Let's Talk About That Second Brain
Issue 41: Building your Personal Knowledge Management system
Have you ever had that brilliant moment in the shower with an idea that will change the world? Perhaps it's a new music album to make or a new startup idea that will…wait, what was the idea again? Just like that, the idea is gone and you can’t remember it. What about writing an article, only discovering you started writing a similar concept years ago?
Humans aren't good at remembering things. I've struggled with remembering things and have to write everything down or will forget. Whether it's work, personal projects, or journaling, I need to capture and organize content in a way that's memorable and discoverable. Building a Personal Management Knowledge system that acts as my second brain has tremendously helped me take ideas to make them tangible.
The Second Brain is a productivity system developed by Tiago Forte1, creator of the course Building a Second Brain. Though the name might sound like something Elon Musk would develop and test on pigs, the second brain is not literal and focused on how you structure information in a way that's actionable. Our brains are for having ideas, not storing them like a filing cabinet. The second brain can be the data repository that maximizes creative output, trusted by your future self.
I’m often asked how I can get so much done with responsibilities at Webflow, On Deck, and angel investing. The answer is it’s not easy and requires work to structure well. I rely on my second brain so I can get things done. As a manager, I don’t have a maker’s calendar, and I really shouldn’t. I wish I had time for deep work but don’t. As a result, I’ve found an alternative way to work on creative projects by finding the edges of time and making tiny iterations on them.
The trick is slow burning ideas over time. For example, some newsletter issues I recently wrote have been ideas that were captured years ago. In order to be productive during these pockets of time, the key is structuring ideas and thoughts ready to be executed. Forte shared his CODE method, which resonates with me.
Capture, Organize, Distill, Express. I love this. Let’s dive into the specifics of each phase of the method.
Consistency in capturing ideas is challenging. This is the most crucial step because people don't make time to do this, and that's how ideas get lost. Regardless of what software tool you use, it’s important to capture what’s memorable. People have a tendency to over-capture or not capture enough.
I recommend adding commentary and notes to what you capture or else you’ll lose context on why it resognated. It might be fresh now, but won’t be for your future self. Whether you're writing it down or copying/pasting, add a quick excerpt of why it stands out.
In each software you use, I recommend creating a "capture" file or space in it so you can quickly add thoughts without friction. Whether it's a markdown file, Photo album, or a task in OmniFocus, I have an area that is capturing raw thought so I can organize later. In the capture phase, I’m don’t need to organize and structure yet, so tools with the least friction to capture are best for this phase.
Tools I use for capturing: Notebook, OmniFocus, Apple Notes, Notability, Scanner Pro, Adobe Capture, Pocket, Screenshots (lots of screenshots)
With ideas now captured, curate and organize the content to optimize for making them actionable. In this stage, I'm not writing or building anything specific, rather identifying themes that I want to connect (Edward de Bono2 has entered the chat).
For example, if I'm writing an article about recruiting and hiring tips, I'll look through what I’ve captured in the past. This varies from links to articles on the topic, snippets of notes I wrote, or screenshots.
Creativity is not as original as you might think, and most are remixes of other ideas (Kirby Ferguson3 has entered the chat). Organize these into blocks of information that makes sense to revisit later. Structure things by projects with clear desired outcomes, otherwise it'll be hard to connect.
At this stage, I'm using Finder and Apple's Photos app to organize the information. There are automations you can set up to better organize. I use Apple's Shortcuts to automate sketches I capture from Scanner Pro to upload them to my iCloud Drive folder.
Take all this information and build content blocks of insights. This isn’t the output of your project and more fleshed-out ideas that you can use as modules, similar to how I build my Infinite Slide Deck. Now I’m riffing on content that can use as a primer for projects I want to execute on.
The software you can use for this: Notion, Evernote, Obsidian (what I use), Roam Research
I view "express" as execution. Now it’s time to build your ideas you’ve been developing. As they teach in art school, you don’t ever want to start with a blank canvas. This is true in any creative process. Having ideas and concepts already seeded helps you work more effectively. With a repository of knowledge at your disposal, it makes executing your ideas more frictionless.
If this sounds helpful for you, I'd love to hear how you approach building out your Personal Knowledge Management system. I recommend Maggie Appleton's brilliant sketch notes on the Building a Second Brain course.