20 Quotes from Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

Tiago Forte’s book, Building a Second Brain gives a helpful organizational method for organizing notes and other bits of information that we save throughout the day.

Three Takeaways:

  1. The emphasis of thinking for your future self is particularly helpful. Too often I, thinking about the now and not, how will I use this in the future?”
  2. Organize your notes according to action (projects), not categories. Currently, I use tags (fairly unorganized) for my notes about certain topics such as leadership, productivity, parenting, etc. Organizing for action does seem to be a more helpful approach and one I am going to implement. His PARA system (Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives) seems to be a helpful categorization method.
  3. The last quote in the list below about a perfect system is not one that has to be perfect is a good reminder. If it has to be perfect then maintenance will cause it to be unusable in the long run.


20 Quotes From Building a Second Brain

  1. We spend countless hours reading, listening to, and watching other people’s opinions about what we should do, how we should think, and how we should live, but make comparatively little effort applying that knowledge and making it our own. So much of the time we are information hoarders,” stockpiling endless amounts of well-intentioned content that only ends up increasing our anxiety (1).
  2. To be able to make use of information we value, we need a way to package it up and send it through time to our future self (2).
  3. This digital commonplace book is what I call a Second Brain. Think of it as the combination of a study notebook, a personal journal, and a sketchbook for new ideas (21).
  4. Your brain is no longer the bottleneck on your potential, which means you have all the bandwidth you need to pursue any endeavor and make it successful. This sense of confidence in the quality of your thinking gives you the freedom to ask deeper questions and the courage to pursue bigger challenges. You can’t fail, because failure is just more information, to be captured and used as fuel for your journey (29).
  5. There are four essential capabilities that we can rely on a Second Brain to perform for us (34):
    1. Making our ideas concrete.
    2. Revealing new associations between ideas.
    3. Incubating our ideas over time.
    4. Sharpening our unique perspectives.
  6. The Four Steps to Remembering What Matters To guide you in the process of creating your own Second Brain, I’ve developed a simple, intuitive four-part method called CODE”— Capture; Organize; Distill; Express (42).
  7. The best way to organize your notes is to organize for action, according to the active projects you are working on right now. Consider new information in terms of its utility, asking, How is this going to help me move forward one of my current projects (46)?”
  8. There is a powerful way to facilitate and speed up this process of rapid association: distill your notes down to their essence. Every idea has an essence”: the heart and soul of what it is trying to communicate. It might take hundreds of pages and thousands of words to fully explain a complex insight, but there is always a way to convey the core message in just a sentence or two (47).
  9. Every time you take a note, ask yourself, How can I make this as useful as possible for my future self?” That question will lead you to annotate the words and phrases that explain why you saved a note, what you were thinking, and what exactly caught your attention. Your notes will be useless if you can’t decipher them in the future, or if they’re so long that you don’t even try. Think of yourself not just as a taker of notes, but as a giver of notes—you are giving your future self the gift of knowledge that is easy to find and understand (47).


  1. This is why it’s so important to take on a Curator’s Perspective—that we are the judges, editors, and interpreters of the information we choose to let into our lives. Thinking like a curator means taking charge of your own information stream, instead of just letting it wash over you. The more economical you can be with the material you capture in the first place, the less time and effort your future self will have to spend organizing, distilling, and expressing it (67).
  2. The moment you first encounter an idea is the worst time to decide what it means. You need to set it aside and gain some objectivity (78).
  3. Over time, I refined, simplified, and tested this action-based approach with thousands of students and followers. I eventually named this organizing system PARA,I which stands for the four main categories of information in our lives: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives…With the PARA system, every piece of information you want to save can be placed into one of just four categories (87):
    1. Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you’re working on now.
    2. Areas: Long-term responsibilities you want to manage over time.
    3. Resources: Topics or interests that may be useful in the future.
    4. Archives: Inactive items from the other three categories.
  4. it’s time to organize them, PARA comes into play. The four main categories are ordered by actionability to make the decision of where to put notes as easy as possible: Projects are most actionable because you’re working on them right now and with a concrete deadline in mind. Areas have a longer time horizon and are less immediately actionable. Resources may become actionable depending on the situation. Archives remain inactive unless they are needed (102).
  5. Instead of organizing ideas according to where they come from, I recommend organizing them according to where they are going—specifically, the outcomes that they can help you realize. 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 (104).
  6. There is one more layer we can add, though it is quite rarely needed. For only the very few sources that are truly unique and valuable, I’ll add an executive summary” at the top of the note with a few bullet points summarizing the article in my own words. The best sign that a fourth layer is needed is when I find myself visiting a note again and again, clearly indicating that it is one of the cornerstones of my thinking (124).
  7. …cite all your sources and influences, even if you don’t strictly have to. Giving credit where credit is due doesn’t lessen the value of your contribution—it increases it. Having a Second Brain where all your sources are clearly documented will make it much easier to track them down and include those citations in the finished version (169).
  8. Building a Second Brain is really about standardizing the way we work, because we only really improve when we standardize the way we do something (177).
  9. Being organized is a habit—a repeated set of actions you take as you encounter, work with, and put information to use (198).
  10. When you make your digital notes a working environment, not just a storage environment, you end up spending a lot more time there. When you spend more time there, you’ll inevitably notice many more small opportunities for change than you expect (220).
  11. The truth is, any system that must be perfect to be reliable is deeply flawed. A perfect system you don’t use because it’s too complicated and error prone isn’t a perfect system—it’s a fragile system that will fall apart as soon as you turn your attention elsewhere. We have to remember that we are not building an encyclopedia of immaculately organized knowledge. We are building a working system (221).


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January 17, 2023