February 9, 2023
What is a "commonplace book"? What traits are desirable in "second brain" tools? What are some common mistakes people make in note-taking? What should we take notes about? What are some useful methods of organizing, distilling, remembering, and taking action on notes? How much information should we hold in our brains and how much should be offloaded to a second brain? What are creative convergence and divergence?
Tiago Forte is the founder of Forte Labs and one of the world's foremost experts on productivity. He has taught more than 20,000 people worldwide through his programs and writes and speaks on how technology can help knowledge workers revolutionize their personal effectiveness. Tiago's online course, Building a Second Brain, has produced more than 5,000 graduates from over 70 countries. In a previous life, he worked in microfinance in Latin America, served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, and consulted for large companies on product development in San Francisco. He lives in Long Beach, California, with his wife Lauren, son Caio, and dog Ximena. Lear more about him at buildingasecondbrain.com or follow him on Twitter at @fortelabs.
By the way: We've summarized this episode's key takeaways in a Thought Saver card deck to help you remember these ideas forever! You can explore the deck here: https://app.thoughtsaver.com/share/MT6EwJ82pO
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode Spencer speaks with Tiago Forte about building a second brain, note taking systems, and productivity and expression. For this episode we have summarized the key takeaways into flashcards. You can find them in the show notes and use Thought Savor to remember these ideas forever. And now here's the conversation between Tiago and Spencer.
SPENCER: Tiago, welcome.
TIAGO: Thank you. Good to be here, Spencer.
SPENCER: So many people listen to this podcast. They're constantly learning things. They're constantly thinking of ideas. And yet, I think that many of us do this very suboptimally. We could make use of our own ideas better, we could make use of the things we learn better. And so, I'm really excited to dig into this with you. How can we do these things in a sort of more optimized, more efficient and more effective way?
TIAGO: Yeah, let's do it.
SPENCER: So let's start with one of the simplest technologies that has sort of enhanced our brains over the last few thousand years, which is the idea of keeping a commonplace book. So do you want to start there?
TIAGO: Yeah. I was researching my book. I really wanted to know what were the historical precedents of this concept of keeping important information outside your brain. And turns out there's this practice called commonplace books that people have been doing for hundreds and really thousands of years, going back to the ancient Greeks, which is simply you have one central place and notebook, a journal, or in our case software, where you keep the information that you value, that you find interesting, that you want to use, that you want to revisit.
SPENCER: How do you apply this? Personally, I imagine that you're not just keeping a single book, you have like a series of apps and such that enable this?
TIAGO: I do, yeah. There's a series of what are now being called second brain apps, which are all the different apps for capturing information, organizing it, distilling it, sharing it, and I use it for everything. I use it to manage my households, to raise my kids, to do my work, to create content, do projects, really, anything that I do that requires keeping track of information, which in this day and age is practically nothing that doesn't. I just made the decision to not try to store that in my mind, which is such a terribly fragile memory. And instead, to do that in an external place.
SPENCER: So what are some properties we should think about when we're setting up these systems? What are the desirable traits of a system like that?
TIAGO: There's a few criteria that you want to think about. One is a tool that's very simple. You don't need some crazy database; just use a Notes app — Apple notes, Google Keep, Microsoft OneNote, something like Evernote. You're really not trying to create this very complex database, you're trying to just jot down little ideas. You have quotes you hear, things you want to research or look into, lists of books you want to read. It's casual, informal, and freeform. And so you want something simple. You want something mobile. More and more of our time is spent on mobile devices versus desktop computers. And so, I really think you should think about something that's on your phone. And then finally, it's free. There's no reason to spend money on this. This isn't some very advanced, sophisticated piece of software. You can pay for more advanced features, but really, I would just recommend people start with the most basic built-in default notes apps. Find out what their use cases are — that's the thing, you may think you know what the use case is, but maybe it's something else — and then build on it over time as your needs get more complex.
SPENCER: I like how simple you make it. That's sort of a no brainer. You should get used to doing this while you're walking around because maybe if you have an idea, suddenly you want to be able to capture it right away. And you can start with a free tool and keep it simple. You don't need to over-complexify it. But I imagine that there are mistakes that people make when they're trying to do this. So what are some of the mistakes you see?
TIAGO: Oh, man, there's so many. This is why I teach an online course and wrote a book because, as simple as it is, I think anyone can understand the concept of notetaking. When you do it digitally, yes, there are so many powerful capabilities that you acquire, but it's also complicated, like versus a little notepad on your desk, jotting down some notes. Software is just inherently more complex. So people do things like they'll try to find the one app to rule them all. They'll be like, “My entire digital world needs to be in one single, all-encompassing app,” which is just a recipe for endless procrastination because you can never quite find it. It's also a recipe for frustration and just a lot of wasted effort. But then, I find that the real traps that people fall into and difficulties they face are largely psychological. It's largely perfectionism. This feeling that it has to be all this perfect, well-oiled machine, psychological things around fear of sharing. One big reason we're writing things down is to then turn them into our own self-expression. A lot of people don't feel that they have anything important to say or worthy of saying. It's all these fears and anxieties around, “Is my knowledge and are my ideas really worth saving, cultivating and revisiting?” Because we're taught, honestly, that they're not. So really, a lot of my work is centered on helping people overcome those psychological roadblocks.
SPENCER: Where do you think people learn that their ideas are not worth recording or not worth reviewing?
TIAGO: Everywhere? School, where you're just memorizing other people's thoughts and regurgitating them. Parents saying, “Oh, no, don't be an artist, creativity doesn't pay; music, art, all that stuff, just do something more responsible, something more predictable.” Our workplaces, where we're taught that we're cogs in a machine, or it's implied that we're cogs in a machine, not really creating new things. I think a lot of the reason that I kind of was exposed to this mindset is that my dad is an artist. So I grew up with an artist's father, and then my mom was a musician. So, I just had exposure to this way of living, that you can make it work, you can make it pay, you can commercialize it, you can really live an incredible life by making things and sharing your ideas. And now, I'm trying to kind of get that philosophy and spread it and give people the tools and the infrastructure that they need to live those lives. And by the way, whether they work in a big organization, or they're a freelancer, entrepreneur, in my mind it really doesn't matter.
