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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

I finished this book in June 2024. I recommend this book 8/10.

Why you should read this book:

This book is a great follow-up to David Allen's Getting Things Done, suppose you are looking to start using a digital note taking app, like, Evernote, OneNote, or Notion. Or, you are like me, who has been using some version of these for years but is looking for a better system to store your notes.

Get your copy here.

🚀 The book in three sentences

  1. Organize your notes for actions and for your future use.

  2. PARA = Projects, Area, Resources, Archive.

  3. Make notes better for the future when you come across them again.

🎨 Impressions

I like that the system focuses on future use instead of organizing for the past.

📝 My notes and thoughts

  • P34. 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

  • P38, 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." When you feel stuck in your creative pursuits, it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. You haven't lost your touch or run out of creative juice. It just means you don't yet have enough raw material to work with. If it feels like the well of inspiration has run dry, it's because you need a deeper well full of examples, illustrations, stories, statistics, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, photos, mindmaps, conversation notes, quotes—anything that will help you argue for your perspective or fight for a course you believe in.

  • P45. When something resonates, it means you are on an intuitive level. Often, the ideas that resonate are the ones that are most unusual, counterintuitive, interesting, or potentially useful. Don't make it an analytical decision, and don't worry about why exactly it resonates—just look inside for a feeling of pleasure, curiosity, wonder, or excitement, and let that be your signal for when it's time to capture a passage, and image, a quote, or a fact. By training ourselves to notice when something resonates with us, we can improve not only our ability to take better notes but also our understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick. It is a way of turning up the volume on our intuition so we can hear the wisdom it offers us. Adapting the habit of knowledge capture has immediate benefits for our mental health and peace of mind. We can let go of the fear that our memory will fail us at a crucial moment. Instead of jumping at every new headline and notification, we can choose to consume information that adds value to our lives and consciously let go of the rest.

  • P46. When it comes to digital notes, we can use much easier and lighter ways of organizing. Because our priorities and goals can change at a moment's notice and probably will, we want to avoid organizing methods that are overly rigid and prescriptive. The best way to organize your notes is to organize them for action according to the active project you are working on right now. Consider new information in terms of its utility, asking, "How is this going to help me move forward with one of my current projects?" Surprisingly, when you focus on taking action, the vast amount of information out there gets radically streamlined and simplified. There are relatively few things that are actionable and relevant at any given time, which means you have a clear filter for ignoring everything else. Organizing for action gives you a sense of tremendous clarity because you know that everything you're keeping actually has a purpose. You know that it aligns with your goals and priorities. Instead of organizing being an obstacle to your productivity, it becomes a contributor to it.

  • P47. 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.

  • P60. What not to keep:

  • The content you save in your notes is easily accessible from any device, which is great for accessibility but not for security. Information like tax records, government documents, passwords, and health records shouldn't be saved in your notes.

  • Although you could save specialized files such as Photoshop files or video footage in your notes, you'll need a specialized app to open them anyway, so there's no benefit to keeping them in your notes.

  • Notes apps are made for short, lightweight bits of text and images, and their performance will often be severely hampered if you try to save large files in them.

  • Notes apps are perfectly suited for individual and private use, which makes them less than ideal for collaboration. You can share individual notes or even groups of notes with others, but if you need a multitude of people to be able to collaboratively edit a document in real time, then you'll need to use a different platform.

  • P65. Take a moment now to write down some of your own favorite problems. Use this list of favorite problems to make decisions about what to capture. Here are my recommendations to guide you:

  • Ask people close to you what you were obsessed with as a child (often, you'll continue to be fascinated with the same things as an adult.

  • Don't worry about coming up with exactly twelve ( the exact number doesn't matter, but try to come up with at least a few).

  • Don't worry about getting the list perfect(this is just a first pass, and it will always be evolving).

  • Phrase them as open-minded questions that could have multiple answers (in contrast to "yes/no" questions with only one answer).

  • P68. Capture Criteria:

  • Does it inspire me? Inspiration is one of the most rare and precious experiences in life.

