Building a Second Brain

This article by Tiago Forte got me curious
Here’s how he describes it:
How many brilliant ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you failed to take action on? How much useful advice have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed?
We feel a constant pressure to be learning, improving ourselves, and making progress. We spend countless hours every year reading, listening, and watching informational content. And yet, where has all that valuable knowledge gone? Where is it when we need it? Our brain can only store a few thoughts at any one time. Our brain is for having ideas, not storing them.
Building A Second Brain is a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we’ve gained through our experience. It expands our memory and our intellect using the modern tools of technology and networks.

When I read those first 3 paragraphs, my mind was blown. It was as if this guy was speaking to my very soul, articulating problems I’d been thinking about for years but never been able to put into words.

Since discovering this Second Brain / Personal Knowledge Management stuff, I’ve excitedly started to put it into practice. I’ve switched all my note-taking and writing over to Notion, a really great app that you should definitely try out. And I’ve started to actively write down thoughts and ideas I have throughout my day.

Anything that you read, watch and listen that resonates with you, goes into your digital note-taking system and then you can use your second brain to organize your ideas and thoughts and you can ultimately convert them into your creative output. In this blog post we’re going to go over the 10 fundamental principles of building a second brain so that you can also maximize your productivity and creativity.

1️⃣ Borrowed Creativity

The first principle is borrowed creativity. The Idea is that, we all intuitively think of creativity as kind of creating original stuff. But not always, creativity is also about remixing stuff. It’s about taking ideas that already exist based on the things that you read, watch and listen to and then adding your own spin to them and sort of combining things in interesting ways and that is what creativity is. It’s like what Pablo Picasso famously said that good artists copy but great artists steal and this is one of the key ideas of building a second brain. It’s the idea that if you have all of the little bits that resonate with you from all the stuff that you read watch and listen to if you have all that in one place it becomes a lot easier to start putting things together and to start seeing connections that you wouldn’t have seen before whereas if you try and do that all in your head it doesn’t work very well in comparison.

2️⃣ The Capture Habit

Secondly we’ve got the capture habit and this is a fundamental part of productivity. It’s based around the idea that our brains are for having ideas not for storing them. So whenever we get any sort of idea whenever anything resonates with us in any way from anything in life even if we’re just walking down the park or if we’re in the shower or if we’re listening to a podcast we want to capture that idea as soon as possible because our brains are not going to hold on to it for a very long period of time. For example most of the brilliant ideas are realized in the shower. But often we forget them by the time we’re out of the shower. So, a good solution would be to have a waterproof notebook on the window sill next to the shower. So if there’s any ideas flowing capture it right there and then because our brain sometimes is a dumb-ass and it’s not going to hold on to that idea for very long.

3️⃣ Idea Recycling

Thirdly we’ve got the principle of idea recycling and the main view here is that ideas are not single use but we can actually recycle ideas and reuse them over time and so one of the things we want to do in our second brain. Whatever note-taking app we’re using for it is we want to keep track of all of the stuff that we’re creating and all of the ideas that we’re using for certain projects because we can just reuse those ideas for others and so for me whenever I now make a blog post, finish a project or solve a problem all of that goes straight into my second brain because I know somewhere down the line i’m gonna want to reuse some of that information and then it means that I’ve got these building blocks already that I can then build other things out of which makes the entire process infinitely easier.

4️⃣ Projects Over Categories

The fourth principle is the idea of projects over categories and this is one of the things that I really learned early on. I used to take notes in the past but I would categorize things in terms of category. Like you know if I saw an interesting thing about technology i’d put it in a technology folder in notion or if I saw an interesting thing about motivation i’d put it in a motivation folder but then i’d end up with these sort of folders with lots of notes in them and didn’t really have anything to do with them. Now I think of it more in terms of projects and so if I capture an idea firstly it goes into my kind of general capture inbox but then I will try my best to associate it to some kind of project that i’m currently working on because then the information is going to be directly useful rather than it just sitting in a bookmark folder that i’m never going to look at again.

5️⃣ Slow Burns

The principle of slow burns which is really important aspect of personal productivity is that most of the things I do are slow burns rather than heavy lifts. So on one hand we’ve got heavy lifts, imagine you want to write a book or you want to learn a new technology. You will sit down and do all the work for it in a small amount of time and that’ll be like your heavy lift. On the other hand the idea of slow burns which is a big part of the building a second brain methodology is that we have this list of projects that we’re working on and they’re all kind of on the slow burner but you shouldn’t be sitting down and kind of bashing through them one at a time instead do them on the slow burn and so over time as you read, watch and listen to things, you will discover interesting ideas and come up with your own ideas. Some of the time it’ll just go in straight into my second brain and into the relevant project and so over time instead of kind of doing a big project one at a time I’m doing all 10 of these projects in very small amounts. So it’s very easy to put together all these small bits and complete the job because I’ve already done the work over time. It’s not a heavy lift that I’m struggling with, instead it’s a slow burn.

