🧠The Beginners Guide to Building a Second Brain

🧠The Beginners Guide to Building a Second Brain
Photo by Milad Fakurian / Unsplash

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How many genius ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you failed to take action on? How much advice have you failed to implement as the years have passed?

Most of us constantly feel pressure to learn, improve, and progress. We spend hours a day reading, listening, and watching informational content.

But where is this information going? Is it there when we need it? Our first brain can only store a few thoughts at a time.

It's becoming increasingly clear in modern society that being effective requires understanding how to manage information. And there is more information than ever before. What can we do?

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is the art of capturing ideas and insights we encounter in our daily lives, whether from personal experience, books and articles, or from our work, and cultivating them over time to produce more creative, higher quality work. It allows us to expand our intellect and memory using the modern tools of technology and networks.

Today, workers have to handle many different forms of information like emails, text messages, online articles, books, podcasts, webinars, memos, etc.

Normally these things are in separate places on the internet. But by consolidating them into one area, we can develop a body of work to help us towards our goals; an ongoing record of lessons learned, personal discoveries, and actionable insights for any situation.

Ironically, we already do most of the work.

Over our lives we spend significant time creating notes, slide decks, web pages, diagrams, sketches, photos, outlines, videos, and more. Yet, without a PKM workflow to preserve these past works, they become siloed and scattered over hundreds of locations.

Our first brain can't handle this amount of information while still having the space to imagine, create, and be present.

Through PKM, we can build a "second brain"--an external, centralized, digital repository for the things we learn and the resources from which they come. Our second brain is an extension of our mind, protecting us from the ravages of forgetting and giving us the confidence to take on creative challenges.

How can you expect to change if you adopt PKM practices in your life?

The PKM transformation:

  1. Never start from scratch again as you repurpose old works for new projects creating a beautiful knowledge compounding effect.
  2. Unlock your inner creativity as your first brain finally has the mental bandwidth to come up with ideas
  3. Reduce stress and information overload by creating a system where things don't fall through the cracks
  4. Transcend job changes as you create a body of work that can flow between jobs
  5. Uncover surprising patterns and connections between ideas
  6. Craft luck by exposing your ideas to the internet meeting new people and opportunities you didn't even know existed

How do I know PKM leads to these transformations? Because it happened to me. I first came across PKM after taking Nat Eliason's course, Effortless Output with Roam Research. This intrigued me so much I dived into a PKM rabbit hole.

Then I found arguably the most influential PKMer in the community, Tiago Forte. I joined Cohort 14 of Tiago Forte's flagship PKM course, Building a Second Brain. I read Tiago Forte's seminal book Building a Second Brain. Then, I began exploring other PKM community members' workflows, systems, and attitudes.

Slowly but surely, I started to experience all the benefits I discussed above. You can too. I won't lie; it's not easy. I made tons of mistakes along the way. This article is a culmination of everything I wish I had known before starting my PKM journey. It's a broad outlook on the philosophies and steps to setting up your PKM system and workflow. I add links to outside resources and people you can follow to explore each idea more deeply.

This is the article I wish I had when I started my PKM journey. Let's take your journey together.

Setting up Your PKM System

🗒️Choose your Notetaking App

The first step of starting your PKM journey is choosing your notetaking app. This will be the main center of your "second brain."

Every notetaking app differs in its philosophies and processes and there are more coming out every year. I strongly recommend you check out Tiago Forte's series on how to find a notetaking app:

Pick a Notes App: Your Notetaking Style (Part 1)

It's essential you understand the notetaking app you choose matters less than you think it does. PKM is more about changing your relationship with information than the tools you use.

It's better to have a PKM process than no process. Don't let the friction of choosing a notetaking app stop you from starting.

If you want my notetaking app recommendation its Obsidian. It has one of the best communities out there, a great user interface, linked notetaking capabilities, and more!

Check out my Obsidian Beginner Resource List.

Save yourself countless hours of time and energy looking for the best Obsidian learning resources. It includes all of the resources I wish I had on Obsidian 3 years ago, including the best creators to follow, links to immerse yourself in the community, and my most popular curated content on Obsidian.

🔁The Core PKM Workflow

After choosing a notetaking app, you need a workflow, a repeatable process for collecting, organizing, and sharing ideas. Even the best techniques won't make a difference if you use them in conflicting ways.

There are many different PKM workflows, but the one I use and believe is most beginner friendly comes from Tiago Forte's course and book.

His process is nicely summarized as CODE, standing for Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express. This is the PKM lifecycle. You capture information, organize it, distill it into its most fundamental parts, and finally express it in some form to the outside world.

Let's look deeper at each part of the process.


The first step of CODE is to capture ideas you think are worth saving. Thoughts and ideas are transient. They will fall through the cracks if you don't capture the important ones. This means capturing must become a habit.

Make these questions a reflex:

  1. Does this information resonate with me on an intuitive level?
  2. Does this information reflect my values and curiosities in life?
  3. Does this information have future use?

