Book Notes - Building a Second Brain
7 min read

Book Notes - Building a Second Brain

An extremely interesting book that will help you, as it helped me, to extract the best value out of the notes you took over the course of your life, transforming them into actionable bits of information, building blocks, that will fuel your creativity and projects.
Book Notes - Building a Second Brain
Photo by Fang-Wei Lin / Unsplash

A proven method to organise your digital life and unlock your creative potential, by Tiago Forte.



The first 3 chapters are about the foundation, understanding what’s possible to achieve with a more efficient method of note taking.

The promise of the “Second Brain” method is to support you in remembering ideas, thoughts, that you cannot keep in your mind due to the limited capacity our brains have to keep a certain amount of relevant information.

In this part I’ve learned about the “commonplace books” idea, used by artists, writers, and scientists in the past to be able to build their works.

I even renamed my blog to use this idea as I liked it a lot. Tiago makes a parallel between the original usage of commonplace books and how a digital version of it would look like and how this idea is part of his method of nurturing building blocks of ideas over time that later will connect and become a whole.

The author also describes the benefits of leveraging technology as thinking tools, specially the note taking apps.

“We spend hours every day interacting with social media updates that will be forgotten in minutes. We bookmark articles to read later, but rarely find the time to revisit them again. We carets documents that are used once and then get abandoned in the abyss of our email or file systems. So much of our intellectual output - from brainstorms to photos to planning to research - all too often is left stranded on hard drives or lost somewhere in the cloud”

The 3rd chapter describe how the “Second Brain” works and its four key capabilities.

1 - Making ideas concrete: About writing down ideas and thoughts.

  • Only when we declutter out brain of complex ideas we can thing clearly and start to work with those ideas effectively.
  • Digital notes aren’t physical, but they are visual. They turn vague concepts into tangible entities that can be observed, rearranged, edited, and combined together.

2 - Revealing new associations

About being able to connect ideas later in the future when they will make sense (now they are just isolated pieces of a bigger puzzle you don’t know yet how to solve.

3 - Incubating ideas over time

  • When we take on a task, we drawn only on the ideas we have access to right in that moment. (That’s why having a second brain where you search for similar ideas is handy)
  • What are the odds that the best way to move forward is one of the first ways we come up with?
  • “Recency bias” = We tend to favour the ideas, solutions, and influences that occurred to us most recently, regardless of whether they are the best ones.
  • Having a second brain where lots of ideas can be permanently save for the long term turns the passage of time into your friend, instead of your enemy.

4 - Sharpening perspectives

About using the abundance of raw material collected under the form of notes as a fuel to your creativity.

  • When you feel stuck in your creative pursuits, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. You haven’t lost your touch or run out creative juice. It just means you don’t yet have enough raw material to work with.

Tiago introduces in this part, the CODE method. A way to collect, organise, distill, and express your notes.

In his words:

“CODE is a map for navigating endless streams of information we are now faced with every day. It is a modern approach to creating a commonplace book, adapted to the needs of the Information age”.

CODE is about:

  • Capturing what resonates;
  • Saving for actionability;
  • Find the essence;
  • Share your work;

Additional highlights from this chapter:

  • Personal knowledge management exists to support taking action—anything else is a distraction.
  • A common challenge for people who are curious and love to learn is that we can fall into the habit of continuously force-feeding ourselves more and more information, but never actually take the next step and apply it.
  • You gain confidence in what you know only when you know that it works. Until you do, it’s just a theory.

About sharing your work:

  • Acts of expression: Evaluate, share, record, post, are acts of expressing yourself.
  • Since nothing is ever truly final, there is no need to wait to get started.
  • The sooner you begin, the sooner you start on the path of improvement.


Details each step of the CODE method

Capture what resonates (Capture)

  • You are what you consume, and that applies just as much to information as to nutrition;
  • The secret of making reading a habit is to make it effortless and enjoyable.

