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 Steps||BASB “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.
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