The following guidelines will help you build a capture habit around only the most relevant and useful information:

📽️A) Adopt the Mindset of a Curator and Creator

Stop being a mindless consumer and adopt the mindset of a curator and creator—become opinionated, objective, and reflective.

Curators and creators understand information is like food. Similar to how consistently eating unhealthy processed food like pizza, ice cream, and french fries will make us feel terrible, consistently eating informational garbage will make our thoughts awful. Curators and creators know the quality of their expression depends on the quality of information they capture.

To ingrain their mindset, you should remodel your information diet by setting priorities, rules, and regulations for what you consume. Capture mostly what resonates and sparks joy while at the same time never flinching from contradictions. These are what foster change and make interesting insights.

Prioritize. I did this by defining my twelve favorite questions. I use these questions to guide my actions throughout life and as filters for what I capture into my second brain.

🎣B) Create a Capture Toolkit

Your capture toolkit is the specific apps you use for capturing to your second brain. I find choosing three main information mediums and sticking primarily to those is a good number.

The most common information mediums are ebooks, online articles, paper books, magazines or newspapers, and pdfs. I consume mostly ebooks, articles, and podcasts, so my capture toolkit mainly revolves around these mediums.

One app which I recommend everyone adds to their toolkit is Readwise. Readwise collects highlights and annotations from your mediums of consumption and sends them seamlessly to your notetaking app of choice. I can't describe how much easier this makes capturing information.

You can sign up for a full 60 days free of Readwise using my affiliate link.

➕C) Reduce and Add Friction to Capture.

To capture effectively, you have to reduce the friction of capturing quality information and add friction to capturing garbage. For ebooks, articles, and podcasts I make capture seamless by using Readwise. But for other informational mediums, I purposefully increase friction. For example, while using Twitter, I make copy and paste the only methods of capture.

This makes certain only the most actionable and valuable information enters your second brain. It also leaves more time for thinking, the main part of the PKM workflow where you come up with creative solutions to problems.


Once you start capturing valuable information into your second brain, you will have to organize it in some way. "Organization" often brings to mind an analytical way of thinking.

But analysis is time consuming and tiring. Don't make deciding which passages, images, theories, or quotes to keep a highly intellectual decision. Instead, create a balance of analytical thinking alongside your intuition, curiosities, and interests.

The following three guidelines will help you organize your notes into actionable, useful tools for execution.

🗃️A) Use an Organization System

There are many different ways to organize information in PKM: PPV put forward by August Bradley, Zettlekasten, and PARA by Tiago Forte to name a few.

But like picking a notetaking app, picking an organizational system is less important than having one. Organization without action is futile. The main purpose of our PKM workflow is to make expression more seamless.

80% of the time you can find something through search rather than your second brain's organization. The other 20% of the time, however, you will be glad you had a system in place for finding the ideas which fall through the cracks.

📂B) Organize by Project Over Categories

Instead of organizing your content primarily by topic (e.g., Economics, Psychology, or Web Design), organize them according to the projects you are actively working on. This ensures you put captured information where it's most actionable—helping your projects and goals—instead of sitting in your second brain collecting dust.

For example, I recently planned a trip to London, Sweden, and the Netherlands. While capturing information about where I would stay, vaccine protocols, and sim card activation, I organized this information under my relevant planning project. This ensured the information was where I needed it most rather the scattered across my system in categorical folders.

🧵C) Uncover Unexpected Patterns and Connections

Once you start collecting value in a central place, you will notice unexpected patterns and connections. An article you read on podcast creation will give you ideas for how to have better conversations. A comment on your blog will give you an idea for a future YouTube video. A book you read on Buddhism will help you console a work colleague.

Over time everything will start to make sense, as you can see mapped notes, projects, and new ideas forming under the structure of your everyday life. People will wonder how you have such novel and insightful ideas without realizing your system makes them come organically.


As your second brain grows larger and larger, you will be unable to remember everything in your system. Therefore, you need a way to remind your future self of what a note is so they can quickly judge if it's useful for a project.

You can greatly speed up this process by distilling notes into actionable bite sized summaries. Reviewing twelve pages of book highlights during a chaotic workday would be nearly impossible. But reading a quick three point summary to get the main ideas is more manageable.

The following three guidelines will help you summarize and distill your notes into actionable, useful tools for execution.

⌚A) Design Notes for your Future Self

While distilling, imagine how your future selves will see a note days, weeks, months, or even years down the line. They won't know nearly as much about the note as you do now. You must give them a quick way to rate a note's actionability.

This generally means designing notes with three things:

  • Adding parentheses to key terms in case you forget what they mean
  • Creating summaries of your thinking after finishing a work session so you know where to pick back up
  • Adding links to outside resources you are likely to forget over time

📝B) Utilize Progressive Summarization

As your system grows larger, you will naturally use some notes more than others. Therefore not every note should be summarized to the same degree.

Progressive Summarization (PS) is a system for slowly summarizing notes. It works in five steps called "layers" in which you slowly microscope on a note's key ideas over time.

