Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. A somewhat padded but useful book about what to record and how to record any bit of information you come across in your life. It started out as a course but was distilled down into several guiding principles and put into book form. I found it worth reading if you plan to actually put the lessons of the book into action. It could have been shorter without missing anything of value but such is the nature of the beast.

How I Discovered It

From the Thomas Frank Youtube/Nebula Channels

Who Should Read It?

People who intend to be more organized

How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

  • A better notion setup
  • More focused note taking
  • Better overall information organization.
  • A focus on the reusable “intermediate packets” – which is a valuable concept

Summary + Notes

We spend countless hours reading, listening to, and watching other people’s opinions about what we should do, how we should think, and how we should live, but make comparatively little effort applying that knowledge and making it our own. So much of the time we are “information hoarders,” stockpiling endless amounts of well-intentioned content that only ends up increasing our anxiety.

To be able to make use of information we value, we need a way to package it up and send it through time to our future self.

The Building a Second Brain system will teach you how to: Find anything you’ve learned, touched, or thought about in the past within seconds. Organize your knowledge and use it to move your projects and goals forward more consistently. Save your best thinking so you don’t have to do it again. Connect ideas and notice patterns across different areas of your life so you know how to live better. Adopt a reliable system that helps you share your work more confidently and with more ease. Turn work “off” and relax, knowing you have a trusted system keeping track of all the details. Spend less time looking for things, and more time doing the best, most creative work you are capable of. When

I became the project manager of my own condition, taking detailed notes on everything my doctors told me, trying out every suggestion they made, and generating questions to review during my next appointment. With

Research from Microsoft shows that the average US employee spends 76 hours per year looking for misplaced notes, items, or files.

This digital commonplace book is what I call a Second Brain. Think of it as the combination of a study notebook, a personal journal, and a sketchbook for new ideas. It is a multipurpose tool that can adapt to your changing needs over time.

You’re allowed to reference your notes at any time, provided you took them in the first place.

For modern, professional notetaking, a note is a “knowledge building block”—a discrete unit of information interpreted through your unique perspective and stored outside your head.

Their stories convey a pervasive feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction—the experience of facing an endless onslaught of demands on their time, their innate curiosity and imagination withering away under the suffocating weight of obligation.

There are four essential capabilities that we can rely on a Second Brain to perform for us: Making our ideas concrete. Revealing new associations between ideas. Incubating our ideas over time. Sharpening our unique perspectives.

Before we do anything with our ideas, we have to “off-load” them from our minds and put them into concrete form. Only when we declutter our brain of complex ideas can we think clearly and start to work with those ideas effectively.

In its most practical form, creativity is about connecting ideas together, especially ideas that don’t seem to be connected.

Having a Second Brain where lots of ideas can be permanently saved for the long term turns the passage of time into your friend, instead of your enemy.

American journalist, author, and filmmaker Sebastian Junger once wrote on the subject of “writer’s block”: “It’s not that I’m blocked. It’s that I don’t have enough research to write with power and knowledge about that topic. It always means, not that I can’t find the right words, [but rather] that I don’t have the ammunition.”

The second way that people use their Second Brain is to connect ideas together. Their Second Brain evolves from being primarily a memory tool to becoming a thinking tool. A piece of advice from a mentor comes in handy as they encounter a similar situation on a different team.

To guide you in the process of creating your own Second Brain, I’ve developed a simple, intuitive four-part method called “CODE”—Capture; Organize; Distill; Express. These are the steps not only to build your Second Brain in the first place, but also to work with it going forward.

The solution is to keep only what resonates in a trusted place that you control, and to leave the rest aside.

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. Your notes will be useless if you can’t decipher them in the future, or if they’re so long that you don’t even try. Think of yourself not just as a taker of notes, but as a giver of notes—you are giving your future self the gift of knowledge that is easy to find and understand.

Information is always in flux, and it is always a work in progress. Since nothing is ever truly final, there is no need to wait to get started.

Information is food for the brain. It’s no accident that we call new ideas “food for thought.”

A knowledge asset is anything that can be used in the future to solve a problem, save time, illuminate a concept, or learn from past experience.

