10 Principles I Learned from Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain

We live in an Information Age. Our quality of life, income, success, are all tied to our fluency with information: Our ability to capture it and share it with the world.

Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain idea has been very influential for me to formalize my own Learn in Public and Mise en Place Writing concepts. I was delighted to learn he released a podcast season today with 10 short episodes. I’m going to take notes from the podcast here, and then update this post with more as I go through the BASB course.

These 10 principles are basically different aspects of a system/approach to knowledge work that helps us reduce stress, produce more, and live a life of creative joy:

  1. Borrowed Creativity: Stand on the shoulders of giants.
  2. The Capture Habit: Outsource memory to devices.
  3. Idea Recycling: Reuse ideas repeatedly.
  4. Projects over Categories: Don’t silo insights - organize them into projects you are working toward, right now.
  5. Slow Burns: Not everything has to be a Heavy Lift. You can accumulate in the background.
  6. Start With Abundance: Don’t start from a blank canvas.
  7. Intermediate Packets: Break down work into manageable projects.
  8. You Only Know What You Make: Taking action is the best way to discover what you don’t know.
  9. Make Things Easier for your Future Self: Package up things for your future self to use.
  10. Keep Your Ideas Moving: You never need to be stuck.

1. Borrowed Creativity

  • There are no new ideas in the world - all creative output is remixed from constant creative input. What you see when people output great accomplishments and idea is only the end result of a lot of processing and storing of inspirations.
  • Your output is limited to the quality of your inputs. Thus if you want better output, change the way you consume. When you consume with a view to producing something, you have higher standards, you are much less willing to waste time.
  • Dealing with information overload: When you start being more discerning, you start filtering a lot more of the noise. You start seeing how rare it is to see truly good content/ideas out there.
  • When you have a well organized second brain of notes, you start from a higher starting point than when you are only drawing from your best thinking in the moment. You need to be able to pull on accumulated wisdom from yourself and others over a long span of time. It feels like you’re skipping steps, because you’re borrowing others’ thinking. (swyx note: of course - Don’t plagiarize; attribute freely)

2. The Capture Habit

  • Write It Down. Any insight, any possibly relevant content, before you even know you’re going to use it.
  • this habit comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Your mind has limited working memory. You alone can’t hold on to the best ideas and information AND also keep looking out and processing new ones.
  • People don’t do this because they don’t value their own ideas. “Someone must have thought of this before”. “I’ll never be able to act on it”. This is a self fulfilling prophecy if you dont take the basic action of capturing. You have no idea where it’s going to end up - You can only connect the dots backwards.
  • Listen to your intuition on what to capture - physical responses - heartbeat, eyes dilation, excitement, energy. Believe that your ideas and perspective matters.
  • When you create content, it’s much harder to sit down and just pour out great insight after great insight. It’s much easier to collect and store this over time and then organize them later.
  • When you have all these raw materials taken care of by your notetaking system, you start being to do higher level work - spontaneity, creativity, adaptation. Offload mundane details to computers.

3. Idea Recycling

  • Similar to Borrowed Creativity, but instead you are borrowing from your past self.
  • You don’t really remember what your past self knew.
  • You don’t really know what your future self will want.
  • Only thing you can do is pass ideas through time. Most ideas start extremely simple - email, tweet, text message. Take the same idea and recycle it through various contexts and grow it each time. Invest more in the 10% that gets traction. It’s probably something that is obvious to you but amazing to others.
  • Unlike physical things, Ideas get better when you recycle them.
  • It’s too risky to build everything from scratch every time with no priors. The only way to get around this is to keep outputting and testing in small ways.
  • Build a compounding asset of intellectual capital that will last your lifetime.
  • Productivity: Never do the same work twice. Most things you do are comprised of components - reuse them. Over time, more and more of what you do can be reused templates from the past. (swyx note: Not all of it, of course)

