Building a Second Brain

A Proven Method to organise Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential

by Tiago Forte

Read Status: Completed 📕
Last tended a year ago
Planted a year ago
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6 min read ☕️

Table of Contents



In essence, building a Second Brain is really about standardising how we create actionable notes and strategising our creativity in future projects by tapping on the knowledge we have assembled over time.

Key Ideas

What is a Second Brain and Why You Need It

A Second Brain is a system of personal knowledge management. Like a personal library in your pocket, a Second Brain helps you in:

  1. Finding anything you have learnt/thought about in the past
  2. Organising your knowledge to apply to your projects and goals consistently
  3. Connect ideas and reveal new associations across different areas of your life to manage your life better
  4. Incubating our ideas over time
  5. Spend less time searching and more time doing your best without keeping every detail in your head.

In today's content-rich world, we tend to suffer from information overwhelm in which we bombarded with information. Often times, these are important and valuable information, but we are consuming content at the wrong time to make the full use of them.

Every change in how we use technology also requires a change in how we think. We need a new relationship to information, to technology, and even to ourselves.

In the past, many great artists kept a commonplace book in which they organised their musings, ideas and experiences by writing them down, and it became their source of creativity. Today, we can keep our notes digitally, and they can be easily searched, organised and synced across our devices.

Forte further classified modern-day note-taking apps into 4 styles. It is indeed insightful as there is a huge variety of note taking apps out there today.

  1. Architects enjoy planning, and designing their own processes. Notion provides the freedom to customise the structure of their notes.
  2. Gardeners enjoy exploring and connecting their ideas. Obsidian makes it easy to link and visualise the relationships across notes.
  3. Librarians enjoy collecting a catalogue of useful resources. They may refer Microsoft OneNote which provides a clear structure for note taking.
  4. Students may pefer a simple note-taking app like Google Keep to meet a short-term priority (e.g passing an exam)

Mindset over Toolset

It is important to remember that technologies come and go, Second Brain is a concept that remains.


A Second Brain is more than just a memory tool. It is also a thinking system in which we remember, connect and create new ideas.

Forte further explains the 4 part method (CODE) to create our own Second Brain.

  1. Capture: Keep what resonates

    • we choose to consume information that adds value to our lives and consciously let go of the rest. Avoid digital hoarding.
  2. Organise: Save for actionability

    • organise for utility. Ask yourself, how is this note help me in my current projects?
  3. Distill: Find the essence

    • Ask yourself, how can I make this note useful for my future self?
  4. Express: Show your work

    • It's so easy to endlessly delay and postpone the experiences that would so enrich our lives. We think we're not ready. Embrace work-in-progress. Share what you learn; for example, you have evaluated a list of gaming computers, and you can create a list of recommended products and share it with your friends.

Create a Knowledge Bank

Find out how your industry peers are keeping their knowledge banks.

For example, songwriters compile "hook books" of musical riffs for future songs. Software engineers build "code libraries" for useful bits of reusable code. Marketers maintain "swipe files" for advertising ideas.

Step out of the Reactivity Loop

The moment you first encounter an idea is the worst time to decide what it means.

With a Second Brain, we no longer worry about reacting to each idea immediately out of fear of losing it forever. We can revisit it again when we are calmer in the future.

PARA: Organizing for Action

Forte advocates us to organise our Second Brain with the PARA system.

  1. Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you're working on now.
  2. Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time.
  3. Resources: Topics or interests that may be useful in the future.
  4. Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories.

The key takeaway is that there is never a time when everything is ideal in order, and people need clear workspaces to create. Instead of spending a lot of time organising old content you're not sure you'll ever need, clean up your workspace by putting your existing notes in the archives for safekeeping. They'll show up in searches if you ever need them again.

When it comes to our personal knowledge, there is no such assigned spot. We are organizing for actionability, and “what's actionable” is always changing.

Progressive Summarization Technique

Our notes are things to use, not things to collect. To maximise the utility of our notes, they have to be discoverable.

Forte introduces the progressive summarization technique to distil notes down to their most important points. I find this technique incredibly insightful.

The technique is simple: you highlight the main points of a note, then highlight the main points of those highlights, and so on, distilling the essence of a note in several “layers.” Each of these layers uses different formatting, so you can quickly tell them apart.

For example, after saving a note, we can use spare moments of our time when we don't have the energy for focused work to review them. During this time, we can bold the main points of the note to improve the readability. If we ever come across the note again, we can progressively add another summary layer by looking at the bold passages and highlighting only the most exciting points. If we find ourselves revisiting a note repeatedly, we can add an executive summary at the top of the notes to summarise the note in our own words in bullet points.

This principle is called stigmergy - to leave “marks” on the environment that make your future efforts more accessible.

Intermediate Packets (IP)

Intermediate Packets (IP) are small building blocks that make up your work. They can be distilled notes, outtakes, work-in-progress or even final deliverables from older projects.

Instead of starting from scratch every time, assembling existing building blocks is the secret to frictionless output for similar projects in the future.

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

Creativity is a Balance of Divergence and Convergence

The products of creativity (e.g. Instagram photos, TikTok videos) are constantly changing, but the creative process is unchanging.

A creative endeavour begins with an act of divergence. You open the space of possibilities and consider as many options in your Second Brain as possible. At some point, you must start discarding possibilities and converging toward a solution. Convergence forces us to eliminate options, make trade-offs, and decide what is truly essential.

There are 3 powerful strategies for completing creative projects.

  1. The Archipelago of Ideas: gather a list of useful materials for your deliverable, then decisively link relevant ideas together in an order that makes sense
  2. The Hemingway Bridge: instead of exhausting every last bit of energy, stop when the next actionable point is clear. We can tap on the previous day's momentum to fuel forward.
  3. Dial Down the Scope: Instead of postponing our goals to ship a complex product, ship the most viable product. For example, writing a book from scratch can be intimidating. Consider writing a series of online articles outlining your ideas.

Maintaining your Second Brain

There are 3 essential habits to keep your Second Brain functional and relevant.

  1. Project Checklists: Ensure you start and finish your projects in a consistent way, making use of past work.

    • When starting a new project, capture your current thoughts and review relevant material from your second brain. After that, move them to the project folder, and create an outline and plan for the project.
    • When the project is completed or becomes inactive, update the status and review if any Intermediate Packets can be used in other projects. Finally, archive the rest.
  2. Weekly and Monthly Reviews: Periodically review your work and life and decide if you want to change anything.

    • Have a weekly review to review fleeting notes and sort them into appropriate PARA folders. Refrain from absorbing the contents. Save that thinking when it is practical enough to be actionable.
    • Have a monthly review to evaluate the big picture and review your priorities.
  3. Noticing Habits: Notice small opportunities to edit, highlight, or move notes to make them more discoverable for your future self.

Abundance Mindset

Embrace an abundance mindset. There is an endless amount of powerful knowledge for us to consume. We don't have to understand all of it, or even much of it. All we need is a few seeds of wisdom, and the seeds we most need tend to continual y find us again and again.

Alternative Approaches for Further Reading

  1. Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten
  2. Vannevar Bush's Memex
  3. Anne-Laure Le Cunff's Digital Garden
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