Over the past year I’ve seen a good amount of hype around Diago Forte’s book Building a Second Brain and decided to add it to my reading list. I’m always skeptical when I see titles in the ‘Productivity’ category since it seems like most authors in the genre spend a lot to time evangelizing their ideas and are disconnected from the realities most workers face. Does this apply to Building a Second Brain? Let’s find out.
Overall the main thrust of the book is “take notes, change your life”. Diago approaches this through a number of facets, first by building the case for why note taking is important, next by offering a framework for how to take notes and use them, and lastly by explaining how using your notes improves your productivity.
Note taking is as old as written communication, and Diago alludes to this in his numerous examples which mention icons of entertainment, philosophy and industry who took notes themselves. What this book provides is the case for taking notes (in case you weren’t sure yet) and some tips on how to do so effectively.
Why take notes
I believe there’s an expression along the lines of “the brain is a leaky sieve” but that always bothered me a bit since sieves are designed to be leaky. Anyway, I digress, we aren’t great at remembering things without tools or frameworks to help enhance this ability. Note taking is an easy and accessible way to externalize our thoughts and keep them from being forgotten.
In our present age of anxiety, not only do we keep ourselves from forgetting things by writing them down, we can also keep ourselves from worrying about forgetting things by writing them down. Often there is a mental burden just spent trying not to forget things, which is easily avoided by writing them down. This is a concept which was really popularized in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a seminal work in the productivity genre.
A framework for notes
Having made the case for notes, what does note taking and use look like in practice? Diago offers a four step framework for how he sees the note taking process progressing:
Moving through the framework; you start by capturing your thoughts, insights, things you’ve read or have resonated with you in a central place. The idea is to cast a fairly wide net since volume is less of an issue than the time to capture the initial thought.
After capturing the note, you then need to organize it in some fashion for retrieval later. As most productivity gurus will state, you want to organize them for actionability. Diago implements this using four main categories for his notes:
- Projects – current work in progress
- Areas – items of responsibility you need to keep on top of, but aren’t time-bound
- Resources – items you believe you might want to reference later
- Archives – completed projects and notes which have lost their future value
Since the process started by casting a wide net, the next step is to distill and begin to focus the scope of the notes to make them easier to search, read, and digest. This is accomplished through the use of progressive summarization: highlighting (and bolding passages within the highlights) which contain the key information, and developing a synopsis of frequently referenced notes.
Lastly, you use your notes to express and foster creativity. This is when you return to the notes you took and synthesize your knowledge into whatever you’re trying to accomplish. This could be by browsing your historic notes, searching for key terms, or by looking for specific tags you had the foresight to have set in advance.
Notes and productivity
The book closes with some more generalized productivity tips which include:
- Reusing your work – building a portfolio of modular items that you can plug together to accomplish projects
- Managing your effort – how to manage your time and preserve momentum while working on a project
- Managing projects – breaking work down into smaller pieces to lower barriers to getting underway and your focusing attention
Building a Second Brain makes a convincing argument for taking notes and offers some frameworks to approach how to take notes, but unless you haven’t done any reading in the personal productivity field before, the contents of the book are likely to seem a bit obvious. Consequently, I would say that this is a good book for beginners but those who are more advanced in their ways of working are likely looking for a resource which provides more depth.