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Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

Rating: 5/10

Date Read: July 17, 2022

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My Thoughts

This is a great book for anyone who is not familiar with the concept of Second Brain or haven’t yet encountered PKM. The reason I gave it such a low grade is that for me there wasn’t much new information.

This doesn’t mean that the book won’t work for you. If you are new to this, then go ahead, read it, Tiago is indeed one of the best experts in the field. If, on the other hand, you are familiar with the Second Brain narrative, then you don’t need to read this. It is unlikely, that you will pick up anything new.

Tiago has some fantastic writings in the blog format at fortelabs, but this book (in my personal opinion) is just a collection of these posts. I would strongly recommend you check out those first and then consider the book.

Despite all of the things I have said above, I still made some notes that might prove useful in the future. Some of the highlights are great summarizations of the ideas that Tiago talks about, thgouhout the book. You can check them out below.


  • Creating a digital archive (or the Second Brain) with learning, ideas and anthing else that sparks your interest is something that anyone can and should do to thrive in the digital world that we live in today.

  • Your professional success and quality of life depend directly on your ability to manage information effectively.

  • There are 4 key components to your Second Brain (CODE framework):

    • Capture - You need to make it as easy as possible to capture ideas, whether from your own head or from reading a book or an article.
    • Organize - You need a system to organize there ideas. For that Tiago proposes the PARA system, discussed later.
    • Distill - Just saving ideas won’t do you any good, you need to activly summarize and imrpove the notes you are taking. This is the key to meaningful ideas.
    • Express - The purpose of knowledge is to be shared. What’s the point of knowing something if it doesn’t positively impact anyone, not even yourself? Learning shouldn’t be about hoarding stockpiles of knowledge like gold coins. Knowledge is the only resource that gets better and more valuable the more it multiplies.
  • PARA Method is one of the most efficient and simplest method to organize your work accoridng to Tiago. PARA stands for:

    • Project - is for projects (duh) with a clear end goal in mind. For example, “write a review on ‘Building a Second Brain’”
    • Area - is for things that don’t have an end goal but are ongoing in your life, for example, “Finances”, “Cooking”, “Journaling”, etc.
    • Resource - Is for general topics that you are interested in, this is where you will put notes, ideas, highlights, that are not most immediate to any of your projects. For example, “Neuroscience”, “Coding”, “American History”, etc.
    • Archive - Is for projects, resources, or areas that are no longer useful to you. Though, generally, you will be putting “projects” here. You don’t want to delete things, only archive, since that way you will be able to look them up later, and leverage the power of search that most applications have.
  • The three habits most important to your Second Brain include:

    • Project Checklists: Ensure you start and finish your projects in a consistent way, making use of past work. The purpose of using project checklists isn’t to make the way you work rigid and formulaic. It is to help you start and finish projects cleanly and decisively, so you don’t have “orphaned” commitments that linger on with no end in sight.
    • Weekly and Monthly Reviews: Periodically review your work and life and decide if you want to change anything.
    • Noticing Habits: Notice small opportunities to edit, highlight, or move notes to make them more discoverable for your future self.


Introduction - The Promise of a Second Brain

I’ve come to believe that personal knowledge management is one of the most fundamental challenges—as well as one of the most incredible opportunities—in the world today.

PART ONE - The Foundation Understanding What’s Possible

Your professional success and quality of life depend directly on your ability to manage information effectively.

Recent advancements and discoveries in the field of “extended cognition” have shed new light on how practical and powerful it can be to “think outside the brain.” This book isn’t focused on the science, but for an excellent introduction to extended cognition I recommend The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul.

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.

In other words, the jobs that are most likely to stick around are those that involve promoting or defending a particular perspective. Think of a fundraising organizer sharing stories of the impact their nonprofit has made, a researcher using data to back up their interpretation of an experiment, or a project manager citing a couple of key precedents to support a decision. Our careers and businesses depend more than ever on our ability to advance a particular point of view and persuade others to adopt it as well.

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. 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, an image, a quote, or a fact.

PART TWO - The Method The Four Steps of CODE

We need an external medium in which to see our ideas from another vantage point, and writing things down is the most effective and convenient one ever invented.

Feynman revealed his strategy in an interview: You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether 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!”

The goal isn’t to definitively answer the question once and for all, but to use the question as a North Star for my learning. Take a moment now to write down some of your own favorite problems. 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-ended questions that could have multiple answers (in contrast to “yes/no” questions with only one answer). Use your list of favorite problems to make decisions about what to capture: anything potentially relevant to answering them.

Sometimes you come across a piece of information that isn’t necessarily inspiring, but you know it might come in handy in the future. A statistic, a reference, a research finding, or a helpful diagram—these are the equivalents of the spare parts a carpenter might keep around their workshop. For example, I keep a folder full of stock photos, graphics, and drawings I find both online and offline. Any time I need an image for a slide deck, or a web page, or to spark new ideas, I have a plentiful supply of imagery I’ve already found compelling ready and waiting.

