In the modern age, people are bombarded with more information, and are more personally responsible for managing that information, than ever before. How do you stay on top of your schedule, work responsibilities, financial obligations, and the spigot of media that runs full force 24/7 while not only avoiding becoming overwhelmed, but actually using all that information to generate better ideas, advance your career, and generally improve your life?
My guest would say that the answer lies in having a mind outside your mind. His name is Tiago Forte and he’s the author of Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. Today on the show, Tiago explains how a Second Brain is an external resource where you can store all of the most valuable checklists, thoughts, notes, ideas, and insights you acquire and generate. He explains how the Second Brain supercharges the historical practice of keeping a commonplace book, and how it improves your productivity and well-being by getting stuff out of your head, off your bandwidth, and into a place where you can actually put it to use. Tiago then walks us through this system of “Personal Knowledge Management,” including the tools you can use to capture information, the question to ask yourself to decide what to capture, and why he recommends organizing what you capture around action instead of subject. And Tiago explains how the ultimate goal of having a Second Brain is to take what you put into this treasury and synthesize it into better ways to live, think, act, and express yourself.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Commonplace books
- AoM Article: The Man Book — Creating a Reservoir of Timeless Wisdom
- Tiago’s YouTube series on choosing a digital notes app
- Digital note-taking apps mentioned in the show:
- Pocket — an article-saving app
- Tiago’s blog post on his “PARA” organization system
Connect With Tiago Forte
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In the modern age, people are bombarded with more information and are more personally responsible for managing that information than ever before. How do you stay on top of your schedule, work responsibilities, financial obligations, and the speakative media that runs full force 24/7 while not only avoiding becoming overwhelmed, but actually using all that information to generate better ideas, advance your career and generally improve your life. Well, my guest would say that the answer lies in having your mind outside your mind, his name is Tiago Forte, and he’s the author of Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. Today on the show, Tiago explains how a second brain is an external resource, we can store all the most important checklist, thoughts, notes, ideas and insights you acquire and generate, he explains how the second brain supercharges the historical practice of keeping a common place book and how it improves your productivity and wellbeing by getting stuff out of your head off your bandwidth and into a place where you can actually put it to use, Tiago then walks us through this system of personal knowledge management, including the tools you can use to capture information.
The question to ask yourself to decide what to capture and why he recommends organizing what you capture around action instead of subject, and Tiago explains how the ultimate goal of having a second brain is to take what you put in this treasury and synthesize it into better ways to live, think, act, and express yourself. After the show is over, check at aom.is/secondbrain.
Alright. Tiago Forte welcome to the show.
Tiago Forte: Thank you, happy to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a book called Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. So it’s all about this idea that you spent most of your adult life developing this concept called the second brain. So let’s start there. What is the second brain?
Tiago Forte:Sure, yeah. So second brain is an external outside your head place that you trust. I suggest a piece of software, but it can really be any kind of information storage tool, it’s a place that you trust to preserve and save all the most important information and knowledge that matters to you, your ideas, your insights, your life lessons, realizations, your theories about how the world works, your book notes quotes you found, we are such just high volume information consumers these days, but I would just ask your listeners or you to really think about what do you have to show for all that knowledge you’ve consumed? Where is it? Can you point to it? Can you say what it is? Can you use it? And for most people, they have a vague sense of the things that they learn in the past, but no real record of it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I would say I consume a lot of stuff and then the next day I forget about it, or I’ve created sort of a slab-organizational system where I’ll save and read this later, but then I never do. Yeah.
Tiago Forte: You know, that’s a good point. I think most people have some semblance of this, almost everyone has a folder, they keep things on their computer, they have bookmarks in their browser, they have the camera roll on their phone where they’ve taken photos of interesting images, it’s just… So it’s already there somewhere. It just needs a little bit of kind of organization and centralization, you need to centralize it a little bit, otherwise when it’s time to find it, you have to look like 25 different places.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you are right most people have some sort of… They offload some things to external tools, a calendar could be part of a second brain, a to do list is part of a second brain, but you’re like second brain trademark TM. What Tiago is doing is like, it’s that, but it’s all in one place. So you can go there and see everything in one place, and not have to go to 20 different things.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, exactly.
Brett McKay: Book that people in the Renaissance to the 19th century used as a second brain. What was a Commonplace book? How is it similar to what you’re doing with the second brain? And then I guess the follow-up would be, how does the second brain turbo charge this idea of the common place book?
Tiago Forte: Yes, this is one of my favorite things to talk about. Basically, I kind of did a DIY version of this for a few years just using, I think at the time, like Microsoft Word or Google Docs, just Whatever I had available, but then I started to get curious, has anyone had this issue before? Has anyone done something like this in the past, and I started really diving into the history, and I just discovered this is an almost ancient practice that humans have engaged in. The word common place book, actually comes from ancient Greece, comes from 2000 or 3000 years ago, when they have these courts of law and these assemblies, these democratic assemblies, and they would just take notes on what happened, like the meeting notes or the court transcript, and they would keep it in a common place was like the place. So it’s ancient, and actually the word note, that word note is among the 2% oldest words in the English language, think about that, it’s as old as words like fall or run or jump, it’s like an ancient ancient word. And so, starting thousands of years ago, I started tracing the history up through the medieval times when there were these manuscripts that the monks in the churches and convents would keep up through the Renaissance, up through the Enlightenment, and all the way to the Industrial Revolution.
