Lessons Learned From Building a Second Brain
Recently I participated in the tenth cohort of a class called Building a Second Brain (also known as BASB). BASB, taught by Tiago Forte, teaches a unique system for Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). It has been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years, and for good reason. If executed properly, the system can improve the process of capturing information, organizing it, and using it to generate deliverables. I took the class for the first time late last year because I was beginning a stage of my life where I needed to manage more projects and was learning quite a few new things. I knew I needed a system to manage my life, learning, and productivity.
Although I don't follow every aspect of the approach, I have still gained a lot of value from putting several elements of it in place in my own systems. I wanted to share with you what the class entails, and offer my own perspective on what has worked and what hasn't. Hopefully this will help you decide if the class is right for you, and if not, at least provide some useful information to help you with your own PKM process.
The course material is broken up into three main parts: Capture, Organize, and Share. Each one of them is important, and they all contribute to the whole of the system. But the techniques and lessons for each are relatively distinct, so I'm going to go ahead and just present them one by one.
The first, and in many ways the most important, element of this class is capture. Capture is about properly taking in all of the inputs into your life and putting them into a trusted system. Text messages, emails, articles you read, videos you watch, discussions you have, and random thoughts that pop into your head throughout the day are all things you might want to capture.
When approaching capture, there are four main questions to answer. Why, What, Where, and How should you capture?
You need to have a high level reason for capturing information. If you don't have any broader objective you are trying to achieve, there is no reason to bother, it would simply be wasted time. So, what should that higher level reason be? A quote from Richard Feynman helps out here: "You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind". Make a list of your favorite problems, the problems that feel important and significant, and as if answering them would make things better. And then why you capture should become obvious. You capture to find answers to those problems.
That same set of favorite problems also helps to answer the question of what to capture. If you are ever unsure of whether it is worth saving, you can always just evaluate it against your 12 favorite problems, and see if it helps answer any of them. If it does, save it, if it doesn't, don't bother unless there is some other clear need.
There are other caveats to this of course. Sometimes a piece of information doesn't fall into one of those problems, but it is valuable for some other reason. But if it doesn't fall into those 12 problems, it should probably be kinda obvious that you need it. Tax documents? Best to keep those. Random gif that was only slightly funny, probably not. You will develop an intuition over time as to what is worth capturing.
Although I liked the 12 favorite problems exercise, and I still use it occasionally, I don't stick to this advice religiously. I still capture more than I probably should in some areas, and less in others. I'm working on building up this habit, and I have found that I just get better at capturing the right amount of the right stuff with practice. It does help to have gone through that exercise though because the act of creating it in the first place framed some things in my mind. To give you an idea of what this looks like, here is my most recent list of favorite problems.
Where you should capture is going to dictate a large part of how you approach the rest of this system. In terms of where, I'm talking about where the information should go. For most people, they want this captured content to be stored digitally, so the question here is what pieces of software do you want to have at the center of your Second Brain.
The most common choice is a note taking app called Evernote. Tiago uses it himself, and many of the strategies he teaches take advantage of various Evernote features. The benefit is that it has been around for many years, and has been steadily evolving. But it has downsides. It is a very hierarchical and rigid tool built around notes living in single notebooks. There is basic linking, and good formatting, but it isn't a terribly dynamic tool.
There are a number of other options used by the community. I use a couple of tools that have come into prominence in the last few years. I spend most of my time capturing in a tool called Roam Research. It has a couple of nice features that make it incredibly easy to use for free-form daily journaling, note taking, and writing. Over time I have found myself doing more and more in here, and I'm evolving my approach every day.
The second tool I use for this is Notion. This is an amazing tool for structured data. I'm still pinning down my workflows here as well, but it is good for project planning, long term tracking, and managing larger collections of things.
The most important thing though is to pick something. And Evernote is the easiest and has the biggest community out there, so unless there is something pulling you to those other choices, it is best to start with Evernote.
How to capture is also heavily tool dependent. This comes down to picking a couple of sources that you really care about, and finding a workflow for each of them that works for you. I care a lot about capturing from articles. So one very workflow I use is to send everything to Instapaper, and then use a service called Readwise to automatically capture highlights and send them to Evernote. A similar workflow works for books, going from Kindle -> Readwise -> Evernote. The key here is to start with just a couple of sources and practice the workflow before adding more.
