For the past few years, I've been tracking the rise of the personal knowledge management movement online. Personal knowledge management —PKM for short— is not a system, rather it’s a field of thought. It can mean different things to different people. For some it's about finding effective ways to sort the overwhelming amount of information we're forced to contend with in the digital age. For some, like me, the allure of PKM comes from how we can leverage that information to create new work.
Tiago Forte is one of the leading voices in the PKM movement. For the past 6 years, he's taught over five thousand people (myself included) how to implement PKM through his course Building a Second Brain. BASB is one of—if not the— most formalized approach to implementing PKM into our lives. On June 14, 2022 Tiago will be releasing his Building a Second Brain book, which shows readers how to build their own second brain. I was lucky enough to get an early copy of the book and Tiago was kind enough to answer some questions for me.
Ryder (RC): When I first heard of PKM, it just seemed like yet another fancy new term for productivity. Though they overlap, they aren't the same thing. How are they related, and how are they different?
Tiago (TF): They are definitely related, and also complementary. I think of “productivity” as the action component of being an effective person. It addresses the actions you take to produce results, like to-dos and projects. But that isn’t the whole picture. Not everything is a to-do. A lot of the time, we are dealing with content, whether the points included in an email, the arguments presented in a slide deck, the examples cited in a piece of writing, or the justification for a business decision. That content is powerful. It includes the stories, evidence, metaphors, examples, research, and notes that we draw on to produce new works. Personal knowledge management gives us guidelines for how to manage all that content in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our own minds. Taking action on its own isn’t enough. You also need building blocks ready and waiting so that when it’s time to take action, you’re not starting at square one.
RC: One of the biggest challenges that I faced with my own digital organization was data debt. I had such a backlog of photos, videos, potential projects, random but important documents etc. Then I read the part of your book about archiving. Can you tell us about this, and how it plays in getting started?
TF: My first exposure to the challenges of managing information was when I worked at a busy Apple Store in San Diego in college. I would do 1-on-1 personal consultations with new Mac users to get them started with their new computer. I quickly realized that it wasn’t worth organizing the hundreds of even thousands of files they had usually transferred over from their old computer. That would take forever, and most of those files weren’t relevant to their current interests anyway. I took a different approach, asking them to simply move all those old files into an “Archive” folder in one fell swoop. Not only did this immediately give them a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm, they retained access to all those files indefinitely. Nothing was lost, and quite a bit was gained – the motivation and space to pursue their creative passions and goals. When I started my coaching career, I gave people the same advice. That advice has now become part of my PARA organizational system, which is based on the idea that you can archive all your old files at any time, without needing to organize them, because the search feature in software is so effective. Essentially, we are all going into data debt at all times. But we also have the option to receive “debt forgiveness” at any time, if we choose.
RC: One of my favorite quotes from the book is "Instead of organizing ideas by where they come from, organize them by where they are going." Can you tell us more about your project-oriented approach to organization?
TF: Continuing my story above, I started to get really inspired by the creative projects that people would take on after they bought their first Apple computer. Freed from the burden of tons of old files, and equipped with Apple’s creative software, they would produce such meaningful and moving works: an album of their band’s music, a website for their small business, a resume for their first job application, or a memorial brochure for their grandparent’s funeral, for example. These wouldn’t normally be considered “works of art,” but they demanded a tremendous amount of creativity and initiative to complete. Seeing how these accomplishments made people come alive and gain so much confidence in themselves and their future, I became convinced that the purpose of all this stuff – technology, software, productivity, and organizing – wasn’t to make some perfect organizational system. It was to empower and enable people to realize their creative potential. In other words, information should be organized to take you where you want to go.
R: You draw a clear distinction between what our first and second brains are good for. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
TF: Our organic, natural brains excel at so many things – recognizing patterns, making connections, telling stories, understanding emotions, imagining new futures, and collaborating with others, among many other skills. But there are other areas where our first brains fall far short. Namely, memorizing and remembering lots of specific details about many different subjects. That isn’t what our brains evolved to do, yet modern life demands it of us. Instead of trying to force our biological minds to perform a task they are terribly suited to, I think we should outsource that job to software. Software is always on, never forgets, and can track any number of details on any number of subjects forever. To do that, we have to let go of this idea that we should “keep things in mind,” or that it’s just a matter of trying harder to memorize things. It’s time to stop competing with intelligent machines and harness their power instead.