SPENCER: So, is the idea partly that you want to recapture ideas, so you can get back to them. But partly, you want to capture ideas so that you can turn them into things, so that you can get them out to the world, maybe even end up long-term supporting yourself based on them.
TIAGO: Yeah, that's exactly I think what justifies this effort. A thing I would add is, I don't see it as something only for musicians and poets or content creators. I think, basically, everything is content. If you write an email to your colleague that explains the problem, to me, that's content. You had to create it. You had to build it. And it's something that has to be effective, actually has to have a certain impact, a certain influence on someone. If you make a decision — even something like a decision, which is just a firing of neurons in your brain — I see it as a creative act because you have to take in all these inputs, all these different considerations and constraints, and then synthesize them, fuse them into a good, high quality decision. Everything from a schedule for your kids' school week to a grocery list, to a report that you write for your boss at work, almost anything that you create, I really see as content. So, I'm kind of introducing the world to the infrastructure needed to just create content every day as a way of life.
SPENCER: So those are interesting examples. Because I think most people would say, “Oh, well, those are so specific to me, how is that content? Or how could that be reusable beyond just the one scenario?”
TIAGO: Yeah, I think it's a good distinction, where content has certain connotations, like it's public, it's on a podcast, it's on a blog, it's on a YouTube channel. But if you look at the word ‘content', it's pretty generic, right? It doesn't actually imply any of those things. Let's take the example of, have you ever had a colleague (let's say) ask you a question that you've heard 10, 20, 50 times? You're like, “Okay.” And as you're writing the response, you're like, “Okay, I know that I've written this or explained it to someone before.”
TIAGO: To a large degree, I think, in our jobs and our businesses, work, we're often solving much the same problem again, and again, and again and again. And so just as an example of what you can do is just Bcc your second brain. Many notes apps actually will give you a special email address where anything sent to that address gets added into your notes. And so, literally, as I'm writing the email, a millisecond before I hit send, I just add my special notes email address into the Bcc field. That way, it saves a copy to my second brain. And the next time I go to answer that question, whether it's from that same person or someone else, I can just drop a link to that exact note, right? It's not public. It's not on my blog. It's nowhere accessible or searchable. But it is sort of like my private knowledge wiki, which means instead of spending five or 10 minutes to type it out again, I can just share the results of my past thinking.
SPENCER: Got it. And even if the next case is not exactly the same, at least you have a starting point. And you can take that and edit it as needed.
TIAGO: Exactly. It's the starting point. It's like starting a race at the halfway mark, versus starting every single day at the starting line.
SPENCER: So imagine a lot of people listening to us. They already probably do take notes when they come up with certain kinds of ideas or when they learn certain types of things. But it sounds like you're pushing this idea of what we should be taking notes about. What would you say are some criteria for how to decide what someone should take a note on?
TIAGO: Yeah. I have a few different criteria. One is, if it's something inspiring. It just inspires you. That's something you can't Google. You can't do a Google search for something that perfectly inspires me right at this moment. And so, it's something worth keeping. Stories, customer testimonials, past wins, images, videos that just get you amped up. I feel like motivation is one of the fundamental problems that we all have to deal with on a recurring basis. How do we find the next source of motivation? You can keep things that are useful. You come across a fact, a statistic, a diagram, that might become part of a slide or might be a piece of evidence and a proposal you're writing or a presentation you're making, just save it. Another one is something that's personal. A personal story, a personal lesson, something that happened to you, specifically, is not something that other people necessarily have access to. And then there's a fourth criteria, which is surprising. Often, I noticed, I kind of look over people's shoulders, and I noticed that they keep notes of things they already know. It's like, I know that already. Let me write that down. But there's really no point to that. You should keep track of things you don't know. And the best way to find out if you don't know something is if it surprises you, if you hadn't thought of it that way before.
SPENCER: Right. Surprise is a kind of emotional indicator that we were wrong about something, right?
TIAGO: Exactly. It's counterintuitive. It violates your intuitions, which in a sense, is what learning is. If you've seen it before, and it's not surprising, then it's not new, and therefore you're not learning anything.
SPENCER: One major flaw I see with these kinds of systems is that people will throw tons of stuff into it, but then they never get it out again. It's just like this black hole. So how do you think about making sure that you know what's in there, or that you can find this stuff in there?
TIAGO: Yeah, there's definitely a tendency to overcapture, over-accumulate. I call it digital hoarding. And there's a couple of things. So first, in a way, that's what my whole framework, the whole method that I teach is designed to alleviate that exact syndrome. I'll just give you one concrete example: the organizing system. The way that I recommend people organize, not just their notes but their files, their entire digital life is called PARA. It's one of the techniques in my book. That's P-A-R-A, which stands for projects, areas, resources, and archives. And the idea here is basically to organize based on the principle of actionability, what is actually most actionable, what is a little less actionable, what is not actionable. And what that does is when it's time to take action, which is what we're doing most of the day, most of the time, you've pre-organized, you've staged your notes and digital files to perfectly match what you're trying to accomplish, which is your projects and your goals. The whole methodology of CODE (capture, organize, distill, express) — that is the heart of my book — is really a way of putting your information into a workflow, into a pipeline where it gets processed and refined, and then become something that you create, rather than just a storage system where things go to die.
SPENCER: So this idea of PARA (projects, areas, resources archives), could you unpack that a little bit? How do you distinguish those different areas?
