I’ve started using a “Second Brain”. Here is what I learned from the process.

A couple of months ago, I watched a video review of a book called Building a Second Brain, by Tiago Forte. The guy who was explaining what this book is about said it totally changed his life. I won’t lie: video was engaging and I decided to buy the book right after finishing the video. Now, after around three months living with this “Second Brain”, I wanted to share some of my learnings.

First of all… what the heck is a “Second Brain”?

Tiago Forte defines the Second Brain on the book’s website as a trusted place outside your head where you can collect and organize your most important ideas and insights and use them to do your best work. Quite ambitious, huh?

In the book, there is also quite a bit of text explaining that the concept comes from the idea of commonplace books — those notebooks that you take everywhere and where you write down basically anything that seems worth remembering, from ideas for a revolutionary product to a shopping list for the supermarket. The Second brain would be a modern and digital version of these commonplace books, where not only handwritten text is supported but also images, videos, links and any other kind of files or information. And with it, unlimited space instad of your regular 200 pages and a search engine to help you find things instead of an old-fashioned index.

I would simplify the description by saying that the Second Brain is a place to put all your notes and thoughts following a categorization and a set of practices described through the book. I won’t get much into these practices and categorization in this post, as I plan to do a book review where I go through that. Stay tuned if it sounds interesting 😉

Alright, a 2.0 commonplace book. But why are you doing this?

Well, I try many things simply out of curiosity. Using this Second Brain is supposed to help you being more productive and more creative, as it unloads your brain of all these pieces of information that you don’t know if you will ever need. When thinking about it in terms of computer science, it is like moving things from your RAM to your hard drive. I am always in for trying something that claims to increase productivity.

I have been using a notebook and a pen to organize my everyday life for around 10 years now. Started during my university days and kept it going until today. What I’ve been doing there is my own take on Bullet Journaling (a very minimalist way, not like all these artistic things that have appeared during the last 5 or 6 years) and has been working pretty well, specially at work. I have also tried several to-do list applications and ways of organizing, as I like to experiment and see how they work and what fits my brain better. They all end up abandoned, the only consistent thing is my notebook, as not everything really fits in a to-do list. So, for me, a Second Brain is just an extra thing to try out and see if it sticks.

I also like to ask myself what could be the worst case scenario if this fails? As this is not a huge investment (a 10 euro book and some time to set things up), even if it does not work out for me, I will most probably get some learnings and organizational tips from the process.

Cool. What have you done so far?

The first thing I did was to decide which tool I was going to use for this. Luckily, the author has a list of recommendations in the book’s website (see here) and says: just pick one and don’t worry too much about it, it is usually easy to migrate things later if needed. Having this in mind, and fighting against my impulses to try them all and do a comparison, I decided to set up a Notion account and downloaded the app in my phone and iPad as well.

I started building the second brain in Notion but failed miserably. I didn’t really understand how the software works, so I decided to take a look at some of the templates that people had for this purpose. The fact that none of them really convinced me and having the feeling that it would be better if I understood Notion is structuring the documents led me to skim over a YouTube video tutorial for creating a template. That was a wise choice: I understood the basics and I started experimenting. And this is what I landed on:

A home page with an Inbox, and links to the four main categories for the 2nd brain method (Projects, Areas, Resources and Archive) — First Image — Image by the author.
A home page with an Inbox, and links to the four main categories for the 2nd brain method (Projects, Areas, Resources and Archive) —Second Image — Image by the author

And once this was done, I started taking notes of things that I found useful or interesting.

And what are you actually using it for?

Well, so far I have been using the Second Brain for various things:

The most obvious use case: collecting articles and videos about topics that I am interested in. No matter if read or unread when adding them. I used to have all of these in many different places: reading lists in the browser, favorites bar, Instapaper, Telegram messages with a link that I sent to myself as a reminder, and even sometimes I print articles on paper to read on the go and write on top. A mess, to be honest: I could not find a lot of these when I needed them and I forgot about many of the things in there. Now I have everything centralized. All articles, notes and so on end up inside of the same app and following a decent categorization.

I also use it for planning trips. I have always been a fan of checklists and/or travel packing lists. I used to start them in some piece of paper or notebook around a week before the trip starts. That seems a bit exaggerated, but I know myself and I know that I need to do it. I don’t keep that much stuff in storage, and sometimes I find myself having to buy basic toiletry things like shampoo or toothpaste on the evening before a trip. And I am a big mess when it comes to washing clothes and knowing what I have clean and ready to go. Writing down these checklists helps me planning a little bit and spares me of some stress in the hours before leaving.

