Building a DIY Second Brain

David Perell and Tiago Forte have revolutionized my relationship to information.

Through them, I’ve learned a stress-free system for capturing the best information I find and turning it into published works (like this blog post).

Tiago teaches an online course called Building a Second Brain (BASB) where he teaches students how to create a note-taking system that transforms their productivity.

David built a follow-up course called Write of Passage that is BASB applied to help students become prolific writers.

These courses sound amazing. In fact, I want to enroll in both. The only problem? They’re beyond my price range. At over $1000 each, the courses are outside what I can afford right now.

This blog post exists to help you learn at least 80% of the content without spending the money.

They’ve put out free (or very cheap) resources online that get you very close to the full result of the courses.

I’ve been on a months-long journey to distill all of their content into a workable system for myself. Now, I want to save you the time and energy by pointing you to the most relevant resources for free.

If you follow the steps outlined below, you’ll create an information-capture system that works FOR you.

Trust me when I say that a second brain will change your life.

The Seven Steps to a DIY Second Brain

There are seven steps to building a DIY second brain.

Some steps require nothing more than downloading and installing some software. Others require effort on your part.

At some point, you’ll probably feel like this is a lot of work. The good news is this: when you build the system as explained below, you do less work over time but the quality of what you produce continues to get better.

The seven steps are as follows:

  1. Get the right tools
  2. Learn the Basics
  3. Learn Where to Put Stuff
  4. Learn how to engage with the information
  5. Understand it at the Philosophical Level
  6. Create and Iterate

1. Get the right tools

There are four things you need to get before you can start on the journey to building your DIY second brain: 1 blog subscription and 3 software tools.

The blog subscription will allow you to access Tiago’s members-only content on his blog. It will cost you $10 for one month of access. You can always unsubscribe after the month if you’d like.

Here’s how to sign up:

  • Go to Fortelabs.co
  • Hover over “Praxis Blog”
  • Click “Join Now”
  • Pay the man (make sure you pay monthly)

The software tools will form the basis of your digital “stack” as you build your DIY second brain.

  • Evernote will be the software that you capture all of your information into
  • Instapaper is a read-it-later app that will allow you to store content for later consumption and export into Evernote.
  • LINER allows you to highlight individual webpages and provides an easy export to Evernote feature.

Evernote

When you start out, you don’t need to pay for Evernote Premium. You should be good with the basic plan. (Download Evernote here)

The main reason to pay for Evernote Premium is if you want to hook up more than two devices (A laptop, iPad, and iPhone, for example). As you use it, you may discover that you could benefit from the premium version and choose to update it then. That approach is great to minimize costs upfront.

Instapaper

If you’re serious about this, sign up for Instapaper’s Premium plan. It costs $2.99/month or $29.99 for a full year. It’s a small investment that will be an invaluable part of your Second Brain software stack.

You will use Instapaper to store content and then save notes from that content that you will export into Evernote. With the basic plan, you can only save five notes per month. That won’t be enough for you. You really can’t get the full benefit of Instapaper without the Premium plan. Bite the bullet and go premium.

Sign up for Instapaper here.

LINER

Unless you are a hardcore LINER user, I don’t think you’ll need to upgrade to the paid version. I’ve been using it for 6 months and haven’t felt a need to upgrade.

Sign up for LINER here.

2. Learn the Basics

The most basic (but potentially most important) thing you can learn is how to capture notes. To do that, you should watch this 62 minute webinar by David and Tiago.

What you’ll learn in the Smart Sync Workshop:

  • The apps you should use as you start out building your DIY second brain
  • How to save all of your best ideas in one central location using Evernote
  • 4 criteria for what information to keep and what to let pass
  • A real-life use case of how to use your second brain to produce new things

This workshop got me started on building my own DIY second brain. If you work the systems taught in the video, it will help you like it helped me.

The best advice I can give you is to start saving the best ideas you come across to get in the habit of capturing that information.

We’re going to cover how to organize your notes in the next step.

Additional Resources:

Not necessary but helpful article from Tiago

3. Learn Where to Put Stuff

Forte’s method for organization is acronymized into “PARA.”

PARA stands for:

  • Projects
  • Areas of Responsibility
  • Resources
  • Archive

In Evernote, this looks like creating 5 notebook stacks (You’ll also want one called “Inbox”). Within each stack, you will add notebooks where you can sort notes by project, area of responsibility, resource/interest, or leave them lying dormant in your archive.

PARA relies on the principle of actionability to determine where each individual note should go. Projects are the most actionable while your archive is least actionable.

Here’s what it looks like inside my Evernote. If I were to expand any of those stacks, you would see a list of folders relevant to the particular stack.

