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Building a Second Brain: A Conversation with Tiago Forte

by on July 4, 2023

I came across Tiago Forte several years ago through an interview he did with David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done (GTD). I started following his work and got intrigued by his course called Building A Second Brain. It changed my approach to personal knowledge management. More information can be found at www.fortelabs.com.

In 2019, the Palm Beach County Library System hosted a workshop featuring Forte, where library staff had the opportunity to learn the techniques of digital note taking and how it can enhance creativity and retention. Forte’s latest book Building a Second Brain was released in June 2022. This interview was recorded in July 2022.

PL: Please define what you mean by a Second Brain?

TF: Think of a diary or notebook. It is a creative, timeless practice to save your thoughts. Now make a few changes. You’re going to journal not just your own thoughts and reflections, but external sources of information. You hear a quote that resonates with you, write that down. You hear an interesting fact, write that down. You discover some research of interest, write that down. Next, make it digital so that it is on your smartphone and sync to the Cloud and all your devices. Now you can access it from anywhere, anytime.

With all the capabilities of technology, you can save, not just text, but images, links, web bookmarks, photographs, drawings, and sketches. Because it’s digital, it can be annotated, organized, and re-sorted. It can change with your needs and goals. Your Second Brain is a trusted place outside of your head where you save all of the ideas, insights reflections and realizations that are most important to you. It contains information that is personally relevant and meaningful. It contains moving and powerful life experiences, memories, and unique ways of seeing the world.

PL: How does your system specifically integrate with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach?

TF: It’s a compliment. GTD deals with actionable tasks. My system is everything else: the notes, the files, the documents which he calls the support material. My career is about focusing where he didn’t focus and developing what it means to have project support material and reference material.

PL: A part of the concept of the Second Brain revolves around CODE. Tell us more about this.

TF: CODE is the method and framework. The four main chapters in the middle of the book cover each letter of CODE, which stands for capture, organize, distill, and express. Each represents a fundamental activity of the creative process.

You’ve heard people reference the creative process. In the past, that was reserved for artists, poets, and musicians. Today every single person needs to create a process in their profession or business for novel problem solving and creativity. Every creative process is different, but these are the four parts that they all share.

First you have to capture things and write them down so they are outside of your head. Until it is in some external medium you can’t see it objectively, work with it, or improve it. Once you’ve amassed enough ideas you need to organize them and create a structure with a priority system. Before you can use the content it must be distilled and boiled down to the key points. Once that’s done you’re ready to express, which is to speak, present, write, sell, publish or in some way put out the results of your thinking into the world.

It can feel like a digital filing cabinet where you open it up to put in one little file, and then close it and forget. That’s always a pitfall but CODE is not a storage system. It’s workflow with progression. There’s a sense of direction. Things aren’t captured to stay there forever. You are moving them down the pipe, systematically, consistently, over time.

You can save something just because it’s interesting, but ultimately I’m encouraging people to do better more impactful work in the world as a result of their notes.

PL: Along with CORE, there is another concept built around a four letter acronym. Please share the meaning of PARA, and how it guides the structure of the second brain?

TF: The four letters of PARA stand for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives.

I’m a big fan of four letter frameworks. Four is the highest number that human beings can hold in their mind. CODE is not a storage system, but you need to store things in order to have them available. PARA is the storage system. It’s based on actionable ability and contrasts the way people normally organize which is like a library. Libraries need to be accessible to everyone which means they must be consistent. There’s one place on the shelf for every book sorted by the same categories. That makes sense for a library but not for personal knowledge management. Imagine yourself three weeks from now, with fifteen minutes between meetings and you have to find a fact or data point. You don’t have time to search through potentially hundreds of notes. You have to organize it in much more specific categories which comes down to projects.

The most important is the first letter: Projects. Start by creating a folder for each one of your projects. For every note you collect ask which context or project this will this be most relevant and place it in that folder. The Second Brain is a project driven mechanism so things we’re interested in definitely are the ones to capture. Once a project’s done, you’re not deleting the folder. It can be saved for later use. Imagine a pyramid with projects are at the top. They’re where most of your attention should go because of deadlines.

