Thought Experiment

The myth of the second brain

Doing research is more than shoving a bunch of things into the same folder, adding a load of tags, or a combination of the two. Anyone working on large projects, or doing complex research (like a journalist or an academic) knows that folders and tags have their limitations.

Making notes of ideas has a certain frenzied sadness to it, knowing that the moment I begin typing, there are no words capable of capturing the essential feeling I had when the idea first came to me.

But it could be a lot worse. You see, when I first began doing research as part of a profession, I didn’t subscribe to the digital shoebox approach to storing notes, as it’s not so much storage as it is benign neglect, or the whimsical notion that in darkness, structure and then knowledge would both emerge of their own volition from cryptic ones and zeros.

In fact, I was inspired to create the Under Cloud because the conventional approach to digital note taking didn’t match the line of thinking I’d assimilated after experiencing and using the web. I knew what needed to be done to fix the situation, and took the next logical step to accomplish it, and built a digital research assistant from scratch.

But the second brain needn’t be a myth…

Our lives, as a narrative

Using the average “everything bucket” — a phrase first coined by Alex Payne, or the digital shoebox as I’ve come to describe them — is not capturing the learning process, no more than a single photograph of a loved one captures our shared experiences, the texture of their skin, their scent, or anything else of material value. The process of learning is the accumulation of our experiences as a narrative, as if it were a video, one that we move along in our minds to visit again and again, each instance connected to one or more such instances, assigning it an appropriate description of that essential ephemeral context: the texture of their skin; their scent; or the sound of their laughter.

The average digital shoebox is nothing more than a scattering of compartmentalized snapshots, with no structure or contextual value beyond the obvious tags and folders — it’s akin to a brand new deck of cards tossed across a table.

Tiago Forte and I have followed a similar path, his treatise on what he refers to as the Second Brain is admirable, and much of his thoughts both resonate with and mirror those I’ve cultivated. However, I suspect that of the two of us, I’ve covered far less ground to arrive at the same place.

Data. Information. Knowledge.

We feel a constant pressure to be learning, improving ourselves, and making progress. We spend countless hours every year reading, listening, and watching informational content. And yet, where has all that valuable knowledge gone? Where is it when we need it? Our brain can only store a few thoughts at any one time. Our brain is for having ideas, not storing them.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

I couldn’t agree more! However:

This methodology is not only for preserving those ideas, but turning them into reality. It provides a clear, actionable path to creating a “second brain” – an external, centralized, digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

The truth is, the second brain as described by Tiago is an unrealisable myth, one far more figurative than literal — at least when using conventional digital note taking software like Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, and the countless other software packages that focus on the creation and capturing phase but then neglect the curation. When data is separate to structure, data it remains, making that transformation to information and then knowledge far more difficult.

There is a hierarchical structure to our understanding of the world: data is to DNA; what information is to human; where knowledge is culture and civilization. Or, a more commonplace example would be where the data is rows of cells in a spreadsheet, the information is a chart or graph created from that data, and the knowledge is that chart or graph shared with a team, empowering them to do more.

Great knowledge, then, has humble origins. But as humans, we’re adept thinkers, and more than capable of birthing big ideas.

What’s the big idea?

Ideas don’t often thrive in isolation, and the big ideas flourish when we surround them with lots of little but also important ideas.

By offloading our thinking onto a “second brain,” we free our biological brain to imagine, create, and simply be present.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

Yet in doing so we must retain the structure in our biological brain, forcing us to keep paying what I refer to as the organizational tax in large and inconvenient deposits, something I’ll explain in a while.

So, what is described as a second brain is more akin to an archipelago of islands, like those of ancient Greece, each with their own depth of culture and stories, but divided and separated, sometimes by great distances. Big ideas, living in splendid isolation, with little knowledge of those little ideas that would increase their value no end — unless we’re capable of remembering the myriad threads connecting them, which is itself taxing. We’ve maintained the metaphor of the physical notebook and its attendant problems, something first invented millennia ago — during the time of myths and legends.

Sometimes, I feel like Prometheus, fleeing the gods of the web, having stolen from them the power of the link! I risk labouring the point with melodrama — but the link is important, under-appreciated, and under-utilised, too. It isn’t as if I’m alone in thinking this, either, and there other software products that follow the same thinking, with varying implementations. I so often see people struggling with conventional note taking software in the belief that this is how things are and should be, but it isn’t.

