Write it down: How I am building a second brain

I’ve been reading Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain and I’ve realized that this has been one of my primary projects for years now. Whether it’s a new productivity tool, a summary of a conference presentation, or a system for effective meeting notes, my second brain has been under construction for at least a couple of decades.


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Maybe my second brain goes back much further. As a child, I was always writing stuff down. I created a three-ring binder with a plan for winning friends and influencing people in the third grade. I wrote stories and poems and little love notes to my grandma.

High school was when I delved into daily journaling. I was a black-clad kid with too much black eyeliner and too many deep thoughts, so I started to capture them in dreary journal entries and epic poems. Thank god Tumblr and Livejournal weren’t around in the 1980s.

My journaling habit expanded into a letter-writing habit, and every day I spilled my random thoughts into missives to my closest friends, to be passed in the halls between classes.

While my early journaling and letter-writing was not exactly “knowledge management,” it was serving an important second brain function: It was a way to get my thoughts out of my head and into the world.

Today, I still (again) have a journaling practice. I had been off and on for years—occasionally getting ambitious with Morning Pages, then letting it drop. Now, I just write a single page in a spiral notebook each morning to clear the cobwebs. I’m considering more structured writing with prompts, but even writing down whatever mundane clutter is in my morning brain is good for my mental health.

Meeting notes

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It started with Microsoft. In my mid-twenties I suddenly found myself in a job that involved large, complex meetings on the Microsoft campus to plan projects with six-figure price tags. It was important to have thorough meeting notes, and as designated notetaker I soon discovered that there were right and wrong ways to do meeting notes.

I learned how to take notes badly in high school. You write down the facts that you think might be on the test so that you can go back and stare at them later and hope your brain absorbs them. In my early note taking career there was never really a step beyond: write down key points.

That’s a good start. Or at least a better one than “write down everything.” By honing in on what’s important, you’ve already started the process of knowledge curation…which might be the most important key to a functional second brain.

I became known among my Microsoft clients and colleagues as a great notetaker. Maybe not worthy of a Nobel prize, but I think those notes made a big difference in the outcome of our projects.

My secret was the processing step. I would take handwritten notes in the meeting, making sure to mark next actions and critical open questions. I went back to my office and typed up the notes in three clear categories: Next steps, open questions, and general discussion.

For the first two categories I always tried to include the name of the person who would do the thing or find the answer to the question. The general discussion notes were there as an archive we could refer back to when we forgot what we talked about. Sometimes I would add a fourth category for decisions, to quash any future debate about how we decided to move forward.

Everyone in the meeting got an email with notes within 24 hours, and I know at least one producer who printed them out to carry around in a three-ring binder for reference.

I still prefer handwritten meeting notes. There’s something about the pen-hand-eye-brain connection that makes handwritten notes for remembering and parsing later. It’s also easier to jot related notes in the same quadrant of the page.

Not every meeting needs to be processed afterward, but any substantial meeting will benefit from this step. If you have a project management or task tool, the next actions can be typed up there. Open questions could be posed via email or other messaging tools (I like email for the digital paper trail). The rest of your team will appreciate you if you send your processed notes out or add them to a central document.

Getting shit done

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Did you know you’re doing your to-do list wrong? Most of us do a to-do list like this: suddenly remember a thing we want or need to do, jot it down on a piece of paper, white board, or app, and then maybe do it at some point in the future and get a gold star.

This system kind of works, and it is definitely better than trying to keep it all in your head. But this is really a system for reminders, not the best way to accomplish what you really want to do in life.

In the Getting Things Done paradigm, processing is one of the key steps to “stress-free productivity.” You still jot down your to-dos, but then you decide if it instead needs to go on a project list (two or more actions that take more than two minutes to do), a “someday maybe” list (if you don’t have time or inclination to do it in the near future), or a reminder list/ app to remind you to do it when you are in a context where you can address it.

You may notice a theme here. A second brain only works when there is a processing step in addition to the “write things down” habit. Writing everything down without deciding what to do about it will just add stress and overwhelm to your first brain.