TIAGO: Let me contrast it with how most people tend to organize, which is they create these giant, very broad abstract categories, like marketing, business, psychology, architecture, design, these sorts of almost academic subjects. And I think the reason they do that is because that's what we learned in school, and that's what we see in libraries. But that doesn't make any sense when it comes to personal information. Instead, I recommend putting every single item in your digital world into one of these four categories, which are: the projects you're working on (that's the P); the areas of responsibility that you're responsible for (that's the A); resources, which is basically everything else (that's the R); and then the second A for archives is just basically everything from the previous three categories that is no longer active or irrelevant. So basically, it's like four horizons of actionability: most actionable, less actionable, and then not actionable, which just makes the decision so much easier. Instead of deciding between 25 different academic subjects, every single item in your digital world can go into one of these four buckets,
SPENCER: Got it. So let's say someone has a mian job at work. And then they're also working on a book on the side. So those could be like two different projects, maybe their work project and another book project, and they would label them based on which project they're in?
TIAGO: Exactly. You have to decide what the project is because not everything is a project. A project has a goal that you're trying to achieve, and it has a deadline, some sort of time that you want it to be done. And so don't call everything a project. In fact, I recommend people to be quite specific. But if it is something that you're trying to achieve, and you're trying to achieve it by a certain time, it absolutely really deserves, I think, one centralized place where all the details and the stuff that you're tracking related to it is stored.
SPENCER: And then how do you distinguish areas? How is it different from projects?
TIAGO: Areas are more like the hats that you wear in life. So things like (for me) being a husband, being a homeowner, my car, our house, our dog, things like my finances, my health. They're like these facets of my life that do require ongoing care. Each of those things I mentioned, there's things that have to be done, there's things that have to be taken care of, but they're not projects. My finances doesn't have a deadline. My health will eventually end, but it's sort of indefinite; it's long-term. And so that distinction actually is really powerful for people. Because sometimes, people have something like their health, and they're managing it like a project, like a sprint. But then what will happen is, let's say they reach their goal, so they have a goal to lose 10 pounds. Well, if they think of it as a one time project, as soon as they reach it, they sort of step off the treadmill, so to speak, and then go right back to their previous habits. There was no long-term system in place. And that's one reason, and it's quite an important one, that it's useful to distinguish between short-term, time-limited projects and ongoing long-term areas?
SPENCER: Got it. And then resources, kind of the spillover for things that don't fit projects or areas?
TIAGO: Basically, there's all sorts of stuff that you might want to keep that could potentially be useful someday. But if it's not related to a project, and also not related to an area, it's just inherently less important.
SPENCER: So it could be just an interesting fact you learned or a cool concept or something like that?
SPENCER: And the archives means like, “Okay, I don't need this anymore, but maybe someday I'll come back to it.
TIAGO: Exactly. Exactly.
SPENCER: Cool. That makes a lot of sense. And then you also mentioned this idea of capture, organize, distill, express. Could you just break those down for us?
TIAGO: Sure. So PARA tells you where to put things—for categories where things go. But CODE is really how to get things done. It's how to use this stuff that you've accumulated. We're not collecting it just for fun. Although it can be fun, we're putting it into a production system, into a workflow. So CODE describes the four steps to take in information, which is the C for capture, which just basically means write things down, save them. But then we have to organize. That's the O; organize the content that we've captured. Then we want to distill (that's the D) and kind of boil down all the stuff that we've organized into the most important points. And then finally, the E is like the finale. What we're doing with all this content is we are expressing ourselves, we're expressing our story, expressing our message, trying to influence someone or something, or make a positive impact on someone or something that matters to us.
SPENCER: That seems really useful. So let's walk through that on a specific example. So suppose that I read an article on management. And I think to myself, “Oh, this is really interesting. This has a couple of different ideas about management that I haven't heard before that I want to then apply when I'm managing people at work.” So can you walk us through how you would apply these four stages to that?
TIAGO: Yeah, perfect. So, you would start by capturing. And I think the important distinction here is, sometimes people think, “Oh, this is a good article, I found that useful. Let me save 100% of the entire article.” And this is the distinction you have to make. You really don't want to do that. And here's why. If you save the whole article without highlighting the most important parts or annotating them, or adding some commentary or anything, all you've done is you'd say something that when your future self comes across this, you're probably not going to remember anything from what you read. And so you're just gonna have to do all the same effort again. You're gonna have to read the entire article from start to finish again, which is exactly what you're trying to avoid—doing the same thing twice. And so what I advise people to do is to use the effort that you put in reading that article the first time, to highlight or save only the parts that are truly (like we said) interesting, personal, surprising, counterintuitive. Only save those excerpts to your second brain, and then a link back to the original source. So if you need more details, you need more context, you can always go back to the original. That's how you would capture it.
SPENCER: Okay, great. So now, let's say there were two different ideas in there about how to be a better manager. Maybe one is about how I should have weekly meetings with my team members. And maybe another is about how to do effective reviews every quarter. So now we get to the organization step. How do I organize that?
TIAGO: So the second thing you would do is organize that article according to what you're trying to accomplish. So this is where it depends on the person. Let's say one person works for a magazine and they're writing an article on management. Well, that article is a project. It has a time-limited outcome that you're trying to achieve, which is the publication of the article. But it depends because let's say you are in a different situation. You have an employee that you're managing in your company. Well, that's an area of responsibility. That's a different use case, a different thing that you're trying to accomplish with this piece of information. So it would go in the area's notebook under the title of the person that you're managing, or the department they're in, or something like that. But then there's a third case, which is someone, say, planning in a couple of years to hire their first employee, and they're just getting ready. They're sort of preparing. Well, they have no actionable thing to put that information. And so it will go in resources. It really depends on not what the information is or what the information means to you.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's a great distinction. It's really helpful. So, now we've done the organized step, we're to distill step. So what does that gonna look like in this case?
TIAGO: So, organizing is sort of preparation, you're kind of staging things and getting them ready. But distill — I always say — is the step most people miss, because we're not really taught to do it very well. It basically means when you're looking at a note or a collection of notes, you have to take the time to distill to refine those notes. You want to essentially boil them down into the most important points, the most actionable points, the points that are actually going to be used in whatever you're trying to accomplish. And that is kind of a radical filter, right? I often take notes on books that I read. I might have 5,000 words of notes on a book, let's say on management. Like you said, there are 5,000 words of passages that I found potentially useful. But then if I look at a specific situation, let's say I have someone on my team that I'm having some issue that I'm dealing with, there might be only 1% or 5%, or something of all those notes that are actually relevant to me right now in this situation. So what distill does is it allows you to just radically distill down/boil down the specific points that are immediately and directly useful to you.
SPENCER: So what does that usually look like in practice? So, you've got all these other notes. Would it be kind of cutting out most of them? Would it be like rewriting them? Or how does that usually work?
TIAGO: There's different ways of distilling. Distilling can actually look different ways. But the simplest, which is the one that I teach the most, is simply highlighting. I'm telling you this is so dead simple. Think of highlighting, everyone has highlighted, everyone knows what highlighting is. It's not a difficult concept. When you have a note, which is basically just a text document. If you simply go through — some notes actually have a highlighting feature you can use — you can actually make it yellow, but in others, it is like bolding or it's underlining or it's turning it a different color. It's essentially just some kind of formatting that allows you to designate these points that are actually very important. And these are not.
SPENCER: Cool. And that way, when you come back later, you can just jump right to the nub of it rather than having to sort of reread the document.
TIAGO: Exactly, that's the whole principle. Every time you touch a note, you want to add a little marker, a little sign so that the next time you come across it, you can review it faster. And the accumulated build up of all these little marks and little little signs is the moment that you sit down to actually create the thing to write the piece of writing, build the website, draw up the proposal. You can move so fast. It's almost hard to believe I will sit down just as an example and create a 3-4-5 thousand word piece of writing with sources and citations and pictures and diagrams in 45 minutes. 45 minutes or an hour easy because I have all the thinking done. I don't have to go and do more research. I don't have to go and open browser tabs or read books. It's like I've frontloaded all of the research and all of the thinking. So when I sit down to create, all I have to do is synthesize them together.
SPENCER: So is that the express step?
TIAGO: That's right. Expression is the final kind of stitching together of all these building blocks into some final creation.
SPENCER: Got it. So it could be using the knowledge, it could be writing a blog post based on what you learn, etc. It really could be almost anything.
TIAGO: Yeah, this is where it really depends on whether the person could be private or public, could be something for your business or personal life. It could be something big, something small. But my fundamental belief is just that we're all creators. We're all creating something in some way in our lives. That's almost what it means to be human. And this is a system for doing that more efficiently and therefore, spending less time and effort and frustration.
SPENCER: All right, so suppose we've got this system up and running, people are following your guidelines. How do you recommend they come back to the system regularly? So, all the stuff is in there, but what are the triggers to go use the system and how do you think about that?
TIAGO: Yeah. It's funny. The further down you go the creative process, or the CODE steps, the more ambiguous it gets, because it really stretches, and starts to depend on the nature of the project. Is this something that's externally imposed, that someone is waiting for you on? Is it something that's internally driven? Is it something that has an actual firm deadline or not? Expression is a little mysterious, and then you kind of have to find your own reasons. Why are you doing this? No system or framework can tell you the why, or can tell you exactly. When it comes to expression, the final step, there's no checklist. There's no step one, step 2, 3, 4, 5, and now it's done. There's an inherent amount of unpredictability. What the CODE steps are designed is just to make that unpredictability at least more manageable and easier to navigate.
SPENCER: Got it. Well, maybe an example from your own life, when would you go back into your system, and then how would you use the system to create the output?
TIAGO: it's usually when I sit down to create something. I have some deliverables, some artifacts I want to create. I sit down, usually start with searches, do a few different searches for key terms, related terms, move those all into a project folder, where I can see them all in one place. Once they're all in one place, then I can start to put them into an outline, pull out just the key points that I want to use right away. And from that point on, it's really just outlining and writing, just like we learned in school, except I'm not drawing on my own very limited memory. I'm drawing on essentially years, a lifetime, of accumulated insights in my notes.
SPENCER: So I imagine a lot of people who are listening to this are intrigued by this. But maybe some people are not yet convinced that it's worth going through this whole process. And so I'm wondering, could you talk a bit more about some of the benefits you see coming out of this, especially benefits that may not be obvious to someone who hasn't tried using your system?
TIAGO: You have more peace of mind, you have a place that you trust, that is not your own brain, that is keeping track of the details. I often find when I don't write things down, when I don't save them, I have trouble sleeping. It's like your brain knows when something is falling through the cracks. It knows when something is being forgotten or lost. And it will keep you up. It'll keep you distracted. It'll keep surfacing again and again and again, until it knows it trusts that you have put this somewhere that you're going to see it when you need it. So I find benefits to my peace of mind, my mental health, and my sleep. There's also benefits to relationships. You can have a higher degree of thoughtfulness. I have one of the resource notebooks that I have as Christmas presents. And every year, usually just a few days before Christmas, I go in there. And I have just little ideas of presents that I can look through and buy. And so everyone in my family thinks I'm an incredibly thoughtful gift giver. When in fact, I'm really not. I save it all to the last minute. I think our mind's capacity is the bottleneck to so much of what we want in life. We want to be healthier, but we don't have the time, which really means we don't have the bandwidth. We want to eat healthier. We want to do more budgeting, we want to exercise, we want to spend more time with our family. What is the common denominator in all these things? All of them is bandwidth, right? I don't have the bandwidth. I don't have the time. Well, you can't create new time. We all have 24 hours in a day. But you can start to get the tasks that you're currently spending time on and outsourcing those, just offloading them onto digital note taking systems. So I would really just say, is there anything in your life that would benefit from more time? The time savings to create that time will come from automating and offloading tasks such as keeping track of details.
SPENCER: Can you unpack a little bit how that saves time? What's an example where you end up losing time because you don't have your stuff in the system?
TIAGO: So much of it comes down to just repeating the same tasks endlessly. I really think people don't really understand the potential here. Imagine if you had a folder with 10 or 20 of your answers to the most frequently asked question. Since every time, whether it's a customer, someone external or someone on your team asked you, if you can respond — it's funny in our team in our business, we have an internal chat with people asking each other questions and for feedback on things. I would say half of our communication is just links to notes. People don't sit around and type out these massive messages of things. They just shared documentation. And the result of that, I think, all of us save at least an hour or two a day just from reusing the past results of our thinking rather than creating a new one. But also things like saving research. I think often we do a bunch of research, save all this stuff, open all these browser tabs, but then we step away from our desks. And since that research isn't saved anywhere, it kind of just dissolves away. And the next time you have to research (I don't know) places to visit in New York City, or things to pack on your trip, or how to fix this issue on your website, or the typical how to things that you look up, you're essentially just spending that time again and again, every single time you encounter that problem.
SPENCER: I imagine this has especially big benefits for writers, because instead of sitting in front of a blank page and being like, “Okay, now I've got to write that essay or article.” It's like you do your searches in your system, you pull out all the things that you've thought about that topic, all the little bits you've clipped from articles and so on. And then you have this full set of resources in front of you. Do you want to just speak to that for a moment?
TIAGO: Yeah. I think writers are some of the earliest adopters of this. Many writers for a long time have used some kind of system note taking. You just need to. Where do the details live? The sources you drew on, the character sketches, the details of a scene, the plot points, you just cannot store all that in your head. I think you're absolutely right. Writers are the most obvious use case. 27%, I think, of the average knowledge worker's day is spent on email. Email is largely writing. So this idea that writing is this kind of very niche, specialized activity, I think it's just false. Think of text messages, you write Facebook posts, think of memos to self, think of your notes on things you read. Writing is just a part of our everyday reality. And so I think of everyone as a writer in some sense.
SPENCER: So what does your current system look like in terms of the technology you're using? I imagine that you're always looking at different systems, always looking at the newest apps just to be aware of them. But I'm just wondering, as of today, what apps are you actually using to build this?
TIAGO: Just a handful of them. Evernote is my digital notes app. I've been using it for many years. Instapaper is what's called My Relator app. It's basically a place for me to save things, for me to save content that I want to consume before I put it directly in my second brain. I use a task manager, basically a digital to-do list called Things. I have a calendar app called Busy Cal, which connects to Google Calendar and helps me keep track of my agenda. And then I use storage solutions like Google Drive and things like that. I'd say those are the five core parts of my second brain. And then of course, there's this whole ecosystem of different apps. I'll use procreate to draw, but then I'll save the drawing back in my notes. I'll use Otter, which is a voice memo transcription app to save a voice memo, but then save that transcript back to my digital notes. I'll use a web clipper to save part of a website, but then save that in my notes. It's almost like I have dozens of different apps. I think most people use dozens of different apps that are almost like my senses. They're like my five senses, receiving information from the outside world. But then my digital Notes app, Evernote, is my second brain. That's the place where all this information gets routed back to. So then it can be synthesized and processed and analyzed and compared, and then it can make decisions. That's how I think about the parallel to a nervous system.
SPENCER: You mentioned Instapaper, which my understanding is that when you're browsing the web, for example, and you find an article you want to read, you can click a button, and that will save it to read later. Do you have a way that that ends up in Evernote? Or is that sort of a separate process of things you're intending to read?
TIAGO: Yeah. This was something that took some time for me to figure out. But for a long time, I would just chuck things into my second brain. “Oh, this looks like an interesting resource. I don't really know in detail what it's about. But let me just put it in there.” I would just find over time that these kinds of mystery items were not useful, because they hadn't been through that process of me personally deciding not just that this thing is relevant, but the specific parts that are relevant. And so, I wouldn't trust them, which means I wouldn't access them, which means I wouldn't use them. And so I started using a relator app and I use Instapaper for this. I almost think of it like a little waiting area, like a little reception room to your second brain. You're in the middle of your workday and decide, “Okay, this science art recoil is kind of interesting,” but usually don't have time to stop what you're doing in the middle of the day. So it's like a magazine rack in that I can just check things, get to them later. Sometimes days, weeks, months later. There's no urgency. It's just something that I want to read or watch or listen to. And then when I eventually do get to it, I can then save the specific highlights that I want to save, and only those highlights to my second brain. So it's adding a step before things hit my notes. But I find that that's really useful, basically, to make sure that everything in my second brain is inherently trustworthy.
SPENCER: That seems like a really good system. And then what about your calendars? Is that your calendar is hooked into Evernote, or is it really separate?
TIAGO: I use a digital calendar, but it's pretty separate. Sometimes I'll get a link to an Evernote note that has an agenda. Or let's say that the notes from my previous call with this person, I'll sometimes put those in the little notes section of the calendar entry. But besides that, they're pretty separate.
SPENCER: One thing I note about the current systems you use is that you're not using Roam, or the various other sorts of Roam-like products out there. And I'm just curious, why don't they make it onto your list?
TIAGO: I'm really interested in this kind of new wave of (what are sometimes called) link-based or networked knowledge management apps. It's exciting,
SPENCER: There's also Notion and Obsidian or other around, right?
TIAGO: I would say, especially like Roam Research, Obsidian, Logseq, and Athens are the four big ones. They all have this similar paradigm of no folders, linking things together. They really talked about the network. The graph is kind of the main paradigm. I love it. I love all the innovation. I love people seeing it and excited about it. It's just too early for me. For my core productivity stack, I don't want anything in beta, anything experimental, anything that has bugs in it. It's like a carpenter is not going to adopt a revolutionary new kind of hammer until the hammer is completely proven and tried and true. And so I'm not opposed to them, I'm just kind of holding back and waiting until they get a little more mature, a little more stable. And then I'm gonna see if maybe one day, I might even move from Evernote to one of these more modern and recent apps.
SPENCER: As you mentioned, they're based on this idea of things being linked together. So if you're in Roam, and you start writing a note, you can, with a simple command, connect that note to another note and kind of pull pieces for different places. I'm wondering, do you see powerful use cases for that in your own workflow, and I'm wondering what they would be.
TIAGO: I do a little bit and I use Evernotes linking feature quite a bit. it is useful to say, “Okay, this note here, or this idea is linked or is related to this other idea,” with the kind of fairly primitive level of sophistication that that functionality is right now. I just don't find it a core feature. There's nothing to answer your question. No, there's no fundamental bottleneck in my creativity, or in my work, that I think the ability to link these two thoughts is really the breakthrough that I need. That might happen. And maybe I'm just missing something. But I would really classify that as a nice to have, not a must have.
SPENCER: Why do you think these kinds of tools are getting so much excitement right now, because I just think there's a ton of buzz around them.
TIAGO: I think it comes in waves. Every three to five years, I've been around long enough to have seen a few of these waves. It's just cyclical, like trends or seasons. I don't know, people just...often there's a new technology or a new breakthrough in the interface that someone comes up with. So it comes back round, everyone gets really excited about it. There's this big wave of new apps and new startups and new things. But then it kind of dies down and then three to five years later comes back. I just kind of see it as the normal historical cycles.
SPENCER: What about spaced repetition? So for the listeners that don't know, this is the idea of reviewing content at a certain pace, so that you are reminded of it before you forget. So, you learn a concept. You want to get reminded of it relatively soon, so you don't forget it. And then you get reminded of it again before you forget, and so on, to keep it in your memory long term.
TIAGO: I was a fan of spaced repetition in the past. I lived in Ukraine for a time, serving in the Peace Corps, and I learned Russian in the eastern part of the country. And I use it extensively to help me learn Russian. But in a way, spaced repetition, or really any memorization technique, is the opposite of a second brain. With a second brain, we're trying to offload. We're trying to get knowledge in our first brain, get it off of our mind. Really, spaced repetition and memorization are the opposite. It is trying to get knowledge that is not in our mind and get it inside. So it's like the opposite direction. And I just find there's certain specific use cases — such as learning languages — I think it's useful. But when I think about where I want to spend my time, what is actually going to make my life better, it is not reviewing flashcards that's going to do it. The long term trend that I want to follow is having less and less on my mind, less and less to think about, memorize and worry about no more.
SPENCER: It's really interesting. So for discrete projects, where you're like, “Oh, I know that I'm working on this project, I've got a deadline for it.” You can go into your system, and you can pull the different pieces out when you need them. That makes perfect sense to me to have that offloaded. But for other kinds of skills, I feel that I need them in my brain in order to use them. So I'm a mathematician by background. So just to give one math example, and then maybe a business example. So a math example would be like a certain theorem, if I don't know it exists, I will never even think to use it. And if it's merely in my second brain system, I would never even know how to search it. So if I'm in the middle of a math problem, I don't have to have the theorem memorized, necessarily, but I need to have that little hook of like, “Oh, there's a theorem here that I could use.” And if I don't have the hook in my own brain, then there's no way I'm gonna use it. A business example might be a certain kind of pattern that you see in business where there's a certain strategy you can use. Unless you have that in your brain already, you would never even think to search in your second brain system to try to solve it. You need to be going about the world. And then you're like, “Oh, shit, I can use this thing that I learned.” And maybe you don't remember all the details, but then you can go look it up at that moment.
TIAGO: This is a great point. The boundary between your first brain and second brain is a little bit muddied, right? It's not this impenetrable titanium wall. And this is also, by the way, the reason why a second brain is something personal. You have to create for yourself. If that wasn't the case, then I could just hand over my second brain to you. You could just put it on like you're putting on a hat. And you would have access to everything I know, everything I think, and be able to do anything that I do, run my business, run my life. And obviously that's not the case. Maybe someday, yes. But today, no. You have to have (it's kind of like) this personal relationship with the information. And your second brain, you kind of have some awareness of it. Like you were saying, you have a hook, you have at least some vague sense. This happened to me a couple days ago, I came across something on Appreciative Inquiry, this idea of investigating things from an appreciative kind of more optimistic lens, rather than a pessimistic one. And I just had the most vague recollection of having some time in the past read something about this. And that was it, no detail. Could I even recall in my memory? But that hook, as you called it, was enough for me to...before I plunge in reading all the stuff about Appreciative Inquiry, I did do a search of my second brain. And there, I found my extensive notes on a very in-depth article that I'd read, I think two or three years ago. That's just a perfect use case right there. I had just the most vague recollection that reminded me to go in my second brain and do the search. And then I found what I was looking for.
SPENCER: That's a good example. I think a metaphor here could be helpful, which is that you're on a computer, you have RAM, which is kind of the fast memory that's like everything's sort of ready to use. And then you have a hard disk, which is slow, long-term memory. And I think of the second brain system as sort of the hard drive. The files are in there. But then, you also need stuff like booting it up in RAM, that's ready immediately. And so it sounds like in this example, in your RAM, you just had this little inkling that you had seen this idea before. But you didn't need all the details in the RAM. You just needed enough that you're like, “Oh, okay, I think there's some stuff in the hard drive, I can pull it in here.” And I think one of the things I'm really excited about for spaced repetition — and we actually have built a product called Thought Saver, where we're implementing a bunch of these ideas, people can try out if they want — is trying to get these hooks in your brain to use information, even if you're not gonna remember all the details of it.