Speaking from both personal experience and having talked to a good number of people who — having subscribed to the digital shoebox approach — believe their labours are a natural consequence of the task, but it’s a bit like the trials of Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a slope to see it tumble to the bottom again.

By keeping a diverse collection of information in one centralized place, it is free to intermix and intermingle, helping us see unexpected connections and patterns in our thinking. This also gives us one place to look when we need creative raw material, supporting research, or a shot of inspiration.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

That is almost the exact opposite of what happens, and it sort of implies there’s some magical algorithm in the background, conjuring forth notes and graphics to delight, entertain, and educate. In this conventional approach, we must search for this inspiration, whereas I advocate a process that reveals assets that are relevant as a consequence of the doing the job at hand, because we made a token payment to the organizational tax up front and added a link to them, something I’ll demonstrate.

How to avoid the organizational tax

Organization is a tax, to be paid up front or in the future — but what if we could break that down into manageable deposits specific to the task at hand? Few take pleasure in shuffling notes around, sorting them into folders, placing one folder into another, adding tags… it’s a chore.

Instead of paying the tax in big burdensome deposits where we risk losing our flow, focus, and momentum, we could adopt the PAYO method — or Pay As You Organise — and the process is often thus:

  1. I begin with a note and save what I’ve written so far;
  2. I open a tab in Google Chrome, navigate to a web page, select, save, shut the tab down, and return to the note;
  3. from there, I link to the web page and add a description;
  4. if required (and this is often the case when doing research), I repeat steps 1-3.

Using this pattern to performing research, each web page, tweet, and video taken from an external source is reusable and available to and accessible from anywhere else in the Under Cloud.

As you come across social media updates, online articles, and podcasts throughout your day, instead of diving in immediately, save them for future consideration.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

Beyond bookmarks

As an example, bookmarking is the standard approach to saving web pages, but — as the name implies — we’re not saving the web page itself, rather, a reference to it. The problems in this scenario are common:

  • the web page changes and we lose what was important;
  • the web page is removed (a 404 “Page not found” error);
  • we waste time building an intricate folder structure to store our bookmarks, and then forget where we put them.

Evernote, OneNote, and the Under Cloud avoid these uncertainties and allow us to save the web page in question. Since these items now exist as assets, with the Under Cloud, we’re able to search for and link to or from them, continuing to create and build narratives of the our learning process in real time.

Sharing and reusing social media

Where most conventional software encourages the embedding of social media into notes, and while this does make sense if the item is specific to that note, it makes reuse of that specific social media item impossible.

I accomplish in a few minutes what often takes hours of studious curation in Evernote or OneNote, an act that releases a fraction of the value, which is a diminishing return of that true potential over time. When we organise in situ, we become Gromit from the animated movie, The Wrong Trousers, laying down the track ahead of the train!

The word “organization” often brings to mind an analytical way of thinking. But analysis is time-consuming and tiring.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

In truth, it’s impossible to avoid the burdensome complexities of organization, and it’s something that becomes worse over time if we neglect to organize, as more and more important notes become more and more important to more and more notes … ad infinitum.

As we amass more notes, web pages, graphics, and so on, their value accrues. However, with conventional software, these qualities become lost as there is no logical user experience to bring them to the surface beyond the search. Worse, if we adopt Tiago’s approach, then we’re the source of the structure and not the notes themselves — but if we create links as we capture and curate, search becomes less relevant than the ability to navigate our assets like web pages in a website.

Maintaining focus

When we link things, we create structure like a web page, allowing us to navigate between things, as opposed to losing focus each time we have to search for something else and move to it and from what we were doing.

The word “organization” often brings to mind an analytical way of thinking. But analysis is time-consuming and tiring. … Instead, your rule of thumb should be to save anything that “resonates” with you on an intuitive level. This is often because it connects to something you care about, wonder about, or find inherently intriguing.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

Remember that organization is a tax, and in this regard Tiago and I agree. What I find fascinating is his use of the phrase: “connects to something” where for Tiago it is figurative with no literal expression within conventional software.