4. Projects over Categories

  • Knowledge is a Factory, not a Library.
  • A Factory is linear - things come in, are processed, and then output is produced. When you have real intellectual output, people can’t take that away from you.
  • Libraries try to categorize everything into the Dewey Decimal System. It works for that - anyone can find things through that system. But the more you put into one category, the more there’s just a ton of stuff in that category and it is overwhelming and useless.
  • We aren’t optimizing for everyone - we are just working to improve Personal Knowledge Management.
  • Projects are the best unit of measurement for your output as a Knowledge Worker. Not Ideas - not very concrete. Not Goals - too long term. Projects are more medium term, specific, more concrete, and you can check it off and remove/archive it so you can take on something new.
  • Categories are consumption oriented, Projects are production oriented. You want to organize your knowledge according to projects. So you should know your current project list and store ideas directly into that current project. This way, when you’re in the mood/time to produce, you can start right away, instead of going to look for things.

5. Slow Burns

  • Heavy Lifting is when you block off a week or a month and just blast through your project. Over time, that time available for Heavy Lifts gets scarcer - kids, marriage, employees, other responsibilities.
  • Slow Burns is the opposite. You collect things in the background. You can even make wedding planning stress free this way.
  • Intellectual work can be spread out over time. It allows it to be more enjoyable, spontaneous, creative, critical (editing with some distance) etc. But primarily less stress :)
  • Analogy - Predators need to eat now - they work fast and intensely with scarcity. Scavengers work in abundance - we are living in a sea of creative inputs - dont have to look very hard around you to find inspiration.

6. Start With Abundance

  • Most people start with scarcity - a blank canvas
  • Refuse to start a project until you have everything you need already assembled.
  • But it also means you have to store notes on everything to give yourself the best shot. This is how Big Breaks happen - they don’t wait for you to be ready. They tend to happen at the worst time. But at least you will have given yourself the best starting point when it comes.
  • You can decide to be wealthy in the world of ideas. All you need is some intentionality to cultivate them. Ideas are free, plentiful, and you can store them forever and nobody can take them away from you.

7. Intermediate Packets

  • Intermediate Packets are parts of your work. Concrete parts of your work. Every piece of your work is built out of parts - so break down your work. Instead of writing a full email, write the outline of your email. Instead of writing a full book, you get an agent, get an editor, get a contract, get an outline for a book proposal, on and on. It becomes a lot less intimidating when you break it down.
  • It’s really hard to fail at Intermediate Packets (aka Projects). Hack your own motivation by breaking things down.
  • Take some effort to make each piece consumable by your future self. Turn perishable things into longer lasting ones by taking the time to save them down in the right place and adding metadata like titles, quotes, page numbers.

8. You Only Know What You Make

  • Think of Learning and Working as the same thing. You’re not done learning when you start work - but CV’s look like that. Instead, think that the best way to learn is making something.
  • When you make things, all the practical difficulties and holes in your knowledge come to life.
  • Example - Book Summaries - instead of reading a book and putting it down, save notes, dive into ideas, and write summaries, and try to apply the ideas in a book summary. Don’t pride yourself on quantity of books read. Read less, but really immerse in the ideas of each book. Add your own interpretations and metaphors. Become an expert on the book. Side benefits - Form a relationship with the author, build an audience, etc.

9. Make Things Easier for your Future Self

  • Some people over time work harder and harder, some others work less and less. People live completely different lives as they get older - some super busy, some produce results with much less effort.
  • The difference is leverage. Either day by day you are building some sort of accumulating leverage - blogs, savings, health.
  • Intellectual leverage compounds over time. Makes it easier for future selves.
  • Treat your future self as if that person was real. Impacts the way you eat, sleep, workout, and learn. It helps you act with more direction in future life.

10. Keep Your Ideas Moving

  • Don’t get frustrated by being stuck. Move on. Let it stew in the back of your mind, as a Slow Burn. Often you will be working on it subconsciously.
  • You will get stuck - so the solution is always have multiple things cooking. Translating ideas from one domain to the other.
  • Problem with multitasking: you lose progress because you can’t keep everything in your head. When you think and work externally it reaps the benefits of multitasking without the downsides.
  • More important to stay in flow (maximum enjoyment, creativity, immersion) than have any particular outcome. Flow requires movement. Keep moving, and save things how you left it.

Tagged in: #reflections #principles #second brain #til

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