TIAGO: Totally, it's a great metaphor. By the way, RAM and hard drive space. It's like, Ram is expensive. It's fast, you have things instantly at your fingertips, but it's expensive. It's very limited in terms of space, produces a lot of heat, which can be analogized to stress. And so what Ram is trying to do is constantly decide, “Okay, this block of information doesn't need to be around, let me just offload it to the slower but far more spacious storage on my hard drive.” I think that's exactly right. And just that sort of casual familiarity with what's in your second brain, you're never going to remember either perfectly, nor are you going to completely forget it. Once you have spent some time interacting with information, you're going to have some sense that you've seen something before, some kind of vague familiarity. Or really, that's all you need. Because as soon as you have that hook, you can go and do this. That's the thing. The amount that you should keep in your RAM, in your first brain, depends on how easy searches are. As search gets faster and easier and more comprehensive and has things like fuzzy search, where it will even show you terms that you didn't exactly search for that are related, as basically the cost of search falls, the amount that you need to save in RAM (so to speak) gets lower. And over time, I'm hoping technology will become so advanced that the amount that we have to keep in RAM will fall practically to zero at that point. We can just hand over our jobs and say, “Okay, intelligent computer, run my business for me and let me go on vacation.”
SPENCER: And hopefully, it won't go destroy the world in the process. [both laugh] That's really interesting. Going back to a math example here. So imagine you're doing some math problem, and the thing you need is a derivative. And then you're like, “Hmm, okay, I remember this idea of a derivative, let me just go look it up in my search system.” It's pretty clear that's not going to work. Because you could go look up the derivative in your system, but if you haven't spent hours and hours and hours practicing using it and really getting the hang of it, you're not going to apply it right in the moment when you need it. So it's like, what do we actually need a RAM for? It's partly these hooks to remind us of the information, but they're also these skill-based things, the ability to use information that you couldn't just get from looking something up.
TIAGO: That right there is exactly why I really recommend making this whole thing project-centric. It's like in science, when a scientist has a thought or an idea just in their mind, they don't get to say, “Oh, this is now a fact, this is now a scientific certainty.” No, no one gets to do that. What you have to do is run an experiment. You have to prove it, you have to provide evidence, and it has to be replicated. There is a validation process that ideas and science have to go through. And I think that really is the case with all knowledge. Until, as you said, you've worked with it, you've tried it, you've practiced it, you've tested it, it's really just an abstract theory. And so I say, even for theoretical information, like mathematics, it's the most abstract. What you should be optimizing for is a usage; using it in the real world, because then you can really say, “I know this.” Whereas until you've used it, it's just a theory.
SPENCER: I know you have this idea of favorite problems and using that as a way to think about what content to capture. Could you unpack that a little bit for us?
TIAGO: Yes. This was a finding from studying Richard Feynman's life. He was a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, and I just so admire him. I'm actually reading his biography now. Because not only did he make the singular contribution for which he won the Nobel Prize — and I think it was quantum electrodynamics — he also had a broad life, a rich life, a great family life, relationships, friendships. He was into culture and music and other fields and drawing and painting. And that's what I aspired to. I would like to make a singular contribution in one thing, but then also go wide and try different things. And so I was studying him and I came across this kind of obscure quote that I had never seen before from an interview, where he discusses how he does problem solving, basically, which is, most people have a solution. They have one way that they like to solve things. It's like a hammer. For the person who has a hammer, everything looks like a nail, that kind of thing. And they go around, “Where can I use the solution for?” He had a different approach. What he did was he kept a list of open questions. And he says, a dozen. Not that many. A dozen open questions that are deeply meaningful and important to him. One of them, for example, was, how do you annotate and create a diagram that shows the quantum interactions of particles, which was a problem that hadn't been solved in his field and is very specific. And then he just reads. He just consumes content. In his case, papers, studies, the results of experiments. And then every time he reads an article or a paper, he would just ask, “Is there any one of my open questions that this paper relates to? Any of my open questions that this could contribute something to?” And if there is, then he has this very unexpected, often cross-disciplinary connection that no one else would have seen. And if it doesn't, then he can just put it aside and go about his business. So, it's just a technique. It's a method that I teach in my course, write about in my book, that is just about cultivating this open-ended curiosity towards the information you consume.
SPENCER: That's a really cool idea, that basically you're like, “Okay, I have these open problems I'm interested in. And then when I learn new tools, I can go back to those and say, ‘Hmm, can I use these to solve any of those problems I've been working on?'” Maybe it's most clear-cut how to do that in science or something like this unsolved problems in science. But you could also think about all these different domains of life you're trying to get better at. And then, when you learn a new tool, you can say, “Well, how would I use this new tool for this domain that I'm trying to get better at? [inaudible]
TIAGO: Exactly. It can range from the grand and theoretical — how do we maintain our standard of living while reducing climate change? — huge civilization level questions, all the way down to things like (one of my long standing ones is) how do I make it a habit to exercise every day? That is one of the most difficult questions for me at least. And I think that's what it means to be human is we are simultaneously engaged in grand questions along with very mundane practical ones.
SPENCER: So switching topics a bit here. Let's talk about creativity. Because I think you have some interesting thoughts on this as well. What do you mean when you talk about the cycle of divergence and convergence and creativity?
TIAGO: So this came from, really, my attempt to further describe the creative process. This is my obsession. People always refer to their creative process, my process, this process, that process, but what is that process? What does it look like? What are the steps? What's the beginning and the end? And so, CODE is one way of answering that. But what I found is that on the day-to-day busyness of life, even the four steps of CODE are too complicated. You need something even simpler. You need kind of two-steps, two-options. I borrowed this idea from design thinking which had applied it to problem solving, creative problem solving. But I really think all modern work is creative problem solving. And so it applies much more broadly, which is that at any given time, when it comes to information, you are either diverging, which means you are taking in more information, exposing yourself to more options. You're widening your horizons and widening the scope of the different information that you're consuming and considering. But then eventually, you have to stop, right? If you only diverge, you just endlessly collect and accumulate and never actually arrive anywhere. And so the opposite of that, the other half of that cycle is convergence, which means you say, “Okay, no new information. Let me turn off the internet, the Wi Fi. Let me close the doors. Let me not do any more research.” And you decide, “Okay, from this point forward, I'm only going to converge on some sort of endpoint, whether that's a deliverable or a first draft of the piece of writing, or decision or something like that.” It's a way of putting limits to your information consumption, so you can actually get things done.