This allows you to analyze a note depending on the time you have at the moment. If you want to get a broad scope, dive into layer four or five. But if you want to read more of a note, you can stick to layers 1 or 2.

🐢C) Distill Opportunistically Small Bits at a Time

After hearing about Progressive Summarization, It's tempting to create a highly structured, rigid, system for summarizing notes over time. But not every note will be as useful as another.

In my experience, creating a system to review notes sucks spontaneity, fun, and curiosity from diving into your second brain more freely. Instead, I recommend you distill a note every time you touch it. This could include going one more layer in PS, changing the title, reformatting the text, or adding a resource link.


Information only becomes knowledge—something personal, embodied, and grounded—-when you use it. This is why expression is the last and arguably most important step of the PKM workflow. Every other part of your workflow should enhance your expression.

What should you create?

Generally, you should draw from your skills, interest, and personality. If you are analytical, you might enjoy writing big data essays to summarize where you think artificial intelligence is heading next. If you are a performer, you might create a vlog series of how you cook during the day.

I love helping people instill a quality reading habit into their lives and implement a Personal Knowledge Management Workflow. My favorite form of expression is content creation which involves taking the notes in your second brain and creating YouTube videos, blog posts, newsletters, courses, podcasts, etc.

The following three guidelines will help you take your precious notes and express them into wonderful bits of content for the outside world.

🏦A) Build Your Personal Monopoly

Your personal monopoly is a niche you fill backed by your unique perspective. With over seven billion people on the planet, not everyone's creations can be noticed. If your goal is to make useful content, it's becoming increasingly clear you must start out niching down so hard you compete with no one.

This doesn't mean you must be incredibly in tune with a subject before talking about it. The beauty of the internet is it attracts like minded people from all areas of the world. There is a audience for everything. Creating a personal monopoly allows you to craft your own luck and become a magnet for ideas, people, and opportunities you didn't even know existed. It also has the benefit of entertaining, informing, or inspiring them to make their own life changes.

I don't recommend, however, you force yourself to create content you don't want to. I often make things I know won't get attention (other than from my mom, lol) simply because I love the creative process.

📦B) Create Small, Reusable Units of Work

As you start to capture, organize, distill and express, repurposing past notes becomes not only possible but necessary.

You will begin to see of projects in discreet parts called Intermediate Packets. Intermediate Packets are past works that form the building blocks of future projects. They span in size from a single note to an entire project.

There are three main benefits to utilizing Intermediate Packets:

  1. Your past work forms the foundation of future projects creating a knowledge compounding effect
  2. You transcend job changes as your IPs become the only thing that stay with you over your life
  3. You can create value at any point. Work becomes a question of asking yourself, "with my time, mood, and energy right now, what is the most valuable IP I can create?"

👶C) Reconnect With Your Inner Curiosity

Something inside you changes when you switch mindset from a consumer to a creator. It happens when you follow whatever topic interests you at the moment.

The world opens up as you reconnect with your childhood curiosity. You dive into research rabbit holes. You finally feel free from the constraints of modern schooling and work, able to unleash your inner creativity.

You stop worrying about how your curiosities cause others to see you. You know it's these very curiosities that make you who you are.

🏆The PKM Transformation

If you implement the workflow and mindset of Personal Knowledge Management for at least two years, I promise you will come to the same change I did.

Why two years? There's no magical reason. Following through with anything for more than a year is bound to show results of some kind. I doubt you will be disappointed if you do.

You will start to see ideas as an interconnected network and conversation between different people, a conversation you can join at any place wherever your interests lie. Over time everything will start to make sense, as you can see mapped notes, projects, and new ideas forming under the structure of your everyday life.

Your mind will change, learning to work symbiotically with your second brain to draw on resources, references, and research far beyond what it can remember on its own. You become more objective and unattached knowing if an idea doesn't work out, you have a treasure trove of others ready to go.

Your second brain becomes an externalization of your psychology, a mirror reflecting who you think you are, who you want to be, and who you want to become. Because you have a PKM workflow, every experience becomes an opportunity to learn and grow.

People will notice. They'll see you can draw an unusually large body of knowledge at a moment's notice without realizing you never set purposeful time to remember anything. They will admire the fluidity and interestingness of your ideas without realizing your PKM system makes them come organically. They'll respect your avid expression without realizing it's so much easier when you never have to start from scratch again.

They will see the genuine joy and curiosity you show toward everything in life. Then they will become curious about what you are doing differently. Finally, they will make their own PKM journeys.

In this way, PKM is not only the art of changing your relationship to information but changing others as well.

Luckily, you don't have to make the journey alone. Luckily, you don’t have to make the journey alone. Join the PKM community by immersing yourself in one of the best notetaking apps out there: Obsidian. 

Check out my Obsidian Beginner Resource List.

Save yourself countless hours of time and energy looking for the best Obsidian learning resources. It includes all of the resources I wish I had on Obsidian 3 years ago, including the best creators to follow, links to immerse yourself in the community, and my most popular curated content on Obsidian.