Building a so-called ‘second brain’ can help you handle information overload

·5 min read
artistic graphic of a statue with the top of it's head breaking off and floating upwards
artistic graphic of a statue with the top of it's head breaking off and floating upwards

We’re living in an age of information overload. You might read something important in an article or learn a cool fact from a TikTok video, only to forget about it half an hour later. It can be frustrating — how are we supposed to remember the important things? Tiago Forte, the founder of Forte Labs, offers a solution in his new book Building a Second Brain.

The answer, according to Forte, is the second brain, which he describes “as a notebook you might carry around with you to jot down reflections, save ideas, understand what’s worrying you and reminders of things you want to read, learn or do.” The important part is that this notebook is in digital form, which means it can be “searched, backed up and shared easily,” he says.

Forte says that when he was in his early-20s, he was lost — was he supposed to do what he ‘loved’ or what he was ‘good’ at? And what did either of those things even look like for him? To navigate these worries, he slowly began to build his second brain. By “paying attention to what was going on inside me and around me, I started to make choices based on my natural curiosity rather than anything an external authority tried to impose on me.”

To manage it all, he discovered the power of writing things down and then digitizing and organizing his written notes, so that he could easily access and refer to them whenever he needed. “When I teach this to young people, they get it much faster than older professionals,” he says, because it makes sense to them to use digital devices to process information.

Forte insists he’s not asking you to take notes like you might have in school; instead, he’s advising people to “create a personal library of knowledge to serve a lifetime of projects, goals, adventures and experiments.”

All of this sounds great in theory, but how does one even begin to build — and then use — this second brain? Forte developed a process called CODE — which stands for capture, organize, distill and express. Here’s how it works.

1. Capture

The essential first part of building a second brain is to take in information and save it in digital form. This might include “copying and pasting a passage from an online article, taking a screenshot of a website, favoriting an important email or saving a photo you are inspired by, and then the crucial step — saving it into your digital notes app.” You might try something like Notion or Obsidian.

Try not to worry too much about what sort of notes you’re initially taking — “trust your intuition about what to note down, even if it makes no sense,” Forte says. “The point of note-taking is to learn to trust the voice of intuition inside, which knows far more about who you are and what matters to you than anyone else.”

2. Organize

Once you’ve taken notes, the next stage is to organize them. Forte explains that the best way to organize is through “notes for action,” as opposed to common broad-stroke categories people might use.

Rather than creating categories like “quotes” or “psychology,” try “organizing according to the projects and goals you are actively working on.” Maybe something you saved is relevant to a blog you want to start or inspiration for how you’d like to decorate your bedroom in your new apartment. Forte recommends that “for each note you capture, ask yourself ‘For which project or goal will this be most useful?’”

3. Distill

The most-overlooked step. Forte says that when it comes to note-taking, we often assume that more is better. But this isn’t the case. “If all you do is endlessly collect and accumulate content, no organizing technique will save you.”

You need to distill the material you’ve collected down to the most “important, relevant and actionable points,” he says. This might look like distilling the notes you’ve made from a book into a few key points you’ll use in your essay or hundreds of photos taken at an event whittled down to a collection for your favorites. This step is vital to narrow your focus for the final step.

4. Express

The final step is to put your knowledge to use. You’ll now be able to call on your knowledge to focus on projects you care about, ultimately sharing what you’ve learned to collaborate with others. If you’re in a place in your life where you feel a little lost, should you be focusing on what you “love” or what you’re “good at.” This could be extra useful for you.

In using the CODE system and having an information bank you can rely on, you can ultimately prioritize yourself. Forte argues that developing the second brain will help us “turn off and relax as we know we can trust this system.” If all the things you need to remember for work or school are stored in a reliable place, it means you can truly relax at the end of a workday and avoid burnout. As Forte puts it, “a second brain worries about the details so your mind doesn’t have to.”

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