How I doubled my brain capacity for work.

Your second brain can remember everything, don’t forget to use it.

Silas Mahner
Oct 1 · 14 min read

This is a case study on my decision to build a second brain in September 2019. In the case study, I discuss the idea behind it, how I execute the idea, and how it helps me to be more effective in both life and business ventures.

The course I took was called Building A Second Brain created by Tiago Forte.

Intro.

What is a second brain?

The point of having a second brain is to use technology to our advantage rather than our disadvantage. In other words, the effective use of your technology.

So in a little more detail, it is a comprehensive system by which you capture notes, review them, And use them to help you produce value on a faster and more consistent basis. With this system, you can show future employers how you are more than just another employee. You are an employee with a personal database that will help you to be more productive.

What is the principle of it?

The idea behind Building a Second Brain is to become a master of technology and information. We all know that tech can be super distracting and have a lot of negative effects on our life. The idea goes beyond just remembering things and creating content more effectively. It is a conscious decision to take charge of your life in this. Do not just float through life. This can help you get into the mindset of leading rather than being led.

To summarize; the goal is to clear out your mind, putting the things on your mind in a place you can turn to when needed, leaving the remaining space for focus on the task at hand. This way you can focus on what is right in front of you.

How you implement it.

As a note before you read this: EverNote is a very useful tool to use while building your second brain.

List 12 favorite problems.

Everyone has questions they’re asking themselves; problems that mean something to them. The idea here is that you write down your favorite 12 problems and review them on a regular basis. These do not have to be super-specific. Sometimes they might be very intangible this is okay. The trick here is that by having these somewhere near the front of your mind, your first brain is running background searches and problem-solving algorithms. Eventually, you may have a eureka moment where you suddenly have the answer or at least have made a big step towards it. Taking it one step further, having this in mind will help you come up with other connections regarding your problems and then you will, due to your new mindset, take down that note and put it where it belongs.

Start from scratch.

Take time to archive all of your files. Put the date on the file and clear it all. If you need something in there you will be able to find it eventually. It is important to do this so you do not see the task as so large that you never start. It is easy. Just archive everything, then start from scratch. Don’t worry, you’ll get to the organization in a few steps.

Capture.

Without capturing, you will not be truly building your second brain. It is important for you to capture everything that seems to matter to you. If it might be helpful, capture it. If you have a thought on a topic, book, influencer, whatever it may be. Take a note of it and save it where it belongs.

You should be capturing web addresses, pictures, screenshots, handwritten notes, digital notes, entire articles, voice messages, anything. If you can name it the answer is yes you should capture it; you don’t know what future value you’re going to gain from it!

Organize.

What we use is a system called P.A.R.A. Here’s what these letters stand for:

  • Projects: individual deliverables that you need to accomplish. With and without a deadline. Personal or work. All of it goes into this folder.

The manner in which you organize your notes is not what is important. The important part is that it works for you.

Review your notes.

Take time occasionally to review your notes. When you do this you can use the following tactic to make the note easier to find the right information from. It helps to review so your mind can see the old information and see if it has any pertinence to your current problems. Trust me, this is very important. The method used to review your notes in Tiago Forte’s BASB course is called Progressive Summarization. Let’s take a look at it now.

Progressive summarization.

What is progressive summarization?

We all know that every educational blog post has about one or two points it seeks to make. That is why we often skim read even the short articles to get the value and dip out of there. Progressive summarization is essentially formatting your notes like you would write a blog post for skim readers. You have the title, you have the larger headings, and then you have the bold parts that are the specific things you wanted to get out of it.

I use this method to organize my notes. If it is my notes on a book, for example, I will have the title as notes from X book. Then the body will have a summary of all my notes on that specific book summarized into what is important. I will have a lot of the specific notes that I liked and that I found valuable in there, but I will use my summarization tactics to help me narrow it down.

“Progressive summarization can be likened to a topographical map.” ~ Tiago Forte

So I will probably start with having very broad but powerful statements in a large-sized font, bold, and highlighted. Then there will be some more specifics clarifying those largest statements and giving some context. Sometimes I will have more resource type lines highlighted. I use highlights for things to remember rather than things to use to impact me as a person.

Progressive summarization can be likened to a topographical map. The highest points stick out to you. Using this in reports, long informational emails, and blog posts help people to save time. As the manager you want to clearly understand the idea of the email so you can decide if it is useful or important, then either handle it immediately or schedule it to be taken care of at a future date.

The goal is to get the info with a 30–40-second scan of the document.

Create.