You can greatly facilitate and speed up this process by distilling your notes into actionable, bite-sized summaries. It would be near impossible to review your 10 pages of notes on a book you read last year in the midst of a chaotic workday, for example.

You can’t afford the time it would take to review and remind yourself of everything they contain. Executive summaries can help, but often it is a challenge to identify what exactly the main point is in the first place.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

When we link notes, as it is with the Under Cloud, the same is accomplished “in the midst of a chaotic workday” with little trouble.

Progressive Summarization is a technique that relies on summarizing a note in multiple stages over time. You save only the best excerpts from whatever you’re reading, and then create a summary of those excerpts, and then a summary of that summary, distilling the essence of the content at each stage.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

As a process, this requires more duties be paid to the organizational tax, and it risks distillation to the point of making the summaries so abstract as to make them irrelevant, negating their search value. Instead, write summaries that are as short or long as required, as the contextual description to a link between two assets. We should be writing more with increased relevance, not less.

Your rule of thumb should be: add value to a note every time you touch it. This could include adding an informative title the first time you come across a note, highlighting the most important points the next time you see it, and adding a link to a related note sometime later.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

Tiago and I are of the same mind, and this is something I do a lot. I use a sophisticated enterprise-grade search and analytics engine in the Under Cloud, but as good as it is, it’s no match for Google, and I’m no Google alumni!

With the understanding I have of search engine optimisation (I was there at the beginning, when SEO was fun), I plan ahead and do two things:

  1. write a title that contains the most important words and phrases specific to the note;
  2. then repeat those important words and phrases in the note itself…

… a process that surfaces those assets when searching for them in the future.

When saving web pages from qualitative sources, oftentimes either the author or an editor has given serious consideration to the SEO, thus enhancing its search value within the Under Cloud at no cost to us.

You will begin to think of your projects as made up of discrete parts. I call them “intermediate packets,” which can include any kind of content we’ve already mentioned: a set of notes from a team meeting, a list of relevant research findings, a brainstorm with collaborators, a slide deck analyzing the market, or a list of action items from a conference call, for example.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

Tiago refers to “intermediate packets” and it implies moving the notes and relevant research findings into a single folder, a not uncommon practice, but it’s also one that stymies the reuse of these important assets: Do we duplicate important notes and place them somewhere else? However, in fairness, there are few conventional approaches to solving this problem.

This scheme of “intermediate packets” does sound similar to a pattern I use, where I create complex, often intricate, but explicable and discoverable structures from assets as I link them — in the heat of the moment — to whichever other asset that is related or relevant to it. In doing this, I capture the most valuable context: the why; when; how; and the what — things that are often lost in the noise of the note itself, and almost impossible to separate out afterwards.

However, this work — valuable though it is — requires effort, and a subtle shift in behaviour, removing us from the burden of the shotgun and the monolithic approach to note taking.

Combining creation with curation

I’ve observed two common approaches to writing notes:

  1. the monolithic note that contains almost everything;
  2. the shotgun technique, where the same information is spread throughout lots of separate notes, perhaps kept in a single folder, and perhaps associated via tags…

… and both have problems.

It’s worth mentioning that tags are an association and not a viable substitute for a link, in the same sense that a room of lawyers is a group of people with a common profession. If two lawyers happened to be married, that would be analogous to a link.

First, the monolithic note could contain everything, but this approach is reliant on a significant organizational tax getting paid, such as: adding headings and titles; bullet lists; links; and a separation of comments from notes — but it’s still difficult to tease out the valuable context: the why; when; how; and the what of things. But there’s so little of the when that it makes it difficult to get a sense of the passing of time, unless great care has been taking to note such things.

Second, the shotgun technique captures the when of things as we blast out the notes, as is evident from the creation and modification dates of each note, but unless the organizational tax has been paid up front and each note has a descriptive title, it isn’t obvious which note contains what. So, the hard work of the night before class or that important meeting counts for little when we open the tablet or laptop to behold a mess of notes leaving us with no idea where to begin.

I propose a third, the Under Cloud technique that’s almost identical to the shotgun technique, but for the addition of the vital contextual links between the notes.

