Building a Second Brain

 Author – Tiago Forte

Genius: The life and science of Richard Feynman

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
— David Allen, Getting Things Done

Information is the fundamental building block of everything you do.

In its most practical form, creativity is about connecting ideas together, especially ideas that don’t seem to be connected.

When you feel stuck in our creative pursuits, it just means you don't yet have enough raw material to work with.

→ If it feels like the well of inspiration has run dry, it’s because you need a deeper well full of examples, illustrations, stories, statistics, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, photos, mind maps, conversation notes, and quotes.

CODE: Capture | Organize | Distill | Express

Keep only what resonates in a trusted place you control.

The best way to organize your notes is to organize for action, according to the active projects you are working on right now.

→ Consider new information in terms of its utility.
“How is this going to help me move forward one of my current projects?”

Organizing for action gives you a sense of tremendous clarity, because you know that everything you're keeping actually has a purpose.

Distill your notes down to their essence.

“How can I make this as useful as possible for my future self?”

Think of yourself not just as a taker of notes, but as a giver of notes-you are giving your future self the gift of knowledge that is easy to find and understand.

“Everything not saved will be lost.”
— Nintendo “Quit Screen” message

Information isn’t a luxury-it is the very basis of our survival.

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius.’
— Feynman
→ Feynman’s approach was to maintain a list of a dozen open questions. When a new scientific finding came out, he would test it against each of his questions to see if it shed any new light on the problem.
This cross-disciplinary approach allowed him to make connections across seemingly unrelated subjects, while continuing to follow his sense of curiosity.

“What are the questions I’ve always been interested in?”
“How can we make society fairer and more equitable?”
“How can I spend more of my time doing high-value work?”

Other examples:
How do I live less in the past and more in the present?
How do I build an investment strategy that is aligned with my midterm and long-term goals and commitments?
What does it look like to move from mindless consumption to mindful creation?
How can I go to bed early instead of watching shows after the kids go to bed?
How can my industry become more ecologically sustainable while remaining profitable?
How can I work through the fear I have of taking on more responsibilities?
How can my school provide more resources for students with special needs?
How can I start reading all the books I already have instead of buying more?
How can I speed up and relax at the same time?
How can we make the healthcare system more responsive to people’s needs?
What can I do to make eating healthy easier?
How can I make decisions with more confidence?

The key is to make them open-ended questions that don't necessarily have a single answer. To find questions that invoke a state of wonder and curiosity about the amazing world we live in.

Ask people close to you what you were obsessed with as a child.

"Translating emotional events into words leads to profound social, psychological, and neural changes."

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
— Gustave Flaubert, French novelist

Cathedral Effect: details of lighting, temperature, and the layout of a space dramatically affect how we think and feel.

→ Studies have shown that the environment we find ourselves in powerfully shapes our thinking.
When we are in a space with high ceilings, we tend to think in a more abstract way.
When we’re in a room with low ceilings, we’re more likely to think concretely.

Your Second Brain isn’t just a tool-it’s an environment.


  • Projects are most actionable because you’re working on them right now and with a concrete deadline in mind.
  • Areas have a longer time horizon and are less immediately actionable.
  • Resources may become actionable depending on the situation.
  • Archives remain inactive unless they are needed.

PROJECTS: what am I working on right now?

  • have a beginning and an end.
  • take place during a specific period of time and then finish.
  • have a specific, clear outcome.

Making the shift to project-based work will give you a powerful jump start to your productivity.

Knowing which projects you’re currently committed to is crucial to being able to prioritize your week, plan your progress, and say no to things that aren’t important.

AREAS: what am I committed to over time?

  • think/manage for as long as we live.
  • no final objective.

examples that you are responsible for:

  • activities/places → home | cooking | travel | car
  • people → friends | family | kids | partner | pets
  • standards of performance → health | finances | personal growth
  • departments/functions → client management | marketing | project management
  • people/teams → direct reports | manager | board | stockholders | suppliers
  • standards of performance → professional development | sales/marketing | networking | hiring
    Even though these areas have no final outcome, it is still important to manage them.

While there is no goal to reach, there is a standard that you want to uphold in each of these areas.
Only you can decide what those standards are.

RESOURCES: things I want to reference in the future

  • a catchall for anything that doesn’t belong to a PROJECT or AREA
  • any topic you’re interested in gathering info
  • trends you are keeping track of
  • ideas related to your job or industry
  • hobbies and side interests
  • things you’re merely curious about

– what topics are you interested in?
AI | crypto | cannabis | international trading | logistics | wealth generation | passive income
→ what subjects are you researching?
life hacks | self-development | self-help | productivity | SOP
→ what useful information do you want to be able to reference?
digital nomad | SOP | bucket list | life goals
→ which hobbies or passions do you have?
poker | webtoon | drama | standup | hip-hop
Any one of these subjects could become its own resource folder.

ARCHIVES: things I’ve completed or put on hold

  • any item from previous categories that is no longer active


  • projects that are completed or cancelled
  • areas of responsibility that you are no longer committed to maintaining
  • resources that are no longer relevant

How to decide where to save individual notes
where do I put this?

