Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

Building a Second Brain summary

Self-expression is a fundamental human need. Yet most people are unable to join the creator economy because their minds and computer files are too disorganized. Building a Second Brain is a methodology for systematically saving ideas, insights, inspirations, and connections, so you can  begin sharing your creative gifts, positively impacting lives.

Building a Second Brain notes & quotes

Here are my notes and quotes on Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.

Chapter 1: Where it All Started

  • “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” — David Allen, author of Getting Things Done
  • By taking charge of my medical illness, I discovered two things: The power of writing things down and sharing.

Chapter 2: What is a Second Brain?

  • “Information is the fundamental building block of everything you do.”
  • Professional success and quality of life are determined by your ability to manage information effectively.
  • Instead of helping us, information often overwhelms us leaving us with poverty of attention.
  • Every minute spent juggling everything we have to do means less time for meaningful activities like cooking, self-care, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones.
  • Digital tools allow us to extend our thinking beyond our skulls into a Second Brain.
  • A note is a “knowledge building block”—a discrete unit of information kept outside your head.
  • A Second Brain acts like a mirror, "teaching you about yourself reflecting back to you the ideas worth keeping an acting on.”
  • Seeing the knowledge you've gained intangible form, you recognize that you already have everything you need to create the future you want.
  • When your brain is no longer the bottleneck of your potential, you have the mental bandwidth to pursue any endeavor successfully.

Chapter 3: How a Second Brain Works

  • “Think of your Second Brain as the world’s best personal assistant.”
  • “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections.”
  • A notetaking app is the neural center of your second brain.
  • “It's not about having the perfect tools—it's about having a reliable set of tools you can depend on, knowing you can always change them later.”
  • Three stages of personal knowledge management: 1) Memory aid 2) Connect ideas (from memory tool to thinking tool) 3) Creating new things.
  • Four steps to remembering what matters: “CODE”—Capture, Organize, Distill, Express.
  • “CODE is a map for navigating the endless stream of information….”
  • Organizing for action is the best way to organize your notes.
  • Once you begin capturing notes and organizing them for action, patterns and connections will emerge.
  • Ask yourself, “How can I make this note as useful as possible for my future self?”
  • “Information becomes knowledge—personal, embodied, verified—only when we put it to use. You gain confidence in what you know only when it works. Until you do, it's just a theory.”
  • “That's why I recommend you shift as much of your time and effort as possible from consuming to creating.”
  • Creating new things is one of the most deeply fulfilling things we can do while positively impacting others—inspiring, entertaining, or educating them.

Chapter 4: Capture—Keep What Resonates

  • A Second Brain lets us filter incoming information and keep only the best ideas in a private, trusted place.
  • “Creativity depends on a creative process.”
  • The biggest pitfall is collecting too much information—be picky about what you allow into your collection.
  • Collect no more than 10% of the original information.
  • Criteria for capturing notes:
  • Does it inspire me?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it personal?
  • Is it surprising?
  • “The secret to making reading a habit is to make it effortless and enjoyable.”
  • “Our intuitive mind learns, and responds, even without our conscious awareness.” — Stephen Wendel
  • “I can't think of anything more important for your creative life—and your life in general—than learning to listen to the voice of intuition inside.”
  • Remember to capture critical information about the source of a note, such as a webpage, the title of a piece, the author or publisher, and the date it was published.
  • The “generation effect” means we are more likely to remember the information we put into our own words.

Chapter 5: Organize—Save for Actionability

  • “Be regular and orderly your life so that you may be violent in original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert
  • “Capturing notes without an effective way to organize and retrieve them only leads to more overwhelm.”
  • Solution: Projects, Areas, Resources, Archive (PARA)
  • “These four categories are universal, encompassing any kind of information, from any source, in any format, for any purpose.”
  • PARA organizes information based on how actionable it is, not what kind of information it is. The project becomes the central unit of organization or your digital files.
  • Order is inherently satisfying.
  • The intention is not to use a single software but rather a single organizing system.
  • “By structure in your notes files around Leeshan of your active projects, your knowledge can go to work for you, instead of collecting dust like an ‘idea graveyard.’”
  • 1. Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you're working on now. Projects could be work, personal, or side.
  • 2. Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time. These could be activities or places like home, cooking, travel, or car; People like friends, kids, spouse, pets; Standards of performance like health, personal growth, or finances.
  • 3. Resources: topics or interests that may be useful in the future. Any note or file not relevant to a current project or area can be moved to resources for future reference.
  • 4. Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories. Any item from the previous three categories that is no longer active.
  • The number of active projects ranges from five to fifteen for the average person.
  • Organizing by actionability counteracts procrastination and postponing our aspirations to some far-off future.
  • “PARA isn’t a filing system; it’s a production system.”
  • “The true test of whether a piece of knowledge is valuable is not whether it is perfectly organized and neatly labeled, but whether it can have an impact on someone or something that matters to you.”

