If someone gave you the possibility to build your own brain from scratch, would you take it? Where would you start? How would you structure it? What if you actually could build that brain, and then use it in conjunction with the one you’ve already got?
That’s the concept behind Building a Second Brain, Tiago Forte’s methodology for optimizing the way we store and access information. When you build a second brain, you’re providing yourself with the opportunity to create a personal knowledge base that can revolutionize the way you use the information you interact with.
Pretty cool, right? No biology degree required.
What’s wrong with having just one brain?
Nothing, really. You need at least one, but two is optimal. Why? As it turns out, the one we’re born with is actually pretty limited. The methodology of building a second brain helps bridge the gaps in our ability to learn and retain information. With a second brain, you’ll be able to:
- Process, store, and comprehend information better
- Recall information easier when you need it
- Link information and see patterns in your thinking
So yeah, one brain is fine, but if you’re really looking to expand your knowledge and/or grow on a personal or professional level, things are better in pairs. That’s why I’m building myself one (that and the fact that I live to quantify things).
How do you go about building a second brain?
Well, the best thing you can do is enroll in Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. It costs $1,500 for the standard edition, and while I have no doubt it’s worth it, times are tough.
Thankfully, for those of us who don’t have fifteen hundred bucks to drop on a course at the moment, Forte and other productivity experts have written on the topic to give us a jumping off point for building our second brains on our own.
In his guide, Forte outlines three steps to building a second brain: Remember, connect, and create. Let’s take a look at each.
If you want to remember information, and remember it well, you have to be repeatedly exposed to it. Developing a familiarity with the information you’re actively trying to retain means interacting with it frequently. And to do this, it’s got to be easy to access and return to.
Capture and store your information in one centralized location. One digital location, I might add, because one of the key selling points of building a second brain is accessibility. If you want to accurately capture information, you have to be able to access your system across all your devices and workstations. Otherwise, you’ll end up with knowledge gaps.
One important caveat, though — don’t try to capture every piece of information you interact with. Part of having a healthy and valuable second brain is curating the data you come across by determining whether or not it has a valid place in your repository. Just like with email lists, quantity is not necessarily better than quality.
A tip Forte provides is to organize your files by project, not topic:
“This ensures that you are consuming information with a purpose — to advance your projects and goals — and only at a time where you’ll be able to put it to use.”
Here’s where things get interesting. When you start to interact with your information more, you’ll begin to notice a growing number of connections between the data points. It helps to use a digital system that allows you to visualize these connections (more on this below).
Summarizing and distilling your notes is key here, because once you’re able to see the main points of an article or book laid out simply as something like three bullet points, it’s a lot easier to compare and contrast the information.
The concept of progressive summarization comes into play here. Another one of Forte’s conceptualizations, progress summarization means summarizing a note or a piece of information in multiple stages over time. This allows you to see the content as different layers at any given time. If you’d like to see only the bullet points but still keep ahold of the auxiliary information surrounding them, consider looking into progressive summarization.
In this step, all the steps you’ve taken so far to organize and categorize your information come into fruition. Building a second brain is all about optimizing your ability to create better and more things from a place of insight and learning, so it makes sense that the method culminates in putting the information to use.
Use your new information system to make more things, and put those things out in the world for others to consume. Don’t try to wait for the opportune moment to share your creations; if you do that, you’ll never feel ready to start. The best thing you can do is to take action and to improve as you go along.
Got it. What do I need to get started?
You could stall forever doing research on getting productive, but like I said above, for any of it to be effective, it has to be practically applied. When you’re beginning to build your second brain, you really only need two things: An information repository, and your data to input into it. Assuming you already have your data (or know where to find it), two of the most popular tools for serving as backup brains are RoamResearch and Notion.
RoamResearch, or just Roam, is a note-taking system that backlinks your information to create a detailed and interconnected web of your thought patterns. View your information in pages, and then create links between them to start developing the skeleton of your information architecture.
It’s pretty easy to use — it’s what I use for my second brain, and I was up and running with Roam in a matter of an hour or two, whereas there was a more significant learning curve when it came to getting started with Notion. If you learn the keyboard shortcuts and a few tips and tricks for making the most of your Roam setup, you’ll get started on the right foot and won’t have any problem creating an organized and accessible information and knowledge management system.
Notion can do more than Roam, but you’ll be missing out on the graph overview function, and while backlinking in Notion is totally doable, it takes more upfront work and doesn’t automatically backlink.
That being said, it’s much easier to personalize than Roam. Notion lets you add icons, headings, and colors to your notes. You can embed a calendar onto a page in Notion to serve as a learning schedule, or create different views of your information, like arranging it on a kanban board or into a table.
Notion also has a free plan, so it’s definitely more affordable than RoamResearch unless you’re needing to create dozens of workspaces and add dozens of team members to them. If that’s the case, then you’ll need to upgrade to one of Notion’s paid plans.
Both platforms, and others out there, will work fine for building a second brain, as long as you’re collecting new information, connecting it, and putting it to good use. A lot of it’s simply a matter of personal preference.
What kind of brain will you build?
As with everything productivity related, you’ll only get out of the system what you put into it. If you do the work of collecting, connecting, and creating, your second brain will empower you to be more brave, more bold, and more confident in your acts of bringing something new into the world.