What is a “Second Brain”? (And Why You Need One!)

A second brain. It’s an intriguing concept, isn’t it?

After all, who wouldn’t leap at the chance to increase their brain capacity?

The idea is gaining momentum and will only become more mainstream.

More importantly though, if you want to fully leverage your know-how, a so-called “second brain” is a powerful tool.

But what exactly is it, why would you need such a thing, and how do you actually build one?

Let’s find out.

What is a Second Brain?

“Second brain” is a term coined by Tiago Forte, the productivity and knowledge management expert who runs Forte Labs.

Essentially, it’s a place to capture your knowledge, ideas and insights, and the connections between them.

The simplest way to think about it is as a collection of interconnected notes. Each individual note can be very simple – perhaps just a single idea captured in a sentence or two.

The simplest way to think about a second brain is as a collection of interconnected notes.

If that sounds too simple to be useful, the power comes as your “brain” grows and you start to create new connections. The more notes you create, the more connections become possible and the more useful your second brain becomes. It’s an organic, evolving resource that gains heft and momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.

If the benefit isn’t yet clear, let’s look at an analogy that should shed some light.

Analogy: LinkedIn is a Second Brain for Professional Connections

Let’s say you have 100 people in your professional network on LinkedIn. When you add someone new you create the potential for 100 new connections. But when your network hits 500 people, the next new person creates the possibility of 500 new connections.

In other words, the network becomes increasingly more valuable as it grows. And instead of trying to keep all of your professional contacts and the links between them in your head, LinkedIn maintains it for you.

It’s not a passive system though. You need to put effort in to get value out. That means actively creating connections to new people, having conversations, and adding content that other people in the network can see.

Hundreds of millions of people use LinkedIn on a regular basis, so they must see the value in making their professional network more visible and accessible.

And what LinkedIn does for professional connections, a second brain does for knowledge – of all types.

What LinkedIn does for professional connections, a second brain does for knowledge – of all types.

Why You Need a Second Brain

So why does this matter? How does a second brain benefit your business?

Well, just as you can use your LinkedIn network to discover new opportunities for connections and collaborations, you can use your second brain to discover new opportunities for creating valuable knowledge assets.

That’s because the process of building a second brain brings your passive knowledge to the surface. The process of making your ideas and their relationships more explicit makes it much easier to harness the power of all that knowledge.

For example, if you were thinking of creating an online course on a particular topic, building a second brain that captures your knowledge and ideas around that topic would be a tremendously valuable early step.

The Powerful Benefits of Building a Second Brain

  • It gives you a simple way to capture your ideas long before you know how those ideas will be useful.
  • It gives you a platform for exploring, developing and refining your own knowledge.
  • It improves your understanding, retention and recall when learning new topics – summarising what you’ve learned for storage in your second brain encourages you to process the knowledge more deeply first.
  • It regularly reminds you of the scope of your knowledge, reinforcing what you know and defending against the all-too-common enemy “imposter syndrome”.
  • It gives you a valuable resource for generating ideas for knowledge assets to create – blog posts, ebooks and even online courses.

How to Build a Second Brain

So you’re convinced (or at least curious) about building a second brain. But how do you go about doing it?

Well, you’ll need some kind of tool for capturing, maintaining and exploring your growing network of knowledge. Some options are quite sophisticated while others are much more basic.

In fact, one of the earliest implementations of the second brain is the Zettelkasten (German for “slip-box” – as in slips of paper). It’s simply a collection of note cards, each with a unique reference that allows it to be referenced from other cards.

I don’t suggest you go the 100% paper route, but whatever tool you use there are two basic requirements:

  1. The tool should make it easy to capture and edit notes
  2. The tool should support creating connections between notes

Unsurprisingly these days there are several digital tools that make the job easier.

Digital Tools for Building Your Second Brain

You can now find several tools built specifically for this task, but some more general-purpose tools can work well too.