The second category are the Areas of Responsibility. They are the hats you wear in life. For example, my house is not a project. There are projects to do around or pertain to the house. My spouse would definitely not like to be called a project. A strong marriage is an area to focus on. I’m committed to indefinitely paying attention to my health. There is no completion date for finances, No completion date for my dog, but I have a file full of vet reports and blood analyses, the medications she needs, and the different routines we have.

PL: People often confuse projects and areas. Please expand on the distinction between them.

TF: There’s a very simple distinction: projects end, areas continue.

In my early career, preceding my Second Brain work, I coached professionals on GTD. I noticed that even sophisticated knowledge workers confused the two and that was the root cause of many challenges with their productivity. Imagine a project to lose ten pounds. Let’s say you are successful through changes to your diet and exercise. If you think of that as a one-time project that has an end date, you’re going to return to the previous habits and gain all that weight back. The routines and systems have to continue into the future. That’s when you have a project which really needs to become an area.

But the reverse also happens. The classic example is writing a book. You talk to an author three months later and they are still writing the book. A year later they are still writing the book. Three years later they are still writing the book. For that book to ever be done, the author has to set up a project with deadlines and milestones, and ultimately a publishing date. So people confuse both directions. Ultimately it keeps people from having the life they want to live.

PL: We talked about projects and areas but not so much about resources and archives. Could you clarify those categories?

TF: Resources are everything else you’ve wanted to learn about. It is notes from books that you read. It is written quotes that don’t seem to have any particular application in a project area you want to keep. It’s the miscellaneous category of everything else, but you want it a little bit out of sight.

Think about your physical desktop. That’s not the place to keep all the files. It would prevent you from making progress on your projects. The resources folder keeps them nearby. It can be as big as you want. You can save anything you want as long as it’s not cluttering up your current projects. It’s like that filing cabinet in the corner of your office. You know it’s over there and can access it when you need it.

The fourth one is Archives. Sometimes one of the previous three categories becomes inactive. For example you have a project that finishes or an area that ends. When you move out of an apartment all the notes and information related to it are no longer actionable. You may not want to delete it. I was interested in web design, and then I stopped. I don’t want to delete all that content. I just want to get those folders and move them to the archives as cold storage. Instead of the filing cabinet in the corner of your office this is the stacks in the basement. You never even go down there until there is a specific thing to find. It can grow as big as you want because it’s not cluttering up your workspace.

PL: How does one get started with digital note taking?

TF: To start the process, create two simple notes. One note is about a thing to do. Another note is an idea. With just two little notes, you have the seeds of a Second Brain. People like me have hundreds or thousands of notes. As more are added you start to see the benefits of externalizing all these worries and anxieties and things to remember. Your first brain opens up and becomes more centered and present, which is what GTD originally introduces.

PL: I heard David Allen summarize GTD as “get stuff out of your head.” The main obstacle is deciding where to put it. Don’t trust the spot and the mind will pull it back. How does one learn to trust this Second Brain?

TF: The trust comes from the fact that it’s digital. In the past I took paper notes but had an incredible propensity to lose notebooks. With digital the instant I write it in Evernote, which is my notes app, it syncs to the Cloud. I could lose my phone or computer and it would still be synced. This means it is never lost and I can access it from anywhere. Digital gives me a safe backup.

Trust also comes from regular review. There is a big difference with GTD which deals with task open loops that are time sensitive. If you have an open loop such as, respond to my boss about the meeting, and that slips your mind you could be in big trouble. So the Weekly Review from GTD is very systematic. Every week at the same time you review your open loops, which makes sense.

With notes it’s different. Notes are not time sensitive. I promise you there’s no note so important that it needs to be reviewed weekly. It’s not about frequency. The review is done when you’re getting ready to create. In other words, do it just in time when you have a challenge or problem to solve. This creates a powerful lens to determine what matters. Search for different kinds of notes that maybe only make sense together related to the problem you’re trying to solve.

PL: Another concept is using notes to create intermediate packages. What do you mean by that?

TF: This comes from studying manufacturing. With manufacturing it’s easy to see that everything is made up of smaller parts. Take apart an iPhone and you will find transistors and chips, memory modules, a screen and other parts. The same is true of knowledge work. Your digital outputs could be a slide presentation, a memo, an email, a report, a project, plan, or a budget. Those are also made of smaller parts. Knowledge work is assembled from pre-existing parts.

