I recently finished reading Building a Second Brain, and something about note taking and distilling information that I haven’t thought of before clicked. I wanted to write this post to articulate my thoughts on the matter with a more organized approach and to create a checkpoint to see if it is still the case in the future.
How I take notes in the past
I’ve been taking notes digitally for some time now. I never quite liked to write using pen and paper. Probably due to my left handedness and most of the notebooks I’ve used when I was student was made for right handed people. You never notice these kind of things when you are little, but here we are. In university, I sort of have a system and worked for some time, but I could never find a way to repurpose my notes and use it later for something else. Reusability of the information was important for me because the stuff we’ve been learning in computer science are building blocks that can be utilized in a very different manner, depending the problem you are trying to solve. At least, it is how I see and understand the realm of CS. Based on these unsuccessful attempts, I tried something different during my masters and used ipad as my main note taking tool with the apple pencil. It was a good option for the courses I was taking, but it was not scalable in the end. I tried taking notes in Latex for some of my classes (and got really good at writing equations in normal typing speed, a skill which is forgetten and no longer necessary). But in the end, writing in latex format and building the whole document on every change was too much of a hassle. So after graduation when I was thinkering with my notes and trying out new things, I converted all my notes to Markdown and started to use Obsidian as my main note taking application.
This application has a realm of its own. It is pretty simple but can be quite extensive with the rich plugin ecosystem it offers. Plugins are created out of someone’s need for a solution for a typical problem, so it is quite easy to come with your own set of plugins for your writing setup. I’ve changed a lot things over the years with mine, tried a lot of different plugins and updated my note taking setup quite a bit. Right now, even though it seems that I have too many plugins installed in my Obsidian, each one of them serves a specific purpose and the actual workflow is quite minimal. I am even back to the default theme, which was a quite time waster for me since I cared too much about how the application looks in the beginning rather than using it to create something.
Building a second Brain
I’ve read this book recently and I really liked the ideas about organizing and creating new insights from the information you gather in your own knowledge system. The first thing you notice is that it doesn’t direct you towards a particular tool or an app. So you don’t have to chase the next cool and shiny app with all the features you want in the palm of your hands. It divides the process of capturing information and gives a way to organize all of this information according to your needs and priorities. It uses acronyms to convey that ideas so the acronym for processing the knowledge is CODE and organizing your system is PARA.
CODE is acronym for capture, organize, distill and express. Author reduces all the steps for processing knowledge into these 4 steps. Capturing involves just getting the knowledge into some concrete medium. Any tool is a fair game. You can use your favorite note taking app or just use some sticky note and put it at the edge of your monitor. What is essential is the filter, or the threshold you apply before capturing it. Capturing anything makes the process quite boring and repetative after some time. So you don’t have to feel “fear of missing out” for not capturing the thing you come accross. If it is something important, it will come up again. And you should always try to capture what moves or excites you. Following your gut is a good indicator to identify what resonates with you. Capturing shouldn’t be a chore. It should be an extension of your daily life.
Organizing information is the second part of the process. Once captured, eventually all the links, notes, pictures, articles that you saved in your read it later app be organized and be put in their respective place. P.A.R.A section explains these areas in more detail. The main idea of this step is to save everything according to their actionability. If it is not actionable, it can stay in your archive for later use. If you are storing your notes in a digital space, storage is essentially limitless so you don’t have to think about deleting it.
Distilling the organized information is very important to create insight and make the information be compatible with your current knowledge system. One of the methods that is introduced in this stage is progressive summarization. The idea is that almost all of the note taking methodologies recommend taking notes in your own words to understand the information. That is a correct approach. But sometimes, it is difficult to express the entire article you just read with your own words. By making passes on the content, and at each pass distilling information further, reducing the ideas to its core more and more, helps you to further process the information and make it easier to get up to speed later on when you need to reference that information again.
Finally, express. It is creating new insights and ideas from the information you gathered. It can be anything. There is no specific definition. The core advice is to try to apply the knowledge into your own life so that all this effort that you are putting in is towards something meaningful and useful in your life. Of course you can just collect information. No one is stopping you. But why?
PARA represents the projects, areas, resources and archives. It is way to organize your knowledge system. It divides whatever storage solution you have into 4 categories according to their actionability.
Projects are your current focus. Things you are mainly working on. These could be related to your work or your personal life. Main characteristics of projects are that they have some kind of deadline and they should contribute towards your goals. One of the ideas from the book that explains the connection between projects and goals explains that goals should be connected to projects because a goal without a project is a dream and a project without any particular goal is just a hobby. Of course you can, and should have dreams and hobbies of your own. But it is better to know the distinction to save your time and effort on certain things.
Areas are the higher level of projects. They are the things that you care about and you want to maintain a certain standard for them. It could be about your job, your responsibilities at home and work. It could be hobbies and things you are actively interested in and want to learn more about. They don’t have a specific deadline but you are keeping an eye on these topics in your life.
Resources can be anything that might be useful in the future. it can contain your past areas, certain kind of documents and notes for reference. It is the least actionable part of your knowledge system.
Archives is for the stuff that you don’t need at the moment. But you are keeping it here for easy access later on. Its main responsibility is to store all of the unnecessary stuff so that the other 3 areas are kept clean.
Workflow and Pros and Cons
I have an Obsidian vault with almost 3000 notes at the moment. Some of them
are related to my work, some of them are just daily writing for journalling and
remaining notes are anything related to my coding projects, writing, and other
stuff. Trying the C.O.D.E. process for capturing notes is easy and didn’t affect my
vault at all. I also wanted to try the P.A.R.A. organization so I’ve followed the
advice from the book. Created the projects folder. Put my active projects in there.
Created the remaining folders and put almost everything to archives. One of the highlights and the ideas from the book that I really liked is that you don’t need to spend extra time for organizing your notes. It can stay messy as long as it needs to be. Because organizing all of the notes and putting them to their correct place won’t help you tiny bit. It is a sort of premature optimization. Something you definitely not need. So, for pros, since I also organized everything, not just my obsidian vault according to this hierarchy of actionability, I sort of know where to look if I need to find something. To some degree it removed the initial layer of chaos in my digital space. The thing that will certainly create a friction for me is to keeping the folder names in sync across every storage you keep. That means your computer, your cloud storage and your notes. It is a con but I am
thinking of writing a CLI application that will handle that for me. A way to create and sync folders in multiple locations to utilize this approach better. So the con may become a new side project in the future, which is nice.
Building a Second Brain is an interesting take towards productivity and most importantly it acknowledges that its target audience is not the majority. For me, it was a quite enjoyable read. It contains a lot of actionable ideas and it might be a fun experiment that you can try. I will incorporate some of the ideas into my vault and my workflow to write more and see how it will affect my process. You can read the original para article for more information.