Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain

Tiago Forte describes his process for driving action from collected knowledge.

Prior art

Other fields:

  • Neuroscience: temporal association, the encoding of memory
  • Design Thinking




PKM concepts:

  • Zettelkasten (Niklas Luhmann)
  • Memex (Vannevar Bush)
  • Digital garden (Anne-Laure Le Cunff)

Interesting things to record:

  • Quantified Self community: health and wellbeing.
    • But to really get value out of this data we need good tooling for review and aggregation.



Herbert Simon -- information consumes attention:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

Progressive summarisation reduces later cognitive load:

Imagine your future self as a demanding customer. They will surely be impatient and very busy. They won't have time to pore through page after page of details just to find the hidden gems. It's your job to “sell” them on the value of the notes you are taking now. Your future self might have mere minutes before a meeting starts to quickly search their notes for a reference they need. In that sense, each note is like a product you are creating for the benefit of that future customer. If they don't buy it—they don't think it's worth the effort of revisiting past notes—then all the value of the work you're doing now will be lost.

Hoarding won't make you more productive:

They tend to get bogged down in minutiae and barely make a dent in the mountain of accumulated stuff they wanted to tackle. Then they're saddled with a feeling of guilt that they weren't able to make progress even with so much time at their disposal. It's not natural for humans to completely reorganize their entire world all at once.


We have to remember that we are not building an encyclopedia of immaculately organized knowledge. We are building a working system.

Shift your focus, and use your brain for creativity:

Instead of trying to optimize your mind so that it can manage every tiny detail of your life, it's time to fire your biological brain from that job and give it a new one: as the CEO of your life, orchestrating and managing the process of turning information into results.

Let the tool deal with retention:

Your Second Brain is always on, has perfect memory, and can scale to any size. The more you outsource and delegate the jobs of capturing, organizing, and distilling to technology, the more time and energy you'll have available for the self-expression that only you can do.

Pay attention to the signals around you, and spot the common patterns in your work:

Like a compassionate but unyielding teacher, reality doesn't bend or cave to our will. It patiently teaches us in what ways our thinking is not accurate, and those lessons tend to show up across our lives again and again.


Application is part of the learning process:

You only know what you make.

Follow the shortest step that produces results:

Only start projects that are 80% complete.

CODE enables creativity:

Imagine. Invent. Innovate. Create.

We must accept that applying our knowledge will mean turning down some paths:

The more imaginative and curious you are, the more diverse your interests, and the higher your standards and commitment to perfection, the more difficult you will likely find it to switch from divergence mode into convergence mode. It's painful to cut off options and choose one path over another. There is a kind of creative grief in watching an idea you know is full of potential get axed from a script or story. This is what makes creative work challenging.

Ignore the anxiety -- express and share:

Postponing our goals and desires to "later" often ends up depriving us of the very experiences we need to grow. [...] And sharing before I feel ready has completely altered the trajectory of my career.

Early and often, and solicit feedback:

An idea wants to be shared. And, in the sharing, it becomes more complex, more interesting, and more likely to work for more people.

Optimise for action:

Instead of trying to architect your entire Second Brain from scratch up front, focus on moving one project at a time through each step from capturing to expressing.

Sharing is caring:

I believe most people have a natural desire within them to serve others. They want to teach, to mentor, to help, to contribute. The desire to give back is a fundamental part of what makes us human.

Your perspective is unique: apply it:

Life has given you a set of experiences that provide you with a unique lens on the world. Through that lens you can perceive truths that can have a profoundly positive impact on you and others.


As Ryder Carroll says in The Bullet Journal Method, "Your singular perspective may patch some small hole in the vast tattered fabric of humanity."

Gathering and refining knowledge aids self discovery:

You search outside yourself to search within yourself, knowing that everything you find has always been a part of you

The Cathedral Effect

We should architect our knowledge management environment for the way we wish to think:

When we are in a space with high ceilings, for example—think of the lofty architecture of classic churches invoking the grandeur of heaven—we tend to think in more abstract ways. When we're in a room with low ceilings, such as a small workshop, we're more likely to think concretely.

Make it motivating!

It doesn't matter if the goal is big or small -- keeping an inventory of your victories and successes is a wonderful use for your Second Brain.

Organising for action

PARA aligns with David Allen's Getting Things Done, providing a single organisational system without requiring that all data live in the same tool:

Instead of inventing a completely different organizational scheme for every place you store information, which creates a tremendous amount of friction navigating the inconsistencies between them, PARA can be used everywhere, across any software program, platform, or notetaking tool. You can use the same system with the same categories and the same principles across your digital life.

Use the four main hierarchies as a means of grouping information where it'll be most likely to be used:

This order gives us a convenient checklist for deciding where to put a note, starting at the top of the list and moving down:

  1. In which project will this be most useful?
  2. If none: In which area will this be most useful?
  3. If none: Which resource does this belong to?
  4. If none: Place in archives.