Surprising benefits of externalising your thoughts

  • First, you are much more likely to remember information you’ve written down in your own words. Known as the “Generation Effect”. Researchers have found that when people actively generate a series of words, such as by speaking or writing, more parts of their brain are activated when compared to simply reading the same words. (Interesting. That’s maybe why studying a difficult theme, or preparing for a presentation reading it out loud is helpful).
  • Detachment gain: Concept that refers to the functional advantage to putting thoughts in externalised forms. (Reference: Daniel Reisberg).
  • Writing creates knew knowledge that wasn’t there before.

Saving for actionability (Organize)

This part is about the PARA (projects, areas, resources, archives) method or organising your notes.

  • People need a clear workspace to be able to create. (That’s why cleaning up your desktop is a good idea, don’t leave it cluttered with files).
  • We cannot do our best thinking and our best work when all the “stuff” from the past is crowding and cluttering our space.
  • All this clutter from the past, could be even preventing you to move forward with projects from today.

Move quickly, touch lightly

  • Tiago’s standard approach to work was brute force: to stay late at the office, fill every single minute with productivity, and power through mountains of work as if my life depends on it. That wasn’t a path to success; it was a path to burnout.
  • He didn’t know how to set his intentions, craft a strategy, and look for sources of leverage that would allow him to accomplish things with minimal effort.
  • To look for the path of least resistance, and make progress in short steps, don’t make organizing your Second Brain into yet another heavy obligation.
  • Ask yourself: “What is the smallest, easiest step I can take that moves me in the right direction?”
  • Your goal is to clear your virtual workspace and gather all the items related to each active project in one place. Once you do, you’ll gain the confidence and clarity to take action on those ideas, rather than letting them pile up with no end in sight.

Finding the essence (Distill)

Talks about search, discoverability, and specially, about a technique he calls progressive summarisation.

Progressive summarisation is a way to extract the essence of your notes, so that it becomes quick to understand the value of that note. Also, it becomes quick to search and discover notes related to projects or new thoughts and ideas in the future.

It is about adding level to your note taking in order to optimise your time. In the end, you want to capture the essence of your not in a summary, and in case you need more content later, you can refer to the entire note, and if you still need to dig deeper on that topic, you can access the original reference from where you took the notes from.

Interesting here is also the mistakes usually note takers make:

  • Over highlighting: Not focusing on extracting the essence, and highlight the entire article/book.
  • Investing too much time on summarising/distilling your notes, without knowing exactly when they will pay off.

Rule of thumb: Every time you touch a note, you should make it just a little bit more discoverable for your future self.

  • There are a few things that are more satisfying than the feeling of making consistent progress.

Show your work (Express)

Verum ipsum factum (We only know what we make). Gianbattista Vico.

  • As knowledge workers, attentions is our most scarce and precious knowledge.
  • The ability to intentionally and strategically allocate our attention is a competitive advantage in a distracted world.
  • Attention can be cultivated but also destroyed by distractions, interruptions, and environments that don’t protect it.
  • Organize your sharing in small pieces of work-in-progress called “Intermediate packages”.
  • Working in intermediate packages will turn you into interruption-proof.
  • You will be able to make progress in any span of time.
  • By allowing you to collect feedback more often, you craft one small building block at time and get outside input before moving forward.
  • Everything is a remix: The CODE method is based on an important aspect of creativity: that is always a remix of existing parts. No one creates something new out of pure void.


The shift

Making things happen

  • Building a second brains is really about standardising the way we work in order to enable improvements;
  • The process of creating anything follows a simple pattern of divergence followed by convergence.
  • Engineers diverge by researching all the possible solutions, testing the boundaries of the problem, or tinkering with new tools. They converge by deciding on a particular approach, tool, implementation details, etc.
  • [[see: building a bridge between today and tomorrow]]

The shift from consuming to creating

  • Polany’s paradox: We know more than we can say.
  • Tacit knowledge is impossible to describe with words. It’s in our subconscious mind which is not accessible by language.
  • Tacit knowledge represents the last frontier where machine will outperform humans.


I’m not affiliated with the author nor receive any benefits for reviewing this book. This review is totally independent and based on my own perspectives and interpretation of what I’ve read. Any mistakes, inaccuracies or misinterpretations are my own.