And there’s examples all through to those eras, in the Industrial Revolution, there was a very relevant example, which was kind of a resurrection of these commonplace books, and people like John Lock and Leonardo da Vinci and others would just keep a notebook. It was just a simple paper notebook where they would write down… It wasn’t so much a journal with personal thoughts and reflection, that’s one thing, it was more like copying and pasting and writing down little snippets of insight and ideas and metaphors and examples and facts and observations that they would just find in the outer world. And just like today, the Industrial Revolution was this time that educated people were trying to make sense of the world, they’re trying to make sense of how things were changing and why, and so commonplace book was part of their effort to make sense of their world. So I don’t know, I’ve just been inspired by history, and I think we can now do the very same thing that people have done throughout history, but super charged by the internet and by technology.
Brett McKay: And… Yeah, what they did with these commonplace books, so there’s this controversy, this long ongoing philosophical debate that goes back to Socrates, whether you should write things down or not. Socrates said well, no, you shouldn’t write things down ’cause that will weaken your memory, but there’s been research that shows, “Well, actually, when you write things down, it allows you to process things, actually allows you to think better and embed it more in your brain, and then it allows you to sort of start taking these ideas you’ve been writing down and cross-pollinating them to come with new ideas.” So that’s what’s going on in This call, I think a lot of people think, Well, why would I wanna just record everything ’cause I’ll just forget about it. Actually no, by recording, it actually helps you remember.
Tiago Forte: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I say in the book, There’s multiple studies that show the act of writing something down has just tremendous benefits, just writing it down like no one else even has to see it, you don’t even have to see it in the future, in the moment you write something down, the study that I cite shows benefits to your health, people who were in hospitals recovered faster, people who didn’t have jobs, got jobs faster or got promotions faster. There are benefits to your blood pressure to your sleep, to your objective physical health by essentially just getting the jumble of thoughts and emotions and worries and anxieties in your head and just externalizing them offloading them into an external source. So that’s one thing that’s a great benefit that you get immediately, but then what I’m saying is you can get that benefit, but then also you additionally get future benefits such as reviewing and reflecting on what you learned in the past, such as incorporating what you’ve written down in the future, into your writing or into your speaking, or into your product development, or into your business building, so it’s like you get some benefits now and you get some benefits later, which to me is a pretty good deal.
Brett McKay: And you make a point, this is important for people to… Who are living in the 21st century to do… Because as you said, we have a lot of information and a lot of books have been written about personal finance management, personal time management, but you say now is the time people need to start thinking about personal information management.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, yes. Yeah, you look at the past few decades of history, it’s like one by one, these practices have gone from only for companies or organizations or only for the elite and kind of been democratized and found their way onto the individual level, the ones you mentioned, finance used to be for the CFO of a huge corporation. Now, each of us has personal finance, we have the tools and the knowledge to think about our personal investment portfolio and our personal spending, the personal computer computers used to be used to take up a whole room and could only be the only people who could afford them were huge companies now, each of us has practically a super computer on our desk and in our pockets, so it’s like one by one, these super-powers have been democratized, I think it’s time for personal knowledge management. In the past, knowledge management was something huge companies would think about, how do we share knowledge across our divisions, across our teams, but now one individual has access to so much information, so much knowledge that we can… And I think must start to think about how does information get shared across my life, how does knowledge get preserved and cultivated and distilled through the future, it’s a very new idea to people, but I think it’s a massive years-long trend that we’re all gonna be affected by.
Brett McKay: I can look at my own life where me neglecting my personal information management, caused me just a bunch of unnecessary headaches and caused me to unnecessarily reinvent the wheel. Here’s an example I thought of when you were talking and describing that sometimes my extended family gets together for a birthday and we order barbecue, but every time we do that, we have to figure out, well, how much food do we need, because if we just would have saved what we ordered the previous time, because it’s the same number of people that come every single time, I wouldn’t be spending an hour trying to figure out, Well, how many ribs do we need, how many orders of potato salad do we need… I know it’s a trivial example, but I think it highlights that if you have a way to manage your information, it can make your life a whole lot easier.
Tiago Forte: No, I love that example. These are some of my favorite examples. I have a similar one of my kind of oldest and most used notes is a packing list for travel, and it’s kind of obvious and yet unusual. Every time I go on a trip, basically, I forget something. And every time I forget something, I go, Okay, good, I forgot an umbrella. Let me go get that note, I just do a search for travel and it usually just pops up and I just add the item that I forgot onto the list, so over time I am actually improving, I’m getting better at my ability to pack for travel, and this is the key part, without having to “keep it in mind.” This is the key thing, you don’t wanna use your precious brain space for that, you want to use an external tool. I actually think most people tend to think of these super sophisticated, high and mighty uses of a second brain, I think of packing list, I think of grocery lists, I think of shopping lists, these mundane everyday things that you can start there, which starts to free up brain capacity, which then you can use that freed up brain capacity on these more sophisticated use cases.
Brett McKay: Well, with these sophisticated use cases, these are things like life projects you might have, it could be you’re redesigning your house or redesigning a room, or you can have a second brain place for that, you’re thinking about changing careers. Well, if you have all those information that you’ve collected, you’re able to start seeing connections between different stuff, and you’re able to better make decisions ’cause you have all the information at your fingertips.
Tiago Forte: Oh man I wish more people would understand what you just said. This is kind of… One of the deep implications of this is, it’s like we are one holistic human, we tend to wear different hats, you might be… I have a hat, a father, and then a husband, and then a business owner, and then a writer, you might have a dozen or more different hats you wear, but it’s one… It’s one soul, it’s one human being, one psyche that is in common between all these things, and so this often happens when people have been using their second brain for a while, some weeks or months, they start to notice what you just said, patterns, they start to notice Oh, there’s a pattern across these different areas of my life, such as something that I seem to be interested in, or a question I’m passionate about answering, or the same lesson or principle that keeps popping up again and again, and if you can notice that…
If you can identify it a little bit earlier, that means you can start to act on that information, you can start to make decisions and take actions based on that insight into yourself and save potentially years, sometimes people spend years trying to find their life purpose or what they really want or who they really are, which is wonderful, but I say, instead of starting with this grand, a 10-year plan or a life goal or whatever, just start by noticing what is arising in your subconscious through the mundane things that you notice and care about and that resonate with you on a day-to-day level.
Brett McKay: Another thing too, the second brain does, okay, yeah, you as a person, you’re one soul, but you have these different hats you wear, but you’re also… You’re a temporal being, you have different temporal parts of you, so there’s a future self where you read something now, when you’re 30 and you’re like, Well, this probably won’t come in handy till I’m 80, but I’d like to hold on to this. Maybe you listen to a podcast about end of life decisions and how to manage your estate or whatever. Yeah, it’s not gonna be useful for you too much when you’re 22 and have no family, but you’re like, I wanna hold on to this for my future self, ’cause he might wanna know this.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, exactly. You know, there’s this bias we have as humans, which is called novelty bias, which is we… And it’s so deep in how we think and how we live in the world, it’s practically invisible, if you think about any time you make a decision or take an action, most people, most of the time are relying on information that they just encountered like this hour or maybe today or maybe in the past week, and that’s completely natural, that’s where you have top of mind, that’s what you can remember, but when you go to make a decision, let’s say about your career, your business, what are the chances that the best idea… The best choice is one that you thought of just now, just recently, so I kinda think of along the lines of what you’re saying, I think of a second brain as a system for countering novelty bias. It’s like the antidote I find when I’m working with my notes, I’m just as likely, and often people who work with me point this out, they notice it, I’m just as likely to use a note, a digital note from five years ago as one from this year. I’m just as likely to use a note an idea from six months ago as one from this month, which is so unusual, but that’s kind of what a second brain is all about.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s start walking through the process of building and maintaining a second brain, and I think the thing that people… They get hung up on. This has been my personal… I’m universalising, from my personal experience. The thing that you get hung up on is the software or apps you’re gonna use for your second brain, ’cause you go online and you might search Personal Information Management software, you’re gonna see seven different options. Is there one best note-taking second brain app out there, or is it just whatever works for you.
Tiago Forte: There so is not. There so is not one app to rule them all, and I think you’re completely right, the belief that there is, and the search for that one ultimate app derails people for a long time. A long, long time. So a few things. So first, I think it’s important to recognize that your second brain is not one app, it can never be. The average person uses between one and two dozen apps, software programs per day. Think about that, some for writing, Google Docs, some for reading, the Kindle app or a read later app, some for storing information, some for sharing information, social media sites, editing programs, Photoshop, all these different software programs, and to think that those are all information management apps all of them. So the thing that you’re gonna replace all these highly capable, specialized platforms with one is just ludicrous. So that’s the first thing, just that acknowledgement frees people up that they’re going to use a constellation of different apps always, but I will say there is an important place for one app, which is your notes app, your digital notes app. This is app like Evernote or Notion or Obsidian, or Apple Notes, Google Keep, Microsoft OneNote.
It’s like a specific category, and when it comes to choosing your digital notes app, there are a few kind of framework That we can use. I actually have a three-part series on my YouTube channel called How to choose your digital notes app, and we consider… We kind of place people into four archetypes, there’s kind of like a personality quiz, that people fall into, your either an architect, you’re a gardener, you’re a librarian, or you’re a student, and I kinda describe each one of those archetypes, once you have one archetype that you identify with then the choice actually becomes quite clear, and I recommend some, a handful of very specific apps for each one.
Brett McKay: Okay, so basically, you gotta find the app that works for you, that suits your personality, it’s gonna be different, and this note-taking app is where all the stuff that you capture with these different apps you might be using, whether it’s a read-later app, highlights from your Amazon Kindle, what’s great about all these apps is that they can work together, so a highlight you make on Kindle, you can import that into Evernote or Google Keep for example, correct?
Tiago Forte: Exactly. That’s one of the most common starting points, it’s actually one of my earliest starting points is if you read e-books, any kind of e-book, for example, Kindle books on a Kindle or like the Kindle app on iPad or iPhone, if you’re reading those books, it’s so easy to just add a highlight, you just put your finger down, drag it, and it turns yellow, but a lot of people… In fact, almost no one knows that there is a simple way to all at once, en masse, in a completely automated way that doesn’t require any manual work, you can import all of those highlights from all the books, all the Kindle books you’ve ever read all at once to a notes app, and that way what you’re doing is you’re getting that work you’ve done… Reading a book is hard in the age of distraction that we live in, reading a book is like an accomplishment, I think, and then you additionally, if you’re adding highlights, it’s so obvious, why not put in an extra 1% of work to import those into your notes app and then you have this life-long record of the ideas and the quotes and the insights and the advice that you found most valuable.
Brett McKay: So and then also when you’re browsing the internet, I know a lot of people, they’ll find this article and like, “Oh, that was really good, I should remember that for later,” usually they bookmark it, but I tend to… When I bookmark things in my browser, it just goes through this abyss that doesn’t… I’ll never look at it again, but things like… What’s that? Pocket. Pocket is a cool app you can use, sort of creates a digital magazine for you to go back and read through articles you wanted to check out again, and again with, I think some of these read-later apps like Pocket, you can import the articles that you saved into your main note-taking app like Evernote.
Tiago Forte:That’s exactly right. So yeah, there’s always a starting point, for some people, it’s highlights from e-books, but then once you have this central repository, the second brain, you start to realize, “Oh, I can do that same thing everywhere, I can pull from many sources, as many sources as I want,” and so then they start using Pocket or Instapaper for blog posts or online articles or news articles, then there’s tools that you can do it for YouTube videos and YouTube transcripts, then you can do it for podcasts, and one by one you start realizing, “Oh, each of these sources of information that I consume is a source, it’s an input.” And by the way, no one company wants you to do this, right? I think this is the reason that I had to create a course on it, and now write a book. Apple doesn’t want you… Or let’s say Amazon doesn’t want you to save your highlights in some place that you control, that you’ll always have access to no matter what Amazon does, right? Apple doesn’t want you to do that, Facebook doesn’t want you to do that, Twitter doesn’t want you to do that.
So, no one is making it easy because they wanna keep all the data and have it be in their proprietary system, so it’s kind of like you’re like kind of hacking. I mean, there’s nothing illegal here, obviously, this is all completely legitimate, but you’re sort of hacking and connecting and customizing how these different apps talk to each other, all with the goal of having your knowledge library is how I think of it, your knowledge collection in a place that no one can mess with it, no one can take it away from you, no one can lock down access.
Brett McKay: Another really powerful capture tool is your smartphone’s camera, these things… I figured this stuff out whenever I’m taking pictures randomly, I just figured out recently, the iPhone, when you take a picture and there’s text, it recognizes that it’s text, and it’ll be like, “Do you wanna save this as a note?” And I’m like, “This is voodoo stuff,” but like, that’s the same thing you can use your smartphone to take pictures and import text to your notes. I’ve done this before, if I’ve been whiteboarding with a group of people, take a picture of the white board and then use that in my notes.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. The camera on your smartphone is probably the most effective, what I call a capture tool, that has ever been invented. I mean, it is perfect, it’s always on you, it takes no special effort to use, all of it gets saved in a central place, which is your camera roll and probably synced to Google Photos or Apple iCloud or somewhere, those photos are easily shareable, they can be edited, as you said, there’s new features coming out all the time where it can read text which can then be copied and pasted, it is the most… It’s an incredible era for this idea of knowledge capture, I think your camera smartphone is the ultimate capture tool.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Okay, so we’ve talked about the tools you’re gonna use, you’re gonna have one note-taking app that’s gonna be sort of the central location for your second brain, and then you can use varying different other apps to collect information. Let’s talk about the process of building your second brain, and you have this method called CODE, which is an acronym, and the C in CODE stands for Capture, and we’ve been kinda talking about how to capture, the tools you’re gonna use to capture. But let’s talk about this, what sorts of things are we capturing, like how do we decide what we should capture? I think this is another place people can get overwhelmed, they’re like, “Well, I’m gonna capture all the things,” and then your second brain becomes useless ’cause you just have the whole universe in your second brain and that’s not useful, so how do you decide what to capture and what not to capture?
Tiago Forte: Yeah, great. So as we just talked about, capture has become radically easier in the past, for just 10 or 20 years, we capture all day long, whether we want to or not, every email which enters your inbox in a way is being captured, every tab in your browser, every photo you take on your smartphone, every file or PDF that you download, every bookmark that you save, all of it is being captured, but then that creates a new problem, which is then what to do with the immensity of information that you captured. And this is where, as you said, my methodology comes in, so it’s CODE, which stands for Capture, Organize, Distill and Express. It’s basically a workflow, information comes in with the C, then it gets and moves on to the next stage, which is Organize, then once it’s organized it moves on to the next stage, which is Distill, and finally it ends up at Express, which stands for expressing those ideas or that knowledge through your own choices, your own writing, your own speaking, your own productivity. So we can go through those one by one if you want, but it’s essentially a… It’s a workflow for turning inputs, this kind of raw unfinished inputs into outputs that accelerate your career and bring your business and your life to the next level.
Brett McKay: Okay. So yeah, I wanna talk about this. So capturing… It’s really easy. I think in the book you talk about, you should just… When you’re first starting out with this, capture with abandon, get in the habit of… Something like, “I feel like I should capture that,” then go ahead and capture it, it might be more than you really need, but it’s getting you… It’s helping you develop that skill of capturing, but then as you do the second brain process, this CODE process, you’ll begin to refine, you’ll be able to figure out kind of like, “Well actually, I don’t need to capture that, I don’t need that.” I mean, you say here on average, you capture just two notes per day and that’s it.
Tiago Forte: Yep.
Brett McKay: And I think most people will probably get to that point, ’cause you’ve been doing this for years, so you know… You really know what’s important to you and what you need to capture and what not to capture.
Tiago Forte: I think that’s exactly right. So yeah, most people go through a couple of stages, they go through an information hoarding stage, it’s kind of like house hoarders, they go a little crazy with it, they kind of capture everything and just all things, which I think is actually fine, it’s actually good to go through a period of information gluttony, because you sort of see all the possibilities, but then most people, if they keep going, quickly realize just by seeing all the stuff that they’ve accumulated, that there’s really no point to that, there’s really no point, if you capture everything you might as well capture nothing, right? If you value everything equally, then you’re really valuing nothing. What it means to build a second brain is to take on what I call the mindset of a curator, so think of a curator, a curator… So let’s say of a museum is very, very picky, you don’t just take up anything off the street, you make curating choices, you’re very selective, very picky, right? There’s this principle that in any set of information, the value is not evenly distributed, when you read a book, the value of the information is not evenly distributed, as you listen to this podcast, the value of what I’m saying is not evenly distributed, some points are much much more valuable than others.
And if you follow that principle, it tells you what to capture, right? And yes, this takes practice, it takes judgment, it takes wisdom, honestly. But it is a skill, and it’s a skill you can get better at over time, simply by asking yourself… The question I always ask myself is, “What is the 1% of this that holds most of the value?” The 1% of this book, this podcast, this course, this life experience, and instead of trying to write down 100%, which will just create all this work in the future for me to make sense of, I just try to write down the 1% best points.
Brett McKay: Gotcha, okay, so that’s capture. This is a skill you’re gonna develop, so when you’re first starting out, capture a lot, as you do this CODE process, you’ll refine what you capture. The next part of this CODE process is organize, and this is where I think a lot of people get stuck, they say, “Oh, I got all this stuff. Now, how do I organize it so I can find it when I need it?” And I’ve had this problem, I’ve tried different things where I’ve got these phases where I’m like, “I’m gonna digitize all my paperwork that I have,” so I’ve created this digital file cabinet and then it’s just so… I don’t know how to… Or like, okay, do I have like a business folder, and then how do I subdivide the business folder, and the… You say that sort of old school, file cabinet mentality, not particularly useful, you offer something, a rubric for organizing that is based around action, why is organizing around action more effective than organizing by topics or whatever?
Tiago Forte: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of… In fact, this is the exact situation that most people are in when they come to me. They’ve captured a bunch of stuff and it’s like, now what? And the framework that I have is called PARA for how to organize. That’s P-A-R-A. I’m a big fan of four-letter frameworks, if you couldn’t tell, and that stands for basically the categories of action in your life, every person that I’ve met so far has these four things: Projects, the things that they are trying to achieve or build, the outcomes they’re trying to create. They have areas, areas of responsibility, things that they’re responsible for kind of more long-term over time, they have resources, useful kinds of information that they draw on to both manage their areas and move forward their projects, and then they have archives, they have stuff from the past that they wanna keep around for reference, but otherwise don’t want to clutter up their space, and I think the reason PARA has been so impactful, and it’s definitely the single thing that I’ve created that’s most popular, it’s the most popular blog post on my blog, the most popular single idea, is that most people try to organize information according to subjects, and I think this comes from school and it comes from libraries, they think, “Okay, this goes under design and this goes under psychology, this goes under goals, this goes under…
I don’t know, marketing, this goes under entrepreneurship,” it’s like they act like they are the librarian who’s making the shelves in the library, and that really doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work, because what I am focused on is personal knowledge management, that personal is the key. The way that an individual should organize knowledge is completely different from a team, a company, an organization, a library or a government, and the main difference is that the reason it’s worth capturing information as individuals is to advance our goals. I really think that is the main purpose. We’re trying to live a better life, we’re trying to achieve certain things in our work or our business, and therefore information, all information should be organized according to those projects and those goals.
Brett McKay: Okay, so give us an example of a project. This is something that’s discreet, it’d be like… I’m thinking like build a website, for example.
Tiago Forte: Yes, so… I love it. Let’s do a concrete example, so here’s an example, many people would come across a quote… This is a common one. Let’s say in a book, they highlight a quote and they say, “This is cool.” What they will do almost in every case is save that in a folder or give it a tag that is just quotes, right? There’s like a big folder or notebook… Quotes, these are all my quotes, that is not what you should do, and here’s why. It doesn’t really add much value to have all your quotes in one place, right? Like why? Why do you need dozens or hundreds of quotes in one giant repository? You really don’t. What I would have people do is at the moment that they are organizing that note that has that quote, ask themselves, right? Generally, you can ask yourself one question for every note that you take, I found that over the long term, if I have to ask myself multiple questions… “What category does this go in? What subject does it relate to?” Add all these different tags, that’s not gonna be sustainable. So you have one question that you can ask yourself, and that question, in my opinion, should be, “What is the project or goal that this quote is going to help me make progress on?” So one of the answers might be, as you said, a website, many websites have quotes, quotes from customers, quotes from people from the past, quotes from…
I don’t know, leaders in your industry, so just take that one moment and ask, what is the project such as a website that this quote is gonna be useful and put it in the folder or add the tag for that specific project, which means later that day or week or month when you come to work on that project, instead of being like, “Oh gosh, let me think of some good ideas from nothing,” you’re starting with this kind of batch of ready made ideas, including quotes that you’ve already prepared for yourself.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And then if it doesn’t fit in the project, then you’d go down that list, “Okay well, does this belong to an area?” And again, you said area, this is just sort of a general… It’s a… Not general, but it’s a thing that’s related to your life that you have sort of a general responsibility for, and that can change over time, right? So you can have area… It could be like kids, it could be business, it could be music. There’s no specific project assigned to it, but it’s something that you’re interested in or it’s relevant to you, so if that quote doesn’t fit in that project, you’d be like, “Well, would it fit in any of these areas?” And organize it there.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, yeah. So you just go down the PARA categories, often… You’re right, something doesn’t have a project. There’s no project, you’re just kind of interested in the subject, but then I would ask, “Okay, is there any kind of long-term life responsibility?” and these definitely do tend to be long-term. Like being a spouse is an area of responsibility, being a father, being a homeowner, some other areas of responsibility I have are my health or my finances, or my hobbies, or my car, or my… These different… Think of it like the hats that you wear in your life, and often, those have information related to them, like I know I became a homeowner a couple of years ago, it is just staggering how much information you have to keep track of as a homeowner, right?
Brett McKay: Oh yeah.
Tiago Forte: It’s like a part-time job. There’s just passwords to remember, what kind of light bulb to use, maintenance schedules, who you call when the thing breaks. It’s like… It’s amazing. And so this is a category of information I save all the time, we just deep cleaned our rug, and I put into my notes, okay, this local laundromat has a 6X commercial capacity washer, which took me a while to find, now I’m gonna save that in my notes under home maintenance, so the next time that I go to deep clean our rug, I have that information at hand.
Brett McKay: And then resources, these are just things you wanna reference in the future, so that could be like packing lists that we were talking about earlier, that mundane stuff, packing lists, food order lists, lists that you… Whenever you’re going on vacation, here are the things I gotta do before I leave on vacation, you’d put here under resources.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, yeah. It’s like a catch all, it’s almost like a miscellaneous. And I like the word resources because it just reminds you, okay, even though this is a miscellaneous kind of other category, you still wanna save things that are gonna be useful, right? Like I save stock photos, so when I go to make a thumbnail for a blog post, I have that ready. I save packing lists, I save ideas of Christmas presents that I find throughout the year so when December comes around, instead of, “Oh shoot, what do I get so and so?” I just go into my Christmas presents notebook and I have all sorts of ideas. People… My family and friends think I’m the most thoughtful gift giver, when in fact, I just have a place where I save ideas of good Christmas gifts. Yeah, it’s everything they’re interested in, everything that you’re curious about, everything you’re learning about, which is all important, you just don’t want it cluttering up your more actionable categories, like projects and areas. It’s kind of like tucked away, kind of out of sight, out of mind, but it’s there when you need it.
Brett McKay: And then you have the archives, and this is for completed projects, or maybe there’s an area of your life that you no longer have an interest in or it’s no longer your responsibility for, and that’s useful to keep because you can share that stuff, that can be useful for someone else. So if someone else is doing a similar project, you’d be like, “Well, here’s the things that I used with that project,” or let’s say… I’m thinking about this with an area, so maybe an area is father… Well, you’ll always be a father, but there’s a certain point in your father career where your kids are out on their own and you’re not really… You’re not thinking about baseball practice and buying clothes for school, but you can archive that stuff because maybe your kid will wanna use that, or maybe you’ve got a young mentee that could use that information.
Tiago Forte: Totally, totally. Yeah, I think that this is the… Both the amazing thing and the hard thing about digital information, is you never really have to throw anything away. This is different from like organizing your house. If you’re familiar with the Marie Kondo, KonMari method, her method is a method for throwing things away because you have to. Because physical space is fundamentally limited, whereas digital space is not, as fast as we accumulate information, the storage space that we have access to on our hard drives on external drives in the cloud is always increasing, so you never really have to throw anything away, but that creates this problem where just because you don’t have to throw something away, our digital world, our digital spaces start to fill up with so much junk that we can’t even see the forest for the trees, we can’t even wade through the chaos and complexity of all this stuff.
And so the archives, I think of it like cold storage, it’s like the basement that you never go into that is dark… Barely visited, you still wanna keep stuff, but you want it to be nowhere in your space, nowhere clustering up what you’re doing. So every time, like you said, you finish your project or you cancel it or you postpone it, or an area of responsibility kind of becomes no longer active, for example, you move out of the house or our relationship ends, or you just move on to a new phase of life, you just get those folders. You don’t have to do extra work, you definitely don’t have to organize them because they’ve just become inactive, you just move them en masse in one second over to the archives, and that way you always have access to anything from the past, but you also have a clear space to be productive.
Brett McKay: Alright, so that’s organize. So we’ve done capture, we’ve done organize, and it sounds like you can capture and organize at the same time, this can be one movement, you take a picture and then you put it into that part of framework. The next part of code is distill. What do you mean by distill?
Tiago Forte: Yeah, so this is the one that people most often miss, they see capture, okay, that makes sense. Organize, that makes sense. But then distill, that’s not a word that we use commonly day-to-day, and what it refers to is a really critical thing when you’re dealing with this volume of information, like the average person consumes over 30 gigabytes of data per day. The equivalent of 174 newspapers every single day. When you’re dealing with these kind of industrial quantities of information, if you only collect and collect and collect, no organizing system is ever gonna save you. Even the best organizing system eventually will be completely overwhelmed. At some stage or another, and I like to do it after organize, you have to distill, you have to boil… What that means is boil down the contents of your notes to their essence, you decide, you distinguish between the points or the ideas or the parts that really truly matter, that are really important and interesting and surprising, and everything else that isn’t. You can think of it like finding the signal in the noise, finding the most important juice from that note, and this takes skill and it takes judgment, but until you do, you’re not really gonna be able to move on to the final step, which is to take action on [0:41:16.9] ____.
Brett McKay: And so the distilling, this involves, you can say that you saved an article from some website you read, you can go back and just bold passages that you think that are important, you can highlight passages that you think are really important, but you say like The best thing you can do is take that article, read through it, and then come up with an executive summary of yourself, like just four bullet points that summarize what this article is about and why it’s important to you.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, it’s highlighting. Everyone knows what highlighting is, everyone has done highlighting, highlighting is kind of in some ways, the universal language of distilling. When you’re reading a book, or let’s say a textbook in school, you come across a highlight, whether it was made by you or someone else, you know what that means, you know that it means, this is an especially important point. And so what I advise people to do is get that very common practice and just apply it to digital notes, and the point is, when you come across that note in the future, like you said, let’s say it’s an article, even if you’ve saved only the most important parts in the first place, in the middle of your busy workday, you’re not gonna have the time to go back and read 500 words of excerpts from this article, you’re just not. It’s just not realistic. You don’t have the time, and it’s not a good use of your time. And so what I… The rule of thumb I use is it has to be glanceable, you have to be able to see a note and in like five seconds, be able to grasp the gist. What is this about? What is the main takeaway? What is the headline? If you can’t do that, you’re just gonna… You’re not gonna spend the time. You’re gonna move on and all the benefit of that note-taking was lost.
Brett McKay: Okay. So you’ve distilled it. Next part of the code process is express. What do you mean by that? What’s going on here?
Tiago Forte: Yes, so express is the final and kind of culminating step, it’s the reason all this is worth doing, it’s the reason people ask, “Well, what is the point of all this? What is the purpose?” Yes, it is to offload details from your memory. Yes, it is to have more peace of mind, not trying to keep track of everything. Yes, it is to be more productive. But in my opinion, in my experience, that is just the starting point. The ultimate point of all this is to express yourself, it’s to express, it’s to take in all these ideas from the outer world, yes, but then you combine them with ideas and insights from your inner world, and then those merge together and get synthesized into something much greater, which is something that you wanna communicate to others, to the world. It might be telling your story. It might be creating a product or a service, it might be the way that you lead and manage your team, it might be the way that you communicate with your family. Communication is one of the most fundamental parts of all human life, and for me, the point of building a second brain is to do that more effectively, to express yourself more succinctly, more powerfully, more compellingly and with more effectiveness.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you say this express the goal is to create an intermediate packet, which is what you call it, it’s a concrete individual building block that make up your work, so you can take these intermediate package that you’ve made from capturing organized distilling information and as you said, you can take them to start playing with them, remixing them, coming with new ideas, because now this information is easy to retrieve, easy to manipulate, now that you have it in your second brain in a distilled format.
Tiago Forte: That’s exactly right, yeah. My inspiration for this was Legos, most people have played with the little plastic blocks known as Legos, and if you remember when you were a kid, you’d come upon this pile of Legos, and you didn’t know what you were gonna create, you, in many cases didn’t have a plan, didn’t have a goal. Kids tend to not be very goal-oriented, they tend to kind of move toward what excites them, move toward what interests them, their curiosity, and we can do that as adults too, we can move and we can create our digital environment in such a way that we can move toward what we’re passionate about, what we care about, but there is something we can do to make that much easier, which is as a kid, the more blocks that you have and the more diverse and different and unusual, those pieces were the better. You knew that you could create something much more interesting and exciting with 1000 blocks versus 100 blocks versus 10 blocks, and so I kind of see…
Modern life is so uncertain. We don’t know where it’s gonna lead, we don’t know what the next stage of life is gonna bring, we often don’t even know the goals and the interests we’re gonna have in the future. I don’t want to try to predict what’s gonna happen in the future, I just don’t know, but what I do know is what can make any future endeavor so much easier is collecting these building blocks, is collecting these little snippets of knowledge from the stuff that I’m already consuming and already experiencing, so that when it comes time to create that website or to give that speech or to write that essay or to make that decision, I’m never ever, ever starting from scratch. That’s what I think we wanna avoid is starting with a blank page, which is so terrifying, we wanna start with this batch of creative raw material that we’ve already collected and it just makes… It makes it so you can take new things on so much more effectively and also with so much more ease without having to reinvent the wheel.
Because it’s on a single note storage app like Evernote or whatever it is you wanna use, let’s say… You have these discreet blocks that you’ve created there, and let’s say you’re working on a project, you’re like, “I’m looking for… I’m trying to… I wanna redesign this bedroom, I’m just coming up with this on the fly here, so you type… You can type in bedroom in your app, your Evernote and it’s gonna bring up all the notes you’ve collected about that involved bedrooms, and it might not have you be connected to your actual bedroom, it might be some sort of tangential thing related… That’s in another project. But you wouldn’t have known that was there unless you had the ability to do a search for it.
It’s a perfect example. Yeah, yeah, if you just collect things that resonate with you, this is how I advise people to decide, don’t make it too analytical, don’t try to rationally deduce what should be captured if it moves you, if it excites you, if it surprises you, if you find yourself your eyes kind of widening, your heart beating faster, your breath getting deeper, like the body knows, your body is an information processing system, and it knows subconsciously, even if you don’t know consciously when you encounter an idea or a story or whatever that is powerful, that is important for you, if you just pay attention to those physical signals, you’ll capture things that often you’re not sure why you’re capturing it, but I promise you over the long term, they’re gonna be so much more interesting and valuable.
Brett McKay: Yeah. This is what like this is how the second brain turbo charges the commonplace books. With the commonplace books, if you wanted to find something, you had to know where it was at, like to flip through to the page where that quote was… With your second brain, you just do a search and you’re… It’s gonna bring it up to you right away.
Tiago Forte: Exactly, exactly. I’m a fan of paper note-taking as well. I think you can use both, but I have a shelf here with 15 or more notebooks. If I wanna know what insight about… Let’s say, I don’t know, resilience, have I had in the past, that is a multiple hour endeavor… Whereas digitally, it’s not.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, let’s say you got your second brain, you’ve built it, you’re coming up with new ideas with these intermediate packets that you’ve developed because you distill things down, how do you maintain your second brain? Are there any maintenance routine you gotta run through, so that’s always in tip top shape?
Tiago Forte: Yeah, it’s a great question. The one thing that I do really for maintenance is just go through my inbox, which is what’s called the default folder, most notes apps have one designated place where new notes get saved, get captured, and what I do is just go through my inbox, one note at a time, making one decision about each note, which is, what project does this relate to? If none, what area does it belong in? If none, what resources does it go into? It takes maybe five minutes per week, and that’s really it, when it comes to periodic maintenance, there are a lot of other things you can do and should do, but they’re really just part of your projects. It could be useful, for example, to… The example I was using, I might wanna… Let’s say I’m gonna write an article on resilience, I probably should go through all… A bunch of different notebooks or folders and try to find everything that I’ve learned about resilience, but I shouldn’t do that just because… I shouldn’t do that, just because I have it on a checklist, the right time to pull together all those ideas is when I’m getting ready to execute that project.
This is the thing, once you have everything in your second brain, you can kinda leave it kind of messy and kind of loose and you should… Because you don’t know what the future is gonna bring. Wait until you’re actually starting on something, use that momentum and that energy to kind of… It’s almost like you’re reorganizing your second brain a little bit trying to find a pattern that may… A pattern of notes, a collection of notes that may reside in a bunch of different folders, but it’s really quite light touch and quite… What I call, just in time. You take these little organizing actions just in time when you actually need that information.
Brett McKay: I love it. Well, Tiago, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people who can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Tiago Forte: Yes, you can find everything, including the free content that I have, our YouTube channel, our podcast, and of course the book, which has just come out at buildingasecondbrain.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Tiago Forte, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Tiago Forte: Thanks so much Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Tiago Forte. He’s the author of The Book Building a Second Brain. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, fortelabs.co. Also check it out our show notes at aom.is/secondbrain, where you find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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