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Build a second brain

November 14, 2022

If your work depends on constantly learning, synthesizing, and applying new information, then building a second brain could be a great way to invest your time. Even if you're not a knowledge worker, the BASB method can help you organize your life's projects in a way that surfaces what's most actionable and useful without a lot of extra effort.

Most of us already consume a staggering amount of content each day in the form of blog posts, videos, podcasts, books, articles and so on. Instead of hoping that our brains will be able to retain everything, see all the connections, and come up with novel ideas on demand - why not make sure that time invested pays back in spades. That's the promise of building a second brain.

What is building a second brain?

The build a second brain system was developed by Tiago Forte and shared publicly in 2017. Tiago originally developed the system to help himself keep up with his fast-paced and complex job - however the system is flexible enough to work for just about any use case.

Building a second brain is based on the idea that in order to best utilize all the information we have available, we need an efficient way to organize and process it. Trying to hold all the information we need for a given project in our heads is not the best way to do it.

Similar to the GTD system, BASB holds the idea that your brain is great at certain things and not so great at others. It's great for seeing connections between ideas, coming up with creative solutions, and analyzing data. However, it's not so great at remembering vast amounts of information and keeping track of lots of different activities. By outsourcing those tasks that our brains are generally not good at, we can both free up our headspace from having to remember everything and instead focus our brainpower on what it does best.

Human brains are not hard drives and so are not well suited to consuming and processing the thousands of pieces of information we receive each day. By distributing our memory to a digital medium, we essentially augment our own capability to recall any piece of information in the future.

Organizing information is just one part of the BASB system. The rest of the system shows you how to take all that information and shape it over time so becomes more useful and more valuable.

How building a second brain works

The system is based around the CODE method which is an acronym for 'Capture', 'Organize', 'Distill', and 'Express. Information passes through each of these steps in the system.

Capture

The first step in BASB is to capture the information you want in your second brain. The idea is to be selective when capturing, future you is going to have to go through that information so consider that when choosing what to keep. Some useful criteria for what to keep in your second brain are:

1. Does it inspire you?
2. Is it useful?
3. Is it personal?
4. Is it surprising?

If you answered yes to any of these, then it's probably a good idea to keep it in your system. This may seem like a straightforward step but it's crucial to get it right as this forms the base for your second brain.

Organize

Before continuing, we should point out that keeping the information in your second brain organized is not meant to be a full-time job, nor is it meant to be something you constantly do just because. The idea is that you organize as you add information, and as you use that information. There's no point in trying to constantly keep everything pristine when you're only going to actively use a tiny percentage of all that information at a given time.

The next step in the CODE method is to organize your information. This is where the PARA system comes in. PARA stands for 'Projects', 'Areas', 'Resources', and 'Archive'. These are the four areas where you'll store all the information in your second brain. We also have a separate guide for the PARA system, if you want to dive more deeply into it,

These four categories work by putting the items that are most immediate and actionable front and center. This goes back to the idea that we're not trying to collect every last piece of information, just those items that could actually be useful to you. Let's go through each of those areas so it's clear how they're meant to keep you focused on what's important and make it easy to accomplish your goals.

Projects - I'm sure you're familiar with projects, they're a series of tasks or activities that all work towards a common outcome. Projects have deadlines and are aligned towards achieving some goal.

Areas - This is short for 'Areas of responsibility'. These are not actually broad categories as the name might first suggest, but rather areas that need constant upkeep. Another way to think of these is that they're projects without a due date. Areas of your life that you're currently working on bit by bit.

Resources - The resources area is where you'll put things that are not related to active areas of responsibility or projects. In other words, this is where you'll put information you find interesting or important but that isn't immediately useful. Basically things you think might be useful in the future.

Archive - The Archive is where you'll store projects, areas, and resources that are no longer active. Just because they're no longer active doesn't mean they can't be useful in the future - so we keep then in this area for possible future reference.

Over time, items will move from one are to another as your needs and interests change. A project might expand and become an ongoing area, an area might stop being relevant and become just a resource or go into the archive, resources might become active projects, and items in your archive might become relevant again in the future and end up in one of the other three categories.

Notice how the areas start from the most actionable and become less and less so as we move down all the way to the archive. That means most of your time will be spend in the first three categories.

While most of your time will be spent in the 'projects' area, you should set aside some time to review the other areas regularly. We recommend you review 'Areas' on a weekly basis and 'Resources' on a monthly basis. This corresponds to the likely relevance each area will have on your life at a given moment. What you're looking to do during these reviews is scan the different items in each area and see if you need to move anything around based on your current needs and goals.

Distill

Distilling is where we take all that raw information and start to turn it into something much more useful. Our main tool for doing that is through progressive summarization.

Progressive summarization is the act of distilling the information we collected in our second brain down to its most essential elements. We do this by taking our notes and highlighting the main points each time we review them. After about two rounds of highlighting we can also add a summary in our own words to further consolidate what we consider most important.

Essentially we're getting a two-for-one, we're reviewing our notes and we're also leaving behind a more valuable note for the future. So each time we come back to it, we'll find a more concise and easier to digest piece of information. The recommendation when doing this is to highlight no more than about 10 - 20% of the previous layer of highlights.

