Turn Your Notes App Into a Personal Knowledge Base — Tiago Forte on Building a Second Brain

There are many terms for the process of capturing knowledge, organizing it, and using it to get stuff done: Personal knowledge management. Personal content management.  Personal information management and more.

My favorite is building a second brain. That’s the title of a popular online course led by Tiago Forte.

On a recent Unmistakable Creative podcast, Tiago spoke with Srini Rao about what he teaches. Following are my notes on this episode.


The value of the humble notes app

Apps for note-taking include Evernote, OneNote, Apple Notes, Bear, Google Keep, Zoho Notebook, and more.

Evernote alone claims to have 150 million users. But according to Tiago, many people download a notes app and then forget about it or use it only haphazardly.

Actually, your notes app can become a personal information asset — a storehouse of curated content that travels with you during job changes and career transitions. Creating this asset involves three phases of activity.

1 Capturing

Notes apps are ideal for capturing “snippets”— lists, work-related information, personal reflections, web pages, book notes, and ideas that pop your into head at random moments during the day.

But once you collect all that stuff, what will you do with it?

Tiago’s answer is progressive summarization. Extract the core insights from what you’ve captured. Make it possible to get the “gist” of a note in just a few seconds when you look at it again. You can do this in stages that Tiago calls “layers:

  • Layer 1 — opening your notes app to add images, text, links, or other information
  • Layer 2 — boldfacing the key sentences in a note
  • Layer 3 — highlighting the most important sentences that you boldfaced
  • Layer 4 — summarizing the note in your own words — a sentence, paragraph, or diagram
  • Layer 5 — creating a blog post, tweet storm, video, podcast, or other expression based on what you learned during layers 1 to 4

The key is to leave the entire content of the note — all the information that you originally captured — intact. This preserves the context for whatever you boldface, highlight, and summarize. Without that context, your note can quickly become unintelligible. (That’s the problem with all those blog posts that claim to summarize entire books in one sentence each.)

Tiago makes the following suggestions for effective capturing:

  • Capture any information that resonates with you. Don’t worry about having a logical reason to capture it. If it strikes you as interesting or potentially useful, move the information into your notes app. Let intuition guide you.
  • Add other layers whenever the urge strikes. You don’t have to schedule this activity or work on more than one note at a time.
  • Move insights from images into text. It’s fine to capture a photo, infographic, or other visual. Just add a sentence or two about what it means and why it matters to you.
  • Separate capturing from the following phases. When capturing, don’t worry where to put the note or how to use it in the future. Make those decisions later. Don’t add friction to the capturing process.

By the way, you can write notes on paper. Ryan Holiday, for example, uses index cards. Just remember that you won’t get the key features of a notes app — instant digital capturing into a central database, cloud-based syncing, and availability on all your digital devices. These features make it easy to capture lots of information.

2 Organizing

There’s a perennial cry for help: “I just need to get organized!” But putting things away in neat silos and making everything look all nice and clean is not always the same as being organized.

The essence of organization is consistently achieving the outcomes you want. Your office or notes collection be organized in this larger sense — even if it looks chaotic to a casual observer.

Tiago suggests that you organize notes based on how likely you are to use them. His mantra is organize for “actionability” rather than meaning. There’s a continuum here:

  • Project-related notes are most actionable. These include tasks that you plan to complete and any information that’s directly related to those tasks.
  • Notes about areas of responsibility come next. If you’re self-employed, for example, your areas include pitching projects to clients, writing proposals, and billing clients when projects are done.
  • Resource notes include selected passages or complete contents of articles and books on any topic of special interest to you. These are notes that might be useful in the future — even if they’re not related to your current projects.
  • Archives get the least follow-up. This is the place to store notes related to completed projects and other past activities.

Tiago’s acronym for this organizing scheme is PARA — short for Projects-Areas-Resources-Archives. (See his post about it.) Throwing a note into one of these four categories is much easier than trying to set up an elaborate filing system.

Tiago also advocates “just in time” organization. You don’t have to do a lot of progressive summarizing or organizing up front. Save these activities for the times when you’re executing — working on a project, making a decision, solving a problem, or creating something.

3 Retrieving

Tiago teaches a set of workflow strategies for retrieving and using notes. During the podcast he explained one — the “archipelago of islands.”

Start with the definition of archipelago — “a group of many islands in a large body of water.” Then think of each note that you take as an “island,” or individual idea, in the “sea” of your collected notes. To complete a writing project, create “bridges” (connections) between islands.

In practical terms, this means never facing a blank page. In fact, don’t even try to pound out a first draft. Just throw a bunch of relevant notes into a blank document and experiment with them. Delete some. Then rearrange and reword what remains and give the piece a title. Look for connections between note-islands and explain how they are related.

Tiago says that he can compile the gist of 100 to 200 sources — progressively summarized — in one hour. And by inter-weaving just 10 to 15 of these, he can write a hefty blog post. (For another version of this strategy, see Steven Berlin Johnson’s article about creating a “spark file.”)

This is just one gem from Tiago’s sea of published content. He’s got a blog about personal knowledge management. And you can learn more about the Building a Second Brain course here.

Do you want to write a book that will help people create positive new outcomes in their lives? I can help you produce a finished manuscript that’s grounded in principles of adult learning and behavior change.

For more information, email me at doug.toft@gmail.com