  • Is it useful? Carpenters are known for keeping odd and ends in a corner of their workshop—a variety of nails and washers, scraps of lumber cut off from larger planks, and random bits of metal and wood.

  • Is it personal? One of the most valuable kinds of information to keep is personal information—your own thoughts, reflections, memories, and mementos.

  • Is it surprising? I've often noticed that many of the notes people take are of ideas they already know, already agree with, or could have guessed.

  • P72. Besides capturing what personally resonates with you, there are a couple of other kinds of details that are generally useful to save in your notes. It's a good idea to capture key information about the source of a note, such as the original web page address, the title of the piece, the author or publisher, and the date it was published. Many capture tools are even able to identify and save this information automatically. Also, it's often helpful to capture chapter titles, headings, and bullet-point lists since they add structure to your notes and represent distillation already performed by the author on your behalf.

  • P77. When you express an idea in writing, it's not just a matter of transferring the exact contents of your mind into paper or digital form. Writing creates new knowledge that wasn't there before. Each word you write triggers mental cascades and internal associations, leading to further ideas, all of which can come tumbling out onto the page or screen. Thinking doesn't just produce writing; writing also enriches thinking. There is even significant evidence that expressing our thoughts in writing can lead to benefits for our health and well-being.

  • P82. Tharp said, "I believe in starting each project with a stated goal. Sometimes the goal is nothing more than a personal mantra such as 'keep it simple' or 'something perfect' or 'economy' to remind me of that I was thinking at the beginning if and when I lose my way. I write it down on a slip of paper and it's the first thing that goes in to the box. (This is my project scope.)

  • P85. Your Second Brain isn't just a tool—it's an environment. It is a garden of knowledge full of familiar, winding pathways, but also secret and secluded corners. Every pathway is a jumping-off point to new ideas and perspectives. Gardens are natural, but they don't happen by accident. They require a caretaker to seed the plants, trim the weeds, and shape the paths winding through them. It's time for us to put more intention into the digital environments where we now spend so many of our waking hours.

  • P90. 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.

  • P96. Behind the scenes, look at what PARA looks like.

  • P102. Once you've captured a batch of notes and it's time to organize them, PARA comes into play. The four main categories are ordered by actionability to make the decision of where to put notes as easy as possible:

  • 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.

  • P104. Yet this is exactly the way most people organize their files and notes—keeping all their book notes together just because they happen to come from books or all their saved quotes together just because they happen to be quotes. Instead of organizing ideas according to where they come from, I recommend organizing them according to where they are going—specifically, the outcomes that they can help you realize. The test of whether a piece of knowledge is valuable is not whether it is perfectly organized and neatly labeled but whether it can have an impact on someone or something that matters to you.

  • P105. Any piece of information (whether a text document, an image, a note, or an entire folder) can and should flow between categories. You might save a note on coaching techniques to a project folder called "Coaching Class" for a class you're taking. Later, when you become a manager at work and need to coach your direct reports, you might move that note to an area folder called "Direct reports." At some point, you might leave that company but still remain interested in coaching and move the note to resources. One day, you might lose interest in the subject altogether and move it to the archives. In the future, that note could find its way all the way back to projects when you decide to start a side gig as a business coach, making that knowledge actionable once again.

  • P139. The rule of thumb to follow is that every time you "touch" a note, you should make it a little more discoverable for your future self"—by adding a highlight, a heading, some bullets, or commentary. This is the "campsite rule" applied to information—leave it better than you found it. This ensures that the notes you interact with most often will naturally become the most discoverable in a virtuous cycle.

  • P141. The effort we put into Progressive Summarization is meant for one purpose: to make it easy to find and work with our notes in the future. More is not better when it comes to thinking and creating. Distilling makes our ideas small and compact, so we can load them up into our minds with minimal effort. If you can't locate a piece of information quickly, in a format that's convenient and ready to be put to use, then you might as well not have it at all. Our most scarce resource is time, which means we need to prioritize our ability to quickly rediscover the ideas that we already have in our Second Brain.