Now, I do all of this planning and checking inside of folder in the Second Brain. A trip is a new project and one of the things that I set up first is a place for the packing list. But there is of course more than that inside of the project. If I am traveling somewhere and having a more tourism-oriented vacation, I add information about the places I want to visit, links to some websites where you can buy tickets, events that might be happening around the time I will be visiting, opening times for the different points of interest and so on. My own collection of links that will act as a mini-guide later. On the other hand, if I am just visiting my parents at home for a while, I might write down a list of things that I want to do while I’m there, from buying some things to meeting with some old friends. The good thing about this is that it is a blank page, and there are no limits to what you put in there. You could sketch a whole itinerary if you wanted to. I don’t do that, as I don’t really enjoy having a schedule when I’m on vacation, but nothing prevents you from doing it.

I am also writing these posts directly in the Second Brain. I set up a small Kanban Board where I add cards for any idea I think it might be interesting to write about. Then, if I decide to develop one of those, I define a quick outline for the post and move the card to the next column. After that, it is all about writing some paragraphs, reviewing what I’ve written, having a post ready to be go and finally publishing. The good thing about doing it this way is that I have my resources at hand without needing to change tools, in case I need to double check some information. And as mentioned before, I can access these from any device basically anywhere, so if I think of an idea while sitting on the train on my way to work, I can just write it down so that I don’t forget about it.

These three things are cool, but the best one is this next one: I started writing some “Intermediate Packets (IPs)”, as named by the author. These IPs are basically small chunks of shareable content that can be reused for different projects or purposes. I like to think of these as building blocks: Imagine you are designing some workshop, and you need to think about some icebreakers and some activities to improve communication. Instead of having everything somewhere in the back of your head and making an effort to remember what you used before or saw somewhere, you can simply reach out to your list of IPs and see if something there fits your purpose. I believe this is really powerful and I have already started building some IPs for the future. I kind of did this before, but never thought of having them on a single collection, everything was again distributed in different tools, with different formats and it is quite hard to find things after a couple of months.

As you see, I did nothing really crazy or mind-blowing, but having this Second Brain set up has proven to be super convenient. The key things for me are that I can do it from anywhere, as long as I have a computer or a phone at hand; and that I use only one tool for almost everything now. In case you decide to start a Second Brain at some point, I’d recommend that you use some tool that has a good cross-device sync and avoid using something that lives only in your smartphone or only in your computer.

Not everything is perfect, though.

All of that sounded quite amazing. And I think it is. However, I am still struggling with three things when it comes to the second brain. I need to figure them out in the future:

  1. I am still collecting way too much stuff. Sometimes I take a look at some articles and immediately add them to my Inbox. Then, (almost) every Sunday I categorize what I have in this inbox… and in many cases I just move stuff to a Resources folder without really reading and understanding everything inside. This is pure waste and I need to stop doing it, either by really reading the content and making a small summary (see the second point of this list), or by being more strict and discarding the article directly. I guess I am not so “strong” yet to do any of those at the moment. But at least I am aware of it and I am trying to collect less stuff just for the sake of collecting. That’s a first step.
  2. I am not doing what in the book is described as “Progressive Summarization”, which basically means highlighting in different rounds to be able to get the essence of a piece of information at a quick glance. I am being lazy about this,¡ and I think I need to push myself a bit more to do it. The thing is, I feel like I do not need it yet. I am not working on a big project where I would need that kind of two-sentence-summaries… but I might in the future. I am unsure about this, to be honest. Time will tell.
  3. Categorization is still difficult to do. I feel specially challenging differentiating between “Areas” and “Resources”. The book has a lot of information about how we are categorizing our stuff the wrong way and gives you this PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archive) structure, but I think I am still missing that click in my brain to make it fully work for me. I might re-read some part of the book to see what I could be missing.

On top of these, sometimes I am forgetting to write something down. It’s not been that long since I started doing this and the habit is not yet fully automated. That will for sure get better with time.

Long story short, these are my takeaways:

  • It is cool to have all your information in one place. Using only one app that is cross-device and has cloud sync helps me keeping things up to date. Categorization is still a bit challenging, but it is getting better.
  • Building small Intermediate Packages and having them all inside of a big library is something I should have started doing a long time ago. I will put more effort on this in the upcoming months.
  • I plan to keep using Notion and this structure for now, although I might adapt some things in the future when it comes to categorization. As mentioned before, the frontier between areas and resources is not that clear to me.
  • I am still “overcollecting” sometimes and need to get better at that. Having a list of articles that I will never read is pure waste. More filtering and summarizing in the future, please!

Even if I don’t stick with this Second Brain and PARA structure in the future, I am learning some very useful stuff by running this experiment. I’ll keep it going. And I am setting a reminder in my calendar a year from now, to take a look at this post (which will be now living in the second brain as well) and see if something changed.

Post featured image by That’s Her Business on Unsplash