Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential
By Tiago Forte
Published: June 14, 2022
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have
What is the Book About? You Need a Second Brain If You Want to Leverage All That You Learn
Building a Second Brain author Tiago Forte writes:
For the first time in history, we have instantaneous access to the world’s knowledge. There has never been a better time to learn, to contribute, and to improve ourselves. Yet, rather than feeling empowered, we are often left feeling overwhelmed by this constant influx of information. The very knowledge that was supposed to set us free has instead led to the paralyzing stress of believing we’ll never know or remember enough.
Does that sound familiar?
For the longest time, accessing information was the bottleneck, but now with the Internet and search engines, you can quickly get 10 million hits on a topic of interest. But rather than creating an intellectual gold rush, you might be staring at a bottomless pit, as Forte notes.
The reason is simple. Our brains can’t process information at the volumes being generated. For context, looking only at books, about 500,000-1,000,000 are published annually, and that’s not counting the self-publishing market, pushing the number to 4,000,000.
Bottomline, there is more information out there than our ability to consume. And even if you could digest it, how would you manage, organize, and leverage all you have learned? That’s where Building a Second Brain (BASB) comes in.
In this book, Forte describes a framework for improving our productivity as knowledge professionals based on his 10 years of experience researching, experimenting, and organizing digital lives. In BASB, Forte shows how to take notes and manage information so that you can tame this information dragon.
Conceptually, the Second Brain offloads a lot of the cognitive stress from your primary brain. It does this by combining a folder organization system based on actionability and having a note-taking strategy that simultaneously acts as a journal, project logbook, study notebook, and sketchbook for new ideas.
With your Second Brain in place, Forte claims you will be able:
- Find anything you’ve learned, touched, or thought about within seconds
- Organize your knowledge and use it to move your projects and goals forward more consistently
- Save your best thinking, so you don’t have to do it again
- Connect ideas and notice patterns across different areas of your life, so you know how to live better
- Adopt a reliable system to help you share your work more confidently and with more ease
- Spend less time looking for things and more time doing the best, most creative work you are capable of
In this review, you will learn about 6 key takeaways and see if they support the above claims.
Takeaway 1: CODE Transforms What You Know Into Something Meaningful
BASB tackles the information deluge through a 4 step-method called CODE, which stands for Capture-Organize-Distill-Express. This framework allows you to take raw information and process it into a meaningful form you can share with the world.
Everything begins with Capture. What is it you want to gather and learn about? In the book, Forte cites examples of collecting things that resonate with you: blog posts, book passages, images, videos, etc., but in practice, he is referring to grabbing the digital version of the object. This electronic form provides 2 benefits: 1) you can store it on the computer, so there is a central location, and 2) you can take notes on the object.
The key output from Capture is the notes. With them, you write down your thoughts, impressions, and feelings about what you just collected, not just the “objective facts” as they teach you to do in school.
When doing Capture, Forte suggests 4 criteria to consider. Specifically, how does the content resonate with you: is it 1) unusual, 2) counterintuitive, 3) interesting, or 4) helpful? This perspective is critical since it allows you to filter and define when something is meaningful for you.
To illustrate, when you Google a topic, you get a list of hits. But Google can’t register your feelings about these results. Their page rank system prioritizes websites based on popularity (as measured by web links) or what it means to others, not you.
In Forte’s Capture, you get the opportunity to connect to the content and thereby rank its value relative to you. You do this by making space in your notes to write down why it resonates. Ideally, you do this at the moment of Capture, but it’s ok if you do it later if you don’t want to get bogged down. Forte suggests not letting too much time pass between when you grabbed it and when you revisited the note. Otherwise, you might forget why it resonated.
Next is Organize. There are 2 popular ways to organize notes. A common one is by source. You read a book, so you sort the notes by the book title. The challenge is you may recall a great idea but have completely forgotten where you found it. There aren’t many places to search if you read 1 or 2 books. But if you read a lot, search will provide you with a list of rabbit holes to examine.
The other option is to assign by topic. The problem then becomes resolution. How general or specific do you want your organizing categories to be? If you keep it general, filing things away is easy, but finding them later is hard since what you’re looking for is comingled with so much other stuff.
If too specific too early, you can overpopulate your organization system with hundreds of categories with little content. And this causes organizational stress since you have to think about where precisely a note belongs in the hierarchy – at the most detailed level or higher? And what about cases where a note belongs to multiple categories?
Forte’s solution is to organize by actionability and to do that, he introduces a framework called PARA: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. The details will be discussed in the next takeaway, but the key differentiator is that his system allows you to find notes not based on where they come from but where you plan to use them.
Projects, for example, are active “hot” efforts, so any notes associated with them should be immediately valuable in creating a project outcome, which is an externally facing product. This means there is little ambiguity about what you want to do with the information if you look at the note title or content.
Areas, Resources, and Archives go in descending order of actionability and will be covered in detail later. The insight of PARA is that you score a note’s value by its urgency of usage.
Distill is the next stage. When you collect information, an unfortunate side effect is that the more you capture, the greater the sense of overwhelm. Distill addresses this conflict by asking the user to refine a note each time they encounter it. Forte calls this process Progressive Summarization (and another takeaway will discuss this in greater detail). For now, Distill gives you the benefit of quickly getting the critical points of a note. If you don’t Distill, your notes won’t save you time if you have to re-read most of it. Conceptual cousins to this are the abstracts of research articles or executive summaries of business reports. You just read them to get the main ideas without having to read the entire article. That’s what Distill provides but for notes.
Last is Express. This step is about taking all the notes and information you’ve collected and crafting that into something you share with the world, often the project outcome. Forte claims, “What is the point of knowledge if it doesn’t help anyone or produce anything?” Whether you agree with that or not, his point is that unless you Express what you learn, you can’t assess whether you learned anything.
It is only when your ideas take a concrete form that it’s open to receiving feedback. And that’s where you learn whether they are gaps in your understanding. Does it withstand the reality check? It’s hard to find flaws when everything is in your head.
It is this 4-step CODE process that allows your Second Brain to process the information overload so your primary brain can make better sense of what’s happening.
Takeaway 2:Organizing by Actionability through PARA
The PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) framework for organizing notes and files is another crucial element of Building a Second Brain. As mentioned earlier, what differentiates PARA from other frameworks is that it centers on what you plan to do with the information rather than where it came from or what it is traditionally associated with.
Why is this critical? Because we live in an age of information abundance, we are constantly bombarded by things that might be relevant to us. So, what we need is the equivalent of an executive assistant who knows which files you need to get what you’re working on done quickly and efficiently.
PARA is that executive assistant. It addresses the above challenges by ensuring that when you come across something that resonates with you, you file it in a way that’s easy to find when you need it.
Forte’s solution is to create the 4 categories of PARA for bucketing your data in descending order of actionability.
First are Projects. They are short-term efforts that you’re actively working on. They have a deadline and an outcome. You use this category to store notes or sources that help you finish the Project. Again, this is not hard to populate since it’s at the top of your mind.
But the opportunity benefit is highest when you have a Project either in the design phase or a few weeks to months away from starting. So, it’s not hot, but it’s not cold either. That’s where your brain thinks about relevant topics, but since the Project hasn’t officially started, you don’t have a place to file them.
This is where Forte’s Projects give you a head start by acting as a temporary home base. First, create a Project and focus on capturing the notes and sources that you think might be relevant. Don’t worry about their value at this point. It is only when you start you can check on whether they are helpful- the point is you don’t have to go searching for content since you gave them a home.
Next are Areas. They are long-term responsibilities that you want to manage over time. Think of them as subjects of strong interest but don’t have anything concrete to work on. Nevertheless, you want to be knowledgeable because you’re excited by them or feel they might be important in the immediate future. Areas are often the breeding grounds for future Projects.
As Areas tend to be repositories of exciting things, Forte suggests you review your notes periodically via Progressive Summarization (more on this in the next section). This does 2 things. First, it keeps content at the forefront of your mind. Second, it allows you to connect the old with the new. You may find notes buried in there that are relevant to an existing effort or have discovered you’ve accumulated a critical mass of info to kickstart a new Project.
Resources are similar to Areas but often cover material further into the future or much lower on the actionability scale. Forte says that when you organize your sources or notes, you should first ask what Projects they can be applied to. Then, if there is no match, you see which Areas fit best. Failing that, you place the information in Resources.
Archives are items that are inactive from the other 3 categories. Forte says these include Projects that have been canceled or completed, Areas that have fallen out of favor, or Resources that are no longer relevant.
So by using PARA, you bucket your documents/notes (knowledge) into 4 levels of actionability from high to low, which differs from the classic note-taking organization of either labeling by topics or sources. And by periodically reviewing these categories, you know what to focus on when searching and what you have collected. By addressing how you use your notes, you also increase their utility and the value of your knowledge base.
Takeaway 3: Progressive Summarization to Distill What’s Important
Taking and handling notes are the most frequent tasks when you Build a Second Brain. Without them, you’re just collecting and organizing data. But, as Forte notes:
…the paradox that a lot of people experience as they take notes: the more notes they gather, the more the volume of information grows, the more time and effort it takes to review it all, and the less time they have to do so. Paradoxically, the more notes they collect, the less discoverable they become!
Can you relate to that?
Forte’s answer is to Distill your notes via Progressive Summarization. In short, add some “value” whenever you touch a note. Consider the analogy to Google. We know there are thousands of websites on your topic. So finding information isn’t difficult. Ranking them in their value to you allows you to spend your limited time on the sources that matter.
Forte’s Progressive Summarization helps you do that assessment. Each time you come across your note that means you find it interesting or relevant. So it has some intrinsic value. But you don’t want to read the entire note to get at the key points. That’s where Progressive Summarization comes in.
Progressive Summarization consists of 4 levels of information distillation. In level 1, you capture the passages that resonate with you from a source. The next time you come across your note, do a level 2 run-through – put in bold sections of your note that seem relevant. For level 3, focus on the bold sections and highlight those sentences which stand out. Finally, level 4 is creating an executive summary at the top of the note that you can refer to easily and quickly.
The above approach has advantages over classical note-taking, which emphasizes writing in your own words or summarizing. Two factors, in particular, stand out:
- Not all your notes are going to be helpful. Many may not be after the novelty has worn off. So you don’t want to burn yourself feeling the need to treat each note as a diamond, but more like a lump of coal until proven otherwise.
- Writing in your own words or summarizing content is mentally taxing. You only want to do it for “battle-tested” notes. The fact that you keep returning to a note and still find it informative means that it has higher value than other notes. Hence, it’s worth the extra data processing, so spend the time cultivating the elite few.
Some may wonder if revisiting or reviewing notes may be more work since Progressive Summarization is iterative by nature. The short answer is only a handful of notes are revisited. This approach tells you it’s ok to ignore most of what you captured. Instead, direct your attention to those you keep gravitating towards for one reason or another.
Recall each time you bold or highlight, you’re not looking at the entire note but only a subsection. Only the Level 4 summarization can be time-consuming, but you should have the gist of what you want to emphasize by then. In fact, Forte says that most of his Progressive Summarization happens in the short breaks he has between major work tasks.
Thus, Progressive Summarization provides you with 2 main benefits. First, it helps you find and distill the notes that matter. Second, it saves energy and lowers stress by significantly diminishing your workload volume.
Takeaway 4: Intermediate Packets, Making Progress When Short on Time
By Building a Second Brain, the good news is you now have a framework to leverage that mass of knowledge you’ve collected. The bad news is that’s still a lot of stuff to process.
… it’s not enough to simply divide tasks into smaller pieces – you then need a system for managing those pieces. Otherwise, you’re just creating a lot of extra work for yourself trying to keep track of them.
On top of it, chances are your time and attention will also be short. So, it’s important to build what Forte calls “Intermediate Packets.” These are the concrete, individual building blocks that make up your work. You can think of them as Knowledge Legos. They allow you to build up something greater than the individual parts quickly.
You create them as you go through your notes to build components of your work product.
Examples of Intermediate Packets include highly refined notes, rough drafts or works in progress, presentations, progress reports, etc. They are anything you have to produce to make the final deliverable. And they can include past efforts.
Unfortunately, Forte’s discussion on Intermediate Packets in the book is poor. So everything in italics is taken from Forte’s Building a Second Brain course and isn’t covered in the book itself. Nevertheless, it’s provided here as Intermediate Packets are a valuable concept.
There are 2 kinds of Intermediate Packets. The first are the ones you generate as you actively work on a Project. The second consists of past work you can leverage to accelerate your progress. Unfortunately, Forte doesn’t distinguish between the two. I bring this up because when Forte talks about the 4 benefits that Intermediate Packets bring (see below), 2 and 4 apply to past work, while 1 and 3 apply to newly created ones.
By focusing on these Intermediate Packets rather than the whole Project, Forte says you gain 4 advantages:
- You become interruption-proof (more like interruption-resilient). Since each packet is small, it doesn’t require significant effort to create. Ideally, it should focus on a tiny section of a Project or a scaled-down version of the deliverable. The goal is for you to squeeze in Intermediate Packets with whatever stretches of time you have available. Because of this smallness, it’s easy to start again if interrupted.
- You can make progress quickly since you are not starting from scratch (this only applies to leveraging past Intermediate Packets).
- You can improve the overall quality of work by getting quick feedback on these Intermediate Packets rather than waiting for the entire deliverable to be finished.
- Once you have sufficient Intermediate Packets, it will make executing entire projects easier since you have so many building blocks to leverage.
The takeaway is you want to work on your deliverable by generating a collection of Intermediate Packets. Each packet can be leveraged on its own and require less time and effort to create than the heavy lift of trying to develop a deliverable in major sprints. So note them in your Second Brain so they are easy to find.
Takeaway 5: Projects Stress Test Your Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) System
While CODE and PARA are critical elements for Building Your Second Brain, Projects are where the action happens. They represent your concrete attempts to transform your knowledge into something tangible. Recall Projects are short-term efforts with a deadline and a list of outcomes to be expected.
Projects are essential because as you start the Capture process, you will quickly realize there is much more out there than you have time to consume. As such, Projects provide a filter on what you gather. You focus on those sources that are Project relevant and set aside the others into Areas or Resources.
In addition, Projects allow you to stress test whether your Second Brain is helping you translate your knowledge into productivity.
Forte provides a great example of how the Second Brain can kickstart your Project with the following workflow:
- Make an outline and data dump your goals, intentions, questions, and considerations for a Project
- Create a Project folder and move your notes and relevant Intermediate Packets there
- Set a 15-20 min timer and complete a first pass on the Project using only the information that you have collected to date
- The goal is to do a first iteration on the Project, NOT complete it; you want to get feedback if possible
- If you can’t finish by the timer’s end, create a Hemingway Bridge (see next takeaway)
- If too overwhelming, Dial Down the Scope by dropping down the least important feature or postponing the most complex decisions for later (again, next takeaway)
The key is not to search the Internet for new information but to work with what you have already collected. If the Second Brain works as advertised, each of the above steps should be easy to undertake and allow you to start your Project quickly. Tweak your system if you find it lacking. Otherwise, it is only after you have mined your Second Brain or identified gaps or questions, that you want to repopulate it with more content.
Takeaway 6: Going Beyond Classical Note-taking – Valuing Your Own Opinions
The last takeaway centers around 3 strategies for using your Second Brain to leverage your note-taking for creative endeavors, although these apply to any knowledge work.
In his experience, Forte finds that the Capture and Organize steps lead to an overabundance of ideas. And the more curious and imaginative you are, the larger your collection of interesting tidbits. The positive is each represents a potential opportunity. The negative is you risk information overwhelm. Forte refers to this phenomenon as divergence since you’re expanding from where you start as you find more stuff.
Convergence happens when you start working on a Project. It refers to focusing your efforts on those connected to the Project outcomes, and this is where Distill and Express come in. Unfortunately, for most people, this is where they struggle since you have to start making hard choices on what to keep and use. To facilitate this transition, he suggests 3 approaches.
The first he calls the Archipelago of Ideas, and this is where you gather your notes and sources related to a Project. Then, start making connections among the information you have. Focus on how they are connected and relate to one another. This technique’s power is separating the gathering phase from the linking or the arranging stage to lower cognitive stress.
Ideally, you should start to see a structure emerging from all the information you’ve gathered, which can act as your Project’s backbone.
The next technique is the Hemingway Bridge, which refers to Ernest Hemingway’s advice to end your writing session only when you know what to write next. This approach works when you have timed work periods. Rather than rushing through to finish every last bit of your session product, leave some time at the end to write notes for your future self on what to do next. This allows you to leverage the previous momentum when you restart your work vs. starting from scratch.
A good metaphor would be like ending on a cliffhanger. You look forward to restarting since you want closure.
The last technique is Dial Down the Scope, which recognizes when we start our Project, our aspirations are greater than our ability to deliver or within our budget. The solution is as soon you feel it’s too much, pare down what you said you would work on. Start by removing the least essential elements, e.g., take out the nice-to-haves leaving the must-haves. This minimizes the stress and overwhelm of taking on too much.
Forte says that these strategies can guide how you interact with your notes. For example, Archipelago is helpful in the beginning as you examine your notes and try to find connections among them. The Hemingway Bridge maintains your progress by reminding you to be explicit about what to do next and write down any unresolved issues, so you don’t start from a blank slate. And finally, use Dial Down if you’re feeling overwhelmed or need to close quickly by scoping down less critical elements of your Project.
Cons: Gaps & Issues
The book is an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with personal knowledge management systems. But there are a few cons with Building a Second Brain.