Chapter 6: Distill—Find the Essence

  • As a notetaker, your job is to ensure that the notes you take survive the journey into the future. Discoverability ensures notes make it into your future projects.
  • Distillation is at the heart of effective communication.
  • Distill your notes through “progressive summarization”: Highlight the main points of a note, highlight the main points of those highlights, and so on.
  • Most common notetaking mistakes:
  • #1 Over-highlighting. “If you’re going to capture everything, you may as well capture nothing.” Capture no more than 10-20% of the previous layer.
  • #2 Highlighting without a purpose in mind. Every time you touch a note, make it a little more discoverable by your future self by adding a highlight, a heading, bullets, or commentary.
  • #3 Making highlighting difficult

Chapter 7: Express—Show Your Work

  • “If there is a secret to creativity, it is that it emerges from everyday efforts to gather and organize our influences.”
  • “The final stage of the creative process, Express, is about refusing to wait until you have everything perfectly ready before you share what you know. It is about expressing your ideas earlier, more frequently, and in smaller chunks to test what works and gather feedback from others.”
  • Retrieval methods: #1 Search #2 Browsing #3 Tags #4 Serendipity
  • The turning point for the creative professional is seeing “your work” as something separate from yourself.
  • Expressing your ideas and turning your knowledge into action is when life begins to change.
  • “Start with the smallest project you can think of to begin to prove to yourself that your ideas can make a difference.”

Chapter 8: The Art of Creative Execution

  • Creative output starts with divergence or expanding broadly to capture as many ideas as possible and then convergence to narrow your ideas down to their essence so you can progress forward.
  • Divergence encompasses capturing and organizing ideas, and Convergence includes distilling and expressing ideas.
  • Creatives often get stuck at divergence. Convergence helps narrow your focus so you can move forward.
  • “The more imaginative and curious you are, the more diverse your interests, and a higher standards and commitment to perfection,” the harder it is to switch from divergence to convergence, from capturing to expressing.
  • The brain has the most difficulty performing two activities simultaneously: choosing ideas (selection, divergent) and arranging them into a logical flow (sequencing, convergent).
  • “Hemingway Bridge”: Ending a writing session only when you know what comes next in the story, articles, or essay.
  • “Waiting until you have everything ready before getting started is like sitting in your car and waiting to leave your driveway until all the traffic lights across town or green at the same time.”
  • “And sharing before I feel ready has completely altered the trajectory of my career.”
  • “Whatever you are building, there is a smaller, simpler version of it that will deliver much of the value in a fraction of the time.” It’s called Dialing Down the Scope

Chapter 9: The Essential Habits of Digital Organizers

  • “Being organized is a habit—a repeated set of actions you take as you encounter, work with, and put information to use.”
  • “The fundamental tension—between quality and quantity—is a tension we share as knowledge workers. We also must produce work to an extremely high standard, and we must do it fast, continuously, all year long.”
  • Treat your attention as an asset that produces a return, which can be reinvested into other ventures ensuring your knowledge grows and compounds over time.
  • “I keep all my goals in a single digital note, sorted from short-term goals for the next year to long-term goals for years to come.”
  • Weekly Review Checklist:
  • 1. Clear my email inbox.
  • 2. Check my calendar.
  • 3. Clear my computer desktop.
  • 4. Clear my notes inbox.
  • 5. Choose my tasks for the week.
  • Monthly Review Checklist:
  • 1. Review and update my goals. What worked/didn’t work?
  • 2. Review and update my project list.
  • 3. Review my areas of responsibility.
  • 4. Review someday/maybe tasks.
  • 5. Reprioritize tasks.
  • The best way to build a personal knowledge management system is a little at a time in the in-between moments of moving your projects forward as you notice small opportunities for improvement.

Chapter 10: The Path of Self-Expression

  • “Our knowledge is now our most important asset and the ability to deploy our attention our most valuable skill.”
  • “I’ve noticed that it is never a person’s toolset that constrains their potential, it's their mindset.”
  • Fear drives our perception that information is scarce and should be hoarded and jealously guarded.
  • “The paradox of hoarding is that no matter how much we collect and accumulate, it's never enough.”
  • “The purpose of knowledge is to be shared.”
  • “Self-expression is a fundamental human need.”
  • “The world is desperate to hear what you know. You can change lives by sharing yourself with others.”
  • “Finding your voice and speaking your truth is a radical act of self-worth.”
  • “If I could leave you with one last bit of advice, it is to chase what excites you. Run after your obsessions with everything you have.”

Related Resources

  • Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in Building a Second Brain, which might be helpful for further learning.


  • David Allen
  • Herbert Simon
  • Craig Mod
  • James Watson
  • Francis Crick
  • Rosalind Franklin
  • Maurice Wilkins
  • Linus Pauling
  • Deborah Chambers
  • Daniel Reisberg
  • Nancy C. Andreasen
  • Sebastian Junger
  • May-Britt Moser & Edvard Moser
  • Richard Feynman
  • Claude Shannon
  • George Lucas
  • Ken Burns
  • Adam Savage
  • Stephen Johnson (Archipelago of Ideas)
  • Earnest Hemingway
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Stephen Covey

Books, Publications, and Ideas

  • Getting Things Done by David Allen
  • The Case for Books by Robert Darnton
  • The Extended Mind by Anne Murphy Paul
  • Recency bias
  • Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld
  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
  • Designing for Behavior Change by Stephen Wendel
  • Generation effect
  • The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
  • Cathedra Effect
  • Francis Coppola’s Notebook
  • A New Method of Making Common-Place Books by John Locke
  • How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens
  • The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi
  • Write of Passage by David Perrell