This part is different for everyone. Part of having the second brain is using it to help you create. By having lots of notes you can constantly remix the information into your own projects. Maybe you need it for a presentation, maybe it’s a book you want to write. It can be anything, but this program is very geared towards creators. It helps them unlock their full potential and remember the things they need to do.

Flow.

This is a pretty basic idea and fairly broad. Your life can never be contained and divided into different containers. Everything is moving, growing, changing, and expiring. There is no system that can manage all of that with a static storage system. When you have really locked down how to use your second brain you will get to a point where your workflow is so smooth that it feels like you are in a state of flow as taught by certain martial artists.

Ways your second brain can help you.

Idea capture.

So it is more the idea behind having a second brain that helps me capture notes rather than the actual second brain. However, there is a small part of it that affects me in the latter example. I will cover that at the end of this section.

Going back to the idea of having a second brain or the WHY for Simon Sinek fans. The point is to use technology to our advantage rather than our disadvantage. One thing that most tech devices have is the ability to retain static information. With the exception of a program going down without being backed up, this is one of the main and most basic functions of tech. So, with that in mind, why not use your phone Mac, or device of preference to store the information you see that might be valuable to you in the future. Let’s create an example.

Say you have a steady job but have a goal to own your own drone rental company someday. Let’s say you want to launch it in 5 years. All the work that goes into that business isn’t going to happen all at once. So, you start building. You take some time here and there to put some stuff together, but overall you are only devoting an hour or two per week towards this at the moment because you don’t want to risk displeasing your boss in the tough economic situation. It is safe to say that you will most likely continue to read the news, watch some YouTube videos, and maybe even run into some interesting people. Why not start taking notes in an organized manner that will be easily accessible to you when you get closer to launching your business?

“Do you trust your brain to remember all of those things from now until then…”

Remember not all these notes need to be specifically on drones. They can be notes on good business practices, marketing tactics, a new technology that might be game-changing, or anything in between. The point is you will both come across really good ideas and will come up with many of your own between now and then. Do you trust your brain to remember all of those things from now until then at the exact moment when you need them? I sure as hell don’t.

To summarize, the idea is that you can use the tech to help you, so just use it. Develop a system that will help you to find your notes when you need them. This can be done with a titling system. To get a little more deep you can put them in notebooks. I recommend having one notebook per project, and a specific topic. PLEASE UNDERSTAND, this needs to be something that works for you. To find what works please come up with an idea, write it down, then stick to it for at least a week. It is better to have an entire month but you will quickly find out what works for you. Trust me.

The 12 problems section is the other way you can come up with new ideas. Listed above. To summarize you have the 12 most immediate problems at the forefront of your mind and your subconscious comes up with ways to solve those problems.

Knowledge retention.

I won’t spend a lot of time explaining why knowledge is so hard for us to retain right now, it is safe to assume that the average person has a hard time retaining all the inputs. With that said, how can it help? It is pretty straight forward. If you have it captured in one of your programs and backed up, it should not be going anywhere.

However specifically dealing with the knowledge gained from a piece of content is slightly different. When you read that book about how important sleep is if you do what most people do, you will read it, get super hyped about having a good sleep schedule, and after a week or maybe two, you’re completely off of it.

Contrast that to someone who has read the book, took notes on the most helpful information from each chapter. Then when finished compiled them into a notepad. Then maybe summarized the whole book with one paragraph. Even one step further, what was the knowledge he gained from the principles taught in the book. Decide if it is valuable. If the answer is yes then implement it. Do this by setting reminders for the future and making an action plan for turning it into a habit. Or at least set a recurring reminder telling you the tidbit of info you needed so you can keep living by it and using it to your advantage. While this may seem the same as information storage it is a lot different as we will find next

Information storage.

Information is more like data. People's names, job titles, phone numbers, facts from studies, etc. This “information” is often used for proof of something, resources on laws and regulations, the facts or rough notes of a conference you have been to. It really can be any number of things, however, I see information as more of the resources you turn to when you are looking to build something.

When you have your second brain refined it will help you not only capture this information more easily but it will help you to find it when you need it. Finding it is the most important thing. I like to equate it this way. If you just save the relevant information into your database it is like building a custom Google for yourself. You have already filtered through the billions of answers and only relevant information. While the only major difference is that this is not going to find new sources.

Project management.

This is a big one and can be super useful to many people. Part of the second brain idea is that in time you will have a lot of content curated that can be easily put together with other pieces of content to make a finished product. An example is a book.

A young man once decided he would like to write a book before he turned 21. He knew he would not have time to dedicate to sitting down and writing it all at once. He also knew that he would have a hard time formulating all the ideas from scratch. So what he did was decide that he would set the goal/idea of the book and start writing blog posts regarding that idea.