One of the most valuable kinds of information to keep is personal information—your own thoughts, reflections, memories, and mementos. Like the age-old practice of journaling or keeping a diary, we can use notetaking to document our lives and better understand how we became who we are.

I often save screenshots of text messages sent between my family and friends. The small moments of warmth and humor that take place in these threads are precious to me, since I can’t always be with them in person. It takes mere moments, and I love knowing that I’ll forever have memories from my conversations with the people closest to me.

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.

As you consume a piece of content, listen for an internal feeling of being moved or surprised by the idea you’re taking in. This special feeling of “resonance”—like an echo in your soul—is your intuition telling you that something is literally “noteworthy.”

There’s scientific evidence that our intuition knows what it’s doing. From the book Designing for Behavior Change:9 Participants in a famous study were given four biased decks of cards—some that would win them money, and some that would cause them to lose. When they started the game, they didn’t know that the decks were biased. As they played the game, though, people’s bodies started showing signs of physical “stress” when their conscious minds were about to use a money-losing deck. The stress was an automatic response that occurred because the intuitive mind realized something was wrong—long before the conscious mind realized anything was amiss. The authors’ conclusion: “Our intuitive mind learns, and responds, even without our conscious awareness.”

I can’t think of anything more important for your creative life—and 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 that voice of intuition every day by taking note of what it tells you.

Besides capturing what personally resonates with you, there are a couple 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.III 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.

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. Writing things down is a way of “rehearsing” those ideas, like practicing a dance routine or shooting hoops, which makes them far more likely to stick.

There is even significant evidence that expressing our thoughts in writing can lead to benefits for our health and well-being.11 One of the most cited psychology papers of the 1990s found that “translating emotional events into words leads to profound social, psychological, and neural changes.” 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.

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.

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 true 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. Note: You could say it is a bad side of zettelkasten. Need to think how to sove this.

We might imagine a movie as emerging straight out of the mind of a screenplay writer or director, when in fact it depends on collecting and refining source material. Coppola’s story demonstrates that we can systematically gather building blocks from our reading and research that ultimately make the final product richer, more interesting, and more impactful.

Our notes are things to use, not just things to collect. Note: This is what im struggling with. I dismissed PARA because my life is not a series of projects. Maybe its time to come up with projects.

The most important factor in whether your notes can survive that journey into the future is their discoverability—how easy it is to discover what they contain and access the specific points that are most immediately useful.

The biggest mistake people make when they start to distill their notes is that they highlight way too much.

Highlighting Without a Purpose in Mind The most common question I hear about Progressive Summarization is “When should I be doing this highlighting?” The answer is that you should do it when you’re getting ready to create something. Unlike Capture and Organize, which take mere seconds, it takes time and effort to distill your notes. If you try to do it with every note up front, you’ll quickly be mired in hours of meticulous highlighting with no clear purpose in mind. You can’t afford such a giant investment of time without knowing whether it will pay off. Instead, wait

“When should I be doing this highlighting?” The answer is that you should do it when you’re getting ready to create something.

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.

When the opportunity arrives to do our best work, it’s not the time to start reading books and doing research. You need that research to already be done.VIII You can prepare in advance for the future challenges and opportunities you don’t even yet know you’ll face, by taking advantage of the effort you’re already spending reading books, learning new things, and simply being curious about the world around you. Note: At the same time, consuming random material wont lead ro product. Research needs to be intentional.

In his book A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, John Locke similarly advised that “We extract only those Things which are Choice and Excellent, either for the Matter itself, or else the Elegancy of the Expression, and not what comes next.”

“Until I began writing my own stories, I never found quite what I was looking for… In desperation, I made up my own.”

she took notes on every aspect of her life: grocery and clothes shopping lists, last-minute to-dos, wishes and intentions, and calculations of her remaining funds for rent, food, and utilities. She meticulously tracked her daily writing goals and page counts, lists of her failings and desired personal qualities, her wishes and dreams for the future, and contracts she would sign with herself each day for how many words she committed to write.

You should always cite your sources and give credit where credit is due. A scientist doesn’t obscure her sources—she points to them so others can retrace her footsteps. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and it’s smart to build on the thinking they’ve done rather than try to reinvent the wheel.

you’ll be able to make progress in any span of time. Instead of waiting until you have multiple uninterrupted hours—which, let’s face it, is rare and getting rarer—you can look at how many minutes you have free and choose to work on an IP that you can get done within that time, even if it’s tiny. Big projects and goals become less intimidating because you can just keep breaking them down into smaller and smaller pieces, until they fit right into the gaps in your day.

best of all, eventually you’ll have so many IPs at your disposal that you can execute entire projects just by assembling previously created IPs. This is a magical experience that will completely change how you view productivity.

Screenshots of conference websites you admire are the best possible starting point for designing your own.

Our creativity thrives on examples. When we have a template to fill in, our ideas are channeled into useful forms instead of splattered around haphazardly.

The CODE Method is based on an important aspect of creativity: that it is always a remix of existing parts. We all stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. No one creates anything out of a pure void.