Knowledge assets can come from either the external world or your inner thoughts. External knowledge could include: Highlights: Insightful passages from books or articles you read. Quotes: Memorable passages from podcasts or audiobooks you listen to. Bookmarks and favorites: Links to interesting content you find on the web or favorited social media posts. Voice memos: Clips recorded on your mobile device as “notes to self.” Meeting notes: Notes you take about what was discussed during meetings or phone calls. Images: Photos or other images that you find inspiring or interesting. Takeaways: Lessons from courses, conferences, or presentations you’ve attended.

If you try to save every piece of material you come across, you run the risk of inundating your future self with tons of irrelevant information. At that point, your Second Brain will be no better than scrolling through social media.

The renowned information theorist Claude Shannon, whose discoveries paved the way for modern technology, had a simple definition for “information”: that which surprises you.7 If you’re not surprised, then you already knew it at some level, so why take note of it? Surprise is an excellent barometer for information that doesn’t fit neatly into our existing understanding, which means it has the potential to change how we think.

If what you’re capturing doesn’t change your mind, then what’s the point?

but if you take away one thing from this chapter, it should be to keep what resonates.

First, you are much more likely to remember information you’ve written down in your own words. Known as the “Generation Effect,”10 researchers have found that when people actively generate a series of words, such as by speaking or writing, more parts of their brain are activated when compared to simply reading the same words. Writing things down is a way of “rehearsing” those ideas, like practicing a dance routine or shooting hoops, which makes them far more likely to stick.

I eventually named this organizing system PARA,I which 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.

There’s another way. I will show you how to take the notes you’ve captured and save them according to a practical use case. By taking that small extra step of putting a note into a folder (or tagging itIII) for a specific project, such as a psychology paper you’re writing or a presentation you’re preparing, you’ll encounter that idea right at the moment it’s most relevant. Not a moment before, and not a moment after.

With the PARA system, every piece of information you want to save can be placed into one of just four categories: Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you’re working on now. Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time. Resources: Topics or interests that may be useful in the future. Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories.

Projects have a couple of features that make them an ideal way to organize modern work. First, they have a beginning and an end; they take place during a specific period of time and then they finish. Second, they have a specific, clear outcome that needs to happen in order for them to be checked off as complete, such as “finalize,” “green-light,” “launch,” or “publish.”

Each of these is an example of an area of responsibility, and together they make up the second main category of PARA. All these areas, both personal and professional, require certain information to be handled effectively, but they’re not the same as projects.

The third category of information that we want to keep is resources. This is basically a catchall for anything that doesn’t belong to a project or an area and could include any topic you’re interested in gathering information about.

Any note or file that isn’t relevant or actionable for a current project or area can be placed into resources for future reference.

Finally, we have our archives. This includes any item from the previous three categories that is no longer active.

The archives are an important part of PARA because they allow you to place a folder in “cold storage” so that it doesn’t clutter your workspace, while safekeeping it forever just in case you need it.

Projects are most actionable because you’re working on them right now and with a concrete deadline in mind. Areas have a longer time horizon and are less immediately actionable. Resources may become actionable depending on the situation. Archives remain inactive unless they are needed.

This order gives us a convenient checklist for deciding where to put a note, starting at the top of the list and moving down: In which project will this be most useful? If none: In which area will this be most useful? If none: Which resource does this belong to? 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

started. The goal of organizing our knowledge is to move our goals forward, not get a PhD in notetaking. Knowledge is best applied through execution, which means whatever doesn’t help you make progress on your projects is probably detracting from them.

There is a parallel between PARA and how kitchens are organized. Everything in a kitchen is designed and organized to support an outcome—preparing a meal as efficiently as possible. The archives are like the freezer—items are in cold storage until they are needed, which could be far into the future. Resources are like the pantry—available for use in any meal you make, but neatly tucked away out of sight in the meantime. Areas are like the fridge—items that you plan on using relatively soon, and that you want to check on more frequently. Projects are like the pots and pans cooking on the stove—the items you are actively preparing right now. Each kind of food is organized according to how accessible it needs to be for you to make the meals you want to eat. Imagine

PARA isn’t a filing system; it’s a production system. It’s no use trying to find the “perfect place” where a note or file belongs. There isn’t one. The whole system is constantly shifting and changing in sync with your constantly changing life.