The moment you first capture an idea is the worst time to try to decide what it relates to.

  1. In which project will this be most useful?
  2. If none: In which area will this be most useful?
  3. If none: Which resource does this belong to?
  4. If none: Place in archives.

You are always trying to place a note or file not only where it will be useful, but where it will be useful the soonest.

Organize ideas according to where they are going-specifically, the outcomes that they can help you realize.

PARA is not a filing system; it’s a production system.

The purpose of a single note or group of notes can and does change over time as your needs and goals change.

People need clear workspaces to be able to create.

Creating new things is what really matters.

Completed creative projects are the blood flow of your Second Brain.
They keep the whole system nourished, fresh, and primed for action.

Move quickly and touch lightly.
Look for the path of least resistance and make progress in short steps.

What projects am I currently working committed to moving forward?

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Notice what’s on your mind:
    What’s worrying you that you haven’t taken the time to identify as a project?
    What needs to happen that you’re not making consistent progress on?
  • Look at your calendar:
    What do you need to follow up on from the past?
    What requires planning and preparation for the future?
  • Look at your to-do list:
    What actions are you already taking that are actually part of a bigger project you’ve not yet identified?
    What communication or follow-up actions you’ve scheduled with people are actually part of a bigger project?
  • Look at your computer desktop, downloads folder, documents folder, bookmarks, emails, or open browser tabs:
    What are you keeping around because it is part of a larger project?

“Verum ipsum factum(We only know what we make)”.
— Giambattista Vico, Italian philosopher

Don’t walk into the world without your eyes and ears focused and open.

Don't make excuses about what you don't have or what you would do if you did, use that energy to find a way, make a way.

Express is about refusing to wait until you have everything perfectly ready before you share what you know. It is about expressing your ideas earlier, more frequently, and in smaller chunks to test what works and gather feedback from others. That feedback in turn gets drawn in to your Second Brain, where it becomes the starting point for the next iteration of your work.

Intermediate Packets: The power of thinking small

Every profession has its own version of intermediate steps:

  • “Modules” in software development
  • ““Betas” tested by startups
  • “Sketches” in architecture
  • “Pilots” for television series
  • “Prototypes” made by engineers
  • “Concept cars” in auto design
  • “Demos” in music recording
    It’s not enough to simply divide tasks into smaller pieces-you then need a system for managing those pieces.

Intermediate Packets you can reuse:

  • Distilled notes
    books or articles you’ve read and distilled, so it’s easy to get the gist of what they contain (Progressive Summarization technique)
  • Outtakes
    The material or ideas that didn’t make it into a past project but could be used in future ones.
  • Work-in-process
    The documents, graphics, agendas, or plans you produced during past projects.
  • Final deliverables
    Concrete pieces of work you’ve delivered as part of past projects, which could become components of something new.
  • Docs created by others
    Knowledge assets created by people on your team, contractors or consultants, or even clients or customers, that you can reference and incorporate into your work.

How could you acquire or assemble each of these components, instead of having to make them yourself?

Our creativity thrives on examples.
When we have a template to fill in, our ideas are channeled into useful forms instead of splattered haphazardly.

Retrieval method: Serendipity

  • Keep your focus a little broad.
  • Is amplified by visual patterns.
  • Sharing our ideas with others.

Look through related categories, such as similar projects, relevant areas, and different kinds of resources.

It is strongly suggested to include imagery.
Understand how incredibly valuable feedback is, you start to crave as much of it as you can find.
Start looking for every opportunity to share your outputs and gain some clarity on how other people are likely to receive it.
Begin changing how you work in order to get feedback as early and often as possible.
It is much easier to gather and synthesize the thoughts of others than come up with an endless series of brilliant thoughts on your own.

See yourself as the curator of the collective thinking of your network, rather than the sole originator of ideas.

Start to think in terms of assets and building blocks that you can assemble.

Start to look for any way to spend your time creating such assets, and avoid one-off tasks whenever possible.

Start to seek out ways of acquiring or outsourcing the creation of these assets to others, instead of assuming you have to build them all yourself.

It’s about taking ownership of your work, your ideas, and your potential to contribute in whatever arena you find yourself in.

By the time you sit down to make progress on something, all the work to gather and organize the source material needs to already be done.

Innovation and problem-solving depend on a routine that systemically brings interesting ideas to the surface of our awareness.

Building a Second Brain is really about standardizing the way we work, because we only really improve when we standardize the way we do something.

If you look at the process of creating anything, it follows the same simple pattern, alternating back and forth between divergence and convergence.

A creative endeavor begins with an act of divergence.
You open a space of possibilities and consider as many options as possible.

The purpose of divergence is to generate new ideas, so the process is necessarily spontaneous, chaotic, and messy. You can’t fully plan or organize what you’re doing in divergence mode, and you shouldn’t try. This is the time to wander.

Convergence forces us to eliminate options, make trade-offs, and decide what is truly essential.
It is about narrowing the range of possibilities so that you can make forward progress and end up with a final result you are proud of.