Think of PARA as four buckets that exist to help you find the information you need when you need it.

To get a much better understanding of the philosophy, setup, and working of the system, read Tiago’s 8-part blog series. You can read the first three parts for free but will need your Forte Labs subscription to read parts four through eight.

What to read:

4. Learn how to engage with the information

It is completely bizarre that school never taught us how to work with the information we took notes on.

We spent so many years sitting through lecture after lecture, taking enough notes to fill more than a couple books, and were never taught how to leverage those notes for creative production.

Once you’ve captured notes into Evernote and organized them into the appropriate notebook, you’ll want to do something with that information. After all, information is of no benefit if you never interact with it.

Progressive Summarization is Tiago’s solution to that problem.

Progressive Summarization is a method of working with information to–you guessed it–progressively summarize the content within. There are five layers to the method, and they are:

  1. The raw, untouched notes you capture to Evernote
  2. Bold passages
  3. Highlighted passages
  4. A mini-summary
  5. A remix

As Tiago points out, you need your notes to both be discoverable and understanding. As you peruse through notes trying to find the one that will unlock the next door in a project, you need to have an easier way to find the information that you need.

Tiago shares these two images, which display the principles of discoverability and understanding extremely well:

The “airplane of discoverability”

The “parachute of understanding”

One important aspect of Progressive Summarization is that you summarize the notes opportunistically. You will not remix every single note. Remixing a note is a cumbersome act.

You want to save the time, effort, and emotional labor it takes to remix a note for the notes that have truly changed your life. The ones that are so transformational that you can’t help but create something new out of it.

Forte suggests the following distribution of summarization in part 3:

Progressive summarization changed the way I work with information. It will do the same for you if you understand the principles and put them into action.

What to read:

Additional Resources

5. Understand it at the Philosophical Level

Now that you know how to capture notes, have a system for storing them, and have a methodology for extracting and producing value from your second brain, you might as well see how this stuff fits into Tiago’s overarching philosophy of work.

While less tactical than the previous readings, I actually believe that Tiago’s writings on Just-in-Time Project Management are among his most important ideas.

The series is long (21 parts!), but I honestly believe every single article carries value that will transform the way you approach work.

Some of the paradigm-shifting ideas you’ll come across include:

  • Flow cycles
  • Working in intermediate packets instead of big projects
  • Compounding gains in knowledge capital
  • Why getting a late start is actually an advantage
  • How to downscope your projects and evolve the ones that work

What to read:

Just-in-Time Project Management Series starting with Part 1

Additional Resources

David Perell and Tiago Forte podcast: The Future of Education

David Perell and Tiago Forte podcast: What’s Next in Education

The Building a Second Brain podcast

Building a Second Brain Illustrated, Part 1 and Part 2

6. Create and Iterate

You don’t build a second brain just to have a second brain. You build it so that it can help you create new things that benefit other humans. For example, this entire blog post was written with notes that I had in my second brain. All I had to do was snap pieces together to create this.

The possibilities of what you can create are endless and limited only by your willingness to do the work.

But, I do want to point out one important point.

Your second brain is going to fail you.

You’re going to want it to do something that it’s not built to do yet. That’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity to iterate and improve.

As Tiago wrote about the Toyota Production System (and applied to Building a Second Brain) in The Throughput of Learning:

“[Toyota Production System] is not a process for maximizing the throughput of finished products, as we’ve always assumed and admired. It is a process for maximizing the throughput of process improvements, even at the expense of short-term profitability.

The beauty of your second brain is that it’s not a static system. It’s a dynamic thing that grows with you and encourages continual improvement of not only your creative processes but your entire self.

Additional Resources

David Perell has taught me more than anyone else about the creative possibilities of having a second brain.

His best resources are videos found on his YouTube channel:

Live Monday Musings Writing Session

Article Outline Process

Writing a Long-Form Essay: News in the Age of Abundance


Closing Remarks to David and Tiago

I would like to thank David Perell for his work on online writing and applying the Second brain framework to the art of online writing. Also, thank you for leading me to Tiago Forte.

Tiago–thank you for pioneering a new way to work. I’ve been most inspired by a line in your 2018 Personal Narrative Vision.

I work hard but without suffering.

As I’ve watched you from afar, I am energized by the possibility of work being a pleasurable experience. One without suffering. Thank you for embodying what you teach and showing me it can be done.

Closing Remarks to you, the reader

I hope this was helpful for you.

If you want to go into greater depth to help eliminate information overwhelm and build a better note-taking system, you should sign up for my free email course.

In it, I expand on the ideas in this post to walk you through the steps to building a DIY Second Brain.

Start your journey today. Sign up below.