Guidelines for composing a second brain…and a few surprising recommendations

Productivity hackers like to write recommendations for building a “second brain,” typically revolving around a note-taking system.

The rationale behind these suggestions is sound–especially in our hectic modern world, it is immensely helpful to offload the heavy responsibility of keeping track of important things amidst a sea of information overload. Think how badly you’d feel if you, say, missed a deadline because it “slipped your mind.” A System of Record with a way to flag reminders is clearly a better option than trying to be a mental Sisyphus. Though, with recent advances in conversational AI, the conversation is morphing.

Will AI take the mantle of the “second brain”? For the moment, I don’t think so. Techies love to try out new tools, and this will certainly continue, but right now anything that talks about AI up front is some combination of untested, unwieldy, impractical, and/or expensive.

Productivity hackers hate this…

For that matter, probably 99% of the time that productivity fanatics spend organizing their notes, folder structures, keywords, tags, and so on, is frankly wasted time that could’ve been spent on doing some actual work. [Ouch! I feel personally attacked, and I wrote that sentence! -ed] The same goes for choosing a platform. OneNote, Evernote, Roam, TheBrain, Obsidian, Notion, NOTEPAD.EXE, or a Dropbox of txt files all cover the basics pretty well, albeit with a huge variety of bells and whistles. But the decision ultimately comes down to personal preference. If your current system isn’t meeting your needs, then it behooves you to try something different. Just don’t get caught in the game of follow-the-shiny-object. It’s easy for this to become something that feels a lot like actual work.

If your second brain platform offers AI features, possibly via plugin, it is best to view them as tools. Some tools are quite useful, and if a tool suits your need, then use it! That said, and running jokes aside, tools are not your life, and they should be put away when not in use.

One weird trick?

There is one key aspect of a second brain you should pay attention to: does it encourage you to periodically review your notes? The review is where all the good stuff happens, cognitively speaking.

This is where you make connections and associations between different topics or ideas that might have seemed unrelated. Folks who make brilliant Eureka! discoveries generally don’t do so in a vacuum. Feeding your mind from diverse fields–and letting those neural hyperlinks marinate nicely–builds momentum over time until you’ll be having more breakthrough moments and flashes of insight. (Which leads to capturing even more things in your second brain, creating a virtuous cycle.)

In fact, if you had to evaluate your second brain system on a single metric, it would be based on the amount of thoughtful review that actually gets done.

Accordingly, there are a bunch of second-order effects to think about. For example, in order to have a review, there needs to be stuff in the system, so it should be as low-friction as possible to add a note, or import it from somewhere else (like your current browser page, or eReader highlights & notes). Retrieval, possibly even more so, needs to be low-friction. If these conditions don’t hold, you may be in a position where it is a good investment to poke at your second brain system to see what can be optimized.

AI technology is progressing rapidly. David Shapiro recently unveiled an ACE framework underpinning an Autonomous Cognitive Entity. Progress on these kinds of Agents is moving along quickly, and it won’t be long until something truly like an Administrative Assistant is widely available to anyone.

Even if this comes to pass, I would still hesitate to totally outsource my second brain to such a system. It will probably be a better system to have a shared System of Record, much like what I’ve outlined above. The interactions and overlaps between Agents and a second brain will have to wait for a future article, though.

Now, go do something productive!

This post 100% human-written.