One of the most common questions I’ve received since the release of Building a Second Brain has been how I used my own Second Brain to write it.

There is absolutely no way I could have done this without my Second Brain. I honestly cannot imagine how anyone undertakes an endeavor of this magnitude without some kind of external content management system to depend on.

In a future installment, I’ll talk about how I wrote the actual manuscript, but first, there is something even more fundamental to address: project management.

My approach was to reduce everything down to a project: an outcome I was trying to achieve, along with a deadline attached. Every key milestone I had to reach on the way to publication had an associated project to make sure I got there. This was the only way I could make tangible progress each day while also continuing to run my business and live my life in the meantime.

Looking at the 3.5-year timeline of this endeavor, I can identify at least 9 different projects I started and completed:

  1. Finding an agent
  2. Finding an editor
  3. Writing the proposal
  4. Finalizing the contract for the offer I accepted
  5. Writing the manuscript (can’t forget this one!)
  6. Hiring and working with a promotional agency
  7. Hiring and working with a project manager for the book launch
  8. Working with a designer to create a visual brand identity for BASB
  9. Running the pre-order and promotion campaign

Here is a timeline of how each of these projects played out from 2019 to 2022.

Building a Second Brain Book Timeline

Usually, when we think of someone writing a book, we imagine them putting down one word after another until the whole thing is complete. But I believe the project management aspect is just as important: setting goals, chunking them into projects, laying out timelines, sequencing tasks, etc.

I estimate that as much as half of the total effort that went into this book wasn’t the actual writing of words, but everything else that had to happen to deliver those words to readers. 

Here’s an example of my project folder for just one of those project – writing the book proposal – which made use of 34 notes. 

BASB Book Proposal Evernote Folder

In this folder, I saved everything (and I mean everything) that might possibly come in handy for writing a book proposal.

Here are 10 concrete examples with screenshots:

1. Advice and guidance on what to include in a book proposal

I read a lot of articles and “how-to” guides on how to successfully write and sell a proposal. For the best ones, I saved excerpts and then used my Progressive Summarization technique to make the most critical points clearly visible.

Note on how to write a book proposal by Jane Friedman

2. Feedback and initial impressions on the proposal from outside reviewers

My agent sent an early draft of my proposal to several outside readers, and their feedback was very helpful in changing direction while I was still able to do so. Here you see one of those pieces of feedback that I’ve marked up for further action.

Note with feedback on the book proposal

3. Questions about sample proposals my editor shared with me

My editor shared a number of examples of successful proposals with me, which served as powerful models for my own. For each of them, I noted down followup questions to ask her to make sure I was learning the right lessons.

Questions about sample proposals

4. A list of existing blog posts of mine I could incorporate material from

Probably the single most helpful element in writing the manuscript was drawing on my existing writing. Instead of having to somehow read, absorb, organize, and incorporate hundreds of different original sources into each chapter, I only had to incorporate several existing blog posts. In a way, most of the writing had already been done – I just needed to piece it together in a new form.

Note with a list of existing blog posts

5. Goals and a schedule for working with my editor in person

Sometimes, a project can spin out of another project. In working with my editor on the proposal, we realized we needed to spend a few days together in person to hit a deadline. I flew to New York City to do that, but that created an entire project of its own: flight details, hotel reservations, notes from past phone calls, and the work plan you see below to guide our efforts.

Note with goals and a schedule for working with my editor in person

6. Quick braindumps of random “shower thoughts”

During the months of most intensive writing, I was so immersed in the content of BASB that it began to take over most of my thoughts. I would dream about it during the night and daydream about it during the day. I made sure to jot down as many of these “shower thoughts” as I could so I didn’t lose them.

Note with a quick brain dump of shower thoughts

7. Results of polls I ran on Twitter to make decisions

My writing was a constant feedback loop between myself and others. Besides a few solo writing retreats (which I’ll describe later), there was hardly ever a day I didn’t solicit or receive feedback from my team, my friends or family, or followers or subscribers. Here’s an example of how I used a Twitter poll to decide which term to use for “capture.”

Screenshot of a Twitter poll

8. Feedback and comments from my editor

Zoom calls with my editor were the “check-in points” I used to keep myself accountable. In each one, she gave me a long list of comments, suggestions, edits, and ideas to consider, all of which I kept track of in my notes.

Note with feedback from the editor

9. Notes from phone calls with interested publishers

Once we finally got the proposal finished and sent out to publishers, we had a handful of phone calls from those who were already interested in making an offer or just wanted to know more. These details would become important later when I decided which offer to accept.

Notes from phone calls with interested publishers

10. Mementos of meaningful moments

There were so many little moments along the way that were surprising, touching, beautiful, or otherwise meaningful. So many little experiences I wanted to keep a memory of and remember, just as in life. Here is one example, of the official announcement of my book deal in Publisher’s Marketplace as the “deal of the day.”

Screenshot of official announcement of the book deal in Publisher’s Marketplace

One of the most challenging aspects of large-scale creative endeavors is that you have to play multiple roles at once. In most cases, at minimum, you have to be both the “talent” creating the original work and the “manager” keeping track of all the details and moving the project forward.

I found that by outsourcing the job of remembering to my Second Brain, I freed up bandwidth in my first brain to do what only it could do: generate a unique creative expression from the depths of my soul. 

We might not think a boring concept like “project management” has a place in something as inspiring and whimsical as creativity until we realize what good project management enables: freedom, peace of mind, and ultimately the confidence that we can make our voice heard knowing that every detail has been aligned in our favor.

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