I first came across Building a Second Brain when I started looking into note-taking apps, as I was exploring YouTube I kept seeing everyone talking about their “second brains.” 
I mentioned in my first post about Obisidan.md that I discovered that app through Tiago Forte’s video on note-taking styles, and as far as I can tell he’s most likely the originator, and definitely a populariser, of this “building a second brain” trend. He has at least written the book on it.
Who is Tiago Forte?
Tiago is another guy on the internet with a successful blog and online courses on productivity.
His often-referenced family background is multi-cultural, Evangelical Christian and artsy, while his career background is in general business stuff. Ultimately he is a lifelong nerd for productivity and organisation. Reading between the lines of his own bio he floated around some different jobs that weren’t a fit for him, then quit that and while unemployed tried setting up his own online courses on productivity.
He states his “mission” (I think he means this in the evangelical sense) as
My mission is to radically improve the effectiveness of human beings while making their work a vehicle for personal fulfillment. I believe that work can be a profound source of creativity and pleasure, while at the same time enabling people to make a positive impact on society and the planet.
I think you can get a flavour from that. He’s a better writer than James Clear, if I’m comparing the other productivity book I read this year, but he also tends towards wrapping things up in off-putting pseudo-spiritual language, and attempts at catchy phrases, to pad out his very simple message. I can feel his religious background bleeding through his work. I’m not saying that is bad, I think it at times gives things a different sermon-like flair that I found interesting in the productivity sphere. 
What is a Second Brain?
It’s your digital notebook. Tiago advocates for it being digital and searchable, but it could also just be paper.
It is where you store information you don’t want to rely on your brain remembering. It’s an idea as old as people being able to write things down. In essence it’s a commonplace book.
It could be one digital notes app, or it come be a number of different systems (for me it is a password manager, Google Drive and Obsidian.md).
Second Brain sounds sexier though doesn’t it?
Why is this a book?
Just like Atomic Habits, this does not need to be a book. It started out as a blog, and it reads like a really stretched-out blog post. Unless you are totally new to this idea, you’re better off getting all this for free through his website and YouTube.
Like literally all of these self-help books, the idea of a “Second Brain” is just repackaging the obvious, and advice to do things that a lot of people do anyway. But Tiago dresses it up in some acronyms based on systems he’s “invented” and eye-roll-inducing terms like “archipelago of ideas.”
- To show you how to build an easily searchable digital database of all your reading, learning and thoughts.
- By removing the mental load of remembering everything you will free your mind for other tasks
- It will become easier to make connections, recognise patterns and increase your creativity.
The methods that he has “invented” are based on two acronyms: CODE and PARA.
The CODE method:
- Capture anything that resonates
- Criteria: anything inspiring, useful, personal, surprising
- Organise for action, using the PARA system:
- Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you’re working on now.
- Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time.
- Resources: Topics or interests that may be useful in the future.
- Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories.
- Distil to bitesize summaries (aka Executive Summaries)
- You can do this before you create; use this as a warm-up exercise for writing
- Express what you learned
And that is the sum total of this book!
When I first read this I “distilled” and then “expressed” it into this infographic I made in Canva (I do love to play in Canva!). You can skip scrolling past it if by clicking here.
Who is this for?
If you have not thought about keeping digital notes and never come across the idea of a commonplace book (a centuries-old idea, which Tiago does acknowledge) then this might provide some inspiration. If you are digitally disorganised and don’t know where to start organising your thoughts and notes then this might be a useful framework for you.
If you do already keep a database of digital notes then you are probably already doing all of this without thinking about it.
I am a qualified Librarian (I have a Masters in Information and Library Management), I work every day on digital databases for my clients so organising information has been my thing. However, for some reason, I had not thought to put much effort into doing that for my own self until I started this blog and realised I have stuff in my head that I want to be able to pull out and play around with.
I had already started on my digital notes database (which went from OneNote to Evernote to Obsidian.mb before I settled) with the clear goal of aiding my creativity as a searchable place to store and work on my ideas and perhaps helping me find direction for the change in job I really need.
So reading through this book at most gave me some validation that I was on the same track as Tiago, and that there are lots of other people out there who get excited about personal knowledge management, especially as an exercise in self-awareness and intuition?
Is it useful?
I had already found that creating my database had lifted some of my mental load I was feeling inspired and so much more creative than I had in years. So he’s not wrong, he’s absolutely right.. but I personally just didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know.
It also does feel like you are reading a book that is literally just made up of all his notes. His terms like “arpeggio of ideas”, “Hemingway Bridge” and on-the-nose examples like Picasso’s Bull just scream of things he’d bookmarked from the internet. Much like James Clear’s examples in his book.
I’m not saying this is always bad, in a blog post that’s absolutely fine… it just feels a little weird to read in a published book? Also, he uses Wikipedia as a source multiple times! (which I guess is better than Twitter and Reddit… but barely).
My Take Away
One useful idea for me was to write summaries at the top of all my notes to make them easier to browse, especially once I’ve started to collect quite a few. In Obsidian I do this with a callout right at the top. Again, this is probably obvious to many people but it’s not something I’d thought to do before.
However, the main element of this book that I took away was to pay attention to what resonates with me and keep a note of it. I really don’t care about all the productivity stuff, so over time that is all that did literally resonate.
This special feeling of “resonance”—like an echo in your soul—is your intuition telling you that something is literally “noteworthy.” You don’t need to figure out exactly why it resonates. Just look for the signs: your eyes might widen slightly, your heart may skip a beat, your throat may go slightly dry, and your sense of time might subtly slow down as the world around you fades away. These are clues that it’s time to hit “save.”
As an exercise while reading this, I did note down questions I always have floating around in the background, the ones I always come back to and what I’m sure I’ll explore more through this blog. This is meant to be a book review so I won’t get into all that in this post.
So even if I don’t love how Tiago packages up his “mission” – and I find all this productivity culture stuff a real turn-off – I am in total agreement when he says:
That is why building a Second Brain is a journey of personal growth. As your information environment changes, the way your mind operates starts to be transformed. You leave behind one identity and step into another—an identity as the orchestrator and conductor of your life, not its passenger.
I just really don’t like the way he says it? You know. Just say it, drop the buzzwords.
 I’m not religious myself, and have no problem with people who gain community from faith in a higher power, but I have something of a fascination with it. In particular extreme religions and cults, especially the weirdness of American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. I think its an extension of my previous True Crime obsession. So I’ve watched a lot of clips of sermons being preached, and of course I fucking love Righteous Gemstones! [back]
 Honestly I’m embarrassed for myself that it took over a decade to think that I can consciously do my own knowledge management! I keep telling you I have a slow processor. [back]