Here are three that are definitely worthy of your attention:

  • Roam Research – this is a 100% web-based tool that’s custom-made for building the kind of note-based repository a second brain relies upon. It’s not cheap ($15/month) and it’s been created by a relatively new company (albeit with some hefty financial backing) so you might reasonably have concerns about entrusting your personal data to a relative unknown, but its features are arguably the best out there at the moment. (Note: I tried Roam but was put off by the pricing and the slightly mysterious nature of the company itself but you should make your own decision.) 
  • Obsidian – this is a free tool which is being very actively developed. In many ways it’s a conscious alternative to Roam with a different philosophy but many similar features. It’s a desktop (not web-based) tool that works on a variety of platforms and stores all of its data locally so has far fewer privacy concerns. It’s more limited though if you want to access your “brain” via more than one device. (Note: This is the tool I’m currently using for my second brain.)
  • Notion – this is a more general purpose tool that’s gained some serious traction for all sorts of different uses but it’s also a pretty workable solution for building your second brain. In fact, Notion has recently introduced new features for that specific purpose. It has a web version plus great apps for mobile and desktop and the basic version is free. (Note: I use Notion heavily for day-to-day productivity, but I don’t use it as a second brain.)

You can certainly use other tools, like Evernote, for building a second brain, but the tools above are the best optimized for this purpose.

Tips for Building Your Second Brain

Whichever tool you choose the following principles will help you to create a second brain that becomes an increasingly valuable resource for your business:

  • Shorter is better – aim to build your second brain from lots of short notes instead of fewer, longer ones. The longer and more structured your notes are, the harder it is to make highly relevant connections because they bring so much extra “baggage” along with them.
  • Resist categorisation – instead of trying to classify your notes, let connections emerge naturally. A second brain isn’t meant to be neat and ordered because imposing categories assumes you know how that information might be used in future.
  • Banish perfectionism – capturing a new note is far more important than getting it perfect the first time. Think of this this way: notes are always works-in-progress. In fact, revisiting notes to enhance them, clarify them and simplify them is all part of improving your second brain.
  • Group related notes together  – while you shouldn’t try to add categorisation to individual notes, it can be useful to group related notes together using a separate organisational note. You can think of them as mini-tables of contents and you can create as many of these as are useful. For instance, I could group all of my notes relating to course creation together via a high-level “Course Creation” note that links to all of the others.

Effective knowledge management is a field all of its own and I’ve only scratched the surface here. But these basic principles should be enough to help you get started.

Have I Opened Your Mind to a Second Brain?

The idea of building a second brain may seem a little “out there”.

But in reality, the concept is not so far from another repository of interconnected knowledge you’re already comfortable with – the world wide web.

In fact, just imagine being able to “Google” your own brain to find answers and insights you didn’t know you had. Because that’s the potential here.

Tools now exist that make it much easier to capture, maintain and your unique knowledge, experience and understanding, so you can reuse it again and again.

Some people are already using them to gain a serious business advantage. The only question is, will you?

4 thoughts on “What is a “Second Brain”? (And Why You Need One!)”

  1. A brilliant piece, Glen. I have always built my initial course outlines using Post-It notes, stuck on the wall!

    I’ve also used Evernote for years to keep all my client meeting notes.

    I like the idea of the interconnectivity and will certainly give the ones you use a try.

    • Thanks Simon!

      I think there’s a simplicity to Post-It notes that just works for some tasks. I still sometimes use them myself for outlining courses.

      Where the second brain concept works really well is capturing and refining the underlying knowledge. So the “brain” represents your thinking about what you know, but the Post-Its might help you decide how to present that knowledge it in a particular situation like a course plan.

      The notes are a means to an end whereas the “brain” is a more permanent – though evolving – resource.

      Good luck trying the tools!

  2. Hey Glen, really interesting. Still sorting out my 1st but bookmarked this for when I’m ready for my 2nd. PS Your LinkedIn vid worked!

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