Information. I was drowning in it.
In notebooks. On bits of paper. On my phone. In articles, papers and web-pages scanned or stored into Evernote. And in an incomprehensible mess of nested folders on my computer.
My web browser bristled with tabs marking useful stuff to read. Books had turned-down corners, highlighted passages, sticky tabs marking bits that I’d thought I’d want to go back to. Then there were the podcasts, the YouTube clips, the TED talks and masterclasses, the online courses…
I had a constant feeling of being behind, or of losing or forgetting something important. And when I did want to use or refer back to something, there were often long, frustrating searches to find it again.
If any of this feels familiar, I’ve found a solution
My life is becoming more organised. I no longer spend hours looking for a quote I remember. Key ideas from every book I read are neatly summarised now, and easy to find. I can quickly find my notes on podcasts, courses or talks. Or recall what was said in a meeting, and what my next action steps are.
With tech, I rarely have to learn to do the same thing twice. I just look up how I did it last time, and find either a quick map with keyboard shortcuts, or a step-by-step checklist if it was a more complicated task. Interesting newsletters or online articles I want to read are all stored in my read-later app, Instapaper, which I open whenever I have a few minutes.
Most of all, I no longer feel like I’m overwhelmed and drowning in a sea of information. I feel like I’m surfing it, able to navigate my way through it. I don’t need to remember anything. When I need stuff I can easily fish it out. In fact, it will often resurface, even if I’ve forgotten I have it.
I’ve been building a second brain
This is a system created by Tiago Forte, who explains it clearly in his excellent new book, Building A Second Brain. It builds on the Zettelkasten system invented by Niklas Luhmann, an extraordinarily productive and eclectic 20th-century German academic who published 58 books and hundreds of articles over a 30-year time period, advancing innovative thought across several academic disciplines. He also raised his three children alone after his wife died, so no one could accuse the man of shirking.
Luhmann’s secret was the paper notes he kept in a series of slip-boxes – or Zettelkasten. These contained his notes on everything he read and studied, but also his own thoughts and the connections between it all. (If you’re interested in knowing more, Sonke Ahrens’ 2016 book How To Take Smart Notes is aimed at academic writers, but it lays out the system clearly.)
But we now live in the 21st century
We have information coming at us from all kinds of devices, apps and messaging services. We read books but also listen to audiobooks, or read them digitally. We also have a bewildering number of places in which to store our data.
Paper seems an inefficient and wasteful way of keeping our notes. And why would we put it all in one place, when we can have it stored and backed up in the cloud, and retrieve what we need from anywhere?
Forte’s system expands on the Zettelkasten concept of taking smart notes, and adapts it more fully for the digital era. And it’s brilliant.
I’ve always told myself that I thrived on chaos
And I think that many of us – me included – express our resistance to creative work by planning and organising, making mind maps and charts and colour-coding our books or materials.
But I now have a better way of storing all of this, and assessing what actually supports me, and what was busywork. No longer having to keep track of everything has freed up my creativity. I’m now using my mind to develop ideas, not to remember information.
Writing my weekly blog posts has become much easier as I’ve got into the habit of saving even the vaguest ideas as they come to me. When I’m ready to develop one of these further, there’s a growing library of quotes, approaches and ideas read in books or gleaned from podcasts, talks and courses for me to draw on, instantly.
There are also whole chunks pre-written, as I often consider ideas in my notes, putting concepts into my own words and making links with other thoughts or resources on the same subject.
Will I ever feel fully organised?
Probably not. I have more than 30 years of chaotic folders on my computer, and I doubt I’ll ever organise all of the data I have stored. But every time I open or search for a file for any reason, I quickly move it into the new system, making it easier to find next time.
I’m a voracious reader, and I listen to a lot of podcasts. As a coach working with experienced creatives, I also learn lots from my brilliant clients. Having a place to store what I’ve learned, and to consider how I might apply it in my own life or share it with you has made almost everything I do faster and easier.
Everyone’s Second Brain will be different
That’s the beauty of it. It’s a way of capturing what you’re interested in, building on your ideas, documenting and improving your processes, and making connections between projects and information that might not immediately appear to have anything in common at all.
It’s a notebook, personal journal, sketchbook for new ideas. It’s a place to take notes, organise projects, help you manage your life.
The notes you create inside it are building blocks of knowledge, units to be used and reused. And the beauty of a second brain is, you don’t even need to remember you have them.
How does a Second Brain work?
Essentially, Forte’s system is a four-step process he names with a handy acronym: CODE.
Capture insights and ideas as notes, keeping anything that resonates with you, or that excites your curiosity. Try to make whatever you write useful for your future self: explain why you’ve saved it, how you might use it, what it connects with or reminds you of.
He recommends using the following tools:
A note-taking app:
I use mem.ai (not an affiliate link; I’m just a massive fan) and it has been a life-changer. It easily stores everything from Twitter threads to web pages, and I like the clean interface. But you might prefer Notion, Obsidian, Apple Notes, or a host of others.
Which one is best? The one that you will enjoy using, regularly.
A read-later app:
I use Readwise, but again there are lots more available, including Pocket, Safari’s Reading List feature, Instapaper, Matter, Raindrop.. Basically, it’s somewhere to store webpages, tabs, podcasts and anything else you consume online and want to get back to later.
I’m a writer. So I still use notebooks and scraps of paper. But I now make time at the end of each working day and at the end of the week to transfer anything useful into my second brain. I then recycle the paper or cross the item out in my notebook, so that I know it’s been captured.
A task manager:
This is where you keep your immediate to-do list, the next steps in a big project. I use Things, which has a clean, uncluttered interface and synchs across all of my Apple devices. But there are hundreds of alternatives.
Organise your notes into the right buckets at regular intervals. And create opportunities to review them regularly and connect the dots between different notes and ideas.
Forte goes into detail on where to store what, and when to use folders/notebooks/tags/whatever else your apps use to sort things. I’m finding his suggestions very helpful. My iMac especially was chaos. The simple five-folder system he explains in the book has made retrieving anything easier.
Distill key insights. This is where the second brain becomes more than just an efficient storage system. It becomes an engine for creativity.
Every time you save a new note, try to make it useful for your future self. Explain why you saved it, what you were thinking, what caught your attention. Connect it back to other notes and ideas. (Most digital note-taking apps make it easy to create links between notes.)
Each time you access a note again, summarise it further, revise it or add new thoughts or connections. This turns your notes into living, evolving things that reflect your current thinking and ideas, not just dead, stored information.
Finally, share your insights with others. It’s how we learn and really crystallise our thinking. But also, knowledge only becomes useful when it is used and shared.
- I no longer just recommend books to coaching clients. I can also send them my notes and key points. Or links to other books and resources on the same subject.
- If I’m sending them a link to a relevant podcast or talk, I can often tell them that the meaty parts come 22 minutes in, then near the 50-minute mark, because that too was in my notes.
- If they’re struggling to do something online, I sometimes have a checklist mapping out my process, or links to a YouTube video, an article or whatever I used to learn it myself.
It’s easy to retrieve these little snippets and pass them on, because I no longer have to spend ages looking through paper notebooks or my browser history to find them.
This might sound complicated
So let me explain how it actually saves time and effort. Most of us already document our processes in some way. To-do lists on scraps of paper, for instance. Getting into the habit of keeping this information changes everything.
I recently delivered a free online workshop helping creatives to find their focus and make a plan for the year. It took a lot of time to create, set up, and promote. But next time I do an online workshop, I’ll have the promotional copy I created (plus notes on what worked best). Instructions on how to link to a free workbook that participants can download afterwards. A template for that workbook. Canva templates for my social media posts. Instructions to set up the workshop in my booking software. And the deck I created for the workshop itself, with notes on what worked, and where the audience’s attention seemed to flag.
Even if the next workshop I do is completely different, I’ll have a framework to hang it on. And if I start doing these kinds of events regularly, I’ll already have a process to follow and refine.
This is common sense, of course. But even if I did keep this sort of information before, it was scattered in so many different places that it took an age to find. Now, I just type “workshop” into mem.ai’s search bar, and it all resurfaces again.
How to use your Second Brain for creative work
Forte has useful suggestions on how to apply all of this to our creative work. It’s particularly applicable to knowledge workers and to writers, but I think any creative would find them helpful.
A designer client has found the system invaluable, for instance. He now keeps all of his rough sketches, ideas and information on materials and processes in mem.ai, and tracks active projects within his second brain.
Forte also offers practical ways of organising a project. He foes into a detail on how to get clear on your aims and organise the work. Then you spend a few minutes recording what you’ve learned and analysing what went well and what could be improved, before archiving everything in case you need parts of it again.
This is just an overview
I could go into more detail on all of this. But if this has resonated with you, read Building A Second Brain and go deeper, or take a look at the resources on Tiago Forte’s website. Srini Rao of The Unmistakeable Creative podcast also has a set of informative videos on using mem.ai to build your second brain. This is a good one to start with.
If this sounds needlessly complex, that’s not the reality. Once you start applying the system, it simplifies everything. And it sets you up for far more of the random coincidences and connections that inform creative work.
I love growing vegetables, for instance. While saving an article on salads to grow in the winter-time, I thought of a parallel with ideas, and how they too have cycles, and need time and favourable conditions in order to germinate. This became a separate note which I connected with other notes about ideas and where they come from; they’re now growing into a future article – perhaps even a book.