Building a Second Brain and GTD

Two classic books, Building a Second Brain and Getting Things Done.

Building a Second Brain and GTD have a lot in common.

Building a Second Brain (BASB) by Tiago Forte is an excellent book. It’s partly about taking good notes but mostly about organizing your files more efficiently. Digital file management is hard, and it’s not something that comes naturally to me. So I’m glad to learn from someone who is good at digital organization.

As I’ve read through the book, I’ve noticed a lot of similarities between Forte’s work and David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (GTD). I’ve used a GTD-like system for many years, and as a new student of BASB I’d like to explore the similarities—and differences—between the two. Building a Second Brain and GTD have a lot in common, but also some distinct differences.

David Allen’s Influence

Forte is aware of Allen’s influence over his work. The first chapter of his book starts with this quote:

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

It’s a clever opening for a book. If you practice GTD as I do, this instantly sells Forte’s ideas.

Forte’s Radical Idea

One of David Allen’s big ideas is that your task management system should be completely trustworthy. Virtually everything you do should be in the system, and the system should surface things right when you need them. If it doesn’t do that, then your system isn’t trustworthy, and you’ll try to keep tasks in your head instead. Keeping tasks in your head can work for a while, but for most people, it’s a bad long-term solution.

GTD creates a system for creating and maintaining the dozens (or hundreds) of tasks we carry out each day. If you put in the time and the effort, it helps reduce stress, anxiety, and the feeling that you’re “missing something”.

Forte takes that idea and says: “Nice job completing tasks. But aren’t your thoughts and ideas worthy of just as much attention as your to-do lists?”

The purpose of GTD is to turn your ideas into reality. But what if we’re focusing too much on the tasks, and not enough on the ideas themselves?

Getting Things Done with Notes

In GTD, organizing your tasks comes down to five core steps. Similarly, BASB has a “CODE” method for organizing notes that is very familiar, but Forte reduced it to four steps, as you can see below:

GTD Core StepsBASB “CODE” method

Three out of the four steps are extremely similar to GTD. Collect and Capture are the same, Do and Express are the same with slightly different goals (one to complete tasks, the other to complete writing projects). The Organize step is the same even in name.

Forte eliminates the “Process” step, which is no great loss. In GTD, the “Process” and “Organize” steps are two sides of the same coin, I’ve often thought that you don’t need both. I think Forte was right to eliminate one of them and keep the simpler “organize” verb.

The biggest difference is the third step in CODE, Review (in GTD) and Distill (in BASB). Forte doesn’t include a review step, which I think is a loss. I take great value from reviewing both my task manager and my Second Brain every week. Distillation is important—more so with notes than tasks—but I would argue that reviewing old projects and ideas is also important. More on that in a bit.

Introducing the CODER method

I like how Forte simplified Allen’s core method and created a memorable acronym. But I dislike the lack of a review step. I find weekly reviews helpful, whether I’m reviewing tasks or notes. Thus my “perfect” method is what I call the “CODER method”:

  • Capture: keep what resonates
  • Organize: save for actionability
  • Distill: find the essence
  • Express: show your work
  • Review: avoid losing value

This is a hybrid method that I use for organizing both my tasks and my notes. Let’s go a little deeper into each of the steps.


The first step in both systems is to gather all your loose threads. There’s a lot of overlap here: new notes often inform the creation of new tasks, and new tasks often inform new notes.

I have inboxes for both my tasks and my notes, and I use the same system for both. Any time I need a new note or a new task, I drop it into the inbox. At the end of the day, I try to always go through my inboxes and get as close to empty as possible. My goal is to at least cut my inboxes in half every day: I don’t insist on inbox zero, but I insist on making an effort every day.


In addition to the CODE method, Forte gives us another acronym for organizing digital notes. He calls this “PARA”, which stands for:

  • Projects: Short-term efforts that you are currently working on
  • Areas: Long-term responsibilities
  • Resources: Topics or interests that may be useful in the future
  • Archive: Inactive items from the other three categories

These four terms represent folders within your note taking system, which gives you a comprehensive structure for managing everything from active projects to historical/archival data. You can learn more about it at Forte Labs.

David Allen also recommends archiving things that you’re no longer using, but beyond that, he largely recommends sorting things alphabetically.

The PARA method is an upgrade from Allen’s organization strategy. Allen was focused largely on organizing paper documents, not digital ones. I find Allen’s strategy more effective for organizing a file cabinet, but Forte’s method is better for the digital world.

If you’re familiar with the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, the “Resources” folder essentially becomes your Zettelkasten, while the “Projects” and “Areas” folders are dedicated to your GTD projects. The Archive folder helps you keep the other three folders clean.

I’ve used this method myself for a while now, and it is helpful to keep your digital workspaces organized and efficient. You can also apply the PARA folder structure to anything that houses digital files: your documents folder, your downloads folder, your Dropbox account, etc.


The Distill step replaces Allen’s Review step, and this is the one area where I think the two systems do fundamentally different things.

Allen’s Review step does involve distillation. Allen recommends going through all of your non-archived projects and making sure they are up-to-date. Every project should have a “next action”, you should prioritize them properly, and review tasks to make sure you aren’t missing anything. For my money, this is one of the most valuable parts of the GTD system, and I do it every week.

But distillation does not mean review. Distillation isn’t something you do weekly or monthly, it’s an ongoing process. Forte says to distill only when necessary, usually as part of expressing your work. He points out that you often don’t know how to distill a note until you express it, so why do all that work in advance?