Before he knew it, he not only started producing great content but also ended up just getting better at it in every way. He set out and started writing about topics relevant to his goal. Eventually, he had enough content for an entire book. While he was a little late getting it to print he accomplished his goal.

“When you start a project, create a separate file for everything regarding that project.”

The second way it can help towards this goal is by helping you stay on track. As all of having surely experienced, trying to set aside a large block of uninterrupted time to get a project done is often impossible. From unexpected calls, to flat tires life does not always have it in the cards. So, when we use this method we can stay on task through having our project outlines available. Here are the first steps.

When you start a project, create a separate file for everything regarding that project. From notes to resources specific to that project, keep it all here. You will want to create a project outline. This is not as necessary for smaller projects, but for any larger project, it is helpful to break it down. A week-long project might be broken down into 5–20 small parts. In between each micro-deliverable, you can get feedback from your team members and make it even better. Then towards the end, you assemble it all. This helps you to get more done because you will be able to put in what you need to get done into small time windows.

Part of that exercise involves writing down an estimated amount of time the task will take to complete. This has helped me a lot. For example, I used to procrastinate uploading podcasts because I didn’t ever try to define the amount of time it would require. When I finally did it, I realized it only took about 7 minutes. So in defining these tasks now, I can stop procrastinating on getting them done.

Content creation.

Hopefully, a lot of these questions are getting more and more self-evident as you read through, getting the idea more and more solidified. As for content creation, it can be very helpful in two main ways.

First, it helps you create micro-content. When you develop a habit of taking notes on every conversation, and piece of content you consume, you basically have mini blog posts. All of those mini blog posts are what I call micro-content. These can be compiled into a larger project. There is also more. These can be used over and over again with small adjustments to the context of your topic.

A look forward: as you develop your second brain you will get to a point where you can compile a blog, and eventually even larger presentations with 10–15 minutes of compilation and review.

Second, it fuels your creative mind. This is done through the storage system of your notes. The brain is constantly scanning for patterns subconsciously. Your first brain can come to some of these pattern conclusions by the scanning of your notes. If you use EverNote or a similar program, the note title will be displayed and part of the body of the note. Our brains often don’t even consciously notice the individual words, but our brain will be scanning for solutions to the problems we asked it to solve when we wrote down our 12 favorite problems.

Having a note retention system that is on the brink of chaos is actually super helpful for you to come up with solutions to the problems you are facing. The patterns are something that can also be found with the search bar. When you have an idea and do a quick search of your database you might come up with notes from different notebooks that turn out to be relevant to what you are searching for. This is another way that having a second brain helps you improve your ability to create content.

In Closing: Chase what excites you.

This is a large principle of having your second brain. It is referring to the collection of information and the outcome of having all this information. If you collect what excites you it will be retained more. It is still important to things you know will be useful but are not as exciting but it does raise a question. If it is not at all interesting to you, why are you pursuing it?

Let’s use the previous example of the man who wants to start a business. If he is truly interested in doing this it will be of some interest for him to learn all he needs in order to run a good business. This applies even to the naturally less interesting topics such as tax structure or how to run payroll.

“Success in life comes down to your perspective.”

This gets into a more philosophical question. The question Simon Sinek asks so often…Why? If you do what you love, or at least something in that close proximity, won’t you be happier, and consequently do a better job because you are not haunted with the thought of switching jobs and all the extra thoughts that go along with that one. Although this is not the point of this case study I think it is worth discussing it in relation to the ideology behind building yourself a second brain.

Success in life comes down to your perspective. If you measure success by money then I challenge you to think why you see success in direct relation to the amount of money you have. I personally believe that every person will have a different purpose and why in life which means varying images of success. To further go down my opinion rabbit hole, I believe the best way to discover the WHY that drives you, is to develop self-awareness.

“This can help you clarify your why and should help you to be happier…”

Having a high level of self-awareness and understanding will help you in this search. Having a second brain can help you see patterns in the things you like and are interested in. This can help you clarify your why and should help you to be happier and live to your full attention. It just makes sense that if you really enjoy a certain task you will probably end up giving it more attention and create a better result.

With that I want to say, there is a lot to this idea. It may seem like a daunting task, but if you truly want to free yourself from slavery to your techology, and instead want it to work for you, please consider doing more research into this. It can really help you to be in charge of your life.

The Startup

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Silas Mahner

Written by

A young Catholic Entrepreneur, and Businessman aspiring to create value for others, especially other Catholic businesspeople. silasmahner.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +526K people. Follow to join our community.

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