The how is still evolving for me. I'm pretty happy with my capture workflows for articles, newsletters, emails, and digital books, and I'm getting better at doing manual note taking as I watch videos, but I'm still developing my approach to taking notes on podcasts, and I have almost nothing on note taking on physical books.
At this point, if you get good at these four stages, you will start to build up a collection of useful notes and valuable information. But you can't just put it all in a pile, it needs to be organized.
One of the big components of Building a Second Brain is an organizational scheme called P.A.R.A. Made up of Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives, this scheme is designed to have a manageable number of broad buckets and a shallow hierarchy to make it easy to find a place for any piece of information to live.
Projects are actionable priorities with an end goal. If you have a project on your list, it should be something with a concrete outcome, and a deadline to either be done with the project, or at least to check in on it. A number of exercises in the course are dedicated to building up a project list that appropriately captures all of your current obligations and desired outcomes. It is important to the system to have this somewhere visible to be able to stay on top of your priorities. This list becomes a dashboard for your life.
One formula was taught in the class that really helped me here, and I want to highlight it specifically: X by Y = Z (Project by Date = Outcome). If you ever have trouble deciding if your projects are right, try to apply that formula.
Areas are actionable priorities without an end state. These are ongoing responsibilities that you need to take care of on a regular basis. This could include things like finances, family, home, your car, a role at work, people you manage, etc... One way to approach your areas is to start minimally and add to it as you find yourself creating projects that don't fall into an existing one. Every single project should likely fall into at least one area of your life. For example, if you made a project, say, to publish an issue of a newsletter, then you should probably have either a Writing area, and/or maybe a Newsletter area to store materials that will continue to be relevant in later writing and newsletter work.
Resources are for un-actionable reference materials. Categorized simply by a relevant topic, you will likely have more of these buckets than Projects or Areas. This can include anything, from art history essays, to workout plans, or anything else that could be of general interest to anybody, that you have decided to capture. There may appear to be overlap here with the Areas, but the key difference is in how personal it is to you. You might have a Finance section in Areas and a Finance section in Resources, but in Areas it should include your own budgets, financial plans, and tax statements, whereas the section in Resources might have finance software manuals, guides to budgeting, and copies of IRS guidelines for what records to save. You should generally be able to share just about your entire Resources bucket publicly without it being that big of a deal.
And finally, we have the Archives. This is essentially just a section for anything that isn't currently active. It isn't like the trash, and things that live here are still discoverable from search when relevant. The idea here is just to have a place for things to live without cluttering up the other buckets. Once you publish a blog post, move the project to archives, if a direct report moves off your team, move that area to archives, etc... That way you still have the relevant information and a record of what happened, but it doesn't distract or claim any of your attention until it is needed.
The key to organizing under the PARA framework is that you should use a very light touch, and remember that nothing about this system is fixed. Don't spend time agonizing over where every single thing belongs, just put it somewhere that makes sense. Don't like the choices you made? Change them. Split up areas, merge resource folders that make sense together, promote files from areas to projects when you work on them, and move back, or to archives, when you are done. The system is fluid and always changing.
It is also important to avoid organizing as you capture. That is too much of a mental load and will interrupt your flow when you should be capturing. Instead, spend a few minutes every couple of days quickly triaging notes from an inbox into an appropriate destination.
The whole point of this process so far is that it is supposed to be powerful but painless. You can quickly evaluate what deserves to be captured, you have easy workflows to do so, you spend just a handful of minutes triaging, and you don't need to dedicate much time or energy deciding where things go or stressing about your choices. And the reason why the prior steps are designed to take so little time is so that your energy can then be dedicated to actually creating and sharing new things.
The final piece of the puzzle. Once you have the information captured and organized, you need to actually do something with it. There are two parts to the creation stage: divergence and convergence. Divergence is where you take what you have captured and begin to explore the ideas, extracting useful tidbits, and discovering the best of what you have. Convergence is where you then compile those best ideas into something structured and concrete that you can send out into the world. And of course, there are several strategies for each.
