Case Study: Building a Second Brain

Over the last month I’ve gone through Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course, something included in the Praxis bootcamp. At first, I was apprehensive. I’m skeptical of most productivity, organizational, or note taking systems, mostly because it seems like any Tom, Dick, or Harry who’s found a way to organize their life is determined to make a living sharing their method. As I dove into the content, however, I began to see how Tiago’s process is different—and why it just might work for me.

The idea behind Building a Second Brain, or BASB, is simple: in the age of information, one brain (our physical brain) isn’t enough. By mimicking the way our physical brains work, BASB not only allows you to gather information (in the form of blog posts, news articles, etc.) and save them for later, but to use this information to create your own content.

P.A.R.A

BASB is built around four big categories: projects, areas, resources, and archives (PARA).

  • Projects are specific tasks with a clear beginning and end and can be as simple as “write a blog post” and as complex as “code an app.”
  • Areas are ongoing spheres of responsibility, such as finance, vacation, writing, or coding. While we may never revisit a project once completed, we constantly interact with areas.
  • Resources are topics of interest. For me, this includes spirituality, writing, film and filmmaking, productivity, and experience/design.
  • And the archives contain anything inactive from the other three categories.

Actually, it was the archive concept that started to sell me on the practicality of BASB. Tiago suggests using Evernote for digital notes, though you’re free to use any cloud-based note-taking app, such as Notion, Simplenote, or Bear. Even the native otes app on your phone would work in a pinch. Anyway, I’d used Evernote in the past to clip random articles from the internet, though it had been some time since I’d opened it. The thought of sorting through a couple hundred articles and tagging or categorizing them was overwhelming.

Enter the archive. Tiago, as I would soon discover, is big on not wasting time. He suggested sweeping all your current notes into a folder called “Archive” and the date. This way, you still have access to all your information, but you’re not wasting time sorting through things you may never use again. Genius.

Here’s a video I created using Loom, showing the process of setting up the basic PARA system in my Evernote.

Frankly, I’m still getting the hang of PARA. I’m experimenting with what goes where. Projects are pretty easy to figure out, but areas and resources are blurry for me. But one of the benefits of the BASB mindset is that this really doesn’t matter too much, because the value doesn’t come from having everything neatly categorized in a million stacked notebooks and tagged with every single keyword in the article. In fact, Tiago maintains that this is actually a negative, and the bigger “pot” you have to start with, the better.

You see, as much as we might like to think otherwise, our brains aren’t linear and they don’t store information in file cabinets. Rather, our brains operate in a circuitous, roundabout way, searching for sense in the randomness and making connections between unlikely subjects. Carefully organizing our digital brains in countless virtual notebooks fails because it’s too organized. When everything is so carefully sequestered, we minimize the chances of stumbling across one thing while in search of another, and insulate ourselves from the possibilities randomness inspires.

With this in mind, less is more in the BASB system. The goal is to curate and expand upon a meaningful collection of articles, posts, and other inspiration, but to organize them as little as possible.

Progressive Summarization

The next part of BASB focused on consuming content intentionally. Tiago introduced the idea of progressive summarization, a method for breaking down an article over time. Essentially, the idea is that our brains don’t retain information when we try to cram them full. Rather, by making repeated passes over time, the information can sink in, increasing the chances of being able to recall it later.

I shot another video that goes into progressive summarization in more detail (and got a haircut in between, as is painfully evident from the little video bubble of me in the bottom left-hand corner 😬).

Like with PARA, the idea behind progressive summarization is simple: don’t do more with a specific piece of content than necessary. The specific layers can vary based on how you personally use your second brain, but Tiago’s system is a good one to get started.

Making Content Work For You

PARA and progressive summarization are fantastic, but they’re not enough. At this point we have a lot of content we’ve saved, but nothing else. Thankfully, there are a lot of methods to sort through this content and turn it into something actionable. In the next video, I highlight a few of the tools I’ve found most helpful.

BASB Takeaways and Next Steps

Building a Second Brain gave me the tools to stop being a digital packrat and instead focus on making the content I encounter work for me, rather than the other way around. Since starting the course, I’ve noticed my habits have changed. Before, I was quick to bookmark or clip an article (that “read later” function in my browser is both a blessing and a curse!), yet I didn’t have a good system for going back through that material. Now, not only do I have tools to revisit that content, but now I’m starting to consider the long-term value of what I save or clip.

One of the most unexpected things about going through BASB was how it influenced my non-digital life as well. I love people-watching and am constantly observing my surroundings. I’ve carried a small notebook off and on for years, but after starting BASB, I’m rarely without one. Jotting down a few lines or a concept I’m thinking about in a notebook is a great way for me to capture the random thoughts I have that could turn into something. Though I could just as easily pull out my phone and tap out a thought that way, I like the physical process of writing it down. Then, as needed, I can go through that notebook and move relevant information to Evernote—which is yet another smaller layer in my progressive summarization pyramid.

At the end of the course, we created a small personal knowledge management (PKM) notebook, a way to quickly summarize our biggest takeaways and next steps for future reference. As an experiment, I turned mine into a long gif 🙂