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Why I have a second brain, and why you need to build one too.

Photo by That's Her Business on Unsplash

How many brilliant ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you not actioned because the time wasn't right? How much practical advice and learning have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed?

Why not cultivate a collection of valuable knowledge and insights for use today and in the future.

We spend countless hours every week consuming content, whether reading books, articles, listening to podcasts or teachers and speakers, and watching videos and other potentially useful content. The risk is that knowledge is not easily accessible and so not available to you when needed. Worst still, it is forgotten and lost.

We have cognitive limits. Our brains simply won't let us take everything in. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in, which nicely leads to the idea that:

Our brains are for having ideas, not storing them.

- David Allen

So what is the solution?

Personal Knowledge Management - the next level of productivity

In 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, I delved into the rabbit hole that is the field of Personal Knowledge Management. I was already disciplined and organised - no surprises that on the "Big 5" underlying traits that make up an individuals' personality, I score highly on conscientiousness - but the field of personal knowledge management takes it up a gear or two.

Tiago Forte of Forte Labs is the creator of the online course "Building a second brain."

"Building A Second Brain is a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we've gained through our experience. It expands our memory and our intellect using the modern tools of technology and networks."

The main idea is to build up your second brain over time using a digital note-taking system. Anything that you:

  • Read

  • Watch

  • Listen to

That resonates with you can go into this system to be organised and connected. You can then convert the material into creative ideas and output to help you in your career and work. Here are some examples and ones that I store in my second brain (which uses Microsoft OneNote as the cloud-based digital note-taking system):

Book notes - I aim to write notes for every non-fiction book that I read. If we are going to spend some of the scarce time that we have on reading books and articles, then we should ensure that we are getting the most from doing so. I talk about the five stages of my system here to remember more of what you read.

Templates - don't be destined to start every email, proposal, presentation or speech from scratch. No one has the time to answer the same questions multiple times without a system to make it more efficient.

Courses - think of this as your "personal learning cloud". Record and store all course materials, along with your notes and reflections on the learning here. That goes for the courses that you come across and are thinking about doing in the future.

Quotes - record the most meaningful ones for you in one place rather than guessing from memory who originally said or wrote them and having to spend time tracking them down on Google.

Reading lists - record book recommendations for future use rather than falling foul of tsundoku, the act of acquiring reading materials and letting them pile up in one's home without reading them. I record future books to read, and as the recommendations or the number of times the book appears on my radar build-up, the book will rise to the top of my reading list.

Project ideas, Possible solutions to problems, General musings - When we have ideas, we aren't always in a good place or point in time to flesh them out entirely. Running is a source of creativity for me, so a brief text or email, during my run, to my second brain and the idea is recorded safely for future examination.

Creative processes - Everything you create, whether published or some stage of draft, can be stored:

  • presentations

  • speeches

  • articles

  • podcasts

  • videos

Notes from important meetings and calls - group them by project or initiative.

Scanned documents - how many times does one need to supply a bio page from a passport?! Well, store it in one secure place. The same goes for other important and valuable documents.

Clipped webpages and screenshots - I have a scrapbook area for future review. Part of my review is to double-check that this is interesting and then file it in the appropriate project category.

The list goes on. I have journals and notebooks dating back to 2004, but unfortunately, they aren't searchable in the same way as a digital note-taking system.

Creating the second brain isn't just about the content.

It's about scaling your time.

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

If you still are reading this and are yet to be convinced, read on as here are seven reasons and principles why I think you will benefit from creating your second brain.

7 reasons for busy knowledge workers and professionals to start building your second brain today:

1 - Idea recycling - ideas are not single-use.

Unless we safely record our insights, ideas and creations, we are destined to repeat things.

Repurpose content, whether it is a presentation, a particularly good email, or simply something that you find yourself sharing more than once.

So rather than measure twice, cut once. Create once, store, revisit, reuse and repurpose multiple times. The central repository is an excellent way to become more efficient and reduce wasting time doing the same thing time and time again.

2 - Slow burn - capture nascent ideas.

Capture ideas as they come to you. Often you may not have time when inspiration strikes to explore the concept or thought. By recording it, you can keep coming back to it, adding thoughts and more ideas until you can invest additional time to flesh out your thinking.

I store my article and newsletter ideas in my second brain. They start as a one-line working title which I gradually add to as I continue to be exposed to outside ideas. It might be a website link or a snippet from a podcast that I listen to while running. I know that I have to capture my thoughts immediately as often these ideas will pass through my brain and out the other side unless they get recorded.

3 - Never start with a blank page.

By collecting all this information, you will always start new projects from a position of strength rather than on the back foot with a blank page.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Draw from many sources of information, query the treasure trove of content in your second brain that you have decided is of interest and value in the past.

Austin Kleon came up with the term "steal like an artist" to emphasise that creative work builds on what came before, and thus nothing is entirely original.

"Nothing is original… all creative work builds on what came before."

Your second brain is a place for putting things that interest you. If you ever need inspiration, open it up and start browsing.

4 - Make it easier for your future self.

In this world of instant gratification, the second brain offers an alternative. The second brain expects investment upfront, which requires effort and a little bit of pain in return for long term gain.

  • How many new ideas have you had and forgotten?

  • How many insights and ideas have you failed to take action on?

  • How much great advice have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed?

Combat the forgetting curve by putting in the work now that your future self will utilise and leverage. Just think of how valuable it would be for you today if you had the past five, ten or twenty years of information available at your fingertips.

5 - Help to reduce information overload.

The reality is that we are all at the mercy of algorithms such as Google search. Type the same thing into a search bar, and there is a high chance that we will each see slightly different responses as we have delegated our filtering and curating over to one of the FANG companies.

We have very little control over the information we get exposed to. The second brain gives back control so that we are responsible for curating and filtering our content. Content that has passed our more rigorous filters - if it has been worth investing our time in the past, it is highly likely that it will be worth our time again in the future - especially when we can add our unique and differentiated perspectives and experiences.

6 - Uncover unexpected patterns and new perspectives on historical content.

The second brain system provides you with a platform for reexamining past content as new experiences, and new learnings occur. If you are anything like me, new patterns will emerge as you link content to form genuinely new ideas and different ways of looking at problems.

7 - Know where to find all the files and notes you've saved in the past.

The reality is that notebooks get stored. They are hard to search through. They may even be lost over time. Saving documents in company directories or systems makes sense for company work, but you should take control over where and when you store the information for everything else. It is increasingly rare to work at only one employer during your career, so do not put your knowledge, learning and content at risk by relying upon your current employer.


Each note in your second brain is a record of something you've experienced in your life – whether that is from reading a book, listening to an insightful speaker, completing a course, or giving a business presentation. With all your most valuable ideas at your fingertips at all times, you never need to struggle and strain to remember everything you've learned.

If this has whetted your appetite and you would like further information, I highly recommend visiting Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain website.

Start building your second brain, your own digital note-taking system, to distil, organise and share the insights you come across. It could change your career and even life for the better as the system you put in place to capture and make use of anything means every experience you have becomes an opportunity to learn and grow.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."
  • Albert Einstein


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