Evernote evolution

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I was an Evernote early adopter. As a prolific notetaker and project manager, I was excited to hear about this tool for collecting all of my thoughts in one place. I even wrote a blog post called “Evernote is my new boyfriend,” which the Evernote team shared and gave me my first and last taste of Twitter fame.

Evernote has changed a lot since then, but in many ways it is still the same app. You can have functionally infinite notes, organized into notebooks, which can also be sorted into “stacks.” For example, I have my writing projects stack, which contains a notebooks for each of my larger writing projects (though I don’t do much actual writing inside Evernote).

In watching Tiago Forte’s YouTube videos on note taking apps, I learned that among his audience Evernote is still ubiquitous, with Notion starting to have a larger share of users. These are both robust platforms that can be used for simple note taking or more complex project planning.

The latest trend is connected notes, which is where apps like Roam Research and Obsidian come in. These are designed to help you build out maps of connected ideas. Where an app like Evernote lets you build a library of neat categories, connected notes foster more creativity by connecting seemingly unrelated ideas.

I recently cleared out my Evernote inbox, which contained uncategorized notes going back a decade or more. I found scraps of a sci-fi novel I started writing years ago, recipes I never got around to cooking, links to articles I never read, short journal entries, and other miscellany.

Now I have just a few stacks and notebooks for things I’m actively working on or thinking about, and a giant archive. My messy Evernote brain contains 1,788 notes, all of which seemed important at some point.

The dreaded inboxes

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I’ve never quite gotten the hang of having an inbox. Even in the olden days of paper in plastic trays, I kept a heap of in, out, and undecided that I went through and largely threw out about once a year. In the meantime, at least I knew where to look for any random paper I may have needed.

Today, my inboxes are mostly digital. There’s email, of course, and now Slack for my day job. I use my Todoist inbox for tasks and projects I think of at random times. I use my Bullet Journal for ideas and reminders. I use Evernote for random thoughts and things I find on the internet.

The problem is, once something goes into an inbox, what do I do with it? Historically, the answer has been: leave it there for about twelve years, then archive or delete it.

C.O.D.E malfunction

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Tiago Forte’s C.O.D.E system can help me with my erratic inboxes, if I actually get past C.

In the COLLECT phase the idea is to write down or save information that is actually useful or interesting to you. That means there is a moment of curation before you even save something. I have been hesitant to collect ideas or information, because my inbox clutter makes me feel like a hoarder, and I never get to the O phase because it feels like work.

In the ORGANIZE phase, Forte recommends yet another acronym: P.A.R.A. Everything is related to a PROJECT, life AREA, RESOURCES for future reference, or an ARCHIVE of things that are finished or no longer relevant. As I’ve been trying out this model, I find that for me it makes sense to nest active projects within life areas. But to make this work for me, I need to get better at consistent collection and regular processing.

In the DISTILL phase, you pare down the information to that which is most relevant to the project or area of interest. Other than getting very good at meeting notes (see above), I have never developed a practice for distilling my collection of personal knowledge. One area that I can try this with is my Kindle book highlights on topics that relate to my writing or other projects.

Finally, we get to the EXPRESS phase. What are we collecting this information for, and how to we put it out into the world? This can take many forms, from creative works to presentation decks, but the idea is that you are not just a knowledge hoarder. You are making something. That’s the essence of knowledge work, and what most knowledge workers do all day.

My second brain

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My second brain is currently under construction, but here’s an overview of the tools currently in play:

  • Bullet journal(s) for quick notes, reminders, and habit tracking (one for work, one personal)
  • Todoist for personal, creative, and household project planning
  • Trello for work projects and tasks
  • Evernote for gathering notes and information
  • Google Keep and Google Docs for work notes and documentation
  • Google calendar for meetings, appointments, and time-blocking.

I will admit, I’ve always been hoping for that one tool/ system that would manage my whole life for me, but as I experiment I realize that it is helpful to have different tools for different purposes. You can’t do everything with a hammer. Now that I accept the complexity, I can hone and simplify my second brain.

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