Instead of trying to sit down and move the entire project forward all at once, which is like trying to roll a giant boulder uphill, a more effective approach is to end each work session – whether it is 15 minutes or 3 hours – by completing just one intermediate packet.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

In 15 minutes or 3 hours, so much is lost it is a rival of the trials of Sisyphus, but I have a pattern that removes this impasse:

  1. beforehand, we create a note for the agenda of the meeting;
  2. we then create a note during the meeting, link to the note for the agenda, adding a description, such as the differences between the agenda and what’s happening during the meeting (sometimes of enormous value afterwards);
  3. afterwards, we send an email with the minutes of the meeting, what was agreed, next actions and such, and link that to the note for the meeting…

… and in doing so, we’ve captured the entire narrative structure of the meeting, along with the essential context and combined the creation with the curation.

These packets can then be saved to your second brain, and re-used the next time you have a similar need.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

How, if there’s no logical connection between notes?

Everything is in flux, everything is a work in progress, and everything you put out there has an implicit “version 1.0” attached to it.

Each note in your second brain is a record of something you’ve experienced in your life – whether that is from reading a book, having an interesting conversation, or completing a project at work.

Building a Second Brain: An Overview, by Tiago Forte.

Tiago makes a compelling and eloquent case, but I’m almost breathless when I think of the sheer effort needed to make this happen with something like Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, or the myriad other note taking packages that do — more or less — the exact same thing.

Creation. Capture. Curation?

Evernote and Microsoft OneNote in particular do an amazing job of capturing a diverse range of media, and allowing us to create notes with a wealth of creative options. I argue curation is the most important thing we do, and it’s where we make sense of the things we create and capture.

Doing research is more than shoving a bunch of things into the same folder, adding a load of tags, or a combination of the two. Anyone working on large projects, or doing complex research (like a journalist or an academic) knows that folders and tags have their limitations.

The cost of time comparison

At this point, we see that the methods and practices common to conventional note taking software require substantial effort when compared to the Under Cloud which combines the creation of notes and the capturing of web pages with the process of curation. Based on the video evidence alone, the Under Cloud has a demonstrable edge in terms of the sheer speed of creating, capturing, and curating assets for common use cases.

So let’s perform a simple comparison between the Under Cloud and conventional note taking software. Here, the 60 seconds is an average that includes the creation of notes in addition to the capturing of web pages, whereas saving a web page could be 15-30 seconds in some instances. In a real life situation, however, writing notes could be anything from 60 seconds to several hours, thus the simplification of the average time — it’s the differences between the Under Cloud and the alternatives that are the important values.

Base reference, using the Under Cloud:

  1. 45 seconds per asset on average;
  2. 1,500 notes and web pages;
  3. $50 per hour…

… at a cost of $56,250.00

Experiment 1 — An additional 15 seconds is an extra 1,500 hours at a cost of $18,750.00

Experiment 2 — An additional 30 seconds is an extra 1,875 hours at a cost of $37,500.00

Our simple experiment demonstrates that organizational tax comes at a considerable cost.

Notable by its absence is the time lost searching and navigating notes and web pages afterwards during task-specific activities, and — in fairness — using the Under Cloud wouldn’t be without cost. However, this is a difficult amount of time to estimate, as an average.

Slaying the myth of the second brain

Tiago talks of a “network of ideas” and an “underlying structure” that’s “mapped in notes”, but such things would be a mental construct separate to the notes themselves, in that no such things would exist in the software itself, adding to the organizational tax, that is — in the end — unrealisable with conventional note taking software.

Tiago also mentions the value of curation, and it’s clear he too recognizes its immense value. But if each act of curation is in complete isolation, like an archipelago of Greek islands, and not part of an interconnected, contextual whole, then its value is diminished.

An assortment of things is not a second brain, regardless of how we choose to curate them — believe me, I’ve tried. Our brain — intricate though it is, and as something we believe is ours to command at will — has a life of its own, and how the brain chooses to connect our experiences is the domain of speculation, science fiction, and neuroscience. But what we know for certain is that our brains are a vast and complex interconnection of neurons bound by axons — as assets are bound to one or more assets by links.

The notion that we have in our possession a second brain is worse than an illusion if the context and the structure is kept and suspended in the first brain, instead of having it be the infrastructure of the digital assets we have chosen to create, capture, and curate with such astonishing care — the idea of a second brain becomes nothing more than a fragile and expensive myth.

Image by nonbirinonko from Pixabay