious until you can mark them complete.
You should therefore adopt more of a ‘finishing mindset’, and remember that the difference between 99% done and 100% done is substantial. Where tasks have to be stopped before completion, you need to get them to a suitable juncture, and leave pointers to how to re-start them.
5. Make processes, get better at them, and finish quickly
This part has two points. The first is that you should create a speedy process for things you do repeatedly, as a chef does for the small, precise movements they use when chopping an onion. An example is the One Touch Email system I talked about in Part I. You get better at the process each time, and thus more productive. Keyboard shortcuts are another good example of this.
The second links with the finishing mindset and sequencing ideas. If you finish something late, you might think it still has most of the value. But speed is more important than this. Once you finish, you can get feedback, learn lessons, and make improvements. Thus finishing quickly leads to improvements in the long run.
6. Know where your stuff is, and keep the decks clear
A chef knows exactly where each knife is kept, so they can reach for it without thinking. Similarly, you should have a system (such as PARA, discussed in Part I) for your digital environment that tells you exactly how to retrieve something you need.
It’s good to ‘tidy out’ these systems regularly (such as in a One Touch Weekly Review, discussed in Part I), and you should probably have a ‘start up’ and ‘wind down’ routine to help you clear things out mentally.
Productivity for Precious Snowflakes
In this article, Forte argues that states of mind are the most important – yet overlooked – aspect of productivity. And that “the true purpose of note-taking is transporting states of mind (not just information) through time”. That’s because a digital note is small enough to be ‘completed’ while you’re in one state of mind. When you later come across it, you are accessing some of that state of mind.
This way of thinking about productivity – by combining the fruits of smaller chunks of work – is in contrast to most common paradigms, which tell us that we will only achieve a meaningful result by slogging away at something for a decent period of time.
Why you shouldn’t force work
Typically, we use various ways of forcing our current self to produce something our future self wants, but these don’t fit with how our human nature actually works. We focus on trying to find the best process, which doesn’t always work if you’re not in the right frame of mind. Or we work according to values, which are too ethereal to motivate us. Or we focus on goals, which are too changeable.
For example, Cal Newport argues in Deep Work that we should set aside big chunks of time where we focus only on one thing. This is an artificial process to get you into the right frame of mind to produce something of value. Being interrupted during such a period destroys your focus, and it takes you a long time to return to the right frame of mind to be productive again.
However, if you work according to your state of mind, rather than against it, you’ll achieve more, and get the most out of your brain. States of mind change a lot, so it’s unrealistic to expect to produce something major within a single state of mind. You therefore need small units of production, rather than only saying something is achieved at the end of a large project.
Why digital notes are the answer
Digital notes are these small units of production: once you’ve made one, you have something of value. It may not be a finished product, but it’s the building block of a finished product. You can combine it at the end of a project to produce something that’s typically thought of as ‘done’, without having to force yourself into an exhausting slog to get there.
Moreover, one digital note can become part of multiple different finished products, because you can come across it at another point in time, with a different state of mind. Putting a project together in one big ‘heavy lift’ doesn’t have that versatility, because it’s done with a specific outcome in mind. Therefore producing small building blocks of work – digital notes – has added value into the future.
The Secret Power of Read It Later apps
This article highlights one of the often-overlooked advantages of Read It Later apps: they improve your information diet by moving point of curation. By going through your ‘things to read’ feed when you have more time to reflect, you’re less likely to be drawn in by low-quality clickbaity stuff you’ll read when you’re procrastinating.
If instead you read stuff when you first come across it, you’re likely to be drawn in by the crafted headline, shiny graphics, beautiful thumbnail, or whatever it is. Coming at it later, the gap in time, and the change in context means you’re likely to be more discerning about what you consume.
What you consume is really important. If you consume garbage, your thoughts will be garbage, and you’ll produce garbage. So even improving this by a small amount can make a big difference.
The 4 Identities of a Teacher
Here Forte argues that more and more of us are becoming teachers, rather than it just being a separate profession you have little connection with. If knowledge is where the value is, then organisations need everyone to pass on that knowledge to others i.e. to be teachers. Drawing on the work of Brendon Burchard, Forte identifies four stages of being a teacher.
The first is when you’re starting out and learning from other people. Contrary to what people think, you can have a lot of value as a teacher at this stage if you condense and report what other people are saying. That’s like what an investigative journalist does, or what I’m doing with this article!
The second is when you become an expert in your own right. You’re at the cutting edge of an industry, and are likely having new insights that others can learn from. Think of someone who has an influential blog.
The third is when you act as a mentor. You may no longer be at the cutting edge, but you can guide those around you in their journeys through stages 1 and 2. An example would be someone who manages a team.
The fourth is where you’re a role model who inspires others. You may not have any direct interaction with those people, but they learn by your example. A good example would be Martin Luther King.
Why this matters
This article is significant because it’s important to remember that there are different ways of creating value through teaching others. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert (yet), nor do you need to be doing ‘hands on’ work. No one level is inherently better than another. But it is important to know where you are in each of these stages when you’re teaching someone, and you shouldn’t give them the impression you’re something you’re not.
>> Read The 4 Identities of a Teacher
Seeing productivity differently
The articles in Part I of this series are mostly about fundamentals of productivity, and how to do processes. These articles cover some of the same ground – and Progressive Summarization is quite process-heavy – but they also give different lenses on important aspects of knowledge work. For me, they help me understand more of why systems and processes are important, and give me useful metaphors for what’s happening when we’re doing work. I hope they similarly open your mind!
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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.
- such as Readwise.io