Building A Second Brain
Building a Second Brain is an online productivity and note-taking course created by Tiago Forte. I took the course, for the second time, and this is what it was like.
“Your mind is for having ideas not holding them.”
– David Allen
Storing information outside our minds is an ancient idea. Scrolls, books and libraries hold far more knowledge than any one person could remember. Well before the digital age, people used systems like calendars, to-do lists and notes to organise themselves and stay productive.
David Allen wrote the seminal book on productivity, Getting Things Done: The Art Of Stress-Free Productivity, when the world was on the cusp of change. In most workplaces, digital communication simply meant email. Social media didn’t exist. Neither did podcasts, Wikipedia or YouTube.
And yet, Getting Things Done, with its framework for processing all the concerns on your mind, for organising the information that comes into the “inboxes” of your life into projects and tasks, and for being clear about the difference between what you currently need to think about and what you are storing for future reference, still feels relevant.
Although, with the amount of information we can now access, the number of emails and other messages demanding our attention, as well as the relentless lure of social media, we face a more complex environment than the one Allen addressed in Getting Things Done.
Building A Second Brain
Tiago Forte is a writer and business coach. His online course, Building A Second Brain, pushes Allen’s productivity philosophy deeper into addressing the needs of our digital age. Where Allen was focussed on clearing our minds so we could get things done, Forte is getting us to use mental clarity to turn information into ideas.
Like Getting Things Done, Building A Second Brian also focuses on organising your current commitments into projects, being clear on your areas of responsibility in your work and life, and maintaining a clear division between the information you are currently using and the information you are storing for archival reasons.
But it goes a lot further by helping you to clarify your hopes, desires and objectives. Getting Things Done is vague about this area of personal motivation and the metaphor about different “altitudes” of reflection (20, 30, or 50 thousand feet) was frustrating.
Building A Second Brain also has a lot more to say about notes, and their place in creative and knowledge work. In fact, Building A Second Brain started out as a course on using Evernote more effectively. When I first took the course in early 2018, it was still mostly about Evernote.
Why I Took Building A Second Brain Again
Back then I was recovering from some mental health issues and needed to simplify my approach to information. A friend, Wess Daniels, had done Building A Second Brain and recommended it. The course was $299 at the time.
I got a lot out of the experience and was glad I did it, but there were things I didn’t implement fully at the time.
Once you’ve done Building A Second Brain, you have access to the course forever. So, I didn’t have to pay again, which is nice since the course is now U$999 (or U$1499 for the premium edition).
So, in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown and quarantine, and having recently moved to a new city and being in a state of personal disarray, I decided to take the course again.
How Building A Second Brain Is Delivered
This online course is based on the cohort model, which means it is available to new students only for a specific window of time. You sign up, pay and then join a cohort of students, who all take the course together.
With Building A Second Brain, this means consuming a mix of live webinars and pre-recorded videos. There’s a lot of content. Enough for several hours a week of study. The live webinars typically last for an hour, often with a live Q&A session afterwards. There’s also a weekly office hour, though this sometimes get broken up into smaller group chats for students. The course includes a private message board where students can share experiences, problems and questions. There are also mentors, past students of the course who lead some of the group discussions on the online forum. The mentors run some additional webinars on how they implemented the Building A Second Brain approach.
There are also regular live interviews with experts who demonstrate the course ideas using different kinds of software, like Notion, Readwise and Roam Research.
Overall, the 2020 version of the course is much bigger and more comprehensive than the one I took in 2018. The addition of live lectures and interviews enhances the experience and increases your motivation as a student to pay attention to the material.
The Conceptual Framework Behind Building A Second Brain
Personal knowledge management is the core concept in Building A Second Brain. The course teaches you how to identify what information is worth keeping and how to store it in ways that make it easy for you to retrieve and work with when you need it.
It’s more than just an exercise in filing and organisation, as it shows you how to become more creative and effective in work and life.
In the same way that time management is important because time is a limited resource, knowledge management is important because our attention is also a limited resource.