It's important to keep in mind that you're expected to do this only when you're getting ready to do something with the information and that it's not meant to be homework you constantly have to do.

Express

The last step in the CODE method focuses on taking all these curated and distilled notes and repurposing them like lego blocks when we need them. This is ultimately the long term goal of the system.

There are three main ways you'll be doing this.

1. Accessing all notes, ideas, assets from your life on demand
2. Seeing and connecting distant ideas across time and categories
3. Creating new assets, ideas, documents from your notes

A large part of this is simply a shift in thinking. If you follow the other three steps in the CODE method, then you should have a growing collection of notes and pieces of information that you can then take and use in new projects. The BASB system asks that we consider each piece of information in our second brain as a potential building block which we could reconfigure and connect with other pieces of information.

As our second brain grows, we have ever more valuable information to call upon to make our lives easier and as a source of inspiration. Not having to rely solely on our memory means we can use things from years back that might be relevant to us today. In other words we're building up our own personal wikipedia that we can use to give us an edge in any of our life's projects. Whether that's putting together a presentation on a complex topic, starting a new business, picking up a new hobby, or leveling up your career - if it's something that's important in your life, chances are you'll already have notes and information on that topic in your second brain.

How to build a second brain in Workflowy

The build a second brain system is largely the PARA method with the addition of progressive summarization and regular reviews.

Let's start by setting up the four main sections that will hold all the information in our second brain. So we have 'Projects', 'Areas', 'Resources', and 'Archives'.

Let's also add a simple inbox to make it easier to capture items quickly without having to think about where they go.

And there we have it. Simple but effective. The BASB system is not exactly a productivity system so there's no particular flow you're supposed to follow to make it work. As long as you're following the guidelines about what to put under each section - you're in good shape. If you also follow the recommendations of reviewing the 'Areas' section at least once a week and the 'Resources' section once a month you're well on your way to seeing the benefits of putting your information into the system.

Getting set up for the first time

Since this is your first time setting up the system, let's go through a couple of questions to help guide you in adding the skeleton of your second brain.

Let's start by zooming into the 'Projects' section and thinking about all the active projects we have going on. These can be work projects or personal ones. Remember that these have a set due date, and that they're likely part of an ongoing area of responsibility you'll add in a moment.

Don't try to add absolutely everything you can think of, just what's most relevant and actionable right now. No need to create a bunch of empty bullets as placeholders.

Next, you want to zoom into the 'Areas' section and again, take a moment to create bullets for the ongoing areas of responsibility that are relevant for you. These can be things like finances, health, writing, psychology, marketing, parenting and so on.

Remember that these are topics where you have an ongoing responsibility and no set due date. These areas will likely generate lots of projects over time.

Once you've listed those, move on to the 'Resources' section. This is where you don't have to be as judicious as in the 'Projects' or 'Areas' section. 'Resources' is where you can add topics that are broader and don't have an immediate purpose. In other words these are the subjects you're interested in but aren't part of an active responsibility of part of any current project.

If the 'Projects' section is your work desk, and 'Areas' your filing cabinet, then 'Resources' if your bookshelf. It's where you collect and distill items that could be useful or that you find interesting but you're not quite sure what to do with them just yet. You might never find another use for them other than they give you joy or they fascinate you, but that's definitely reason enough to keep them in your system.

Finally, the 'Archive' will likely remain empty for a while. As you start to build your second brain and complete projects, you'll move complete items into the archive. As areas of responsibility change, they might also end up in the archive. Resources that lose relevance or your interest  could also find their way to this section.

This is basically the back of the closet. Everything's still there if you ever need it, but most of those items will likely stay put.

Once you've gone through the four categories of the PARA method and made bullets for each of the items you want in your system, it's time to start filling it up.

In the spirit of only organizing and distilling things as you use or need them, we recommend you don't try to completely fill out your second brain in one go. Rather, go about your regular day and as you come across notes, documents, or anything else that should go in your second brain given the projects, areas and resources sections you created - you drop them in your inbox. Then at some later time when you have a spare moment, or you're actively working on one of those items, you open up your second brain and move that information from the inbox to the correct section.

In this way you don't burn yourself out and your second brain will fit up organically, bit by bit. This gives you enough time to actually think about the notes you're adding and really focus when distilling information.

Remember that the philosophy behind BASB is to only tidy up and organize as you go, focusing on what you need right now and not trying to keep everything one hundred percent perfect and in order.

In BASB prefect is definitely the enemy of good enough, spending a lot of time trying to keep it pristine for its own sake is not the point. And as time passes a you have ever more information in your system, it's simply not going to be tenable so you might as well accept that now. In that way it mirrors our own neural pathways. Those that get used very often form strong connections and are easy to recall compared to those that are rarely used. At the end of the day, your second brain will become a reflection of your life's work and interests.

Conclusion

For anyone that could use a bit of help organizing lots of information, or even if you're just interested in enriching your ability to recall and synthesize information, the BASB system is a great way to do it. The system takes advantage of the activities you're likely already doing (consuming lots of information) and channels that effort into a practical and useful organization system.

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