Building My Second Brain

You may have noticed lately that I’ve been blogging a bit more regularly. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my site but always found reasons not to do it. A lot of times the reasons were just being busy—which is kind of a fake reason. Other times it was I just didn’t know what I wanted to write about. So I’d like to talk a little about what changed in my blogging mindset, what tools I’ve been using, and how I’ve started building a second brain.

What is a Second Brain?

I think way too much about productivity tools. I’m always trying new things and reevaluating what I use. Sometimes it’s a distraction, but it’s often led to new systems that help me get things done. During one of these late night revenge bedtime procrastination sessions I came across this idea of the Second Brain.

The core principle here is a system around the notes you take from books, articles, and videos such that you don’t have to maintain these ideas in your head. By capturing your notes into a system like Roam Research, Obsidian, or Craft you gain the ability focus on connections and building on existing knowledge. All these tools allow you to see connections via backlinks (or in some cases visual graphs).

Next change is how to take notes—which for me was previously in the category of “not good”. I first read about Andy Matuschak’s Evergreen notes. This showed me that taking notes isn’t the point, thinking is. To me that means categorization and tagging is less important than the note itself. Notes that should be atomic units. I’ve recently started reading “How to Take Smart Notes” which goes into similar ideas with the Zettelkasten System. These notes allow me to think, they allow me to see connections, they gave me the realization that writing is thinking.

The Zettelkasten System talks about three types of notes. Fleeting notes are singular thoughts you have that come up at any time, permanent notes are those that have been formally written with connections to other notes, and project notes are those notes written about a specific project. It also uses notes that are literature references and slip boxes (Zettelkasten is German for “slip of paper box”).

Let’s look at what I’m currently doing.

How I’m Taking Notes and Creating More

Of the tools I mentioned above, I’ve been using Craft (it’s a beautiful and native app) for capturing these notes and connections. I’m also using Things 3 as a system for both capturing new ideas and planning tasks I want to do.

I start with something like fleeting notes, if something comes up during the day I’ll add a note in my Things 3 inbox to think more about it later. If I decide to turn it into a note, I’ll move it into Craft’s inbox and within the next week, I’ll migrate it to a permanent note in my “Note Box” folder. Here I try to be brutal about the ideas and only add them if they either expand some knowledge I have notes for or something I want to build on. The point isn’t to have hundreds of notes I never see but to build on what I know or what I want to know.

Next when reading books, articles, or videos I create a document in Craft’s inbox that is a sort of bulleted feed of things that surprised me or caused me to think. If a thought is something I want to capture, I’ll make it a fleeting note in the inbox as well—but link to it in the document. When finished consuming the content I move it to an “Input” folder in Craft. Understanding requires effortful engagement and this engagement has had me focusing on what I want to capture from an article.

Finally when I think I have enough about some topic to talk about I’ll schedule a blog post in my Things area for my blog—I try to plan for the next 3–5 posts so I have time to write code if needed. This engagement in these ideas have given me more ideas about what I want to write about and kept me excited about learning more about the topic such that I can create something interesting. Then I write my blog post in Craft itself, linking to all the notes that informed it and storing it in an “Output” folder.

Will it Keep Working?

I don’t know! My track record here isn’t great—this could be my last blog post until next year when I’m reminded that I want to blog again. I hope not and this system has given me the best framework to organize my thinking, plan for what I want to learn, and start to create more. I’m still learning about good note taking, Zettelkasten, and second brain. Let me know on twitter if you’ve done anything like this or have found any other tools that helped you.