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If I had to give everyone one piece of advice for improving their productivity and learning, it would be “principles over prescriptions.”

Every tip and tactic has a shelf life, and will someday become outdated. Even the most cutting-edge new app will eventually lose relevance.

The history of managing ideas reveals a constantly changing stream of tools and techniques. But the underlying principles of idea management are timeless. They were present hundreds of years ago and will be present hundreds of years from now. And these are the principles worth learning.

As Silvano Arieti says, “Creative products are always shiny and new; the creative process is ancient and unchanging.”

These are the 10 core principles of idea management I’ve discovered, based on my experience teaching the Building a Second Brain method.

1. Borrowed Creativity

Creativity is not a mysterious force to be conjured from nothing – it emerges organically from practical efforts to gather, organize, and digest your own ideas, and the ideas of others. Before you create novel work of your own, you can prepare by gathering the ideas you encounter in your daily life in a single, trusted place outside your head. This makes it easier to see unexpected patterns and connections between ideas, leading to more powerful and unique insights in your work.

2. The Capture Habit

Don’t play “catch and release” with your thoughts. Your ideas have value, but tend to arrive when you least expect them. By making it a habit to “capture” and save them, you can allow them to live forever in a trusted system that reflects your goals and interests. This also leaves your mind free and clear to come up with even more ideas. 

3. Idea Recycling

Ideas are not single-use only. They can outlive the projects they were originally a part of. Every document or deliverable you create represents valuable thinking you’ve done, and can be recycled and reused in future projects. By putting in a little extra effort to preserve your work for the future, you’ll never have to do the same work twice.

4. Projects Over Categories

Instead of organizing ideas by category – such as “psychology,” “marketing,” or “economics” – which leads to silos that they can’t escape from, organize your ideas according to the projects where they will be most useful and actionable. Organizing your ideas according to which project they apply to also makes it easier to decide where they go, and easier to find when you need them. 

5. Slow Burns

Stop completing your projects via “heavy lifts” – grueling slogs of painful work where you create everything from scratch. There is another way – you can slowly gather ideas, in the background and over time, using “slow burns.” Once the project gets underway, you’ll already have a rich collection of interesting ideas, insights, examples, facts, and illustrations that you can easily combine together without burning yourself out.

6. Start with Abundance

Creativity flows from abundance. Instead of sitting down to a blank canvas and trying to think of something clever, start your creative process by sifting through a plentiful supply of interesting ideas, insights, and inspirations that you can build off of. Your Second Brain is the perfect place to collect this creative raw material.

7. Intermediate Packets

Cranking out work in one big push or digesting information in one big gulp requires a lot of motivation and self-discipline, which are in scarce supply. By breaking down your work into a series of small, “intermediate packets,” you can make consistent progress while building up a reserve of useful knowledge. With these packets at your disposal, you’ll have many more options for how to combine and remix them into new things in the future.

8. You Only Know What You Make

Don’t just passively consume huge volumes of information that soon gets forgotten. Instead, use what you’re learning to make new things. Applying what you learn in tangible projects not only helps the learning stick, it allows you to get feedback and incorporate the thinking of others to make it even better.

9. Make it Easier for Your Future Self

If you make your notes a little better each time you touch them – a little more organized, a little more succinct, a little more clear – then your future self will find it easier and easier to access the knowledge you’ve saved. Instead of doing a lot of work upfront to organize your ideas, do it a little bit at a time, whenever it’s convenient.

10. Keep Your Ideas Moving

Systems that must be perfect to be reliable are deeply flawed. Instead of trying to create a perfect organizational system before starting to create things, concentrate on consistently moving your projects and goals forward. Your Second Brain will evolve to suit your needs only when you put it to use in your daily work.

Thank you to Haziq Azizi Ahmad Zakir, Sonia Sanchez, Olivier Cantin, Anna Lundbergh, Juanca Asensio, Parabhjeet Sidhu, Jeremie Rykner, Raúl Hernández González, Russell Kroeger, Ben Ford, David Laing, Michael Grant, Lena Rotenberg, Ryder Cleary, Kenny Alami, Luciano Pires Marcondes Machado, Bruce Dillahunty, C Wess Daniels, Eric Franklin, Zack Goldman, Keith Garrick, Michael Brown, Glen Sharp, Darren Everden, Usha Matisson, Massimo Curatella, Mohammed Ali, Gabrielle Fauste, Graham Hawkes, and Lawrence Wang for their valuable feedback and suggestions.

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