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Organizing your mental kitchen for information FOMO (Building A Second Brain)
"‘You see this?’ he’d inquire, raising his palm so the cook could see the dirt and scraps on his chef’s palm. ‘That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.’" Anthony Bourdain
The internet, and Twitter specifically, are the best and worst things to happen to curious people, ever. An endless rabbit hole, a never-ending story. Opening Twitter can feel like stepping into a tar pit. It’s pure fear of missing out, information FOMO, and a futile effort to ease my anxiety about not keeping up with everything that could be interesting and valuable. Half an hour and ten bookmarks later I manage to extract myself from the infinite scroll. I escape and return to my work.
My personal “knowledge management system” is a treacherous contraption of folders and apps that doesn’t deserve to be called a system. I primarily use Evernote, desktop folders, and a fleet of Google spreadsheets. Trying to track down an old file is like visiting an archeological dig site. I know it’s there, preserved in some layer, a remnant of a long-forgotten era. Is it in my current “Seth Klarman” folder? Or in the archive? Or in the archive within the archive? Maybe in one of the folders whose names seemed like good ideas at the time: “Content platform,” “Wall Street,” even “library.”
Every couple of years it gets a refresh. New folders and apps sit there like a newly arranged garden with a neatly trimmed lawn and carefully planned patches. Every seed is in its proper place.
Half a year later, you can still see the outlines, the ambition, the planning. But the fight against the weeds has been lost. New information increasingly ends up in folders that resemble my box of old cables. Something of value may be in there. But it’s near impossible to find and entangled with everything else. The cost of searching for it is too great. Better to start off fresh..
Every past version of me mistakenly believed he had figured out an intuitive and thoughtful way to organize all the information coming my way. Every time I made the same mistake: I tried to build a static system that anticipated my future interests.
However, if you’re guided by a combination of curiosity and resonance, if you follow interestingness, by definition you will chart an unpredictable course. Building a system that could organize all of that information seemed intellectually appealing but proved futile.
A better framework
“More is not better when it comes to thinking and creating,” Tiago Forte writes in Building A Second Brain, and he’s right. At first I rolled my eyes a little. Do I really need to be taught how to take notes? How to crawl the vastness of the web for valuable nuggets? I don’t think so!
Well, it turns out Tiago has done a lot of work on this subject. And his book shifted my perspective in a couple of important ways.
First off, I came across a ton of resonant quotes early on.
“Much of the time we are “information hoarders,” stockpiling endless amounts of well-intentioned content that only ends up increasing our anxiety.”
Oh boy. I feel seen.
“Paradoxically, despite all the technological inventions of the Information Age, we are in some ways further from their original vision than ever. We spend hours every day interacting with social media updates that will be forgotten in minutes. We bookmark articles to read later, but rarely find the time to revisit them again. We create documents that are used once and then get abandoned in the abyss of our email or file systems. So much of our intellectual output—from brainstorms to photos to planning to research—all too often is left stranded on hard drives or lost somewhere in the cloud.”
“A common challenge for people who are curious and love to learn is that we can fall into the habit of continuously forcefeeding ourselves more and more information, but never actually take the next step and apply it.”
In other words: “Action without knowledge is foolish, and knowledge without action is futile” as Jim O’Shaughnessy likes to remind me (though he may be quoting Abu Bakr?).
Tiago’s first useful nudge was to re-frame the entire effort of collecting information to serve the creative process.
“As knowledge workers, attention is our most scarce and precious resource. The creative process is fueled by attention at every step. The challenge we face in building a Second Brain is how to establish a system for personal knowledge that frees up attention, instead of taking more of it.”
Yes, he has valuable ideas on the process of collecting, distilling, and organizing information. But the process is not an end in itself. The entire framework is action-oriented. Everything is done with one goal in mind: to get (creative) projects done. I thought of the book’s title as a second memory, but really it’s about extending both retention and creativity.
“Your Second Brain is a practical system for enhancing your productivity and your creativity.”
Tiago understands the conundrum I outlined. Instead of building a static system, he emphasizes flexibility. His emphasis is on output and timeliness. All incoming information is sorted based on that in an organic fashion that evolves alongside your interests and work.
He compares it to a chef’s mise en place, the system by which a kitchen workspace is organized. Knives, towels, frequently used ingredients, spices, butter: everything is thoughtfully arranged and prepared to reduce the cognitive workload and be efficient in a chaotic and high pressure environment. And everything serves the output: a well-prepared meal.
But let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system... The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed…. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup.” Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential via hackernews
The meez is the cook’s “external brain,” the manifestation of their methods and mindsets.
“I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. ‘You see this?’ he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. ‘That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.’”
What a beautiful metaphor. Back to Forte’s book:
“When you make your digital notes a working environment, not just a storage environment, you end up spending a lot more time there. When you spend more time there, you’ll inevitably notice many more small opportunities for change than you expect.”
Cooking up better note taking
“Think of yourself not just as a taker of notes, but as a giver of notes—you are giving your future self the gift of knowledge that is easy to find and understand.”
Tiago has his own acronym for the entire process of “navigating the endless streams of information”: CODE. Capture, organize, distill, express.
He uses a set of straightforward guidelines.
Capture what resonates.
“Surprise is an excellent barometer for information that doesn’t fit neatly into our existing understanding, which means it has the potential to change how we think.”
He doesn’t believe in hard and fast rules for what to capture. Instead, look for resonance and surprise. Don’t overthink it. Go with your intuition. Maintain momentum.
Capture first, organize later.
“Apps have made it extremely easy to capture content. However, we are given no guidance for what to do next. Where does a note go once it’s been created? The temptation when initially capturing notes is to also try to decide where they should go and what they mean. Here’s the problem: the moment you first capture an idea is the worst time to try to decide what it relates to.”
This one I adopted immediately. Unless I know exactly where something is going, a new note is going into a general inbox. Once a week I will move things to their proper place (I hope…). The challenge is to not clutter that inbox and turn it into a permanent storage facility. That’s why being discerning in capturing notes is important.
Iterative highlighting and distilling.
“Highlighting can sometimes feel risky. You may wonder, “Am I making the right decision about which points are most important, or what this source means?” The multiple layers of Progressive Summarization are like a safety net; if you go in the wrong direction, or make a mistake, you can always just go back to the original version and try again. Nothing gets forgotten or deleted.”
Tiago uses what he calls progressive summarization to distill a note’s key ideas over time. Initially, the note may contain sizable chunks of copied text. Entire passages and quotes. On a second read bold the key ideas. On a third read highlight what sticks out in yellow. Now you can revisit the original note and immediately see what most resonated without losing the full context. This works surprisingly well in a note-taking app like Evernote. It’s what I did for the notes from his book.
Organize for action.
“Instead of organizing ideas according to where they come from, I recommend organizing them according to where they are going— specifically, the outcomes that they can help you realize.”
“The best way to organize your notes is to organize for action.”
“You are always trying to place a note or file not only where it will be useful, but where it will be useful the soonest.”
This was the most important idea I took away from the book. It changed how I view my folders and note taking app and how I’m organizing notes going forward. Tiago coined it PARA: “the four main categories of information in our lives: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives.”
Every piece of information is organized according to how actionable it is. This requires a moment to clearly define what it is you’re doing. What are your
Projects: efforts with a clearly defined output.
Areas: longer-term responsibilities.
Resources: areas of interest.
Archives: everything inactive that doesn’t belong into the first three buckets.
The idea is not to come up with perfect definitions but rather to establish “a single organizing system” and consistency across all apps and devices. Find clarity about the hierarchy of actionability. Move things as they change in status. Project done? Move it to the archive (or areas/resources if it was part of a broader theme). Develop one mise-en-place and a clear sense of what the priorities are. Does this new piece of information support an active effort or is part of a longer-term interest?
“Organizing by actionability counteracts our tendency to constantly procrastinate and postpone our aspirations to some far off future.”
“One of the biggest temptations with organizing is to get too perfectionistic, treating the process of organizing as an end in itself. There is something inherently satisfying about order, and it’s easy to stop there instead of going on to develop and share our knowledge. We need to always be wary of accumulating so much information that we spend all our time managing it, instead of putting it to use in the outside world.”
The second part of the book dives into Tiago’s takes on the creative process. He shares methods from writers, directors, and other creatives. If you struggle with information FOMO and organizing your notes, and particularly if you’re doing creative work, I’d encourage you to give the book a shot.
It shifted my mindset in a few important ways. It forced me to clearly define what my projects are. It emphasizes flexibility and iteration rather than perfectionism and trying to anticipate the unpredictable. It’s built for maintaining momentum. And it recognizes our limitations.
I haven’t organized everything I do in this way, but it has been helpful in finding a common framework across the different tools I use. It allowed me to rethink my Twitter use, too. Listen for resonance. Look for surprise. Capture now, organize later.
And I try to remember: the goal is not to capture and organize everything I am interested in. The goal is to take notes in order to create, build, and solve problems. The goal is to leave the kitchen at the end of the night satisfied with the work we’ve done. And to feel the comfort of knowing that our mise-en-place will be there to help us tackle the chaos of another day tomorrow.