Any piece of information (whether a text document, an image, a note, or an entire folder) can and should flow between categories.

They had repeatedly postponed their creative ambitions to some far-off, mythical time when somehow everything would be perfectly in order. Once we set that aside and just focused on what they actually wanted to do right now, they suddenly gained a tremendous sense of clarity and motivation.

You could also create folders for your areas and resources, but I recommend starting only with projects to avoid creating lots of empty containers. You can always add others later when you have something to put inside them. Although you can and should use PARA across all the platforms where you store information—the three most common ones besides a notetaking app are the documents folder on your computer, cloud storage drives like Dropbox, and online collaboration suites like Google Docs—I recommend starting with just your notes app for now.

Each time you finish a project, move its folder wholesale to the archives, and each time you start a new project, look through your archives to see if any past project might have assets you can reuse.

don’t worry about reorganizing or “cleaning up” any existing notes. You can’t afford to spend a lot of time on old content that you’re not sure you’re ever going to need. Start with a clean slate by putting your existing notes in the archives for safekeeping. If you ever need them, they’ll show up in searches and remain just as you left them.

They require a bit more refinement to turn them into truly valuable knowledge assets, like a chemist distilling only the purest compound. This is why we separate capturing and organizing from the subsequent steps: you need to be able to store something quickly and save any future refinement for later.

Your job as a notetaker is to preserve the notes you’re taking on the things you discover in such a way that they can survive the journey into the future.

Discoverability is an idea from information science that refers to “the degree to which a piece of content or information can be found in a search of a file, database, or other information system.”

Progressive Summarization is not a method for remembering as much as possible—it is a method for forgetting as much as possible. As you distill your ideas, they naturally improve, because when you drop the merely good parts, the great parts can shine more brightly.

A helpful rule of thumb is that each layer of highlighting should include no more than 10–20 percent of the previous layer.

When the opportunity arrives to do our best work, it’s not the time to start reading books and doing research. You need that research to already be done.

Our time and attention are scarce, and it’s time we treated the things we invest in—reports, deliverables, plans, pieces of writing, graphics, slides—as knowledge assets that can be reused instead of reproducing them from scratch. Reusing Intermediate Packets of work frees up our attention for higher-order, more creative thinking.

Fourth, and best of all, eventually you’ll have so many IPs at your disposal that you can execute entire projects just by assembling previously created IPs. This

While you can sit down to purposefully create an IP, it is far more powerful to simply notice the IPs that you have already produced and then to take an extra moment to save them in your Second Brain.

Ask yourself: How could you acquire or assemble each of these components, instead of having to make them yourself?

Note:This is a key insight . design for future discoverability and use

Our creativity thrives on examples. When we have a template to fill in, our ideas are channeled into useful forms instead of splattered around haphazardly. There are best practices and plentiful models for almost anything you might want to make.

Those four retrieval methods are: Search Browsing Tags Serendipity

Search should be the first retrieval method you turn to. It is most useful when you already know more or less what you’re looking for, when you don’t have notes saved in a preexisting folder, or when you’re looking for text,

If you’ve followed the PARA system outlined in Chapter 5 to organize your notes, you already have a series of dedicated folders for each of your active projects, areas of responsibility, resources, and archives.

You will begin to see yourself as the curator of the collective thinking of your network, rather than the sole originator of ideas.

This is a turning point in the life of any creative professional—when you begin to think of “your work” as something separate from yourself.

Translated to English, it means “We only know what we make.”

One of my favorite rules of thumb is to “Only start projects that are already 80 percent done.” That might seem like a paradox, but committing to finish projects only when I’ve already done most of the work to capture, organize, and distill the relevant material means I never run the risk of starting something I can’t finish.

My father planned for creativity. He strategized his creativity. When it was time to make progress on a painting, he gave it his full focus, but that wasn’t the only time he exercised his imagination. Much of the rest of the time he was collecting, sifting through, reflecting on, and recombining raw material from his daily life so that when it came time to create, he had more than enough raw material to work with.

What I learned from my father is that by the time you sit down to make progress on something, all the work to gather and organize the source material needs to already be done. We can’t expect ourselves to instantly come up with brilliant ideas on demand. I learned that innovation and problem-solving depend on a routine that systematically brings interesting ideas to the surface of our awareness.

