Building a Second Brain

by Tiago Forte


2024 Feb 18


A revolutionary approach to enhancing productivity, creating flow, and vastly increasing your ability to capture, remember, and benefit from the unprecedented amount of information all around us.

For the first time in history, we have instantaneous access to the world’s knowledge. There has never been a better time to learn, to contribute, and to improve ourselves. Yet, rather than feeling empowered, we are often left feeling overwhelmed by this constant influx of information. The very knowledge that was supposed to set us free has instead led to the paralyzing stress of believing we’ll never know or remember enough.

Now, this eye-opening and accessible guide shows how you can easily create your own personal system for knowledge management, otherwise known as a Second Brain. As a trusted and organized digital repository of your most valued ideas, notes, and creative work synced across all your devices and platforms, a Second Brain gives you the confidence to tackle your most important projects and ambitious goals.

Discover the full potential of your ideas and translate what you know into more powerful, more meaningful improvements in your work and life by Building a Second Brain.

Notes & Highlights

3: How a Second Brain Works

The CODE Method: Capture; Organize; Distill; Express.

Organize: Save for Actionability The best way to organize your notes is to organize 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?” Every time you take a note, ask yourself, “How can I make this as useful as possible for my future self?” That question will lead you to annotate the words and phrases that explain why you saved a note, what you were thinking, and what exactly caught your attention.

…recent research by neurophysiologists May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology indicates that the human brain remembers information using a “grid code”—a part of the brain involved in spatial reasoning. They speculate that “the grid code could therefore be some sort of metric or coordinate system” that can “uniquely and efficiently represent a lot of information.”

4: Capture – Keep what Resonates

Feynman revealed his strategy in an interview: “You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!‘”
As told in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

Thinking like a curator means taking charge of your own information stream. The more economical you can be with the material you capture in the first place, the less time and effort your future self will have to spend organizing, distilling, and expressing it.

Capture Criteria #2: Is It Useful?

Carpenters are known for keeping odds and ends in a corner of their workshop—a variety of nails and washers, scraps of lumber cut off from larger planks, and random bits of metal and wood. It costs nothing to keep these “offcuts” around, and surprisingly often they end up being the crucial missing piece in a future project.
Sometimes you come across a piece of information that isn’t necessarily inspiring, but you know it might come in handy in the future. A statistic, a reference, a research finding, or a helpful diagram—these are the equivalents of the spare parts a carpenter might keep around their workshop.

PARA stands for the four main categories of information in our lives: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. These four categories are universal, encompassing any kind of information, from any source, in any format, for any purpose.
PARA can handle it all, regardless of your profession or field, for one reason: it organizes information based on how actionable it is, not what kind of information it is. The project becomes the main unit of organization for your digital files.

5: Organize—Save for Actionability

This order gives us a convenient checklist for deciding where to put a note, starting at the top of the list and moving down:

  1. In which project will this be most useful?
  2. If none: In which area will this be most useful?
  3. If none: Which resource does this belong to?
  4. If none: Place in archives.

In other words, you are always trying to place a note or file not only where it will be useful, but where it will be useful the soonest. By placing a note in a project folder, you ensure you’ll see it next time you work on that project. By placing it in an area folder, you’ll come across it next time you’re thinking about that area of your work or life. By placing it in a resource folder, you’ll notice it only if and when you decide to dive into that topic and do some reading or research. By placing it in archives, you never need to see it again unless you want to.

My mentor advised me to “move quickly and touch lightly” instead. To look for the path of least resistance and make progress in short steps. I want to give the same advice to you: don’t make organizing 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?” Start by asking yourself, “What projects am I currently committed to moving forward?”

The key thing to keep in mind is that these categories are anything but final. PARA is a dynamic, constantly changing system, not a static one. Your Second Brain evolves as constantly as your projects and goals change, which means you never have to worry about getting it perfect, or having it finished.

Distill – Find the Essence

Progressive Summarization is the technique I teach to distill notes down to their most important points.
The technique is simple: you 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.” Each of these layers uses a different kind of formatting so you can easily tell them apart.

9. The Essential Habits of Digital Organizers

This is where the Project Kickoff Checklist comes in. Here’s my own checklist:

  • Capture my current thinking on the project.
  • Review folders (or tags) that might contain relevant notes.
  • Search for related terms across all folders.
  • Move (or tag) relevant notes to the project folder.
  • Create an outline of collected notes and plan the project.”

Capture my current thinking on the project. This step can and should be messy: I pour out all my random musings, potential approaches, links to other ideas or topics, or reminders of people to talk to. Here are some questions I use to prompt this initial brainstorm:

  • What do I already know about this project?
  • What don’t I know that I need to find out?
  • What is my goal or intention?
  • Who can I talk to who might provide insights?
  • What can I read or listen to for relevant ideas?”

5. Create an outline of collected notes and plan the project. Finally, it’s time to pull together the material I’ve gathered and create an outline (an Archipelago of Ideas) for the project. My goal is to end up not just with a loose collection of ideas. It is to formulate a logical progression of steps that make it clear what I should do next.
The important thing to remember as you move through this checklist is that you are making a plan for how to tackle the project, not executing the project itself. You should think of this five-step checklist as a first pass, taking no more than twenty to thirty minutes.

Here are some other options for actions you might want to include in your own version:

  • Answer premortem questions: What do you want to learn? What is the greatest source of uncertainty or most important question you want to answer? What is most likely to fail?
  • Communicate with stakeholders: Explain to your manager, colleagues, clients, customers, shareholders, contractors, etc., what the project is about and why it matters.
  • Define success criteria: What needs to happen for this project to be considered successful? What are the minimum results you need to achieve, or the “stretch goals” you’re striving for?
  • Have an official kickoff: Schedule check-in calls, make a budget and timeline, and write out the goals and objectives to make sure everyone is informed, aligned, and clear on what is expected of them. I find that doing an official kickoff is useful even if it’s a solo project!”

When you make your digital notes a working environment, not just a storage environment, you end up spending a lot more time there. When you spend more time there, you’ll inevitably notice many more small opportunities for change than you expect. Over time, this will gradually produce an environment far more suited to your real needs than anything you could have planned up front. Just like professional chefs keep their environment organized with small nudges and adjustments, you can use noticing habits to “organize as you go.

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Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte