“How often have you tried to remember something important and felt it slip through your mental grasp?” Tiago Forte asks at the start of his new book Building a Second Brain. (p. 1)
This is undeniably a common experience and Forte, a productivity expert and former consultant, contends that it’s only gotten worse as the amount of information that we all absorb each day balloons.
With Building a Second Brain, Forte details a structure for managing such overload and using digital tools to organize information for easy recollection and retrieval. The “second brain” he proposes is “a digital archive of your most valuable memories, ideas, and knowledge to help you do your job, run your business, and manage your life without having to keep every detail in your head.” (p. 4) He compares it to the “commonplace books” carried around by the likes of Virginia Woolf, John Locke, and Octavia Butler for recording interesting ideas as they encountered them.
At its core, Forte’s method involves writing things down—or cutting and pasting them—into a digital note taking system, and then going back later and sorting them into folders.
Forte’s system will be familiar to those who’ve tried the approach David Allen outlined in his seminal personal productivity book Getting Things Done. Both techniques center around capturing things in writing so they’re not cluttering up your head and distracting you. (And both books had the same editor, Janet Goldstein.) But where Allen’s system focuses on processing to-dos, Forte’s is more about organizing information.
At the center is an approach he calls the CODE method:
- Capture—Record in a notes app on your phone or computer anything that moves you on an intuitive level. “Often the ideas that resonate are the ones that are most unusual, counterintuitive, interesting, or potentially useful,” Forte writes. “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, an image, a quote, or a fact.” (p. 45) Forte suggests focusing on the excerpt that resonates the most rather than saving the entire article, book, video, or podcast. He also recommends using a voice recording app on your phone to take down what you’ve read or heard.
- Organize—At a regular cadence, take those notes and organize them into folders grouped around what he calls Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. This so-called PARA categorization is perhaps the most unique and useful part of Forte’s approach. He suggests you start by putting your notes into folders for your current projects, wherever relevant. If a note doesn’t have a short-term project it’s useful for, then you sort it into an area—a long-term responsibility—such as “product design” or “recruiting and hiring.” Resources are catchalls for topics or interests that don’t fit under an area, such as “carbon capture” or “home-office design.” Archives hold anything that is no longer active, for example a project that you’ve completed. The goal of all this is to place a note where it will be useful the soonest. “PARA isn’t a filing system; it’s a product system,” Forte writes. “It’s no use trying to find the ‘perfect place’ where a note or file belongs. There isn’t one…. We are organizing for actionability and ‘what’s actionable’ is always changing.” (p. 104) (For more on PARA, check out Forte’s explanation online.)
- Distill—”Note-taking is like time travel—you are sending packets of knowledge through time to your future self,” Forte writes. (p. 117) He recommends that when you’re putting a note to use, you bold the key information, then highlight the most important of the bolded words—a technique Forte calls “progressive summarization.” The idea is to make the most essential information contained in a note easily scannable so it’s more helpful to you in the future when you might want to use it in something you’re writing. You can also use the highlighted info to add a short executive summary atop the note.
- Express—”Everything is a remix,” Forte writes. (p. 169) And a central goal of the Second-Brain approach is to assemble any relevant notes as the foundation for tackling a project. So rather than sitting down to draft a memo or presentation with a blank slate, you start with ideas, quotes, facts, diagrams, or even drafts from prior projects that you’ve been collecting all along. Forte dubs them an “archipelago of ideas” that you can dump into a document and start by organizing and connecting.
The goals of the CODE method—and the Second-Brain approach more broadly—include being able to find any information quickly, make better decisions, organize your ideas and use them to complete projects more consistently, connect ideas across different areas, have a reliable system to share your work with others, and free your brain for more creative work.
Forte cites Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, as saying that he kept a dozen of his favorite problems in his mind. “Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your 12 problems to see if it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius,” Feynman told an interviewer. (p. 62) Forte suggests listing the questions you’re interested in—which could range from ‘How can my industry become more economically sustainable?‘ to ‘What can I do to make healthy eating easier?’—and then capture information that might be relevant to answering them.
Unlike Allen’s more rigid technique, Forte stresses that the Second Brain is valuable even if you don’t adopt the entirety of the approach. Just capturing information is a good start, for example, even if you don’t go on to distill or express it.
If you’re interested in an even more structured approach to processing information, the short book How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens is worth reading. It’s especially useful for writers and academics and details a system from 1960s Germany called the “slip-box” or zettelkasten. (“Every intellectual venture starts with a note,” Ahrens contends.)
To be sure:
- The Second-Brain technique requires the use of digital tools, but Forte doesn’t discuss any application—such as Evernote or Notion—in any detail. He wants to emphasize that the technique is more important than the tool, and refers readers to his website for some advice about apps and services. But some readers likely need more specific technical guidance to help them get started.
- Some of the data on information overload that Forte cites as current are in fact likely out of date. His stat about the average American consuming 34 gigabytes of information daily is from 2009. And data about knowledge workers spending 26% of their day looking for and consolidating information is from a 2014 report.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Taylor Swift uses her phone to write down snippets of lyrics that come into her head at random moments. She often then reworks those into her final songs. “‘Blank Space’ was the culmination of all of my best ones one after the other,” she told an interviewer. (p. 55)
- For any project, dance choreographer Twyla Tharp begins by taking out a file box and then filling it with any relevant material, such as notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videos, and pieces of art. She also writes the goal for the project on an index card and puts it in the bottom of the box. “Knowing that the box is always there gives me the freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face,” Tharp says. (p. 84)
- “Information is the fundamental building block of everything you do.” (p. 17)
- “It’s time to acknowledge we can’t ‘use our head’ to store everything we need to know and to outsource the job of remembering to intelligent machines.” (p. 18)
- “I can’t think of anything more important for your creative life—or your life in general—than learning to listen to the voice of intuition inside. It is the source of your imagination, your confidence, and your spontaneity. You can intentionally train yourself to hear the voice of intuition every day by taking note of what it tells you.” (p. 72)
- “The goal of organizing our knowledge is to move our goals forward, not to get a PhD in notetaking.” (p. 103)
- “It is only the steady completion of tangible wins that can infuse you with a sense of determination, momentum, and accomplishment. It doesn’t matter how small the victories. Even the tiniest breakthrough can become a stepping-stone to more creative, more interesting futures than you can imagine.” (p. 108)
- “Your job as a notetaker is to preserve the notes you’re taking on the things you discover in such a way that they can survive the journey into the future. That way your excitement and enthusiasm for your knowledge builds over time instead of fading away.” (p. 118)
- “By the time you sit down to make progress on something, all the work to gather and organize the source material needs to be already done. We can’t expect ourselves to instantly come up with brilliant ideas on demand.” (p. 176)
The bottom line is that Building a Second Brain provides a useful approach for best capturing and putting to use the information and ideas that resonate with us.
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