To justify the effort expended in building this kind of system, it needs to be more than just a storehouse. There’s no value in hoarding information that won’t be repurposed in some way.
The ideal personal knowledge management system would be something like a second brain. It would do some of the thinking for you, sitting there quietly in the background, collating, filtering and organising knowledge. Then, when you need information or inspiration, it’s there to be queried. It would help you to create a unique perspective in your work, without the tiresome and random experience of searching through Google or diving into the chaos of the World Wide Web.
What Building A Second Brain Teaches You
Building A Second Brain shows you to create a system for personal knowledge management by introducing you to a number of different tools.
Projects vs areas and PARA are the two parts of Building A Second Brain most obviously influenced by Getting Things Done.
Projects vs areas is Forte’s clearer take on a confusing aspect of Allen’s approach. According to Forte, projects are time-based commitments, like writing a book, whereas areas are long-term commitments, like being a writer.
This kind of feels obvious, but it’s surprising how many students struggle with making this distinction, especially when analysing all the commitments they have in life. Also, since many people organise information primary in terms of categories, they often find it hard to connect the information they’ve filed away with the projects they’re currently working on.
PARA stands for projects, areas, resources and archive. You can implement this file structure across all your accounts and devices to maintain clarity over what information to keep and what purpose that information serves for you.
The course has lots of practical examples on how to capture information from all sorts of sources and then how to integrate this information into your system. For example, progressive summarisation and intermittent packets are two of the main approaches that Forte outlines for dealing with and using notes in your work. These help break large projects down into smaller tasks that can be explored in more creative and serendipitous ways.
A Few Things I Didn’t Like
Building A Second Brain is a smart, helpful and insight-rich course. Even though I was doing the course for the second time, I learnt a lot, and it was clear the course had grown and improved much in the years between my first and second attempts.
But not everything gelled for me.
In the group discussions, you are assigned to a random group each time. As there are hundreds of people taking the course in each cohort, this didn’t stimulate deep or probing conversations.
The platform used for the class discussions was confusing. Although it was tweaked towards the end, it was hard to use for most of the course. Sometimes, it wouldn’t accept new posts, and it was hard to track comments or replies to anything you wrote.
And the presence of the mentors was confusing. They were semi-experts who offered some different perspectives on how to implement the ideas, but they didn’t seem to mentor specific students very often, which contributed to the overall feeling that while great information was being shared in a format that tried to be open and accessible, no one was specifically looking out for you and your progress.
When it came to making it work, you were largely on your own, which is fine in some ways, until we consider the price of the course.
Is Building A Second Brain Good Value?
The cost of Building A Second Brain requires some comment. The course teaches a very useful system and Forte is a fascinating instructor, but U$999 for an online group class is a lot of money.
The problem with pricing these kinds of courses is putting a monetary value on the transformation you might experience.
Let’s compare it for a moment to a camera lens. A $2000 camera lens feels horribly expensive to someone starting out in photography. It’s hard to imagine spending that much money for one of the items needed for a hobby. However, a professional photographer might recoup the whole cost of the lens on one project, so the expense feels very different.
The initial investment in Building A Second Brain was excellent value. Even better value now I’ve taken the course again and got even more out of it.
There are courses, like The Science Of Well-Being and Being Productive: Simple Steps To Calm Focus, which sell for less than $50. They don’t offer all the benefits of a live online cohort. But, they’re nonetheless full of insights and have the potential to transform aspects of your self-understanding and working life.
Like I said, pricing this stuff is hard.
Forte has a book contract. This means Building A Second Brain will soon be available in a more accessible format. I predict it will be a bestseller. There’s also a blog at the Forte Labs website, with a lot of his best ideas (there is a $10 a month paywall).
I’m glad I took Building A Second Brain back in 2018 and even more glad I made the time to do it again in 2020. The course has influenced every aspect of my approach to work. If you can afford it, then it’s a powerful investment in your personal productivity.