# What is a second brain and how does it work?
In today’s digital world we are inundated with information in the form of books, articles, podcasts, tweets and so on. If we do not have a way to capture and store snippets of information from this constant barrage of knowledge, there is no way for our brains to recall important snippets of information when it is needed.
Enter “the second brain”, a digital commonplace book, where we capture information and organize it in a meaningful way that enables easy retrieval later. It is a form of personal knowledge management where we build up a repository of knowledge that is relavant to our interests and pull from it for the rest of our lives.
In the professional world, notetaking involves creating notes while viewing them as a knowledge building block. Collect enough of them and reconstruct it in your own way to create something beautiful or important. The length and format of a note does not matter, as long as it is interpreted through your own lens, curated by your tastes, and drawn from your personal experience (this is in direct contrast to zettelkasten where notes should be as succint as possible zettelkasten workflow, writing with zettelkasten; Forte does bring up the reduction of a note to it’s essence later however).
Using a second brain system has the following benefits:
- It helps us declutter out minds by putting thoughts down as notes
- Reveals new associations between ideas (it’s not entirely clear how though, as we will see later; in zettelkasten, the links between notes exist to make clear connections)
- Incubate our ideas over time (we tend to choose our most recent ideas and run with it - recency bias; using old notes might help us discover older but still good ideas)
- Sharpen our perspectives (personal knowledge management systems gives us a trove of supporting material we can pull from to make a point on any topic)
# The CODE Framework
Tiago Forte proposes the Capture, Organize, Distill, Express (CODE) framework to implement the second brain system.
- Capture: Whenever something “resonates” with you, capture it in your notetaking system. It is not an analytical decision - identify things that incite, curiousity, pleasure, wonder, or excitement.
- Organize: Save notes by actionability, based on your current projects.
- Distill: Reduce the idea to it’s key concept, in it’s most concise form.
- Express: Use all your capture to create something new.
Many highly creative people have a creative process that they rely on. Taylor Swift writes down snippets of lyrics or music that comes into her mind at random times, and then relies on that to build up her music writing process. Jerry Seinfeld wrote down all ideas for jokes in a yellow legal pad and filed it away in an accordian folder, and used that to write all his material. The key here lies in capturing what comes across your way so that it can be transformed into somthing useful later.
One pitfall in the capture process is saving too much information. There needs to be some criteria for how to choose what needs to be captured. Broadly, it should have at least some of the following elements: Inspiring, Useful, Personal, Surprising. The recommendation is to ultimately capture what “resonates” - as loose as this term may be. In all cases, the source of the note should be captured.
# ORGANIZE - THE PARA FRAMEWORK
The framework to organize notes is based on actionability - “In which project will this be most useful?” - and is based on the PARA System; Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives.
- Projects - These are current projects you are working on, which could include work, personal or side projects. You could put notes related to each project directly into its associated project folder.
- Areas - These are broader “areas” in your life that are not tied to a particular project. They could be things like Health, Finance, Writing, Music, etc. Notes that fall into these areas of interest area stored in its own location, and can be easily pulled from later.
- Resources - These are topics you are interested in, and generally serve no immediate purpose other than your broad interest in them. They serve as a source for research material later on, if you happen to convert these areas of interest into projects. Some examples are - Notetaking, Nutrition, Music Recording, Habit formation, etc.
- Archives - All things no longer relevant from the previous three areas go here. Projects that are done or abandoned, areas that are no longer relevant, or resources you are no longer interested in.
Whenever you capture a note, ask yourself which of these areas it belongs to, and categorize it appropriately. Notes do not permanently live in any category, they are constantly moving and rearranging depending on how your interests and priorities progress.
When you are creating notes for your future self, it is important to find ways to convey the idea from any given note in its most succint form to your future self who will likely not have the time to review the note in its original captured form. This is where the need to distill comes in.
The method used to distill a note into its essence is called Progressive Summarization. You pick up any particular note and create highlights of the important parts, and you can do this at several levels:
- Level 1 - Highlight all the important aspects of the note, so that you can tell the essence of the note by just reading the highlights.
- Level 2 - Bold (or use another highlighter color) to highlight your earlier highlights so that just a few sentences can tell you what the note is about.
- Level 3 - At the top of the note, write an executive summary of the note in your own words that you can quickly read to understand the gist of it. This level is probably not needed for all notes.
To be effective, it is important to “take-away” from the note and only leave in what captures the absolute essence of the note.
Pitfalls in the highlighting process:
- Over highlighting - marking up too much of the original note makes it useless to your future self because you are going to have to re-read all of that again.
- Highlighting without a purpose - you should only be doing the highlighting on a particular note when you have the intention to actually use it for something. You don’t have to highlight every note you capture.
- Making highlighting difficult - highlighting should be an easy process while relying on the feeling of “resonance”, and not an overly analytical activity.
The key point here is that every time you touch a note, you leave it a bit more discoverable for your future self.
This is the final stage of the notetaking process that you have been working towards. All of those notes mean nothing if you do not create something with them. Notes are not meant to be collected, but used to create something new and different.
Break down the work that is to be done into smaller sized intermediate packets. They are individual concrete blocks that make up your work. There are 5 kinds of intermediate packets that you can use in your work.
- Distilled notes - Books or notes you have read, that are broken down to its essence using the progressive summarization technique
- Outtakes - ideas that didnt make it in a previous project
- Work in process - documents created during past projects
- Final deliverables - Completed projects that can kick off something new
- Documents created by others - work created by others that you can use as a starting point for your own work
The main idea here is no matter what form of material you use as a starting point, you should use that as a template for your own work, while giving credit where it is due. So, always look around you for work that you have already done, or work others did that you can use as a template.
This is a powerful idea that is very applicablle in the workplace and in creative endeavors. Did an employee use a really nice format of representing data? Ask him/her if it is okay if you reuse their method. Did you hear a good beat or riff? Use that as a starting point, and play with the tune adding your own flavor to it.
There are several advantages to using intermediate packets:
- You are working on a small chunk of work at a time. You are less prone to interruptions, and will likely get that chunk of work done.
- You will be ready to work at a moments notice because you know you can finish off a small chunk of work, instead of waiting for a time when you can fully concentrate.
- You can collect feedback on smaller chunks of work, instead of going through with the whole thing and finding out it does not meet requirements.
- You will have many such chunks collected over time that you can easily reuse them in future work.
When you break up a project into intermediate packets, ask yourself: “How do I assemble each of these components without having to make them myself?”
Here is where I believe this entire book falls apart - the retrieval methods. Very little time is spent on how exactly notes can be retrieved while making connections that did not exist before. Here is what the books suggests as ways to extract notes and insight out of the system:
- Search - Just blatant keyword searches in the notes app might show you what you are looking for
- Browsing - You manually browse through the PARA folder structure looking for stuff you need
- Tags - tagging notes allows you to traverse past rigid folder hierarchies, but as we all know, the method of tagging breaks down when you have too many tags or cant remember them
- Serendipity - Randomly look around PARA folders to see if something else in there interests you (this is very random, how will you even know where to look? what if there is valuable insight but you just didnt look at it?)
The main content of this part is that everything is a remix. Use your notes system to hash out something with your own personal flavor.