6️⃣ Start With Abundance

The next principle is to start with abundance. When we’re writing or creating anything or writing an essay or an assignment or a presentation or pretty much anything we all have that issue that we tend to start from a blank page. We have the blank page in front of us and we think right this is hard I’ve got writer’s block I don’t really know what to do. Another main thing in the second brain stuff is that if you have collected all this stuff over time all of your inspirations and bits then you’re never really starting from scratch you’re always starting from abundance. So let’s say you’re using evernote for your second brain or notion and you want to write an article about motivation or productivity all you have to do is search the word motivation and automatically you’ve got like a ton of articles that you have read and annotated and made your own notes on over the last few years. You can just kind of draw from those and take bits from here and bits from there and ultimately that’ll lead to a really nice blog post or blog post script or whatever you’re making about motivation because you’re querying the data set of stuff in your second brain and that just kind of changes the game because it means you’re never starting from a blank page you’re always starting with abundance you’re starting with this pre-existing treasure trove of information that you yourself have decided in the past that was worth saving.

7️⃣ Intermediate Packets

Next we have the idea of intermediate packets. This is something that I kind-of knew intuitively but I didn’t really have the terminology back in the day. So if you imagine, let’s say you’re a university student and you’re writing an essay. We don’t usually think of it as a big deal but actually it’s made up of a lot of intermediate packets. I used to call them content blocks in my head when I was in college writing loads of essays. It’s like you know your introduction is a block or an intermediate packet which makes it easier to flow the ideas in your brain following these intermediate packets. I would memorize the intermediate packets or the content blocks and then I’d be able to essentially in my head drag and drop them into whatever I say or write. For example, this blog post on 10 principles of building a second brain. Each of these 10 principles are their own intermediate packet and I know that in the future when I make another blog post there are surely some aspects of this blog post or some intermediate packets that I can just drag and drop into my other thing so firstly thinking in that way really helps because it means that it’s a lot easier to put stuff together for your next project but also in a way it makes it easier to get started on your current project.

8️⃣ You Only Know What You Make

Next we have the idea that you only know what you make and this is like a big part of the building second brain thing. We can read, watch and listen to all the stuff that we want but really the stuff that we’re really going to internalize and that we can feasibly use in our future projects is going to be the stuff that we have created ourselves. So whether that’s reading a book and then writing a summary of it or whether it’s listening to a podcast and then tweeting about it or even if it’s having a random idea and then fleshing out that idea into an intermediate packet and chucking it into our second brain. When we engage with the material ourselves rather than relying on just pre-existing material we end up becoming much more familiar with it and then we can do some interesting/creative/useful things with that stuff.

9️⃣ Make it Easier for Your Future Self

Principle number nine is, you want to make it easier for your future self and the way that I think of my second brain i.e. my kind of suite of digital note-taking apps that I use for different-different things is that, ultimately i’m putting in the work now to create a resource that my future self is going to find helpful. So right now, I might be listening to a podcast and hear the word “machine learning” I might be tempted to just write down machine learning because I kind of know right now what it means but that’s not particularly the case for my future self because my brain is a dumb-ass and i’m going to forget exactly what it means. So i’ll take a little bit of time right now to write a few notes on it to flesh it out in my own words so that when future me comes across this note on Machine Learning, future me will know exactly what current me was talking about. This will help avoid the frustration of your future self when you look at a concept you read about back in the day and think what the hell does thing even mean because you assumed too much intelligence on the part of your future self.

🔟 Keep Your Ideas Moving

Final principle is the idea that, you want to keep your ideas moving and that’s kind of an anti-perfectionist take on this because one of the traps that we can fall into if we’re building out a note-taking system is that we can fall into the trap of perfectionism where we think okay I’ve just discovered this digital note-taking system, I’ve watched tutorial videos & read this blog post on “how to use notion”. I’m going to create this elaborate database of all the stuff that I’ve ever read and it’s going to have like 18 pieces of metadata assigned for each one. We can get stuck appreciating the intricacies of the app and the intricacies of our system rather than focusing on what actually matters, which is to keep our ideas moving then organize it and distill it into our own insights and then convert it into creative output. The most important thing is the output as it really doesn’t matter what’s in your second brain. So what if you save all the knowledge you’ve come across unless you’re doing something with that information, unless you’re turning it into something or sharing something or applying it to your own life in some way.

3 Comments on “Building a Second Brain”

  1. Wow, this really was an intriguing piece. I didn’t know what to expect when I came in, but I must say I was thoroughly entertained.

    The ‘starting from abundance’ tip was particularly interesting. Loved this article. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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