A Second Brain – Can It Really Help Me Be More Creative and Productive?

Last Updated on October 30, 2022 by Stephanie

Did you know that the average person consumes around 34GB of data every day? Put this another way, we consume around the equivalent of 174 newspapers’ worth of information every single day. Talk about information overload. Is this a good thing? Maybe. Is this a bad thing? Maybe. There is, however, a challenge that presents itself with this… where does all this information go? With so many media-rich notes and ideas flying around in our heads, the old commonplace books of the past might not work. A digital second brain? That’s where it’s at!

To sum up this post in just a few sentences: A “second brain” is a catch-all for all the pieces of information you find useful, surprising, interesting, helpful, etc. housed in a searchable and organized way. Yes, it can help you be more creative and productive. Keep reading to learn more.

I saw a book called Building a Second Brain pop up somewhere and thought it was super interesting. The second piece of the title was “A proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.” If you’ve read anything else on the blog, you know that I’m all about creating systems that help you function at your best. A lot of my systems are in a digital format simply because that is where I am. I work a lot on the computer.

With that said, one of my more recent posts talks about 3 things I do weekly to manage digital clutter. This is soooo important because we are all spending so much time in our digital spaces. We aren’t, however, keeping those digital spaces organized. I can look up a million different articles about how to organize my closet, but there aren’t as many about how to organize all the crap that I have accumulated on my computer.

This post will go through what personal knowledge management is and how it relates to the “second brain” that I’ve been starting to talk about more and more. In fact, I’m building my own in Notion, which you can check out here:

Personal Knowledge Management

The idea behind personal knowledge management (PKM) is to have a structured system in place that you can easily access and access frequently to organize your thoughts, notes, and files. Now, you might say to yourself that you do have systems in place for this! Yeah, you do… you have a million Pinterest boards with a million recipes pinned to them. You have about a thousand Instagram posts saved (BTW, go connect with me over there and save some of my posts!) There are notes on your phone and you’ve got to-do lists scattered around on your desk. This is a hot mess.

Why do I Need to Even Think About Personal Knowledge Management?

It would help if you thought about it because frankly, the more you consume information and the less you act on it, the more anxious and stressed you become. Have you ever heard someone say they had information overload? This is a real thing, but doctors refer to it as cognitive overload, and boy are we in the thick of it in this technological society.

When there is too much information to process, you may feel cognitive overload. This happens when you reach a point of paralysis of information — not being able to process and then act on what is heard. – Christopher Schimming, M.D.

This article talks about how with all this information coming in, we can start to fail to see the details and even become passive and just go with whatever someone else says. They are talking more about the lens of a medical situation because the article was from the Mayo Clinic, but how often have you experienced this in your day-to-day decision-making?

I’m thinking about when I was getting ready to have my daughter… holy wow is that a time that you are on information overload! Everyone is telling you about this certain swaddle and how they used this every day. Then you have someone else tell you not to do that because they didn’t like it. On the other hand, you really want…. blah blah. It goes on and on. I remember I had to stop going on blogs and reading books. Being an elementary teacher, I knew that I had good kid instincts… I needed to go with my gut on what was going to work best for us and not consistently consume information about things!

You Already Have So Much Knowledge!

Have you ever sat down to do something and didn’t know where to start? You have to create something for work that you’ve had to do before, but the ideas are just not there. Looking at that blank page, man… you have no idea what to do. You don’t know where you can possibly start.

crumpled up paper and a blank notepad
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Did you catch the most important part of the statement above? Go back and read it again. I’ll wait.

You’ve had to do it before. There are very few aspects of our lives and jobs that are from absolute scratch. Seriously think about that. Why do we always start from blank pages though? We think that we are doing a new project, so I’m going to open up a new, fresh, white page. You’ve done it before!! Why not start by duplicating a document you already created?

Personal knowledge management is about creating those connections to help you realize that you’ve already done lots of work and have what you need to get started all the time. You have the knowledge or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.