  • P146. The emerging Octavia made three rules for herself:

  • Don't leave your home without a notebook, paper scraps, or something to write with.

  • Don't walk into the world without your eyes and ears focused and open.

  • Don't make excuses about what you don't have or what you would do if you did; use that energy to "find a way, make a way."

  • P158.  There are four methods for retrieval that overlap and complement one another. Together, they are more powerful than any computer yet more flexible than any human mind. You can step through them in order until you find what you're looking for. Those four retrieval methods are:

  • Search

  • Browsing

  • Tags

  • Serendipity

  • P162. I don't recommend using tags as your primary organizational system. It takes far too much energy to apply tags to every single note compared to the ease of searching with keywords or browsing your folders. However, tags can come in handy in specific situations when the two previous retrieval methods aren't up to the task, and you want to spontaneously gather, connect, and synthesize groups of notes on the fly.

  • P198. Chefs have a particular system for accomplishing this daunting feat. It's called mise en place, a culinary philosophy used in restaurants around the world. Developed in France starting in the late 1800s, mise en place is a step-by-step process for producing high-quality food efficiently. Chefs can never afford to stop the whole kitchen just so they can clean up. They learn to keep their workplace clean and organized in the flow of the meals they are preparing. In the kitchen, this means small habits like always putting the mixing spoon in the same place so they know where to find it next time, immediately wiping a knife clean after using it so it's ready for the next cut, or laying out the ingredients in the order they'll be used so that they serve as placeholders. Chefs use mise en place—a philosophy and mindset embodied in a set of practical techniques—as their "external brain." It gives them a way to externalize their thinking into their environment and automate the repetitive parts of cooking so they can focus completely on the creative parts. (My Reminder & Email Operational Process)

  • P202. Before they taxi onto the runway and take off, airline pilots run through a "pre-flight checklist" that tells them everything they need to check or do. It ensures they complete all the necessary steps without having to rely on their unreliable brains. The way most people launch projects, in contrast, can be described as "haphazardly." They might look through their existing notes and files for any information that might be relevant, or they might not. They might talk to their colleagues about any lessons from past experience, or they might not. They might create a plan to guide their progress, or they might not. The successful start of the project is more or less left up to chance.

  • P203. This is where the Project Kickoff Checklist comes in. Here's my own checklist:

  • Capture my current thinking on the project

  • Review folders (or tags) that might contain relevant notes

  • Search for related terms across all folders

  • Move (or tag) relevant notes to the project folder

  • Create an outline of collected notes and plan the project

  • P215. While the Weekly Review is grounded and practical, I recommend doing a Monthly Review that is a bit more reflective and holistic. It's a chance to evaluate the big picture and consider more fundamental changes to your goals, priorities, and systems that you might not have the chance to think about in the business of the day-to-day.

  • Review and update goals

  • Review and update my project list

  • Review my areas of responsibility

  • Review someday/maybe tasks

  • Reprioritize tasks

  • P217. I call them "noticing habits—taking advantage of small opportunities you notice to capture something you might otherwise skip over or to make a note more actionable to discover. Here are some examples:

  • Noticing that an idea you have in mind could potentially be valuable and capturing it instead of thinking, "Oh, it's nothing."

  • Noticing when an idea you're reading about resonates with you and taking those extra few seconds to highlight it. Noticing that a note could use a better title—and changing it so it's easier for your future self to find it.

  • Noticing you could move or link a note to another project or area where it will be more useful.

  • Noticing opportunities to combine two or more Intermediate Packets into a new, larger work so you don't have to start it from scratch.

  • Noticing a chance to merge similar content from different notes into the same note so it's not spread around too many places.

  • P241. If I could leave you with one last bit of advice, it is to chase what excites you. When you are captivated and obsessed by a story, an idea, or a new possibility, don't just let that moment pass as if it doesn't matter. Those are the moments that are truly precious and that no technology can produce for you. Run after your obsessions with everything you have. Just be sure to take notes along the way.

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