Don't get caught up in organisation as an end in itself:

Your efforts to capture content for future use will be tremendously easier and more effective if you know what that content is for. Using PARA is not just about creating a bunch of folders to put things in. It is about identifying the structure of your work and life—what you are committed to, what you want to change, and where you want to go.

Optimise for value:

My mentor advised me to “move quickly and touch lightly” instead. To look for the path of least resistance and make progress in short steps.

Treat everything as a project:

Every goal, collaboration, or assignment we take on can be defined as a project, which gives it shape, focus, and a sense of direction.

When starting:

Here are some questions I use to prompt this initial brainstorm:

  • What do I already know about this project?
  • What don't I know that I need to find out?
  • What is my goal or intention?
  • Who can I talk to who might provide insights?
  • What can I read or listen to for relevant ideas?

Collect useful knowledge upfront:

I run a series of searches for terms related to the new project, scanning the results and quickly jumping into any note that seems relevant. Progressive Summarization helps here too, enabling me to zoom into and out of notes without having to absorb their full contents

And move or link it to improve its discoverability later:

The important thing isn't where a note is located, but whether you can reference it quickly while staying focused on the project at hand.

We're better served by smaller projects with earlier pay off:

This is one of the best reasons to keep our projects small: so that we get to feel a fulfilling sense of completion as often as possible.


We need to spend time revisiting and refining knowledge to gain value from it:

Like every system, a Second Brain needs regular maintenance. There is a certain level of organization that you want to maintain in your digital world, so that when you go there to get things done, your virtual workspaces support your productivity instead of interfering with it.

There's an opportunity cost in losing our flow state:

If we're constantly scrambling to find our notes, drafts, brainstorms, and sources, not only do we waste precious time, but we also sabotage our momentum.

If we tidy iteratively, we can avoid the need for a big clean up:

We have a lot to learn as knowledge workers from the system of mise en place. We likewise have to contend with a deluge of tasks, under uncertain conditions, with tight deadlines. We also receive a constant stream of inputs and requests, have too little time to process them, and face many demands requiring simultaneous attention. For us as well, the only time we have available to maintain our systems is during the execution of our regular work.

Template your monthly review to aid in forming a habit:

Here's mine:

  1. Review and update my goals.
  2. Review and update my project list.
  3. Review my areas of responsibility.
  4. Review someday/maybe tasks.
  5. Reprioritize tasks.

Language has limits

In a 1966 book, the British-Hungarian philosopher Michael Polanyi made an observation that has since become known as "Polanyi's Paradox." It can be summarized as "We know more than we can say."

Polanyi observed that there are many tasks we can easily perform as humans that we can't fully explain. For example, driving a car or recognizing a face. We can try to describe how we do these things, but our explanations always fall far short. That's because we are relying on tacit knowledge, which is impossible to describe in exact detail. We possess that knowledge, but it resides in our subconscious and muscle memory where language cannot reach.

This problem—known as "self-ignorance" -- has been a major roadblock in the development of artificial intelligence and other computer systems. Because we cannot describe how we know what we know, it can't be programmed into software.

Key facts

New ideas

CODE method

Four stages for knowledge creation, somewhat derived from David Allen's Getting Things Done:

  • Collect
  • Organise
  • Distill
  • Express

Intermediate packets

Retain prior work to use as the basis of future work.

For example:

  • Distilled packets
  • Outtakes
  • Work-in-progress
  • Final deliverables
  • Documents created by others

Retrieval methods

Four main ways we retrieve/rediscover information:

  • Search
  • Browsing
  • Tags
  • Serendipity

Divergence and Convergence

Recognises two phases of knowledge generation, modelled after Design Thinking:

  • Divergence: collecting and organising
  • Convergence: distilling and expressing

Blank page anxiety

Use three techniques to enable starting from collected material or a known prior point:

  • Steven Johnson's Archipelago of Ideas: instead of starting from a blank page, creative work becomes a task of filling in the gaps between primary sources.
  • Hemingway's bridges: leave yourself jumping off points for the next convergence work session.
  • Dial Down the Scope: instead of drawing out due dates, deliver a smaller subset of the original work to the original timeframe, and be safe in the knowledge that you can deliver the rest of it piecemeal.

Maintenance as a routine

Largely about applying mise-en-place to knowledge work:

  • Project checklists at start and finish to ensure we've scoped the work correctly and met our definition of done.
  • Weekly and monthly reviews to ensure we're on course.
  • Noticing habits around cleaning up as we go.

12 practical steps

Answering the "where do I start" question:

  • Decide what to capture
  • Choose a notes app
  • Choose a capture tool
  • Start with PARA
  • Get inspired -- pick 12 problems
  • Capture e-book highlights
  • Progressively summarise
  • Experiment with an intermediate packet
  • Progress one deliverable
  • Schedule a weekly review
  • Assess notetaking proficiency
  • Join the community (#pkm, #second-brain, #toolsforthought)