The Archipelago of Ideas: give yourself stepping-stones
To create an Archipelago of Ideas, you divergently gather a group of ideas, sources, or points that will form the backbone of your essay, presentation, or deliverable.
Once you have a critical mass of ideas to work with you, you switch decisively into convergence mode and link them together in an order that makes sense.

The Hemingway Bridge: use yesterday’s momentum today
Instead of burning through every last ounce of energy at the end of a work session, reserve the last few minutes to write down:

  • ideas for next steps
    at the end of a work session, write down what you think the next steps could be for the next one.
  • The current status
    This could include your current biggest challenge, most important open question, or future roadblocks you expect.
  • Any details you have in mind that are likely to be forgotten once you step away
    such as details about the characters in your story, the pitfalls of the event you’re planning, or the subtle considerations of the product you’re designing.
  • Your intention for the next work session
    set an intention for what you plan on tackling next, the problem you intend to solve, or a certain milestone you want to reach.

Dial Down the Scope: ship something small and concrete
Whatever you are building here is a smaller, simpler version of it that would deliver much of the value in a fraction of the time:

  • writing a book → write a series of online articles outlining your main ideas. → SNS post
  • workshop for clients → free local meetup → group exercise → book club
  • short film →YouTube video → livestream → phone recording
  • brand identity → mock-up single web page → hand-drawn sketches (logo)

“Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks… It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.”
— James Clear, Atomic Habits

What most people are missing, is a feedback loop-a way to “recycle” the knowledge that was created as part of past efforts , so it can be used in future ones as well.
This is how investors think about money: they don’t get the profits from one investment and immediately spend it all. They reinvest it back into other investments, creating a flywheel , so ,their money build on itself over time.
→This is exactly how to treat your attention-as an asset that gets invested and produces a return, which in turn can be reinvested back into other ventures.

Project Kickoff Checklist

  1. Capture my current thinking on the project.
    • What do I already know about this project?
    • What don’t I know that I need to find out?
    • What is my goal or intention?
    • What can I read or listen to for relevant ideas?
  2. Review folders(tags) that might contain relevant notes.
  3. Search for related terms across all folders.
  4. Move(tag) relevant notes to the project folder.
  5. Create an outline of collected notes and plan the project.
    • Answer postmortem questions: What do you want to learn? What is the greatest source of uncertainty or most important question you want to answer? What is most likely to fail?
    • Communicate with stakeholders: Explain to your manager, colleagues, clients, customers, shareholders, contractors, etc., what the project is about and why it matters.
    • Define success criteria: What needs to happen for this project to be considered successful? What are the minimum results you need to achieve, or the “stretch goals” you’re striving for?
    • Have an official kickoff: Schedule check-in calls, make a budget and timeline, and write out the goals and objectives to make sure everyone is informed, aligned, and clear on what is expected of them. I find that doing an official kickoff is useful, even if it’s a solo project.

Project Completion Checklist

  1. Mark project as complete in task manager or project management app.
  2. Cross out the associated project goal and move to “Completed” section.
  3. Review Intermediate Packets and move them to other folders.
  4. Move project to archives across all platforms.
  5. If a project is becoming inactive: add a current status note to the project folder before archiving.
    • Answer postmortem questions: What did you learn? What did you do well? What could you have done better? What can you improve for next time?
    • Communicate with stakeholders: Notify your manager, colleagues, clients, customers, shareholders, contractors, etc., that the project is complete and what the outcomes were.
    • Evaluate success criteria: Were the objectives of the project achieved? Why or why not? What was the return on investment?
    • Officially close out the project and celebrate: Send any last emails, invoices, receipts, feedback forms, or documents, and celebrate your accomplishments with your team or collaborators, so you receive the feeling of fulfillment for all the effort you put in.

“An idea wants to be shared. And, in the sharing, it becomes more complex, more interesting, and more likely to work for more people.”
— Adrienne Maree Brown

Once your biology is no longer the bottleneck on your potential, you’ll be free to expand the flow of information as much as you want without drowning in it.

You will be more open-minded, willing to consider more unorthodox, more challenging, more unfinished ideas, because you have a plentiful supply of alternatives to choose from.
You’ll want to expose yourself to more diverse perspectives, from more people, without necessarily committing to any single one.

The purpose of knowledge is to be shared.
Knowledge is the only resource that gets better and more valuable the more it multiplies.
Knowledge becomes more powerful as it spreads.

Think about where you are now and where you want to be in the near future:

  • Are you hoping to remember more?
    Focus on developing the practice of capturing and organizing your notes according to your projects, commitments, and interests using PARA.
  • Are you hoping to connect ideas and develop your ability to plan, influence, and grow in your personal and professional life?
    Experiment with consistently distilling and refining your notes using Progressive Summarization and revisiting them during weekly reviews.
  • Are you committed to producing more and better output with less frustration and stress?
    Focus on creating one Intermediate Packet at a time and looking for opportunities to share them in ever more bold ways.

One last bit of advice: Chase what excites you.

→ When you are captivated and obsessed by a story, an idea, or a new possibility, don’t just let that moment pass as if it doesn’t matter. Those are the moments that are truly previous, and that no technology can produce for you.
Run after your obsessions with everything you have.
Just be sure to take notes along the way.