Distillation involves highlighting the most relevant parts of the note, to make it easier to scan. If the note is complex enough, you can additionally write a summary at the top of the note. What you’re doing here is attempting to get at the core idea behind the note, which makes your idea clearer and easier to express. You want the idea to be clear enough that you can express it in as few words as possible.

My quibble with Forte’s method here is that there’s no process in place to make sure you don’t lose your ideas. Distillation only happens when you’re ready to express an idea, but how do you know what ideas you want to express? It seems to me that a review step would be a welcome addition: it would allow you to go back over the ideas that have interested you lately, discard the ones that no longer interest you, and resurface notes that you forgot about.

Distillation is a necessary and important step, but a process for resurfacing old and forgotten notes is also important, and seemingly unaccounted for in BASB.

Do / Express

The goal of GTD is to get more done, so the Do step involves doing the tasks that you’ve spent all this time creating and organizing.

The goal of BASB is to share your ideas, your knowledge, and your story. Your Second Brain is meant to inform your conversations, your writing, and your thoughts. Building a second brain makes you a better and more powerful communicator.


Building a Second Brain and GTD use very similar techniques to tackle two very different problems. One helps you to achieve more, and the other helps you to learn and express more.

Which one do you prefer? I like to mix and match both, using whichever technique intuitively feels right for each project. Some projects do well with a ridged checklist; for others, it’s best to have something more flexible, more intuitive, and that’s where a second brain excels.

No matter which system you use, both will teach you how to better manage and organize your digital life, which is extremely useful in today’s age. If you’re interested in doing or expressing more, I recommend giving them a read.

Note: Amazon links are affiliates, but I only link to products I have purchased myself and recommend.

13 responses to “Building a Second Brain and GTD”

  1. Came here from Google. Just want to thank you fir a great comparison! I haven’t really implemented either but familar with both. This helps!

    1. You bet Ray. Glad you enjoyed the comparison!

  2. This was an excellent post. Great thoughts on the interaction between both of the systems. Given me a new perspective, thank you.

  3. Excellent review! Thanks for sharing

  4. Great review. I’m a long term GTD’er and just getting into 2nd Brain as I do more writing. PARA Method is super helpful and has helped me to spend less time organizing and more time doing and writing.

  5. The only thing I would mention here is that part of David’s process step is that it involves both decisions making and potential action. It isn’t as simple as organization alone. Process comes after capture because it is the step where you decide one of these things:

    1) the item you captured is an actionable to do that will take less than 2 minutes to complete, in which case you do it right then and complete it; or,

    2) the item you captured is something to take action on that is more complicated than that, in which case you define it as a single item to do and put it on the list or lists that allow you to take action on it when you can, or you define it as a project and do some back of the napkin like planning, adding it to the appropriate project list and putting its next step actions where they need to go; or,

    3) you decide the item you captured is information to be organized into your knowledge capture system.

    Anything you capture – action item, project, or knowledge can be further distilled and better expressed than your first draft of it would benefit from that, but not everything needs distillation.

    I do like your coder framework and it has given me something to think about. Thank you for that prompt!

    1. Excellent point Oran, thank you for mentioning it. You’re right, I didn’t give Allen’s Process step enough credit here.

      I personally do my processing as a part of my organization step: I can’t truly organize without processing, and I can’t fully process without organization. For my purposes, they’re two sides of the same coin.

      But you’re right, there is value in having a specific process step as well. Allen’s system is brilliant, but I think most of us that use it have to tweak it to make it fit our own purposes. Eliminating the process step is my own personal tweak 🙂

      1. I get where you’re coming from. The O fits the acronym a lot better, and I can get on board with thinking of processing being the front end of organizing. Thanks again for the thoughtful article.

  6. I really like the idea of adding R to CODE. Tiago does talk about doing a weekly review.

    But which letter or letters of CODE does it involve?

    It could be useful to teach Review as a discipline in itself as it is easy to miss otherwise.

    1. Thanks Rodney! Yes, I was surprised that BASB treats the review step almost like an afterthought. It’s not mentioned until the end of the book, and even then in passing.

      Forte was clearly inspired by Allen’s work, but I feel like he made a mistake in de-emphasizing reviews. For my money, I think they are one of the most useful and practical parts of Allen’s system.

      I agree that they could be taught as their own discipline: and one that, like note-taking, has the power to exponentially improve everything that you do.

  7. This is a fantastic article! I appreciate you including the Zettelkasten approach to note-taking—before searching for BASB vs GTD, I was reading about how BASB and Ahrens’ “Smart Notes” work together.

    I know there are countless forum debates about the best tool for GTD, but as someone who uses the same system for GTD and BASB, would you be willing to share what tool you use? (My guess would be Evernote.) My current tool for GTD (NirvanaHQ, which I really like) won’t work for BASB, so I’m trying to figure out whether I should use separate tools or try to learn a new one that I can use for both.

    1. Hi Tyler! Glad you liked the article, thanks for writing.

      I’m happy to share. I’ve tried MANY different tools for GTD, and I have big opinions on them. There are a lot of great ones out there, but I struggled to find one that did everything I wanted it to do.

      So, believe it or not, I use Obsidian. It requires a few plugins and some finesse, but you can build an incredible GTD system in Obsidian with a little effort and creativity. And I’ve documented most of my process in these two articles:

      I’m also working on creating a starter vault for GTD in Obsidian, but I’m not sure when it will be ready to release. Hopefully in the next month. If you sign up for my mailing list (above) you’ll be one of the first to know!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *