The Second Brain - My life-changing companion

This is the beginning of a bigger series on which I want to introduce some ideas about my new life companion. For me, this concept was pivotal in how I want to live. It helped me become clearer on what I want and focus on my priorities. I use it to offload information to have more capacities for being present-focused. Finally, I became fully digital.

I struggled quite a bit on finding a proper word because it touches so many aspects. It is related to productivity, self-improvement, and knowledge management. In the end, I think that the term second brain, made famous by Tiago Forte, is maybe a good superordinate for what it tries to achieve. In fact, I was hugely inspired by him and adopted a lot of his ideas. He describes the second-brain as a knowledge management system. Once I got into this area, I discovered a lot of other content related to productivity and self-improvement. I took what seems useful to me, and I am still exploring.

Who might find it interesting

I think that the ideas especially speak to life-long learners, long-term thinkers, and those who actively seek to improve themselves. It is also helpful for those who would like to bring a bit more structure in their self-organization.

I fully acknowledge that it might not fit everyone, but if you are a bit excited by now, I think that you might find something useful. This post might feel a bit overwhelming by trying to give an encompassing vision, but I will split up the upcoming posts thematically.

When I started, I really just wanted to find a system to organize myself better. But I quickly started enjoying the process of tweaking my workflow and learning more about it. While it also helped me become more productive, the most meaningful benefit for me is what I found (and still find) out about myself during the journey.

If you are still with me, let’s get started.

Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own – Bruce Lee

The goals

Time is too short

I think that many of us have the same problem as I had. We haven’t got enough time! There are simply too many things we would like to do. As a consequence, we tend to overload ourselves trying to keep up with our thirsty curiosity. Life is a rush; while doing one thing, we are already thinking about what is upcoming. At some point, we might feel overwhelmed and stressed out. We hassle each day, and at the end of the day, we still might feel frustrated about not having achieved everything we aimed for.

Then I realized that time-management is solely about priorities. Time is limited, and it is more helpful to accept that than somehow trying to stretch it (which won’t work 😉).

Secondly, I gained another perspective on being busy.

Being busy means I’m out of control – Derek Sivers

When I constantly feel busy, it is probably time to reexamine my system and rules. That is not to say that I want to be lazier, but that I want to be more focused and thoughtful about my actions. As part of this system, I want to become more aware of my time management.

Getting things done

This is the productivity part of the whole companion. We all know it from very vividly from New Year’s resolutions: it’s easy to make plans but it’s hard to execute them. Often, we either don’t find the time or feel paralyzed about how to get started.

In this problems pursuit, I adopted some habits to help me get my prioritized work done. I had been using a calendar and to-do-list before, but Tiago Forte’s Weekly Review and ideas from David Allen’s GTD brought my organization to another level. They help me to get my priorities straight and truncate my work into actionable items. I will cover the techniques in later posts, so stay tuned!

Mental focus and presence

While working out future plans and goals helps guide actions, this should ultimately serve to become more present. By storing thoughts and relevant information in a central place, you no longer need to worry about them. Who doesn’t know it? It’s so easy to get distracted during work, because different ideas and responsibilities pop up. Stopping this completely might seem unfeasible, but every written down item is one less to worry about.

This mental offloading of information also helps to calm my mind and be more present. I find this not only beneficial for focused working but also to be happier. And of course, people around you highly appreciate the presence of mind! It goes without saying that changing this behavior takes time and effort, but I think it is worthwhile to strive for.

Sustainable Knowledge collection

This point tries to address two problems I realized. First, I was unhappy with how much I forget about the content I consume: be it books, articles, videos. As an enthusiastic language learner, I’m highly convinced of spaced-repetition, so I thought that I could also more generally apply this technique. The first step for me was to make the content retrievable. From past experience, I found general notetaking on specific content not sustainable for long-term storage (I tended to never look it up again).

Moreover, I wanted to build up a reference system for interesting source to check later. Not everything we consume or find is relevant at the moment, but it would be valuable to be able to pick up the content once it is needed. At the same time, the system needs to be powerful enough to actually find the information you need; storing is not enough ;) For this, I found the PARA file hierarchy very helpful. Moreover, I extended my workflow with tools for processing all kinds of information: be it academic, documents, media content, thoughts. I also changed my way of how and what I consume.

My positive side-effects

During my journey on finding a system that works for me, I also found out a lot about myself. I realized how good writing is to process my thoughts. I don’t fancy writing poetic texts, but I find it highly practical to communicate ideas concisely.

As I started to take notes, I also noticed how it precipitated an avalanche of new thoughts and ideas. On a podcast episode, I also found that other people seem to experience the same. Maybe you find this neat too?

Finally, I became more self-reflective not only about my planning but also on how I do things. Again, I don’t want to go into details, but you will find posts about this later if you are interested.

Final words

I admit that all of this might sound a bit lofty. There are simply too many self-proclaimed productivity and self-improvement books, who promise to change your life (and I assertively object such claims!). Many ideas sound nice but remain abstract, don’t get applied and are consequently forgotten.

I think that Derek Sivers put it very nicely:

You may hear something or see something that gives you a new idea. But it’s only when you stop and think of your work through this new perspective, that you actually jump up and go turn the idea into reality. That’s the real inspiration that everyone is looking for. – Derek Sivers

In the upcoming posts, I want to give some practical insights on how I applied these techniques to my life. But to get something useful from it, you will have to apply it to your life!

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