Yep! I found myself in the market for a second brain when I realised that my current one was great for processing ideas in the moment, but it was found wanting when it came to storing information for the long term. And this caused all kinds of hassles and inefficiencies in my life – hundreds of open tabs, forgetting where I'd found a key piece of research, or feeling like I had a lot of great ideas, but nowhere to capture them systematically.
Thankfully, there was no need for robotics or science fiction here. I learned about the idea of a second brain from Tiago Forte, who is one of the thought leaders in this new field of personal knowledge maangement.
Personal knowledge management is the new hotness. The aim is to build up a collection of digital notes and find ways to group or link these notes. These notes can then be used to generate new ideas or recall previous information that you have learnt or experienced.
There are a lot of different ideas and opinions on how to organise, catalogue and search your knowledge system. You can be very formalised and use a zettelkasten method, a simple folder system, maybe hashtag your way to success, or a map of contents.
Suffice to say, there are many different ways of organising your notes and a lot of different note-taking applications to use. My note-taking habits have been very haphazard. I've often dumped random related links or thoughts in Apple Notes. I then tried to get fancier and use Bear with hashtags. This worked pretty well and I still really like Bear, but it never felt curated or it was never easy to find anything I had written down a few months back.
Recently I've switched to Obsidian and started organising my notes in folders. This felt a lot better. I then tried to have a very curated system using some kind of Zettelkasten method. But that was really time-consuming and quite overwhelming. I quickly gave up on that. Luckily at this point, Tiago Forte released his book Building a Second Brain.
He calls your collection of notes your "second brain." The book introduces you to what a second brain is; why you want to build a second brain, and how to go about doing that effectively.
Overall, it is a good book. It does a good job of discussing note-taking and second brain building. The one really annoying thing for me was each chapter often started with a story, which seemed to aim to point out another feature of the power of taking notes. I found these really thin and could have done without them.
But once I got past the stories, I found the book to be very helpful in setting up a good note structure and creating the correct mindset around building up a second brain.
My three top takeaways from the book are:
- Use the PARA method for note organisation.
- Incrementally distil the notes down to their essence.
- Notes do not have to be perfectly organised or collected.
The PARA method is a way of ordering your notes into Projects, Areas, Resources and Archives. The linked blog post gives a good explanation of the idea. I can really relate to this method. It isn't overly complicated but has enough rules to make my notes ordered without being too rigid or time-consuming. I've been using this method now for a few weeks and it feels very natural and easy to do. I've shown it to my wife who loves researching ideas for her business and has lots of notes scattered around. She also found it easy to pick up and incredibly useful.
Tiago goes into a lot of depth around capturing notes and this was really insightful. The main idea is that once you have read a book or online article, you don't want to have to go back and re-read it every time you need that information. Rather capture notes while reading it. Store those in your second brain. Then every time you need to review those notes, distil them down further finding the key points of that article or book. I haven't mastered this yet. But I've slowly started doing this for blogs and articles I find useful. I can already see the usefulness of this technique.
Another important concept he brings across is that your notes do not have to be perfect. They do not have to be perfectly organised or perfectly summarised. They are always a work in progress. As long as your notes app has a good search, you will always find the notes you will need. Keeping this in mind has helped me not to worry about the state of my notes.
Since reading the book about a month ago, I've stuck to the PARA method, distilled my notes as much as I need for each time I've read them, and organised my notes in a good-enough way. And I can say that my second brain has been really useful and I've amassed a collection of notes I really like using. I'm excited every time I open Obsidian to add notes or read up on something I'm currently researching.
And what app to use? Nesslabs has an in-depth article that can help you find a note-taking app that fits your style. And if you are interested in different note-taking techniques, this recent Reddit discussion explores the different types of note-taking methods.
Happy note-taking (and brain-building!).