One of the most important patterns that underlies the creative process is called “divergence and convergence.”

The first two steps of CODE, Capture and Organize, make up divergence. They are about gathering seeds of imagination carried on the wind and storing them in a secure place. This is where you research, explore, and add ideas. The final two steps, Distill and Express, are about convergence. They help us shut the door to new ideas and begin constructing something new out of the knowledge building blocks we’ve assembled.

Your Second Brain is a powerful ally in overcoming the universal challenge of creative work—sitting down to make progress and having no idea where to start.

When you distinguish between the two modes of divergence and convergence, you can decide each time you begin to work which mode you want to be in, which gives you the answers to the questions above. In divergence mode, you want to open up your horizons and explore every possible option. Open the windows and doors, click every link, jump from one source to another, and let your curiosity be your guide for what to do next. If you decide to enter convergence mode, do the opposite: close the door, put on noise-canceling headphones, ignore every new input, and ferociously chase the sweet reward of completion. Trust that you have enough ideas and enough sources, and it’s time to turn inward and sprint toward your goal.

I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.

An Archipelago of Ideas separates the two activities your brain has the most difficulty performing at the same time: choosing ideas (known as selection) and arranging them into a logical flow (known as sequencing).

The goal of an archipelago is that instead of sitting down to a blank page or screen and stressing out about where to begin, you start with a series of small stepping-stones to guide your efforts. First you select the points and ideas you want to include in your outline, and then in a separate step, you rearrange and sequence them into an order that flows logically. This makes both of those steps far more efficient, less taxing, and less vulnerable to interruption. Instead of starting with scarcity, start with abundance—the abundance of interesting insights you’ve collected in your Second Brain.

How do you create a Hemingway Bridge? Instead of burning through every last ounce of energy at the end of a work session, reserve the last few minutes to write down some of the following kinds of things in your digital notes: Write down ideas for next steps: At the end of a work session, write down what you think the next steps could be for the next one. Write down the current status: This could include your current biggest challenge, most important open question, or future roadblocks you expect. Write down any details you have in mind that are likely to be forgotten once you step away: Such as details about the characters in your story, the pitfalls of the event you’re planning, or the subtle considerations of the product you’re designing. Write out your intention for the next work session: Set an intention for what you plan on tackling next, the problem you intend to solve, or a certain milestone you want to reach.

Note:Make this a notion thing

Knowing that nothing I write or create truly gets lost—only saved for later use—gives me the confidence to aggressively cut my creative works down to size without fearing that I’ve wasted effort or that I’ll lose the results of my thinking forever.

Set a timer for a fixed period of time, such as fifteen or twenty minutes, and in one sitting see if you can complete a first pass on your project using only the notes you’ve gathered in front of you. No searching online, no browsing social media, and no opening multiple browser tabs that you swear you’re going to get to eventually. Only work with what you already have.

The three habits most important to your Second Brain include: Project Checklists: Ensure you start and finish your projects in a consistent way, making use of past work. Weekly and Monthly Reviews: Periodically review your work and life and decide if you want to change anything. Noticing Habits: Notice small opportunities to edit, highlight, or move notes to make them more discoverable for your future self.

The practice of conducting a “Weekly Review” was pioneered by executive coach and author David Allen in his influential book Getting Things Done.III He described a Weekly Review as a regular check-in, performed once a week, in which you intentionally reset and review your work and life.

The truth is, any system that must be perfect to be reliable is deeply flawed. A perfect system you don’t use because it’s too complicated and error prone isn’t a perfect system—it’s a fragile system that will fall apart as soon as you turn your attention elsewhere.

orchestrating and managing the process of turning information into results.

We can try to describe how we do these things, but our explanations always fall far short. That’s because we are relying on tacit knowledge, which is impossible to describe in exact detail. We possess that knowledge, but it resides in our subconscious and muscle memory where language cannot reach.

you can always fall back on the four steps of CODE: Keep what resonates (Capture) Save for actionability (Organize) Find the essence (Distill) Show your work (Express)

Thank you to Venkatesh Rao for serving as my introduction to the online world of ideas.

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