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Building a Second Brain

Book Notes

Chapter 2: What Is a Second Brain

Accomplishing anything requires knowledge. The average employee in the United States spends 76 hours per year looking for information they misplaced. 26% of a knowledge worker’s day involves collecting and consolidating information across various systems; they only find the info they’re looking for 56% of the time.

Due to the constant onslaught of information in today’s age, it is no longer possible for humans to hold onto all of the information they need in their heads. We need reference material, which means we need to write things down.

A Second Brain is a more refined version of a commonplace book: a combination of a study notebook, personal journal, and sketchbook for new ideas. It is a living collection of notes that you can refer back to at any point.

A note is a unit of knowledge captured and stored outside of your head. It can be a bulletpoint list, an image, or a quote. It’s something that you have identified has value for you, and has been synthesized and interpreted by you. It exists and has value on its own, but can be combined with other notes to create something more.

Chapter 3: How a Second Brain Works

There are four key roles to a Second Brain:

  1. Make ideas concrete. We can offload knowledge to the Second Brain so that our mind can focus on working with those ideas.
  2. Reveal associations between ideas. Those who are more creative are better at making and recognizing relationships and associations between ideas. Keeping all of your ideas together helps facilitate that.
  3. Incubate ideas over time. This helps avoid recency bias by collecting ideas over months and years, rather than in the heat of the moment.
  4. Sharpen your unique perspective. The key part of a Second Brain is to refine your own thinking so that you can actually use it. You need to be abel to not only take in information, but actually use it. If you want to persuade someone, you need supporting information to back it up. This info can also help with Writer’s Block.

A digital note-taking app should fulfill the following requirements:

  • Be able to interact with multimedia. Images, audio, etc.
  • Be informal. Notes will be messy.
  • Open-ended. Working with your PKM is a continuous process.
  • Be action-oriented. You want to be able to capture thoughts and move on as fast as possible.

The app you end up using will not be perfect. It will also be a personal choice.

There are three stages of working with a Personal Knowledge Management system:

  1. Remembering. Writing things down, making comments and annotations.
  2. Connecting. This changes a PKM system from a memory tool to a thinking tool.
  3. Creating. Using the information gathered to create something new, rather than just information hoarding.

Use the CODE Method for feeding knowledge into your PKM system.

Chapter 4: Capture — Keep What Resonates

Information is required to survive.

Taylor Swift uses her phone as her Second Brain for writing songs. Ideas for lyrics or the backing tracks are stored as notes or voice memos, and sent to others directly for feedback.

A knowledge asset is anything that can be used in the future to solve a problem, save time, or learn from. Highlights, quotes, images, or videos, or other notes all qualify. They could also be stories, insights you have, or reflections.

A Second Brain is not a good storage place for collaborative documents, large files, sensitive information, or specialized documents.

When figuring out what information to store in your Second Brain, think about your “twelve favourite problems”. These are roughly a dozen open-ended questions that pique your interest. The goal is not to answer these questions, but instead to drive and focus your learning. Keep these questions at the forefront of your mind and written down.

When we have an article we want to save, what parts do we save? Only which parts have value. Don’t save an entire article.

Value is not evenly distributed

Instead, pull the select passages or quotes that provide you with the value you need. You can and should still link back to the original source. The content you save should be curated. Take charge of what is saved. Collection is the first step of the CODE Method, so being selective up front makes the remaining three steps more efficient.

  • This is a similar thought process to the cost to fix a software defect; it goes exponentially up as the defect moves through the SDLC.

Chapter 5: Organize — Save for Actionability

See: The Cathedral Effect, Digital Garden, PARA

After capturing information, the information needs to be organized so it can be found and used. Tiago recommends his PARA method because it organizes information based on how actionable it is, not what kind of information it is. The only assumption is that you are only working on a certain set of projects at a time.

Figuring out where to store the notes should be done separately from capturing. When you first record some information it can be hard to determine its true purpose or value. You also ideally want to reduce friction when it comes to inputting information.

Instead, use the Inbox functionality of your notes app until you can sort or discard that note appropriately. If your app doesn’t support that, just create an Inbox folder or tag.

When organizing your notes, put notes where they will be useful the soonest. Work your way through the four categories in PARA. Ask yourself “in which of the subfolders in this category should this information go?“. If you have an answer, then put that note in that subfolder. If the answer is “none of these subfolders”, then move onto the next category.

The note could potentially end up in any of PARA’s four sections. Or, when organizing, you may now feel like the note has no value, in which case it’s alright to delete it (although most notes have value we don’t yet see).

The whole point of this information gathering is to get stuff done, not just collect information. The collecting isn’t the end goal: it’s a means to complete your projects. This is why PARA prioritizes putting information where it will be used the soonest, not where it came from. Organize for action and what’s currently relevant. There is no perfect place for a note. Just like a digital garden, your notes will move around over time.

Structurally, PARA should reflect the state of your work and life priorities. Your organization here means your workspace is organized, which means you can focus on completing your projects. Completing projects further feeds more information into your second brain, which compounds and helps you complete more projects.

To get started, work with the saying “move quickly, touch lightly”. Start with creating folders for all active projects. Put all notes you have into each project folder. Once complete, review each project and decide if you are actively committed to working on it. If not, move that project into the archives.

To find the projects you have ongoing:

  • Ask yourself what’s on your mind.
  • Check your calendar, to-do list, your browser tabs/history, downloads, and documents. Look for recurring topics.