Second Brain Building Method

Backup and expand your brain to cross-link your plans and ideas

What’s next?

The eternal question. For a solid base to work from, let’s assume that it helps to be clear on what you already know, your goals and what you need to know to reach them. This can sometimes be a lot of information to juggle. Especially for multiple personal and work projects.

The simplest way to get this all out of your head and into a clear, useable format is to take notes. We all take notes and make lists, that’s nothing new. But notes can turn into stacks of full journals and lists can get lost and it can all end up being extremely hard to manage and maintain.

In recent years some quite advanced note taking tools have emerged that not only store all of your thoughts digitally for quick retrieval, but they can automatically organise it all for you as you update them. That part is the Next Generation part.

These new tools can link across ideas and surface everything you know, or once knew, on the topic at hand in a few clicks or taps. This isn’t maintaining a 20th century-style filing system, this is friction-less note-taking with a machine doing the organising for you.

This organisation should contribute to an overall feeling of certainty and self-confidence, giving you a clear view over your life and work. Rather than being dragged through it! How to start

As you’ll see below there are a range of ways to create this body of notes, so it’s worth considering how to structure them. I’ve seen a few ways:

One, known as “PARA”, involves Projects (with deadlines), Areas (for continual maintenance), Resources and Archive. These are the headings you work under in your second brain.

Another, Zettelkasten, involves index cards (digital or real) that cross reference each other, aiming to offer new and creative connections between the set. Apparently pioneered in the 16th Century, this method has had a new lease of life with the digital option.

Or there’s the tree model, where you sort all notes under, say, a year, then months and so on down. This can also be done by subject or theme, of course.

There’s the wiki model where you have a rough structure but can jump across it easily with links.

Then finally there’s the automated model where you just add notes as you go and they are automatically linked (or suggested to link).

Or you can mix and match any of the above.

I’m using the wiki model. It feels very well organised and easy to add and find things. There is a risk that tasks will get lost if not sorted as in the PARA way, but I use a tree structure within the wiki to separate time and themes. It’s all clear so far! I can drop into lists of ideas I want to work on, then hit enter to create a new file for each of those and make further points to include in each one, linking across to anything else related as I go by just typing the name of another resource and hitting enter on it.

I used to use a few big plain text files. I still do to some extent, I like how fast it is to add to them and search them. But they are unwieldy and hard to work with. It’s never much fun to try to trawl back over the entries at the start or middle of a file you’ve kept for years, where nothing is organised.

The future is definitely in linking and organising the notes. Software to use

Here are some of the most popular offerings available in personal knowledgebase (PKB!) software:

Notion - paid with free plan, wiki/note taking, solo/teams, mobile, cloud

Roam - paid with trial, cutting edge, solo/teams, graph, cloud

Foam - open source, based on VSCode, duplicates Roam’s features, graph

Obsidian - a permanently free plan and local storage, you can test this graph-based PKB with no commitments

vimwiki - open source, personal wiki, requires familiarity with the Vim text editor

org-roam/org-mode - open source, Roam clone, requires familiarity with the Emacs text editor

Some finer points

It’s tricky to make an instant call on which solution to hitch your wagon to, so let me add a few criteria you might want to filter by:

Would it help to visualise a graph of your note connections?

How important is input speed to you?

Does it matter that the software is proprietary?

Does it matter that your personal/work data is in the cloud?

How portable is the data?

Do you need a mobile app?

Do you need to sync between devices?

Will it take longer to set up and maintain than the time it saves you?

Based on the above I ended up using vimwiki. I write a lot in vim anyway and find it as quick as I want it to be, with all files kept locally. I use version control to sync and merge between phone and PC, but syncthing or similar would also do the trick. It took maybe an hour or so to setup vimwiki, create the git repo, clone it on the phone and rough out the first few pages.

It is however much simpler to use a any of the first 4 from above if you don’t want to spend hours setting up the “environment” and syncing etc. and just get straight into building out your “second brain”. Seed ideas for what to store

Quotes and snippets from books, articles, websites

Personal plans, goals and so on for each year/month/week etc.

Birthdays and special events lists

Writing ideas, per book/post/script you’re working on

General notes and passive thoughts

Course, research and study notes

Meeting minutes

Language learning - vocab lists, Hanzi/Kanji/Hanja, foreign texts

Marketing plans

Family notes and plans, recipes

Book and films to watch

An entire GTD system if you’re so inclined

Your personal or family history

Trading/life journal

Example usage

I’m using mine so far for organising content creation, drafting articles and the points to cover in them, breaking the task up into separate idea and writing stages rather than doing it all at once. I list monthly tasks to reach the annual goals etc., under 2020 and 2021 headings.

Then I’ve got some language learning pages, with one holding 3000+ Chinese characters (copied from somewhere, not added by hand!) and for each of those I can create a new page (hit enter on the definition) with example sentences I can practice.

I’m looking to add an auto-search sidebar for related notes soon to bring the system into the next generation. Speaking of which…

The future of PKM

From my experience so far, it’s definitely worth a little investment of time to organise your existing knowledge and future plans in one place. The more recent ability to quickly link these things together gives you a definite edge over your “hold it all in my head and deal with it as it comes up” self.

There’s still room for improvement. I can see in the future millions of knowledgebases being linked together, anonymously, or even just the internet itself, as you type your projects and plans, relevant information from the rest of the world is displayed for you to consider. The suggestions can be ranked as most viewed, most promising area for study, commercial vs non-commercial etc. and sorted accordingly.

People are of course already being innovative with these new tools, importing the works of Shakespeare, looking for new links over entire works.

I’ll leave it with you to come up with your own uses. Please do let me know if you find something useful!

PS - As ever, please share this where relevant!

Thanks for reading. I do translation from French and Swedish to English, so if that's useful to you, feel free to connect and message me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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