If you build a second brain, you’ll be amazed by what’s possible with it.
Building A Second Brain is a methodology for saving and reminding u 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. – Tiago Forte
Your brain is a terrible place to store information. Just imagine what chaos your life would be if you had to remember:
- Phone numbers of everyone in your life
- Every task that you needed to take care of
- Every password to websites you visit.
You would lose your mind.
That’s why we store our contacts in phones, use productivity apps, and write things down. Daniel Levitin, the author of The Organized Mind, defines this as externalization. Each item has a designated location.
Phone numbers and to-do lists are a small fraction of the information we’re dealing with daily. We read books, listen to podcasts, have conversations, and much more. Unless you’re one of those unicorns with a photographic memory, there’s no way to remember everything.
Why You Should Build a Second Brain
Being effective in the world today requires managing many different kinds of information. Emails, text messages, messaging apps, online articles, books, podcasts, webinars, memos, and many others. All of these kinds of content have value, but trying to remember all of it is overwhelming and impractical. By consolidating ideas from these sources, you’ll develop a valuable body of work to advance your projects and goals. You’ll have an ongoing record of personal discoveries, lessons learned, and actionable insights for any situation. – Tiago Forte
When we consume information without taking action on it, the value of our efforts goes down. There’s no sense in reading a book if you’re not going to implement the ideas in it.
When you build a second brain, it increases the value of the content you consume exponentially. It helps you:
- Remember and take action on what you read.
- Transform information into knowledge and wisdom.
- Translate ideas into output
It also preserves your cognitive bandwidth. You stop treating your brain as a hard drive. Then, you’re able to use your second brain to store ideas and your actual brain to have them.
How to Build a Second Brain
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve already started to build a second brain. The address book on your phone is part of your second brain. But in its current form, your second brain is useless. To really make use of your second brain, it’s something you have to deliberately design.
1. Decide on a Structure to Build a Second Brain
Tiago Forte developed a system called PARA. Those letters stand for projects, areas, resources, and archives. But the essential idea is to organize notes by actionability.
If you look at the four categories, they’re actually a spectrum
- Projects are your most actionable things. Like things, you’re working on right now, they usually have a deadline, they have a scope there, they’re really active.
- The second one is areas of responsibility. Things you’re responsible for. Things you need to pay attention to, or have some level of engagement with, but that are not as urgent.
- R stands for resources. It is basically just like interests or things you’re kind of interested in. For example, web design, or Visual Thinking or big data, or coding or something like that.
- Archives the last category is simply anything from the other three categories that is no longer active.
The benefit of organizing things by actionability is you can decide really instantaneously how actionable something is.
2. Pick a Tool to Build A Second Brain
Like I’ve told the students in our writing course, the tool matters less than the system. But there are some criteria to consider when you’re choosing a tool:
- Searchability: You want to make sure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for.
- Categories/Tags: If you can’t quickly put things into categories and tag them, your second brain will be useless.
- Digital: I’m a big fan of analog tools. I encourage people to always carry a notebook. But, a second brain is more valuable when it’s digital. It’s hard to search through pages of a physical notebook.
3. Potential Tools
Notion: It’s safe to say that I’m a MASSIVE fan of Notion. I love Notion because I can use one tool for:
- Distraction free-writing
- Client projects
- Task management
- Personal knowledge management
Notion has become my second brain. Not only that, it’s collaborative. I can share things with my proofreader and have her edit in Notion.
Evernote: Evernote’s mission is to help you remember everything. That makes it another suitable tool for building your second brain.
AverPoint: lets me, with one-click, capture notes from any website or PDF, tag every quote, and organize them in a Pinterest-like UX. This is insanely useful when you’re trying to call up reference material for a book or article. To request an invite, click here.
You can use any of the above to build a second brain. Just remember, the system matters more than the tool.
Organize Your Content by Projects
Instead of organizing your files primarily by topic, organize them according to the projects you are actively working on. – Tiago Forte
Projects are the lifeblood of the second brain. And organizing your life into projects is the key to making your ideas happen. The easiest and most effective way to do this is with Scott Belsky’s action method.
Every project in life can be reduced into these primary components.
- Action Steps are the specific concrete tasks that inch you forward. Redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc.
- References are project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, Web-sites or ongoing discussions that you may want to refer back to. References are not actionable now but maybe someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it is something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen in the future.
- The Backburner keeps your ideas— and the possible future actions you might take to make the ideas happen -alive.
The Unmistakable Creative is my main project and I have a series of special projects. For each project, I have a set of action items, reference materials, and backburner items. I’ve included screenshots below so you can see how I organized Notion to bring my ideas to life.
You can use the action method for personal and professional projects. I’ve used this method to write books, plan a cross country move, and for all the weekly tasks related to the Unmistakable Creative.
Keep Things Where They Belong
We’ve all had the experience of tearing apart our houses searching for our car keys. And 10 minutes later we find them in our pocket. This is digital equivalent is searching your hard drive for files or documents. Organizing content by projects helps us to avoid this.
But, keeping things where they belong is a practice. Half the battle of decluttering your digital life is keep things where they belong. You can mirror the structure of your second brain in Dropbox as well. Again, I recommend using a simple structure for this. I setup my Dropbox with the following categories.
- Media- Video + Audio Files
One of my favorite recent discoveries is a tool called Slapdash. It lets you set up “spaces” and access files, websites, and everything you frequently search for with a keystroke. By having designated locations for all your files, you never waste mental energy wondering where it should go.
Put Your Content To Use
The best way to reinforce something you’ve learned is to teach it to someone else. This is why I write about the things I read. And it’s why many of my articles are inspired by people I’ve interviewed.
You need to consume in order to acquire knowledge. But, excessive consumption decreases your creativity. Leverage the power of your second brain to create more than you consume.
Using your Second Brain
A second brain is something that can be completely customized. You can use it in many different ways.
1. A Reading List
Between personal interest and interviews for the podcast, I read over 100 books a year. A week or two after reading each book, I transfer all my highlights into a note in Notion. And I use those notes to write articles and ask questions during each interview.
2. Editorial Calendar
Unless you capture your ideas, you’ll never capitalize on them. Having an editorial calendar ensures never have a shortage of ideas. One thing I’ve found useful is to assign each idea a status or stage:
- Idea: A sentence or potential title
- Shitty first draft: A very sloppy attempt
- Rough first draft: Something that’s ready to be polished
- Ready for proofreading: Time to assign to my VA
- Published: Worthy of public consumption
This way you can still have hundreds of ideas without becoming completely overwhelmed.
3. A Special Project
If you’ve ever moved out of state, you know what a nightmare it can be. We had movers that were part-time college students and likely future inmates.
But, making it a project inside my second brain was incredibly helpful. As you’ll see below, my roommate and I decided to divide and conquer.
Having a system of some sort is essential to increasing your output. Build a second brain. It is one of the most comprehensive systems you can possibly use to bring your ideas to life.