For divergence the big tactic is called Progressive Summarization. This is where you go through interesting notes and make multiple passes to extract out useful information. For the first pass you bold what stands out, second pass you highlight the best of that, third pass you write out a few short paragraphs at the top of the note summarizing the content, and if you make it to a fourth pass, try and extract a sentence or two capturing the best of the summary. You don't need to do all of these at once, and most notes won't go beyond maybe the first pass of bolding. The idea is that you will stumble across these notes when looking for good ideas, and as you start to use them, you will want to apply progressive summarization techniques so that you can leave the note better than you found it. So the best notes you take will eventually have several layers of value extracted and will be incredibly useful to you.
There are a couple of other techniques for divergence that fall under the bucket of what Tiago calls Workflow Strategies. The majority of these strategies are for the convergence stage, but a couple of them apply here.
- Archipelago of Ideas: Dump a bunch of thoughts on a topic all in one place to use as a launching point later
- Temporary Tags: Quickly organize your notes by tagging relevant pieces of information as you find it. These tags are designed to be deleted later.
- Advanced Search: Take advantage of your tools to find interesting notes.
- Color Commentary: Don't just copy verbatim, take notes in your own words to develop the ideas and understand the material.
- Table of Contents: Pull all relevant notes that you discover into a single outline. This will help to organize the convergence process, and give you a list of notes to work through, progressively summarize, and extract value out of.
Applying these strategies and progressive summarization, you will end up with a collection of valuable notes organized loosely in a way that will give you material needed for the second stage, convergence.
Convergence is all about synthesizing your notes and ideas into more concrete things that go out into the world. These deliverables can be pretty much anything, from blog posts, to web apps, to entire businesses. At this stage things go from internal to external. Internal notes are incredibly loose, unstructured, and unpolished. But what you put out into the world needs at least some level of structure and polish to it. Convergence gives you that.
Most of the advice that Tiago teaches on convergence revolves around a few additional Workflow Strategies. The remaining seven are primarily about this stage of the process.
- Headings first: Map out your deliverables with an outline made up of headings
- Meta-Plan: This is where you plan out your plan. Try and break down the whole project into a series of more manageable stepping stones.
- Status Summary: As you work you likely won't complete everything in one sitting. When you end a working session, write a note to yourself so you know where to pick back up next time.
- Dial Down the Scope: Scale the projects down to something manageable. People have a tendency to be overly ambitious in their projects, so regularly attempt to reduce the scope to counter this tendency.
- Context Switch to inspire creativity: It is easy to end up in a rut when stuck in the same environment for too long. Try going somewhere out of the ordinary to change it up. Obviously it may be difficult right now, but eventually coffeeshops and other public spaces can be a great way to stimulate creativity.
- Remember that Function Follows Form: The form of your deliverables are incredibly important to the value that they provide. Try varying the structure of what you are creating. Reorder outlines, try alternative formats, adjust the design, etc...
- Interlink Notes. During this stage navigating through your notes should be quick and painless. Link notes together that are connected to make it easier to stay organized and quickly move around.
There is one other concept that is recommended here. It is the idea of intermediate packets. Rather than trying to create one big thing, instead create a lot of little things that contribute to the broader whole. These packets should be small, and can be reused, or republished, on their own and still be valuable. What this means is that you are constantly converging into different bundles of value, that then get recycled back in and can be reused in later divergence/convergence cycles. By focusing on small packets, you get reusability, faster iteration cycles, the ability to get feedback sooner, and make it more difficult to be interrupted because the scope of current focus is easier to regain.
I haven't fully applied the above ideas yet. I have done little bits and pieces here and there, and I definitely believe in the power of intermediate packets (my notes turn into summarized information, that can then be reused as tweets, or blog posts, which can then be shared as part of my newsletter, as just one example), but I'm still working through the details of what some of those strategies look like with different tools, and when applied to endeavors such as programming. But having them in mind to go back to is quite valuable, and if you take the course, it is incredible seeing how quickly Tiago can work when applying those strategies.
By the end of the course, if you can apply everything you have learned, you will have a system to go from consuming information in your day to day life, capturing that information in effective ways, organizing it for easy storage and retrieval, and then taking that information and cycling it through the processes of divergence and convergence into something great.
The ideas presented are not simple, it will take work to implement successfully. And I don't believe that there is any one-size-fits-all approach to this. I have diverged significantly from the original teachings already in the way that I do things. But the methodology is sound, and there are a ton of valuable lessons to be learned. And if the community around the class is any evidence, you will almost certainly be more productive if you start following these ideas.
One last thing.
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