Building a Second Brain
Building a Second Brain

Building a Second Brain

Those who learn how to leverage technology and master the flow of information through their lives will be empowered to accomplish anything they set their minds to. (Location 65)

I’ve spent years studying how prolific writers, artists, and thinkers of the past managed their creative process. (Location 67)

I could either take responsibility for my own health and my own treatment from that day forward, or I would spend the rest of my life shuttling back and forth between doctors without ever finding resolution. (Location 103)

I wrote down what I wanted and didn’t want, what I was willing to sacrifice and what I wasn’t, and what it would mean to me to escape the world of pain I felt trapped within. (Location 106)

wrote down facts gleaned from research papers that could be used in the slides we presented to clients. I wrote down tidbits of insight I came across on social media, to share on our own social channels. (Location 150)

If that was true, was it possible that my personal collection of notes was a knowledge asset that could grow and compound over time? (Location 164)

My experience managing my chronic condition had taught me a way of getting organized that was ideal for solving problems and producing results now, not in some far-off future. (Location 173)

In the next couple of chapters, I’ll show you how the practice of creating a Second Brain is part of a long legacy of thinkers and creators who came before us—writers, scientists, philosophers, leaders, and everyday people who strived to remember and achieve more. Then I’ll introduce you to a few basic principles and tools you’ll need to set yourself up to succeed. (Location 185)

However, there’s a catch: every change in how we use technology also requires a change in how we think. To properly take advantage of the power of a Second Brain, we need a new relationship to information, to technology, and even to ourselves. (Location 228)

For centuries, artists and intellectuals from Leonardo da Vinci to Virginia Woolf, from John Locke to Octavia Butler, have recorded the ideas they found most interesting in a book they carried around with them, known as a “commonplace book.”II (Location 232)

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. (Location 239)

Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. (Location 241)

Commonplace books were a portal through which educated people interacted with the world. They drew on their notebooks in conversation and used them to connect bits of knowledge from different sources and to inspire their own thinking. (Location 245)

This digital commonplace book is what I call a Second Brain. Think of it as the combination of a study notebook, a personal journal, and a sketchbook for new ideas. (Location 260)

For modern, professional notetaking, a note is a “knowledge building block”—a discrete unit of information interpreted through your unique perspective and stored outside your head. (Location 291)

knowledge building block is discrete. It stands on its own and has intrinsic value, but knowledge building blocks can also be combined into something much greater—a report, an argument, a proposal, a story. (Location 296)

Your Second Brain becomes like a mirror, teaching you about yourself and reflecting back to you the ideas worth keeping and acting on. Your mind starts to become intertwined with this system, leaning on it to remember more than you ever could on your own. (Location 361)

They admire your incredible dedication to developing your thinking over time. In reality, you are just planting seeds of inspiration and harvesting them as they flower. (Location 365)

Think of your Second Brain as the world’s best personal assistant. It is perfectly reliable and totally consistent. It is always ready and waiting to capture any bit of information that might be of value to you. (Location 414)

There are four essential capabilities that we can rely on a Second Brain to (Location 423)

perform for us: Making our ideas concrete. Revealing new associations between ideas. Incubating our ideas over time. Sharpening our unique perspectives. (Location 423)

An important tool of the researchers was building physical models, an approach they borrowed from American biochemist Linus Pauling. They made cardboard cutouts to approximate the shapes of the molecules they knew were part of DNA’s makeup and, like a puzzle, experimented with different ways of putting them together. (Location 432)

Neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen, in her extensive research on highly creative people including accomplished scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, came to the conclusion that “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections.”3 (Location 446)

I call this approach the “slow burn”—allowing bits of thought matter to slowly simmer like a delicious pot of stew brewing on the stove. It is a calmer, more sustainable approach to creativity that relies on the gradual accumulation of ideas, instead of all-out binges of manic hustle. Having a Second Brain where lots of ideas can be permanently saved for the long term turns the passage of time into your friend, instead of your enemy. (Location 464)

It was jobs that required the ability to convey “not just information but a particular interpretation of information.”5 (Location 471)

“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.”7 (Location 479)

While your Second Brain is made up of all the tools you use to interact with information, including a to-do list, a calendar, email, and reading apps, for example, there is one category of software I recommend as the centerpiece of your Second Brain: a digital notetaking app.I (Location 487)

Those stages are remembering, connecting, and creating. It takes time to fully unlock the value of using digital tools to enhance and extend what our minds are capable of, but there are also distinct benefits at every step along the way. (Location 516)

Most of these reports are published as PDFs, a notoriously inflexible and difficult-to-use format, but by importing the findings most relevant to her work into her notes, she can add as many annotations and comments as she wants. (Location 522)

Eventually, the third and final way that people use their Second Brain is for creating new things. (Location 531)

To guide you in the process of creating your own Second Brain, I’ve developed a simple, intuitive four-part method called “CODE”—Capture; Organize; Distill; Express. (Location 543)

Let’s preview each of the four steps of the CODE Method—Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express—and then we’ll dive into the details in the following chapters. (Location 554)

We need to adopt the perspective of a curator, stepping back from the raging river and starting to make intentional decisions about what information we want to fill our minds. (Location 559)

our goal should be to “capture” only the ideas and insights we think are truly noteworthy. (Location 561)

The solution is to keep only what resonates in a trusted place that you control, and to leave the rest aside. (Location 566)

When something resonates, it moves you on an intuitive level. Often, the ideas that resonate are the ones that are most unusual, counterintuitive, interesting, or potentially useful. (Location 568)