The Commonplace Book – The Oldest Second Brain

This idea of PKM is not new. It isn’t even remotely new. One of the most famous masters of PKM was Leonardo da Vinci. It is estimated that da Vinci produced between 20,000 to 28,000 pages of notes and sketches about work related to whatever topics interested him. The picture below was a study of “The Last Supper”. This was called a commonplace book at the time. It got its name from having all of your notes in one “commonplace.”

sketches of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The commonplace book was something being used back in the time of Roman Emperors and also gained speed and use during the Renaissance. They still very much exist today. Other famous commonplace bookkeepers include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Gates. Some would split their notebooks up into various categories and others kept things in a stream of consciousness. Da Vinci’s notes spanned around 50 different notebooks.

Commonplace Books were a place for notes on the book you are reading, song lyrics that inspire you, sketches of an idea you had, the first few lines of a poem you heard, and anything that strikes you as interesting. It allowed you to refer back to things that you thought were of value and make connections along the way.

I myself dabbled in the idea, but admit that it became cumbersome to me. In my blog post about checking systems, I talk about the fact that if a system doesn’t work, don’t keep using it, change it. The commonplace book in paper format did not work for me. I was reading in different places and on different media. It wasn’t always convenient to write down what I was reading when I was reading in bed with my hubby asleep and snoring next to me. You have to do what works for you!

This is Not New To You

The thing about this idea of personal knowledge management is that it is not new to you at all. I’ve already hinted at this above when I said that you already have so much knowledge. I can tell you some management of knowledge you already use that you might not even think of.

  • Pinterest boards
  • Bookmarks on your browser
  • Saved videos on YouTube
  • Highlights in your Kindle
  • Your GoodReads booklist
  • Saved posts on Instagram
  • Archives in your email
  • Your filing system on your computer
  • Your filing system in the cloud (Google Drive, etc.)

Aren’t these all ways that you save information? How often though, do you go back and look at or even remember that Instagram post you saved? How often do you go back and watch those saved YouTube videos? Aside from our frequently visited pages, are you really looking through those bookmarked blog posts you swore you would read another time?

We are trying to manage things or think we are. However, they are not being managed in such a way that is available to our future selves really easily. It is separate from our day-to-day browsing and interactions so we don’t think anything of it. We also forget that we ever saved it. The quote below should say it all.

There is a certain lend 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. – Tiago Forte

In other words, in trying to find that one thing you saved that one time on Pinterest, you end up in the never-ending swarm of information and totally forget what you came there for originally. We get VERY distracted… VERY easily.

Not Everything Needs to Be in the Same Place… But Most of It Can Be!

How much easier would it be to be in a conversation where you remember that one picture you saved and a book you read and you open up one thing, search for it, and have it at your fingertips? Websites, blog posts, videos on the web, graphics, and so much more can just be saved in the same place. The way digital tools work today can allow you to create media-rich notes that can house all of this. Large files and private or important documents have to have their own special place. However, they should all be related to one another. You should look at them every now and then and see what is worth keeping for your future self.

In my own life, as I’m working towards a more cohesive second brain set-up, I already know that certain things are going to remain as-is. For example, I love GoodReads as a reading database. I have my friends on there, my booklist is extensive, and I can keep track of my yearly reading goals with ease. I don’t want to migrate from that because it has all that I want. My notes, however, are being kept inside my Notion second brain going forward. My preferred task manager software is still Todoist and I still love it, so I will keep my tasks there. The tasks are organized in the same areas as my second brain though, so there is very little thought as to where I need to go to find things in either place.

Again, it’s about where you need to put it so that you interact with these things you found interesting more often to find cool connections to other things.

Woman typing on computer in background; how a second brain can help you get more done; creatingtimeforlife.com

The Purpose of a Second Brain

The term was coined by Tiago Forte and is a really good way to describe it. Building a Second Brain is a framework for productivity and creativity that is based on all these ideas I’ve mentioned before. Your second brain is your personal knowledge management system, your digital commonplace book on steroids.

Making Connections

One of the main purposes of building a second brain is to allow you to interact with things you’ve found meaningful and to make connections with those things. It is to put all the work you’ve already done to work for you in new ways. It is to help you never start with a blank page. How refreshing are all those ideas?

