A “Second Brain” is a trusted system that lives outside your head and helps you organize your digital world, cultivate your best ideas, and dramatically expand your creative output.
By creating your own Second Brain, you can make use of the time you’re already spending reading, listening, watching, and communicating to create a valuable asset that grows and compounds over time.
These are the most common myths and misconceptions about this process I’ve noticed from teaching more than 3,000 people in my online course Building a Second Brain. You can also listen to this article in audio form via the second season of the Building a Second Brain Podcast.
1. “I haven’t built a Second Brain yet”
A Second Brain isn’t a thing you either have or don’t have – like the latest iPad or a college degree. It isn’t something to be acquired and installed in one swoop like a kitchen appliance.
A better analogy might be your personal finance system – a distributed collection of accounts, withdrawals, deposits, payments, institutions, documents, and even people like your accountant or CPA. We all have such a system for managing our personal finances. You may not be happy with it, but you do have one.
In your personal finance system, there are certain activities that are always happening, such as earning, spending, saving, and investing. These activities take different forms at different times. You may direct more money or attention to some of them than others at any given time. But the performance of your personal finance system depends on how well it can perform these four functions.
Likewise, your Second Brain is a system for personal knowledge management (a field known as PKM). It is a distributed system made up of apps, devices, websites, social media platforms, cloud and storage drives, organizations, and people like your colleagues or collaborators. You can’t point to one single element and say “That is my Second Brain.” Even the notetaking app you use is only one element.
So when people tell me “I haven’t yet built a Second Brain” it doesn’t make sense. Somewhere in your life, in some form, there are certain activities happening all the time to allow you to make sense of information. You are constantly capturing, organizing, distilling, and expressing information in many different ways.
In today’s world, we all have Second Brains – ways we process and interpret the swirl of information around us. This system will always be there, in the same way that you don’t stop getting bills if you stop opening the mail. But once you notice it, you can truly start to build a system around it. And that system will be essential for producing the career, business, and life you want.
2. “A Second Brain means tediously overhauling and restructuring my entire digital life”
Some people think of a Second Brain as a precisely engineered, tightly integrated piece of technology, like a car engine, where every component plays a critical part. If one thing is missing or misaligned, the car will fail to start – or blow up in your face.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. A Second Brain is adaptive, like a living organism – messy, organic, and highly adaptable. Just like your first brain, a Second Brain has natural “plasticity,” with many ways of accomplishing any given task. When one part of your system is missing, another part can adapt and evolve to make up for it.
In the 4 steps of my CODE framework – Capture, Organize, Distill, Express – any incremental improvement immediately makes a difference, whether or not the other parts of the system are already in place. You don’t have to wait for each of the pieces to work in perfect harmony to start producing value.
For example, once you start capturing your thoughts and ideas as notes, you’ll immediately notice greater peace of mind from not carrying everything in your head… even if you never do anything with those notes.
If you exclusively focus on organizing, you’ll improve your ability to locate the information you already have, even if you don’t end up sharing it with anyone.
And if you merely improved your distillation process, you’d be better at getting straight to the point in your emails and conversations – even if you don’t touch the other parts of CODE at all.
Your Second Brain is less fragile than you think. Even if you don’t perfectly maintain every aspect of it with mechanic-like diligence, it will still be there as a repository for your best ideas and inspirations. And the efforts you do make will pay immediate dividends.
3. “A Second Brain is just a bunch of random ‘life hacks’ for knowledge work”
While a Second Brain doesn’t require you to perfectly coordinate every aspect to create value, does that mean it’s nothing more than a random collection of disconnected “tips and tricks”?
Unlike a Top 10 Productivity Tips listicle, when you build a Second Brain deliberately, each technique and tool builds on and extends the others. That way, when you practice them together, you have a system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
For example, it’s much easier to:
- Organize your notes using the PARA method if you’ve already been selective about what you capture in the first place
- Distill and summarize notes with Progressive Summarization if they’ve already been designated as part of a “Project”
- Quickly assemble pieces of work “just -in-time” (paywalled series) if they’ve already been distilled down to their most essential points
Each step of the CODE process feeds into the next, so when you sit down to create something new, most of the hard work has already been completed. You’re already naturally refining your thinking in the small, in-between moments of your day, so when it’s time to bring it together, you’ve just got to assemble the parts.
