Lots of people rely on their second brains. Source: http://www.amazon.com/Evernote-Organize-Productivity-Management-Essentials-ebook/dp/B01AYJMCW0

Growing a second brain

I bet you like being smarter, which makes two of us. Today let’s think about growing a second “brain”. One goal of using technology is to help us think better. Evernote said their software’s goal is “To give you a second brain…” Some of you probably even use Evernote and if not you probably have experience with OneNote or paper notebooks. Without your careful input and cultivation, these tools sit there doing nothing intelligent at all. How you use these tools makes the difference. This week I did a massive reorganization of my second brain, and I hope you regularly invest in reorganizing and growing yours too.

Paper is still relevant

Writing a task or event down allows you to stop focusing on it, freeing your mind for your more important work at hand. I’m not the only one who calls a notebook a second brain. Paper has use for those of us who haven’t hired a personal assistant to use their brain for scheduling.

You can’t plan life perfectly, especially as an entrepreneur. Sure I use Google calendar to set up the events that do recur, but using it for everything means spending far too much time rescheduling and re-prioritizing events and tasks slower than it can be done on paper. This year I asked my high performing friends what they use and a significant majority still keep a paper agenda. The same trend popped up while doing customer development on my startup. Despite all of their smartphones, we still haven’t totally replaced paper.

Going digital

Writing is slow, it can’t be searched quickly, and stacks of notebooks are physically cumbersome. My primary “second brain” is in OneNote and wouldn’t work on paper because it contains most of 100,000 words along with drawings, audio recordings, images, and videos. Interestingly enough even with years of input and better capture tools like voice dictation and smartphone camera integration this is tiny compared to our actual brains. If this were stored in human neurons it would be so small you couldn’t even see it next to a real brain. This is roughly one ten millionth of the size, the difference of megabytes versus petabytes. With this context it seems disingenuous to think we are growing anything close to the scale of our actual brains.

Mental leverage

What people really mean when they say second brain is that they see themselves as twice as productive. I certainly agree about this, as OneNote easily doubles the number of contexts I can think in along with doubling the raw number of thoughts I can marshal into action. Without digital notebooks there is no way I could keep track of every baking recipe I iterate, company idea I consider, piece of software I want to write, thought worth keeping for later refinement, blog post idea, all my interests in music, a million pages of books to read, weaning myself off TV shows, shopping lists, poems, and more. Keeping track of all this efficiently and consistently is something that can only happen digitally. Syncing this on a smartphone where I can search it for what I want to find instantly only makes this clearer.

This is just the start, as it would be a waste of time to write down absolutely everything into your second brain. Instead, use it to gain leverage. A single sentence could be a cue to an entire potential company brewing in the back of your mind. What OneNote or Evernote do is allow you to organize these cues and develop them so you can come back later and efficiently evaluate, structure, and sort out your thoughts over time.


Now then, why OneNote over Evernote? Because these tools leverage your mind, you should pick the one that mirrors your thought process best. I used Evernote for a while, but I found it less efficient for organizing and expressing my thought process. You take a note that goes in a notebook that goes in a stack of notebooks and you can add as many tags as you want to specify what the note is about. For a purely creative workflow I hear this works great, but I find creativity isn’t my bottleneck.

I have enough of creative ideas in OneNote to fill a lifetime exploring, so what I need is focus. I come up with plenty of creative/unusual ideas (most of them are insane or stupid) and I want to develop the ones with the most impact. Ideas that can help others and help me grow personally if I work on them. I need the focus to evaluate the best ideas and develop them. OneNote gives you hierarchies from notebooks to sections to pages to subpages to movable fragments of content on pages. Thoughts can start as sentences and drawings to be rearranged, improved, and linked to each other. Ideas I have for companies start as a sentence in a list on a page called “company ideas”. I throw out plenty of them, but if I think about it again, it fleshes out into its own page. This way each time I think about it or have something to add I come back to the page. If it gains validation, has a lot of potential, and seems like something I keep coming back to then I turn it into a section. By the time I got serious about my startup it was its own notebook. It has sections on researching what our customers want, psychological research, potential solutions to develop, how to sell it to customers, and more. Under research I keep a page on customer development questions, and it has subpages for specific questions for each of the different types of customers we are validating. Keeping everything straight requires deep contexts for deep focus, and these hierarchies provide that.

This allows me to see how important the things I think about are. Personal growth has become something important for me to think about so I promoted it from a section to a notebook. School isn’t something I waste time putting structured thought into anymore, so I archived the notebook to reinforce this. My company is becoming a higher priority so I added a section with pages on how it is being structured, who is involved, and people/positions to recruit for in the future. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful a tool this is. My structure won’t work perfectly for you, but I bet you have some new ideas. What are you waiting for, go grow yourself a second brain!