One thing that Tiago Forte tells readers in his book is to be thinking like a curator and let ideas and notes stay a while. Capture it while it is fresh. Save that video to your notes. Skim that blog post and save it to your notes for extensive reading another day. The key idea here is that you then need to set some time for going through those notes every now and then.

For example, as I was writing this post, I went through some notes of saved blog posts about personal knowledge management and building a second brain. Some of the posts I had saved in my notes I immediately discarded after reading for a couple of minutes. I knew they didn’t have the depth that I wanted and I couldn’t see my future self needing them. Others, however, I distilled down to what I thought was important, highlighted important points, and moved into the resources part of my second brain. I already had this blog post in my projects, so I related the articles to the project. Even as I write, I am clicking back and forth between the resources I linked.

Stop Reinventing the Wheel Every Time

I mentioned this above, but we already have a body of work we have created in our lives. I mentioned above the notes I was using for this post. Here’s the deal: my research was done because this topic was interesting to me. I was already reading and collecting articles on the topic because I found it interesting. I also knew that I would probably talk about the topic more with my building a second brain video series, so when I came across a good article, I saved it.

Did I have to fill in some gaps? Yes, but I had a lot of good material to reference and remind me about points I wanted to talk about already in my notes! I wasn’t starting from a blank page because I already had supporting material. I also already had a blog template created that helped me remember to pick titles, research a few keywords, and structure my post. It was awesome! My blog template is pictured below, with my linked resources, my tasks ready to check off, and more ready to go!

Screenshot of Notion Second Brain Blog Post Template

You don’t have to start from the beginning every time because you’ve done other work that could probably help you. My lovely teacher friends that start from scratch every year with a brand new, blank lesson plan book… I’m looking at you. Go back to your old plan book and see what worked for you! If you are a teacher and reading this, this is why I LOVE Planbook.com because I can go back and copy and paste from previous school years!

Adapt and Change As Information Grows – The Old Commonplace Book Might Not Cut it

Systems only work if you are using them and they are helping you. If it takes too long to maintain a system, then the system isn’t doing what it should be doing. That is a key point with all my planner community friends that say filling out their planners takes too long and they give up after a few months or even weeks. Read more about that in my blog post about finding the perfect planner layout. You have to adapt and change as you learn more.

A perfect example of this is my Notion workflow for the blog. I LOVE it, but it has evolved as more things have been created. A whole post is devoted to this workflow. I kid you not, within a week of me posting that video and publishing that blog post, I redid the whole thing. I realized that I was having to keep up with too many different things. Things had to be posted in different places and it annoyed me. A few hours later and I’m in love with the reorganization because as I add more information to it, I know that it is all going where I want it to go.

In my second brain, I have been adding more and more notes. I’ve also been letting those notes sit for a while. When I’ve got time, I will go through and read through posts or look at videos again. It’s during that time that I really ask myself if I need to keep it. Tiago Forte made it clear though, that building a big elaborate system first and then trying to fit things into it… not going to work. I’ve held true to this and let things organically develop within it, and I’m loving everything about it.

What Next?

Did this intrigue you? Was this post something that made you think about all the information you save and consume every day? When I read Tiago Forte’s book, it absolutely opened up my mind to thinking in a different way. Discovering ways to take notes and get information in one place is actually making creating things way easier for me. I don’t have to click around a million different apps to find something. I can find it in one or two places.

So what’s next for you? Think about the information you consume. Are you a reader? Are you someone who listens to podcasts? Do you like scrolling through blog posts or watching YouTube? The next time you hear something that intrigues you, I would encourage you to find a way to capture that piece of information. Capture it and then during a weekly review (if you don’t know what that amazing productivity trick is, check out this post) go through a few of the notes you captured throughout the week. You might delete things and wonder why you thought they were amazing in the first place. You also might be inspired to create something amazing because of the note that reminds you of this great insight you had while reading or listening to that one thing this week.

Check out my growing series about building my second brain in Notion over on my YouTube channel and subscribe for more! Hit me up on Instagram too!

Go do something extraordinary today folks!

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