Building a second brain
I've recently been revamping my personal life and tooling. I've always been fascinated with how to live a more intentional life, whatever that means. I'm one of those chronic "focused on the future" type people, often at the expense, or perhaps investment, of the present.
All people go through cycles. I'm no different. After 12-18 months of sleeping late, not being really focused and perhaps depressed I've been steadily on a comeback with a few new systems to boot.
Pain without a Second Brain
While on YouTube I stumbled across this channel. I've always been a fan of productivity tools when used correctly and really liked the idea of building out a true "second brain" system. I have been somewhat consistent in following the Get Things Done (GTD) task management system for about 6 months. I really like the principle of having an inbox. The inbox is a place where you dump anything at all into it. A new idea, a task, a book you want to read, something you need to buy. Literally everything.
This alone had been pretty game-changing for me and while simple, proved quite effective. I now had a singular place where I always put things. Yay! The GTD system works by having a capture system, and then at some level of frequency you go through, organize, plan, make specific, and then execute tasks.
While I definitely have been a fan of the GTD system since I started using it I also kept finding things that didn't quite fit. Reading an article that my dad shared with me–what do I do with that? Where do I put it? Something that I need to buy for a home repair project that I'm not going to do for 6 months…does that stay in my task management system? Enter the entire second brain system. (PS I am using Todoist as my task / GTD system if you're curious).
Building the system
So a second brain is a digital system that is organized for capturing all your bits of data. Ideas, content, blog posts, lists, to-dos, tasks, receipts–whatever you feel like you need and want to keep, you store here. And also, it needs to be recallable. Storing something without ever being able to find it again doesn't really work. Similarly, not knowing where to store something can be a pain too.
So I started researching Ali's videos and a few other references. I ended up with the following setup:
- Todoist - inbox & task management
- Apple Notes - inbox / raw notes
- Notion - long-term memory; most content lives here, or if is external, is referenced from here
- Google Drive - mainly for spreadsheets, but again, referenced in Notion if needed
- Pocket - articles
This is my starting stack, but I'm sure I'll expand it over time. Basically, it works like this.
Working the system: Tasks
On any given day I'll think of a bunch of things I need to do, someone will share a few articles with me I want to read later, I'll have an idea for a business or hobby or just general thought I want to save. If it's something I need to take action on or a quick thought/thing to jot down, I drop it into my Inbox in Todoist. I don't care how specific or sloppy the task is, I just write it down and move on with the conversation or the day.
Then, at least once a week but often a few times a week I'll sort through the inbox. A lot of the time it'll be things I might have already completed or things that are more reference material I want to save or look into at some point. I'll go through the inbox and start sorting. These 3 are completed. These two should be organized in a Todoist project (more on that a different day), this is something I want to buy, etc etc. Each has a very specific home. If it's a grocery shopping item it goes into a shared to-do list with my wife, so we can both add things as needed throughout the week. If it's a purchase I need to make now, such as "buy a new house key for guests" or something that has to happen in a specific timeline, I put it into an appropriate project in Todoist. If it's something I want to do someday, such as painting the guest bedroom or buying surround sound speakers, or an idea for date night, it goes into a long-term storage in Notion.
I try to keep Todoist as clean as possible. Only things that I really should do and have immediate relevancy. If it's something I might do someday, yes I have a bucket for that, but if it's a long list of birthday present ideas then it shouldn't stay here. It should go to long term storage.
Working the system: Non-Tasks
The above system works really well for tasks, however what about non-tasks? This is what I struggled with over the previous 6 months until I introduced Apple Notes into my second brain. I've tried a bunch of note-taking apps before but appreciated Ali's recommendation of it because it's just stupid simple. So, what goes into Apple Notes instead of Todoist? Whatever you think makes sense to go there. I'm still figuring out the specifics, but typically it's things that aren't so specific as "buy this", or "do that". It could be a quote from a book. It could be an idea that I had or a dream I remembered where I want to write down a few sentences. It could be a thought from a book I'm reading or listening to on an audiobook. Basically, anything that doesn't work well as a one-liner task note goes here.
I then treat this the same way I treat Todoist. I go through it at least once a week to see all the notes I created. I do have dedicated notetaking sections for books, so I don't move those over to Notion but may do this in the future. It's helpful to have this longer form of entry that handles long text better than Todoist. I find myself using Todoist more than Notes, but whenever I have something that doesn't fit in Todoist I recognize the value of having this in my intake system.
How is Notion structured?
On to the second brain itself. The long-term storage. So we've talked about intake, we've talked about tasks, what about Notion?
Notion is a tool that I've revisited time and time again. We implemented it for Matter and while it took a while to get adoption it's become quite helpful to have all documentation centrally located and searchable. So, what about personal life? What's the best setup for a life?
Obviously, there's no answer, but here's how I broke down my Notion life. First, there are 4 main pillars or areas within my life.
These 4 really do cover much of my world. You could rephrase or break them down how you want to, but these buckets are what I call my Pillars. In addition to the 4 above pillars, I have two…supporting Pillars? Don't know what to call them, but they are:
The reason I somewhat think of Joy and Growth as separate as they interplay with the 4 pillars. Body is standalone. That's physical health, fitness, eating, clothing, etc. That doesn't really interact much with relationships or money generally speaking. Joy, however, can apply to Body, Mind, Money, or Relationships. In fact, it should apply to all four of them. Same for Growth. Growth is about transformation, challenge, objectives, goals, etc.
So those are the 4+2 pillars that I put all my content into. I have sub-pages for each, for example, I have "Routines", "Journaling", and "Principles" (among others) in Mind and "Crypto" and "Real Estate" inside of Money, but most things relate to one of those top 4 pillars.
Within Joy, I have anything that relates to happiness and leisure. So Hobbies, Side Hustles (again, relates to Money, but everything in Joy will relate to another Pillar), Travel, etc.
Growth is similar to Joy; it includes my OKR system, Skills I'm working on developing (i.e. Learn to Play Piano), long-term goal planning, Habit Tracking.
The last area that I have in Notion is Supporting Databases. I'll see if these stick around long term, but these are things that are also independent of the pillars but aren't necessarily related to Joy or Growth. They're basically just lists of things. The two that I currently have are "Shopping" (i.e. things to buy, but longer term) and "Read/Watch List", which is a big list of movies, TV, books, etc that I have read, am reading, want to read, or have been recommended.
Where do I go from here?
I've truly been finding a lot of peace in having this system set up. Would I recommend this to someone else? Yes, but make it your own. These are the tools and setup that make sense for me, but everyone has different needs and a different relationship with tech. You could easily do this with a paper notebook that you carry around (Inbox), a to-do list (could be an organized page in the back of the notebook), and a physical filing system. Or anything in between.
This truly has helped me relax because I know that there's a place for everything. I mess up, I'm still adapting it and figuring out what works and what doesn't, but I have a baseline system and I know that everything has a place to go.
If you take away one thing from this, implement an inbox system. An unopinionated, dumping ground, where you can put ideas, tasks, groceries, freaking everything. Just pour into it throughout the day. Then, whenever you have time, sort through it. This one change can dramatically reduce your stress and help you start feeling a little less reactive and a little more proactive.