🧠 Organize Your Digital Life by Building a Second Brain


Hi all 👋! We consume a vast amount of content that our brains struggle to keep up with. To make the most of valuable information, we need to organize it in a way that allows us to access it in the future. I spoke with Tiago Forte (🎧 Ep85) on this topic. He is the author of the fantastic book Building a Second Brain, a proven framework for managing, organizing, and retrieving relevant digital information. It aims to increase productivity, reduce overwhelm, and enhance creativity. I'll break down our conversation so you can incorporate the framework into your daily life. I'm amazed by how much simpler it has made work, and I'm confident that you'll feel more motivated and engaged too.

Here is what you can expect to take away from this newsletter:

  • What is a Second Brain?
  • What does this journey look like?
  • How to set up your Second Brain?
  • How to choose what information is important?
  • How to CODE information for future use?
  • What apps and services do I use for my second brain?

Today’s newsletter is brought to you my favorite Second Brain app… Notion

Notion is my main Second Brain app and I use it every day for notes, trip planning, managing our family and even running All the Hacks. And it’s only gotten better with Notion AI, which can help you automate tedious tasks and streamline your workflow. For example, save time and write faster by letting Notion AI handle the brainstorm and first draft, or turn your messy notes into something polished.

I've been using it for a few months and it can absolutely help you work faster, write better, and think bigger — doing tasks that normally take you hours in just seconds.

And the best part? Try Notion AI for free right now at allthehacks.com/notion


🧠 What is Building a Second Brain?

Building a Second Brain (BASB) is a system developed by Tiago Forte to remember and organize all the good ideas, inspirations, and other things we learn.

It uses technology to remove the burden of remembering everything and offloading this information to a suite of applications to help us think clearer and better. It's about keeping things in one place and using them to make things happen.

🏗️ What is the ultimate goal of the BASB system?

The goal is to help you become more creative, regardless of your profession.

Creativity is the fuel for content creation. The term "content creation" is often misinterpreted to refer to full-time TikTokers, podcasters, and social media managers. Yet, content creation is part of many professionals' day-to-day jobs (e.g., delivering a sales pitch, creating a presentation, or writing a cold email.)

Creativity is often blocked by the unnecessary information stored in your brain, making it harder to produce such content.

Most people's minds have stuff they can offload.

That offloading leaves space in the first brain for creativity, intuition, relationships, and the ability to learn new things. It can also save you as the capacities of your first brain diminish, whether caused by kids, age, or in Tiago's case, a chronic illness.

When you optimize your Second Brain, you enable your first brain to follow curiosity and spontaneity.

3️⃣ The BASB experience is a 3-stage journey

Let’s walk through the journey of implementing a Second Brain at a high-level and the benefits at each stage.

First Stage: Tackle Information Overload

  • BASB is designed to tackle the problem of information overload first. With so much information coming at us from all directions - emails, calls, messages, social media, podcasts, articles - it's easy to feel overwhelmed and struggle to keep up. This can affect our attention, focus, and personal and professional lives.
  • So start with creating a habit of filtering out the noise, by selecting a place to store and organize the information you come across (i.e., notes app; as you’ll read later, success relies on a notes application). But it’s important focus on what matters when intaking information.
  • It can also help to develop a standardized process for capturing, marking, and prioritizing it for future use. You don’t want to store everything haphazardly; you want to build a structure to tap into it in the future easily.

Second Stage: Develop Mental Clarity and Bandwidth

  • Once you've tackled information overload, the second stage is to develop mental clarity and bandwidth. This means having the confidence to focus on the highest quality work that aligns with your personal and professional goals.
  • When you enter the second stage, you’ll find you use the notes app much more effectively. Instead of storing incoming content, you’ll use it to offload ideas, make connections, and prioritize your tasks. This will help you focus on your goals and projects and ensure you're making progress on what matters most.

Third Stage: Embed the System into Your Routine

  • The third and final stage is to embed the BASB system into your routine to become a cognitive exoskeleton. This will help you focus more on the work that matters most and define your life around it.
  • You’ll need to make it a practice by earmarking time daily to capture information, organize your notes, distill them, and revisit your ideas and tasks. Over time, the compounding benefits of this habit will make your Second Brain feel like second nature, allowing you to create rather than consume.

🧠 How to set up a Second Brain?

Think of it as an ecosystem of applications.

I wish I could say, "Here is a single app that does everything,” but unfortunately, that doesn't exist. Here is how you can build it:

  • Choose your notes system. At the center is your long-term repository of information, ideas, and data you have collected, organized, and synthesized for later use. Many note systems are available, so choosing one that works for you is essential. Some popular options include:
    • Evernote - an all-purpose note-taking and task-management application
    • Notion - an all-in-one workspace where you can think, write and plan
    • Roam Research - a note-taking system designed to organize related thoughts
    • Apple Notes - the notes app included free on Mac and iOS devices.
  • Choose your supporting applications. A series of applications help support your long-term repository, such as task managers, note transcription apps, cloud storage drives, databases, and workflow apps. Choosing apps that integrate well with your notes system and support your creative process is essential. Some popular options include:
    • Readwise - saves highlights from ebooks and articles
    • Todoist - a popular online to-do list and task manager
    • Otter AI - an AI-powered note-taking app that generates a real-time transcription
    • Dropbox - a cloud-based storage platform
    • Airtable - a spreadsheet-database hybrid platform to connect data
    • Zapier - a wor†kflow tool that automates actions and workflows

The ecosystem of applications will change.

If you want some inspiration, I’d suggest reviewing Tiago's curated list of established tools and recommended apps.

👨‍💻 My Second Brain “Stack”

Here are the specific apps I use to collect, store and process information:

  • Email: Superhuman saves me so much time on email that I couldn’t imagine every going back to regular Gmail.
  • Information: Notion has effectively become my second brain for everything from planning trips to running All the Hacks to managing family/home projects. Also, by connecting it to other apps (directly or with Zapier) it’s also become archive of most of the content I find on the web (e.g. articles, saved tweets).
  • Family Information: Trustworthy (← 20% off) is where we store all our family’s important information: Family IDs, insurance docs/cards, property records, tax returns, estate plan and a lot more.
  • Read Later: I’m currently using Readwise (← free month) and Matter to try and decide which is the best fit for me, but they’re both great options.
  • Notes: Apple Notes is where I store quick information before I’m ready to make the decision to store it in Notion for future use.
  • Recipes: Paprika is our go-to for saving recipes, meal planning and grocery shopping. There’s no free version, but some readers have suggested Crouton as a lower-cost alternative.
  • Credit Cards: Card Pointers (← 30% off) is where I manage all our credit cards and make sure I get the most value from all of them, by tracking all the credits they offer and auto-enrolling me in all the offers from issuers.
  • Data: I’ve long been loyal to Google Sheets, but I recently started using Airtable for a new project and I’ve been pretty blown away with what it can do. It’s definitely overkill for most things, but if you have a bigger project, check it out.
  • Files: I don’t have a perfect system here, but mostly use Dropbox for saving files, Google Drive for documents and iCloud for storing my Desktop, Documents and Downloads folders.

You may also enjoy checking out the post I wrote last year on My Top Apps/Products for a Productive and Optimized Life.

📂 What goes into your Second Brain?

It is important for your Second Brain only to contain information you have read, reviewed, and evaluated as valuable or actionable.

To best achieve this, use inboxes as the gatekeepers of your Second Brain.

The email inbox is the most common. Here's a 4-step process to filter inbound emails (and cut the reading of that email many times):

  • Does it contain a scheduled meeting or task? (If yes, send it to a calendar)
  • Does it have an unscheduled action? (If yes, send it to a task manager)
  • Is the information in the email necessary to store for later? (If yes, send to notes app)
  • Can I archive or delete it? (If yes, then do so)

The read-later app is another valuable inbox. Here's a 3-step process to filter articles and other content:

  • When you come across content, ask if it is interesting. (If yes, send to a read-later app)
  • Once it's read, is it worth saving? (if yes, distill the content into helpful information for future self and send it to your notes app)
  • Sometimes, it's no longer interesting (if this is the case, archive it from your app)

The quick-notes inbox is for jotting down half-baked thoughts (i.e., digital post-it notes). Write it down now, and go through the process of filtering later.

  • Does the note require a following meeting or task? (If yes, send it to a calendar)
  • Does the note require action? (If yes, send it to a task manager)
  • Does it require additional thoughts/notes to store later (If yes, write and send to the notes app)
  • Is this note still applicable and valuable? (If yes, then archive or delete)

Often times you’ll notice things you believe are important at the moment aren’t worthy of your time in the future.

🧑‍💻 CODE-ing information

The CODE framework is a proven model for organizing your creative output into four distinct steps:

  • Capture - write it down or document
  • Organize - add structure and prioritization.
  • Distill - boil it down, refine the takeaway, action steps, or punchline.
  • Express - put it back into the world through a creative medium.

Following these steps can streamline your creative process and increase your productivity.

Here's how to apply the CODE framework to your daily life:

Capture:

To capture information, you must set a higher standard for what enters your Second Brain. Instead of trying to capture everything, focus on ideas or concepts that will change your life in the future. This will help you solve the discoverability problem and make it easy to find and use the content you've read before. Use your capture system (i.e., notes) to write down or document valuable information.

It’s not about hoarding all pieces of information. As the expert on the system, Tiago shared just how much he captures:

I'll be reading a book and [I think to myself] is this a life-changing idea? Does this quote shatter my conceptions of how the world works? That is a high bar, but the great result of that is I'll read an entire book. I'll think the book is great (five stars on Amazon) and I'll have like five quotes…That's how it should be. The quotes are not everything that was even a little bit good in the book. The quotes are just like a bookmark. They're the digital equivalent of having a book on your shelf.

Organize:

Our minds are conditioned to organize through wide-ranging subjects (like a library does), but a more helpful structure is narrow and focused. Tiago believes "projects" are most relevant to how we work, so he developed the PARA organization to structure your Second Brain:

  • Projects: These are the 5-10 active workstreams linked to a goal with a deadline. Examples include product launches or planning an event.
  • Areas: These are the broader interests or activities which projects emerge from. Examples include health, travel, or finances.
  • Resources: This is everything else, a topic of ongoing interest but less critical than your projects and areas. Examples include coffee, marketing, productivity, and fashion.
  • Archive: This is a place for inactive anything from the previous three. Examples include dormant projects, areas, or resources that are no longer relevant.

To get started, archive everything you have in a folder (date today) and then identify your current projects.

Distill:

To make information easy to discover and understand for your future self, develop a structure allowing you to communicate and build on your past experiences and knowledge. This will help you avoid trying to decipher the value of old notes or articles. The information is boiled down to its key takeaway, action steps, or punchline.

Express:

The previous three steps aim to finish your work faster and with less effort. Use your creativity to put the distilled information back into the world. Express the information through a creative medium, such as writing, drawing, or presenting.

Applying the CODE framework to your Second Brain lets you manage, organize, and retrieve relevant digital information. Start implementing the framework today and watch how much easier it is to manage your work and personal life.

You can learn more about Building a Second Brain by checking out the book, the course, and Tiago's blog.


💭 Parting Thoughts

If you have built your own Second Brain, please tell me about it. I’m interested to hear how you’ve implemented it, the apps you find useful, and the hacks to save time.

If you found this post enjoyable, you’ll love my post on productivity. It’s all about optimizing your work and life and getting more done!

Thanks,

Chris


The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of our partner offers may have expired.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to our partners: Trustworthy, Notion and CardPointers. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

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