While there’s a vast universe of productivity and notetaking tips out there, you don’t have to learn all the possibilities. Just learn the core essentials to take a raw idea through the creative process so it can have an impact on the world outside your head… all thanks to the Second Brain system you’ve also built “outside of your head.”
4. “Building a Second Brain is just self-help for notetaking nerds”
A little harsh, but… on the surface, guilty as charged. Self-improvement is all about seeking ways to become more effective and do more with less – and a Second Brain will definitely aid you in that effort.
But what if instead of trying to optimize you – forcing yourself to get smarter, faster, or more disciplined – you worked on optimizing a system outside of yourself, so that it produces results no matter how motivated you feel?
The more powerful technology becomes, the less sense it makes to try and succeed based solely on our own efforts. It’s like trying to dig a ditch with your bare hands, when there’s a shovel sitting unused nearby. Or more accurately, a giant earth-moving machine.
So in a way, building a Second Brain is the opposite of self-improvement. It’s about outsourcing as much thinking and remembering as possible to the intelligent machines we’re already surrounded by, so we can spend our time thinking about whatever the hell we feel like. We are liberating ourselves from the neverending details that clutter our minds and freeing up time to pursue a higher purpose.
Ultimately what we are seeking is a better world – a world with more innovative products, more creative content, more impactful programs, and more effective organizations. If we can remove ourselves as the bottleneck and allow external systems to work on our behalf, we will be vastly more effective without straining the capabilities of our mind.
5. “A Second Brain requires me to have technical skills”
Until recently, you would have been right: knowledge management has historically been a highly technical affair.
In the past, if you wanted to manage or make sense of large volumes of information you’d need to be a trained software engineer, data scientist, or librarian. PKM required particular skills, knowledge of complex syntax, and walking a technical tightrope to avoid the risk of messing up database records for others.
Technology makes the biggest difference when it ceases to be a specialist tool, and crosses the chasm to become accessible to the world of generalists. The category of software known as “tools for thought” is currently in the middle of that transition. Technology has finally become accessible, user-friendly, and affordable enough that we can take responsibility for knowledge management in our own lives.
Just like your biological brain, a Second Brain isn’t specialized for one particular kind of data or a particular profession: it’s a general purpose intelligence. A Second Brain can handle any kind of information, for any purpose, to produce any kind of result. It can be used equally well by a scientist, teacher, engineer, designer, or entrepreneur. It can adapt to any situation we find ourselves in.
Thanks to more accessible, simplified tech, your Second Brain can integrate all the items that used to require different systems for different parts of your life. Previously, you’d need a unique system for work projects, another for personal affairs, one to manage the household, and another for taking notes on books you read – but today, your Second Brain can centralize these streams into one flow. It is a funnel for corralling the countless sources of information towards one purpose: to have an impact in the real world.
6. “There is a ‘right way’ to build a Second Brain”
There are as many ways to build a Second Brain as there are kinds of people building them.
There’s no point in implementing a system that’s so complicated you never actually make it part of your routines. The “right” system is the one you stick with and is so easy to use, that it’s simpler to use it than not to.
Every creative professional has to decide for themselves what their Second Brain is and how it will work. You can’t copy someone else’s exact morning routines and creative habits and then expect to produce the same results. Your habits are unique to you and the unique makeup of your mind.
Some people prefer formal PKM approaches, with checklists, templates, and strict rules. Others are more open-ended and free-form, allowing for improvisation and meandering paths. It’s a spectrum: your job is to find the spot on that spectrum where you’re most comfortable and capable.
This is why it’s important to experience many models, examples, and case studies of different people’s Second Brains. Examine professionals from your field, other fields, from our time, and from the past. There’s no one way it has to look – only a multitude of options and possibilities to choose from.
7. “If I create a Second Brain, it will kill my creativity”
If you’re highly creative, you may feel a strong internal resistance to overly prescriptive methodologies and techniques. You don’t want the inspiration coursing through your mind to be stifled in those sacred moments of flow.
It’s important to tap into the power of your creative imagination. But for most people, the big limiter in their life is not a lack of imagination. They have plenty of ideas for how the future could be different. Their limitation is the ability to turn those ideas into reality. Too many of our best ideas die on the vine, never tasting even a fraction of their potential.