Think of a website. No one sits down to a blank HTML document and starts coding. What are the steps to creating a website? First you make a mockup. Then you grab photos to insert. Next you write the copy. Eventually you get feedback on the color scheme. At some point links are added. By the time the web page is made, dozens of different building blocks are already at hand.

For every single note I take, I think about how this could be a building block. It means all my time is productive. Let’s say I watch Stranger Things, and I notice a way that they light a scene and imagine we could use that same technique for a YouTube video. I write that down in two seconds and suddenly watching Netflix is a productive activity. That applies to basically all of life. Those building blocks are called intermediate packets.

PL: In your book you share that a way to develop the Second Brain is to identify your favorite problems.  What do you mean by that?

TF: The word “problem” has a very negative connotation. But over the course of my career I actually have favorite problems that are fun puzzles or games to solve. They’re experiments I actually seek out. As a professional, you are paid to solve certain kinds of problems.

What are the problems that you want to spend your career solving? Based on a quote by Richard Feynman, where he describes this process, I have people in my course list a series of open questions they enjoy exploring. Here are some of mine:

  • How to make exercise more enjoyable?
  • How I can live in an ecologically sustainable way, while continue to create and build things and grow my business.
  • How can I innovate and be creative in a way that allows me to do both?

In the book I have a whole list of examples from my students.

  • How can I spend my evenings reading and just doing self-care rather than just sitting on the couch watching TV?
  • How can I wake up earlier in the morning?
  • How can I change the structure of capitalism to be more fair and equitable?
  • How can I make the publishing industry more open to new authors like you?

The reason this has to do with the Second Brain is often people want to know what to collect. Save in the Second Brain that which is noteworthy compared to your favorite problems. Once you have a short list of favorite open questions, anything that seems connected to one of them is something to save. Over time you develop and cultivate your own answers to those questions. From doing that exercise myself it didn’t just bring up new ideas but it clarified a lot of things.

PL: You have not talked about goals setting. How do goals factor into the Second Brain?

TF: I don’t talk about goals because it’s well covered by other people. Another reason is the whole Building a Second Brain philosophy is very bottom up and emergent. Goal setting is all about top down planning. Set your goal, and then break it down into objectives, and turn those objectives into timelines. It is what David Allen calls the 50,000 foot view. In past decades where you could make five year and ten year plans and follow them step by step.

The world has changed a lot and we live in an environment of chaos. A Second Brain is a response to where you’re at from the bottom up. I advise taking notes on what resonates now. It’s more intuitive, based on your bodily sensations and your emotions. It’s the stuff that makes the goose bumps stand up on your arm and your pupils dilate, even if there’s no project or goal related to them. This is a bottom-up approach of seeing what emerges and naturally moves you, then later figure out how it makes sense. Choose which projects and goals to take on based on what is already there.

Productivity work can get very dry and methodical. For me to be satisfied as a knowledge worker, I need something that’s going to spark me, get me excited, make me curious. No one is required to do this. There’s no boss saying you need to take notes in a particular way. This is all optional, which means you get to make up. The only practical way of doing that is taking notes on ideas that move you, stories that resonate, and songs, movies, and documentaries that touch something inside. When I save those things over time. I understand myself better.

PL: Does a Second Brain need a specialized note app like Evernote?

TF: It can work anywhere. This is the reason that I feel comfortable publishing a book. The technology landscape is constantly changing. Every six months there’s a hot, new, trendy notes app. After fifteen years of doing this in one form or another, I saw timeless principles and practices that make sense and are useful before modern technology. This means there are useful far into the future things.

Write down what resonates with you. Organize according to what’s actionable. Retrieve ideas just in time. These are all timeless principles. In my course people have used upwards of fifty different notes apps. So I’d say you can use whatever note taking application you want.

PL: To wrap things up, please share a book recommendation, fiction, or nonfiction other than your own.

TF: There’s a great companion to my book called The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul. She is a science writer, unlike me. If you’re interested in the psychology, biology, neurology, and social science of it, she very comprehensively provides citations and research. I think of our two books as the science and the practice. You read them both, and you will honestly know more about personal knowledge management than 99% of people in the world.