SPENCER: So do you think that people use divergence and convergence at the wrong times?
TIAGO: Oh, yeah. First, they don't know these concepts exist. And they're often stuck in indecision. “Should I do all this new research? Should I open more browser tabs, download more papers and do more reading? Or should I just use what I already have?” And so making the distinction just gives them just a choice. “Do I want to be in divergent mode, or do I want to be in convergence mode?” More specifically, often people will favor one of the other. Most people either favor divergence, they favor the free-form, open-ended exploration of ideas. They're often very imaginative people, very innovative people. But that kind of person will often have trouble converging, which means they'll never get anything done. They'll never actually arrive at a stage of completion. And then there's another kind of person who is convergent, who is very practical, very realistic. They're really good at kind of dotting their I's and crossing their T's. But then the flip side of that coin is they'll have trouble with divergence, they'll have trouble being open minded, they'll have trouble exploring and trying new things. And so, we live in such a collaborative world today. I think often recognizing which of those biases you have is helpful, because then you can seek out people that have the opposite tendency. If divergent people can find convergent people and vice versa, they can really form these incredibly prolific, fruitful collaborations and partnerships. But then, of course, also just on the individual level, just knowing which mode you're in at any given time is so, so powerful.
SPENCER: Do you think that the optimal is to start with divergence and move to convergence? Or do you think it's actually the cycle between the two of them?
TIAGO: Oh, it's an absolutely endless cycle. It's like a pendulum. You're just constantly switching, taking in new information, using it. This is sometimes called explore and exploit, right? You're exploring a new domain, and then you're exploiting, you're harvesting what you found there. It is an endless cycle that just goes back and forth. It's definitely not a one way thing.
SPENCER: One way I think this comes up is with some kind of problem, right? Let's say you have a problem with your business. You start with a divergence phase where you're like, “Okay, let me generate a bunch of hypotheses about how it might solve it.” But then you need a convergence phase. It's like, “Okay, but which one of these am I going to try right now?” Or we're trying a hypothesis and, “Am I gonna delve into further?” And then you can try to solve it. And let's say it doesn't quite work, then you need another divergence phase to expand the scope of possibilities. Again, you're iterating down to eventually get a solution.
TIAGO: Yeah, I think so much of the artistry of modern work is those kinds of decisions. When to converge and when to diverge. Starting to sense when you are reaching diminishing returns — let's say in your divergence — which is such a subtle thing. There's no hard and fast rule. Let's say you are researching a new way of organizing your business. How do you know, when you've done enough research? How do you know if five sources or 10 sources or 15 different books are enough? There's really no exact answer. You have to have self-awareness. You have to be open-minded. You have to ask other people. You have to have essentially wisdom to tell you when enough is enough, and vice versa. When you're converging, and you're trying to get to the outcome, having the wisdom and the self-awareness to know, “Oh, you know what, I've actually backed myself into a corner, I've actually over-converge, and I need to open back up again, take in new sources of feedback.” These are incredibly subtle and sensitive questions that I think largely come from experience. And they make a big difference.
SPENCER: Another thing that comes to mind with divergence and convergence is that they seem to have different attitudes or mindsets with them. In divergence, you're open-minded, you're saying, “Well, maybe I'll need this thing, so I want to include it.” You're creative and generative, you're looking at possibilities and exploring things that could be really terrible ideas. In convergence, you're sort of closing possibilities, you're cutting things out, you're saying, “Ah, no, I don't need to include that.” You're being skeptical. And so it may actually — just given the way we're psychologically made up — it might be hard to do them both. And so, we might really need to switch between them, because it's hard to maintain both creativity and openness and skepticism and closeness simultaneously.
TIAGO: That's such a great observation. It's so true. They're complete opposites in every way. They're almost like different facets of your identity. It's almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you can't be in both. You can't both be totally open-minded and totally skeptical at the same time. It's just impossible. You're totally right. So for me, that means it's why it's so useful to just make a decision. For the next 30 minutes, for the next hour or two, I'm going to be in divergent mode to let the filters fall away, make the criteria less stringent, don't immediately criticize and critique every new idea. That's what's needed when it's when you're in divergence. But then you make a decision, “Okay, at this time, tomorrow morning, Wednesday afternoon, or whatever, I'm going to be in convergence mode.” And then you are purposefully skeptical, and purposefully closed-minded. We think of closed-mindedness as being bad, but there are times where you cannot move forward with the thing you're doing unless you close your mind to new information.
SPENCER: Tiago, before we wrap up, do you want to tell us a little bit about your book and a little bit about your website?
TIAGO: Sure. My book is called, “Building a Second Brain.” You can find out everything about that book. Also the courses that I teach. I have a podcast that I've recorded and a blog with a lot of free resources. All of that can be found at buildingasecondbrain.com.
SPENCER: Fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on. This was a really fun conversation.
TIAGO: Yeah, thanks, Spencer. I appreciate it.
JOSH: The listener asks: What crappy things do we take for granted about how web app development works because it's just always been that way and what needs to change?
SPENCER: I think one of the really annoying things about web app development is that you're often forced to think both about the client and the server. And if you deal with development of software on a computer, this is often something you just don't have to worry about at all. You just have one machine you're dealing with. But this idea of splitting the client and server and having to communicate back and forth between them creates tons of complexity. And it makes development much, much harder and slower. And so, one thing I wonder about, is there ways that you can kind of remove that separation, so that it feels like you're just developing on one machine even if in practice, some things are happening on the client and some on the server?
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