Paradoxically, creativity depends on routine. If you examine the lives of successful artists, musicians, comedians, or writers, they all depend completely on the consistency of their habits. They can’t wait for inspiration to strike, but rather, get up and go to work just like any other professional.
Morning habits, exercise habits, journaling habits, reading habits, writing habits, notetaking habits – when creatives practice these habits to the extent that they become automatic, they free up attention to ensure that when inspiration does strike, they have the bandwidth to run after new ideas.
But how can we create systems and habits in a highly unpredictable environment where each day or week might look completely different from the last?
I developed much of my own Second Brain in my 20s, while traveling and living abroad in several different countries. Moving from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the Colombian coast to the far reaches of Eastern Ukraine, everything about my environment and routines changed dramatically.
But there was one thing that stayed the same: my digital world. Across different cities, countries, and jobs, the content saved in the cloud followed me. Despite the flurry of my constantly changing life, there was a layer of reality I could rely on: the virtual reality I could access anywhere.
Thanks to that reality, I was able to start a travel blog to share stories of my adventures abroad. I published my first ebook to raise money for a youth leadership program, and helped dozens of young Ukrainians finish college and take on leadership positions at prominent companies and non-profits. Seeing a vision in my head make it out into the world and have a direct impact on people’s lives changed my life forever.
True creativity is being able not just to imagine interesting futures, but bring them to life through a consistent practice. That’s the kind of creativity I want to see more of in the world. And it depends on a proven process to sculpt your knowledge into reality.
8. “Second Brains are for people who aren’t actually out in the world doing the hard work”
This is probably the biggest failure of existing approaches to knowledge management: They’re hopelessly academic and don’t stand a chance once you make “contact with reality.”
Most information management techniques start with theory and academic research. They develop models for how information could work (in theory), and then work backwards to determine what practices might work in people’s day-to-day lives.
Seeing this flawed approach over and over, I made sure to do the opposite: I started by closely observing high-performers working on real-world challenges. I examined how they read, listen, take notes, and organize their priorities under pressure. Most of all, I looked for the shortcuts that people take when they’re deep in the trenches, which often end up being the most innovative breakthroughs.
We need theories and research. They allow us to uncover new aspects of information management we have yet to discover. But I find every time I start with a framework in mind, then try to invent a technique based off of it, that technique ends up too complicated for practical work, and fails. Instead, I observe what people are already doing that works, and help them double down on those techniques.
The great methodologies are born in the trenches of modern work. And they’re ruthlessly practical, because there isn’t time for anything else.
9. “Maintaining a Second Brain will force me to sit in front of a computer all day”
We now spend over 11 hours per day consuming media on our electronic devices.
Many internet pundits seem to believe this indicates a crisis. They preach the gospel of “digital abstinence” and try to convince us there’s something inherently bad about the ubiquity of technology.
Here’s the reality: We can choose how we spend our time on our devices. We get to decide who we are when we go online. Technology is neutral – it expands who we already are and what we’re already doing. And it’s not realistic to pretend we’re going to shun all tech and retreat from the Internet. It’s here to stay.
But with that comes a responsibility to spend our time online consciously. We can choose to direct our attention to the urgent, the sensational, and the shallow. Or we can craft our digital environment for learning, experimenting, collaborating, and making things.
The Internet can be a source of endless distraction, or a source of endless wisdom. It gives us access to the worst of humanity, and the very best of humanity: amazing art, moving entertainment, insightful writing, subtle teachings, and friendships that would never have formed otherwise.
CODE gives us a default set of habits for how we interact with information, online and offline. It encourages us to capture the best ideas we encounter, to organize those ideas around the projects and goals that matter to us, and to distill the ideas we already have, instead of endlessly collecting more.
All these steps are preparation for the most difficult, but also most valuable action you can take in the connected world we live in: to step away from the computer and share your message with the world.
When you make the shift from consumer to creator, your entire posture toward the world changes. Your standards for what information you allow to fill your mind skyrockets, because you need the best to produce the best.
The overwhelming complexity and uncertainty of everything you could possibly be doing becomes a calm patience for the concrete thing you are actually working on.
And once you experience that, you can move powerfully in the world and make a difference in your own life and the lives of others.
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