To truly “know” something, it’s not enough to read about it in a book. Ideas are merely thoughts until you put them into action. Thoughts are fleeting, quickly fading as time passes. To truly make an idea stick, you have to engage with it. You have to get your hands dirty and apply that knowledge to a practical problem. We learn by making concrete things—before we feel ready, before we have it completely figured out, and before we know where it’s going.

It is when you begin expressing your ideas and turning your knowledge into action that life really begins to change. You’ll read differently, becoming more focused on the parts most relevant to the argument you’re building. You’ll ask sharper questions, no longer satisfied with vague explanations or leaps in logic. You’ll naturally seek venues to show your work, since the feedback you receive will propel your thinking forward like nothing else. You’ll begin to act more deliberately in your career or business, thinking several steps beyond what you’re consuming to consider its ultimate potential.

PART THREE - The Shift Making Things Happen

The products of creativity are constantly changing and there is always a new “hot” trend to run after. One year it’s Instagram photos, the next it’s Snapchat stories, the next it’s TikTok videos, and so on forever. Even the long tradition of the novel has evolved for each era. But if you go one level deeper, to the process of creativity, it is a very different story. The creative process is ancient and unchanging.

Besides his prolific works, Hemingway was known for a particular writing strategy, which I call the “Hemingway Bridge.” He would always end a writing session only when he knew what came next in the story. Instead of exhausting every last idea and bit of energy, he would stop when the next plot point became clear. This meant that the next time he sat down to work on his story, he knew exactly where to start. He built himself a bridge to the next day,

Whatever you are building, there is a smaller, simpler version of it that would deliver much of the value in a fraction of the time.

Here are some useful questions to ask as you conduct your search: Is there a book or article you could extract some excerpts from as inspiration? Are there websites that might have resources you could build upon? Are there podcasts by experts you could subscribe to and listen to while commuting or doing household chores? Are there relevant IPs buried in other projects you’ve worked on in the past?

The three habits most important to your Second Brain include:

  • Project Checklists: Ensure you start and finish your projects in a consistent way, making use of past work.
  • Weekly and Monthly Reviews: Periodically review your work and life and decide if you want to change anything.
  • Noticing Habits: Notice small opportunities to edit, highlight, or move notes to make them more discoverable for your future self.

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.

Here are some other options for actions you might want to include in your own version: Answer premortemI questions: What do you want to learn? What is the greatest source of uncertainty or most important question you want to answer? What is most likely to fail? Communicate with stakeholders: Explain to your manager, colleagues, clients, customers, shareholders, contractors, etc., what the project is about and why it matters. Define success criteria: What needs to happen for this project to be considered successful? What are the minimum results you need to achieve, or the “stretch goals” you’re striving for? Have an official kickoff: Schedule check-in calls, make a budget and timeline, and write out the goals and objectives to make sure everyone is informed, aligned, and clear on what is expected of them. I find that doing an official kickoff is useful even if it’s a solo project!

The only way that the Kickoff Checklist we just looked at will be feasible is if you’ve previously taken the time to save and preserve material from past projects. Here’s my checklist: Mark project as complete in task manager or project management app. Cross out the associated project goal and move to “Completed” section. Review Intermediate Packets and move them to other folders. Move project to archives across all platforms. If project is becoming inactive: add a current status note to the project folder before archiving.

Here are some other items you can include on your Project Completion Checklist. I encourage you to personalize it for your own needs: Answer postmortem questions: What did you learn? What did you do well? What could you have done better? What can you improve for next time? Communicate with stakeholders: Notify your manager, colleagues, clients, customers, shareholders, contractors, etc., that the project is complete and what the outcomes were. Evaluate success criteria: Were the objectives of the project achieved? Why or why not? What was the return on investment? Officially close out the project and celebrate: Send any last emails, invoices, receipts, feedback forms, or documents, and celebrate your accomplishments with your team or collaborators so you receive the feeling of fulfillment for all the effort you put in.

The purpose of using project checklists isn’t to make the way you work rigid and formulaic. It is to help you start and finish projects cleanly and decisively, so you don’t have “orphaned” commitments that linger on with no end in sight.

The practice of conducting a “Weekly Review” was pioneered by executive coach and author David Allen in his influential book Getting Things Done.III He described a Weekly Review as a regular check-in, performed once a week, in which you intentionally reset and review your work and life. Allen recommends using a Weekly Review to write down any new to-dos, review your active projects, and decide on priorities for the upcoming week. I suggest adding one more step: review the notes you’ve created over the past week, give them succinct titles that tell you what’s inside, and sort them into the appropriate PARA folders.

The purpose of knowledge is to be shared. What’s the point of knowing something if it doesn’t positively impact anyone, not even yourself? Learning shouldn’t be about hoarding stockpiles of knowledge like gold coins. Knowledge is the only resource that gets better and more valuable the more it multiplies.

Get inspired by identifying your twelve favorite problems. Make a list of some of your favorite problems, save the list as a note, and revisit it any time you need ideas for what to capture. Use these open-ended questions as a filter to decide which content is worth keeping.


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