A “Second Brain” is a system for knowledge management – a trusted place outside your head to preserve and protect your most valuable knowledge.
But it’s not one piece of software – it is the entire ecosystem of apps and tools you use to handle information.
That said, there is one kind of app that is the centerpiece of your Second Brain: a digital notes app. It’s the long-term memory bank where all your important information gets sent for safekeeping.
Notes apps are perfectly suited to the demands of modern work. They are inherently informal and messy, allowing new and unexpected ideas to emerge free of rigid rules. They are open-ended, allowing you to free-form sketch without necessarily knowing where you’ll end up. These apps can save many kinds of content – not only text but images, drawings, links, tables, attachments, and more.
There’s been an incredible explosion in this category of software in recent years, and we now have too many options.
How do you pick the right app? You don’t! You don’t choose a notes app – a notes app chooses you. It calls out to you based on the natural ways your mind works.
Trying to force yourself to use a piece of software that isn’t compatible with your temperament, your style, and your personality is a recipe for frustration. While adopting one that aligns with how you already think is a formula for accessing an incredible amount of energy.
In this article, I’ll guide you through the process of choosing the perfect notes app for you, taking into account your personal notetaking style.
The Four Notetaking Styles
I first learned about the notion of notetaking styles or “archetypes” through this article by Anne-Laure Le Cunff. Anne-Laure points to three common groups that people tend to fall into. Through my work with thousands of people seeking to create a Second Brain for themselves, I’ve discovered that there are actually four:
- The Architect
- The Gardener
- The Librarian
- The Student
By understanding which group you fall into, you’ll know not only which software program you should adopt, but also how to use it in a way that complements your own mind. These insights extend beyond notetaking apps to any tool you use to manage information.
Let’s look at each of them:
The Architect: Building Systems
Architects want to fit all their information into an all-encompassing “ultimate system” with a clear hierarchy. The same way a real architect needs a precise blueprint that details exactly where each part of a building goes, information architects tend to use a single overarching goal as the driving force in their knowledge collection.
Architects are ideally suited to large-scale projects that demand significant resources, where a plan is needed in advance. They excel at interpreting every piece of information through the lens of their overarching principles, and fitting it all into an elegant framework that many kinds of people can make sense of and act on. They are masters of structure, using a systems mindset, and making tradeoffs between form and function.
The pitfall Architects must avoid is inappropriately “force fitting” information into the system when it doesn’t fit. Because their thirst for order is so strong, they may sometimes ignore information that doesn’t fit with their mental model or follow a favored approach when the situation has changed and it no longer makes sense.
Their need for consistency often leads Architects to plan their system upfront. If their needs change, the system needs to be rearchitected from scratch at significant cost. Often Architects seek out collaborators with other styles that balance and complement these tendencies.
Succeeding at knowledge management as an Architect requires you to make executive decisions about how you want your notes to work: the hierarchy of pages or folders, which categories you want to use, where an index or table of contents is needed, or which columns should be included in a database, for example.
The Gardener: Cultivating Knowledge
Gardeners are the exact opposite of Architects. They tend to think in a “bottom-up” way, cultivating many kinds of ideas and possibilities at the same time like seedlings sprouting in a wild garden. They are most at home imagining, dreaming, wandering, and making spontaneous creative connections in a way that no upfront plan could ever predict.
Knowledge gardening is about favoring relationships and connections, so that each individual seed can entangle itself with others and grow into something greater than the sum of its parts. The Gardener’s job is to create space for them to emerge, to cross-pollinate promising ideas, and harvest them once they’ve matured. This requires a nurturing, exploratory approach of protecting new ideas until they’re ready to make their debut.
The pitfall of Gardeners is that they often don’t know where they are headed. They can sometimes go off on tangents too easily and get distracted by new information that might be fascinating, but has nothing to do with their goals.
Succeeding as a Gardener requires the courage to react quickly and follow your spontaneous interests and curiosities, even if you’re not sure where they lead. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with organizing methods that can be used in the moment – such as adding a link to a related note, changing the title of a note, pulling relevant ideas into an outline – without requiring you to rearchitect the entire system (which you will find very challenging).
The Librarian: Researching for Projects
Librarians have a fundamentally practical relationship to information, valuing books and ideas for their own sake but also seeking to organize information for specific purposes. They have a deep desire to find and save the most useful, interesting knowledge to be able to retrieve it as needed.
Librarians often have a project orientation, like Architects. But unlike Architects, instead of architecting their entire lives, they prefer to do research that informs their projects, goals, obsessions, and curiosities. They like to capture information from a wide variety of sources, though not all the sources have to fit into one overarching system to make sense. They thrive on the varied and eclectic.
Librarians are all about curating a collection of knowledge, deciding what’s in and what’s out, and organizing it to be easy to find in the future. With that in mind, they often adopt a hierarchical system with “a place for everything and everything in its place.” In other words, they will try to stay consistent with their organizing for the sake of clarity and minimizing the effort required.
If you find yourself often collecting new nuggets of knowledge, categorizing your ideas, and combining old and new information into a new understanding, you are likely a Librarian. Your strength is your consistency and commitment to serving your future self’s needs, while a common pitfall is acquiring tons of content without ever actually doing anything with it.
Apps like Evernote and Microsoft OneNote kicked off the digital notetaking revolution years ago, and remain the best in class at collecting information from a wide variety of sources, often automatically. They support a wide variety of devices and operating systems and often prioritize reliability and stability over releasing new features.
The Student: Acquiring Knowledge
Student types are often beginning their notetaking journey. Whether they are actual students in school or university or merely novices in knowledge management, the scope and complexity of their notes are limited to specific use cases, such as preparing for a test, writing an essay, or applying for a job.
Students have a lot of things going on and juggle different priorities, so their Second Brain is often focused on one specific part of their life that requires them to manage a lot of information. It could be their college studies, their first job, a complex project, or learning a brand new subject. Their Second Brain is “purpose built” to help them be effective in that area, without going too deep in the others.
Students are oriented toward the short term, since they’re not sure where their thinking will lead or which is the right system to get them there. For that reason, they prize ease of use above all else – something quick, easy, and accessible on different devices.
Getting caught up in unnecessary complexity is a liability for Students, so they tend to choose the simplest, most straightforward apps, such as Apple Notes or Google Keep. Their notes are usually a mix of practical lists for buying groceries or keeping track of a travel itinerary, alongside learning resources from books or classes.
The Student is the most common kind of notetaker, and it is what we default to when we’re short on time or energy. If you have any doubts about where to begin, I recommend sticking with a “minimally viable solution” until your needs become clear, and waiting until your current system breaks or reaches its limits before adopting a more powerful one. The default apps found on our smartphones are often the perfect place to start, as they offer just a few key features to allow practical, quick, flexible notetaking.
Which style resonates with you?
Now ask yourself, which of the above descriptions most resonated with your approach to taking notes? Which one felt the most natural and familiar?
Though your style can and will change over time, I’ve found that most people have a “home base” where they get started. As your confidence builds you can always learn to master the other styles as well. But for now, choose a notes app that aligns with how your brain works.
And if you’d like an in-depth visual guide to the notetaking styles I’ve described above, check out our YouTube series “Pick a Notes App” starting with Part 1 below:
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