Most people tend to organize information by subject, like the Dewey decimal system you’ve probably seen at the library. For example, you might find a book under a broad subject category like “Architecture,” “Business,” “History,” or “Geology.” (Location 579)

The best way to organize your notes is to organize for action, according to the active projects you are working on right now. Consider new information in terms of its utility, asking, “How is this going to help me move forward one of my current projects?” (Location 583)

There is a powerful way to facilitate and speed up this process of rapid association: distill your notes down to their essence. (Location 595)

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. Your notes will be useless if you can’t decipher them in the future, or if they’re so long that you don’t even try. Think of yourself not just as a taker of notes, but as a giver of notes—you are giving your future self the gift of knowledge that is easy to find and understand. (Location 604)

All the previous steps—capturing, organizing, and distilling—are geared toward one ultimate purpose: sharing your own ideas, your own story, and your own knowledge with others. (Location 608)

Information becomes knowledge—personal, embodied, verified—only when we put it to use. You gain confidence in what you know only when you know that it works. Until you do, it’s just a theory. (Location 618)

In Part Two, I will show you how to use the CODE steps to radically expand your memory, intelligence, and creativity. For each step, I’ll share a set of practical techniques that you can implement today that will begin to yield benefits tomorrow. (Location 639)

Ask yourself, “What are the questions I’ve always been interested in?” This could include grand, sweeping questions like “How can we make society fairer and more equitable?” as well as practical ones like “How can I make it a habit to exercise every day?” (Location 803)

The key to this exercise is to make them open-ended questions that don’t necessarily have a single answer. To find questions that invoke a state of wonder and curiosity about the amazing world we live in. (Location 818)

The best curators are picky about what they allow into their collections, and you should be too. (Location 853)

This is why it’s so important to take on a Curator’s Perspective—that we are the judges, editors, and interpreters of the information we choose to let into our lives. (Location 858)

Inspiration is one of the most rare and precious experiences in life. (Location 863)

Carpenters are known for keeping odds 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. (Location 870)

Sometimes you come across a piece of information that isn’t necessarily inspiring, but you know it might come in handy in the future. (Location 872)

We have a natural bias as humans to seek evidence that confirms what we already believe, a well-studied phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.”6 (Location 885)

If you’re not surprised, then you already knew it at some level, so why take note of it? Surprise is an excellent barometer for information that doesn’t fit neatly into our existing understanding, which means it has the potential to change how we think. (Location 888)

First, you are much more likely to remember information you’ve written down in your own words. Known as the “Generation Effect,”10 researchers have found that when people actively generate a series of words, such as by speaking or writing, more parts of their brain are activated when compared to simply reading the same words. (Location 978)

In a wide range of controlled studies, writing about one’s inner experiences led to a drop in visits to the doctor, improved immune systems, and reductions in distress. (Location 988)

Perhaps the most immediate benefit of capturing content outside our heads is that we escape what I call the “reactivity loop”—the hamster wheel of urgency, outrage, and sensationalism that characterizes so much of the Internet. (Location 992)

Twyla Tharp is one of the most celebrated, inventive dance choreographers in modern times. Her body of work is made up of more than 160 pieces, including 129 dances, twelve television specials, six major Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows, and two figure-skating routines. (Location 1041)

Yet in her book The Creative Habit,1 Tharp revealed that a simple organizing technique lies at the heart of a creative process that has propelled her through an incredibly prolific six-decade career. Tharp calls her approach “the box.” Every time she begins a new project, she takes out a foldable file box and labels it with the name of the project, usually the name of the dance she is choreographing. (Location 1045)

Even a project as open-ended as this one started the same way as all the others, with her goals: “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 what 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 into the box.” (Location 1057)

The box gave Tharp a way to put projects on hold and revisit them later: “The box makes me feel connected to a project… I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project: I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.” (Location 1079)

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the Cathedral Effect.2 Studies have shown that the environment we find ourselves in powerfully shapes our thinking. When we are in a space with high ceilings, for example—think of the lofty architecture of classic churches invoking the grandeur of heaven—we tend to think in more abstract ways. When we’re in a room with low ceilings, such as a small workshop, we’re more likely to think concretely. (Location 1093)

Soon, however, you’ll run head on into a new problem: what to do with all this valuable material you’ve gathered. The more diligently you collect it, the bigger this problem will be! Capturing notes without an effective way to organize and retrieve them only leads to more overwhelm. (Location 1112)

Then one day I had a realization: Why didn’t I just organize my files that way all the time? If organizing by project was the most natural way to manage information with minimal effort, why not make it the default? (Location 1121)

I eventually named this organizing system PARA,I which stands for the four main categories of information in our lives: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. These four categories are universal, encompassing any kind of information, from any source, in any format, for any purpose.II (Location 1124)

it organizes information based on how actionable it is, not what kind of information it is. (Location 1128)

By taking that small extra step of putting a note into a folder (or tagging itIII) for a specific project, such as a psychology paper you’re writing or a presentation you’re preparing, you’ll encounter that idea right at the moment it’s most relevant. Not a moment before, and not a moment after. (Location 1139)

Projects include the short-term outcomes you’re actively working toward right now. Projects have a couple of features that make them an ideal way to organize modern work. First, they have a beginning and an end; they take place during a specific period of time and then they finish. Second, they have a specific, clear outcome that needs to happen in order for them to be checked off as complete, such as “finalize,” “green-light,” “launch,” or “publish.” (Location 1168)

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. (Location 1309)

I decided to take a different approach: I took all the files they’d migrated over and moved them all to a new folder titled “Archive” plus the date (for example, “Archive 5-2-21”). (Location 1345)