Starting with book issues:
- Forte’s writing style tends to meander, which is a problem since he doesn’t always define his concepts early or in detail. So, it’s easy for the reader to get the gist of something but not the strict definition or the structure. This can lead to confusion. Forte forgets that BASB is new to many people. They need concrete examples and detailed walk-throughs, at least in the beginning, to gain confidence in the system. Only with experience can you be more liberal in interpreting Forte’s concepts, but that’s later, not at the start.
- The all-important Project, for example, needs to have a deadline and outcome, but it’s listed as a category for short-term efforts. So, where do the deadline and outcome live? Into a document or another note? The implication is it’s another note, but this is not explicitly stated. Zettelkasten, another personal knowledge management system, specifically calls for a project note which is a note to organize other notes. This example illustrates the gap between theory and practice lies in the details.
- Some of Forte’s use cases, especially of famous people, make for exciting storytelling but don’t tie into the specifics of BASB. So you are left wondering, “Uh, how did they use BASB?” The answer is they didn’t, but BASB was inspired by what they did. Ok, but that’s not helpful for implementation. Given that he’s taught this to thousands of people, showcasing more of how BASB helped his clients in detail would have been more relevant. And talking about lessons learned as students applied BASB would alert you to potential gotcha’s to watch out for. But that’s not covered.
- In short, the book could be a lot better since the topics seem incomplete and unfocused. By comparison, the course is more flushed out and goes into the topics deeper, so you know Forte can do it, but it wasn’t done in the book.
On concept gaps:
- Forte does not have a complete example of CODE from start to finish. For instance, he talks about a home office creation project that starts with 27 notes but doesn’t walk you through what he did with that content via the CODE process.
- At the core of BASB is how you take and leverage notes, but aside from the 4 layers of Progressive Summarization, there is no formal structure for note design. Perhaps, this is on purpose since it gives the user freedom to organize, but there should be some best practices, such as placeholders for tags or links in your notes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide any note formatting guidelines. By contrast, in the course, several mentors showcased how their note structures incorporate BASB concepts.
- Distill and Progressive Summarization are great, but the examples focus on refining someone’s ideas – where do you go to expand or explore your ideas? So again, this is not called out. Probably in Express, but again no concrete example.
Overall, both these issues and cons detract from making Building a Second Brain a great book, but one can still get a lot of insight into leveraging your knowledge base.
Building a Second Brain is an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with personal knowledge management systems. With the advent of the Internet, finding information is no longer the bottleneck, but rather what do you do with all that newfound content? Without a Second Brain to process the excess, it’s easy for your primary brain to get overwhelmed.
Here we list the 6 takeaways from Building a Second Brain book to help you navigate the data deluge:
- Forte presents a framework to take raw information and refine it into something you can share with the world. Called CODE, you go through a 4-stage process of Capturing the data, Organizing it based on action, Distilling it to find the key message, and then Expressing your insights to the world.
- If you organize your notes via the Projects-Areas-Resources-Archives (PARA) model, you focus on content actionability vs. the traditional routes of topics or sources. By addressing usage first, you upgrade the value of your knowledge base since you know how to use the information you gathered to move towards your goals.
- Progressive Summarization operates on the principle that each time you touch a note, do a bit of value-add by refining it. This forces you to concentrate on what is essential about this note. And by doing the deep dive only on helpful notes, you prevent yourself from burning out on the mountain of data your curiosity collected.
- Everyone is pressed for time. By breaking your work into Intermediate Packets, you make smaller bodies of content that take less time, provide more opportunities for feedback, and can be leveraged into larger works with minimal effort and stress.
- Projects are critical in examining how well your Second Brain is working. As they have a deadline and outcome as a measure of done, Projects stress test whether your CODE and PARA deliver in helping you get stuff out.
- Forte presents 3 tools to accelerate your Project at the start, middle, and towards the end. Archipelago enables you to connect your existing notes to get a quick outline. Hemingway Bridge keeps your momentum by writing reminders of what to do next. And you can always Dial Down things if your ambition outstrips your resource budget.
As a recommendation, Get It if personal knowledge management systems are new to you. While not always detailed enough, the book gives you a bird’s eye view of managing your knowledge. If you’re already familiar with Zettelkasten or know the difference between note-taking and note-making, you can still learn from Forte, but it falls into the Maybe category. CODE and PARA are the core elements of BASB, so if they seem helpful to you, then it’s worth investing time in the book.
I have a separate review of the BASB course.
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