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The basics of a ‘second brain’

Mike Ross from Suits

The best change I’ve made to my life this year – and maybe in the past 10 years – is creating my own ‘Second Brain’. The Second Brain is an idea popularised by productivity guru Tiago Forte, and is a system for personal knowledge management that exists outside of your own head.

At its most basic, it just means taking digital notes on things. But at its best, it can help you remember everything you ever learn, and use that knowledge to transform your life.

The reason to build a system of digital notes is that we all consume tonnes of information, but don’t make the most of it. Many of us spend hours each week watching, listening and reading informational content, but how much of that do we actually absorb? If we spent just a few minutes making notes for every hour we consume content, we’d take in much more – and get much smarter in the process.

A Second Brain is unlimited

Our brains can only store a handful of ideas at any one time. But using technology, we can keep all the advice, insights, and inspiration we’ve collected. It’s like building an extension to your own memory. Not only does it mean you keep the wisdom you’ve accumulated over time, but it frees up your own brain for having ideas, rather than storing them.

Forte has a whole course (starting at $1500!) on how to build your own Second Brain, but here I will distil the key elements so you can start to build your own for free.

For full disclosure, I haven’t yet taken the Second Brain course (the price tag is a little off-putting), but I’ve consumed tonnes of material elsewhere1. I’ve also been working with my own Second Brain for six months. I’m already seeing huge value from it, and want to share that value with you.

The four key elements of your Second Brain

Capture

There are whole communities of people dedicated to finding the best way to set up a Second Brain, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. The most fundamental part is ‘Capture’. This just means having a system for making notes, wherever you consume content. If you at least do this step, you’ll probably be getting more value from the content you consume than 80% of people.

The most important thing to remember with Capture is that you need to make your notes understandable to your future self. You might only come back to that note in a year’s time, and if it doesn’t make sense to you then, you’ve lost that knowledge. So you need to add a bit of context that will make the note make sense, as well as linking to the original source where possible.

I use Notion for my digital notes, but there are tonnes of other apps, including Evernote, Roam, OneNote and Apple Notes. Choosing an app can be difficult, as there are lots of factors to consider, but it’s important to remember that the one you choose now doesn’t have to be the one you use forever. I recently imported my Evernotes into Notion, and the software did it for me in minutes.

I still make some notes in other programmes, such as on my Kindle, on my laptop hard drive, and in my Read It Later app. Ultimately these all end up in Notion, so that I only have to search in one place when I want to find something. There are ways of automating the transfer of these notes to speed up the process.

Organise

Once you’ve got a load of notes, you need some sort of system for organising them. But the great benefit of digital notes is that you can text search them. So organising isn’t that important – and spending too much time on it is counter-productive.

Forte teaches the PARA system of organisation, and I can’t find fault with it. You have only four top level folders: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. You can have sub-folders, but at its most basic, all your notes go into one of those four. I’ve previously written about how freeing it is to have an archive folder.

Projects v Areas v Resources v Archives

The somewhat tricky bit is deciding what is a project versus an area, versus a resource. Forte’s definitions are as follows:

Project – a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline

Area – a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time

Resource – a topic or theme of ongoing interest

Archive – inactive items from the other three categories

For some examples, my own projects include writing this article, and the plans for three months of travel I’m about to start. My areas include ‘Finances’, ‘Health & Fitness’, and ‘Social Life’. Resources include ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Habit Formation’ and ‘TV shows to watch’. These topics often have many notes within them, and grow over time, but others consist of a single note. There are no hard and fast rules – it’s about what works for you.

A notes app that lets you create links between your notes, and which then show those links on the second note (known as bi-directional linking) is helpful for organising. This feature – which is available in Notion and Roam – mirrors how the brain works. It’s great for using the notes to create things like articles, but also helps with your own comprehension.

Distil

Distilling your notes means reducing them to the key elements. This helps in two ways: the act of distilling your notes enhances your comprehension of the material; and it improves the resource for when you need to quickly re-read and understand.

Mindlessly copying bits of reading material, or making tonnes of notes won’t make you understand that information. And if you have to search through thousands of words to get the gist of a note, that’s much less valuable than being able to glance at a few bullet points. Going through the distillation process increases the value of your notes many times over.

Forte has a technique for distilling notes called Progressive Summarisation. It basically means going through and bolding interesting things. You then go through again and highlight the best of the bolded bits. Finally you make a few summary notes – in your own words – at the top of the note. Simple, yet effective.

Express

This step’s optional, but it helps your understanding if you turn your notes into something of your own. That could be an article like this one, a podcast, a drawing, or just having a conversation with someone about the topic.

The idea behind this step is that it forces you into using a version of The Feynman Technique for learning. The best way to know if you’ve understood a topic is to try to teach it to someone else. And if it doesn’t make sense to that other person, you can improve on it till it does.

This step is the very essence of creativity. No one ever comes up with something completely from scratch, but we recycle and remix others’ ideas into something new2. Of course, you get bonus points if you integrate concepts from other notes. The combination of multiple ideas is what we call originality.

I’ll be writing a lot more on the details of how to build your Second Brain, as it’s such an important topic. I also recommend you check out Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain podcast, which you can access through the usual podcast apps. There’s also a wonderful visualisation of the key elements of building a Second Brain on the Maggie Appleton blog.

And if you only take away one thing from this article, start collecting digital notes on things now. I wish I’d done it much sooner.

Footnotes

  1. . Forte himself admits that most of the course material is available online for free. The advantage of the course is doing it with a cohort and being able to get feedback from coaches.
  2. Giving proper credit where it’s due, of course.