RC: Another thing that resonated with me is the idea of crafting your notes. Can you tell us a little more about that?
TF: We know from the world of graphic and UX design that humans are exquisitely sensitive to the way information is presented. We have extensive data that the tiniest change in the wording of a webpage heading, or the slightest change in the color of a button, can dramatically impact our ability to absorb and make sense of what we’re seeing. Not to mention our ability to act on it. I learned about the importance of UX design working in Silicon Valley, but then when I moved to the world of notes apps, none of those lessons were being applied. Notes apps are generally ugly, utilitarian, and not very user-friendly. It falls to use as users to “craft” our notes to make the information they contain easy to see, easy to understand, and ultimately, easy to use. It doesn’t matter how many gems of wisdom our Second Brain contains if those gems remain hidden and buried amidst the rubble of our cluttered file systems.
RC: In a world where there is a new "perfect" organizational or productivity app launched every few months, you posit that we should not try to find one perfect app. Can you share your thinking about that?
TF: I’ve watched for years as the quest for the “perfect app” consumes people for months at a time. Imagine a carpenter delaying the projects they want to build because they’re seeking the perfect hammer. Imagine if an athlete stopped their training until they decided on the perfect shoe. Those examples sound ridiculous, but somehow when it comes to knowledge work we find it perfectly justifiable to obsess about the perfect software. I find that virtually never is the choice of app the true bottleneck in someone’s creative process. Which means changing apps can’t truly make a difference. The bottleneck is almost always a person’s inner qualities – their courage, their conviction, their self-awareness, and their ability to move forward in the face of uncertainty. So these days I encourage people to choose a notes app that has been around for some time, which means it is likely mature and stable, and then to stick with it for as long as possible. Only when it actually breaks down or gets discontinued is it actually necessary to move to something else.
RC: Is there an analog component in your second brain or workflow?
TF: Yes, there definitely is. I take quite a few paper notes, either in my leather journal, various paper notebooks, Post-Its and random pieces of paper, and printed books. I find that analog notes often help me stay present and focus on the task at hand, since there is no social media app a swipe away tempting me to get distracted. Once those notes have been captured, however, about once a week I try to take pictures of any pages I want to preserve for the future. My notes app has handwriting recognition, meaning I can do a search and any words I’ve taken a photo of will appear in the results. I use digital and analog notetaking in complementary ways, each one for the jobs that suit it best.
RC: What are the biggest misconceptions about PKM in your opinion?
TF: I think the biggest misconception is that PKM is a highly technical, complex, formal practice akin to engineering. I probably contribute to this perception more than anyone, but the truth is that notetaking is inherently messy and informal. There is a little bit of science, but it’s mostly art. Unlike technical databases that have to be used a very particular way, our notes collection can and must be informal, like a private garden where plants grow and entangle with each other in unexpected ways. Many other misconceptions spring from this one, such as the idea that there is one “correct” way to do PKM, that it has to look and function a certain way, that more complexity and sophistication is better, or that the sheer volume of notes we capture matters. None of those are true. The purpose of PKM is to allow us to be more spontaneous and creative, not lock us down with rigid rules.
RC: What are some of the unexpected side effects you've noticed in the quality of your life because of your second brain?
TF: I continue to be amazed at how many parts of my life are positively impacted by this seemingly small practice of knowledge management. I originally started doing it to manage a long-term health condition, and later to organize my materials as a teacher, and then eventually to start a blog and a business. But over that same time period, I’ve realized that my fundamental relationship to information has changed. Seeing all the amazing ideas I’ve captured in my Second Brain, I no longer make decisions from a place of scarcity. Knowing I have endless good ideas to draw from, I don’t cling to any particular idea as if it’s the only one. Understanding that I can quickly pull together a few notes and produce a new deliverable in a fraction of the time it would normally take, I’ve started to see time as abundant and to not worry about how much I was getting done on any particular day. So much of the fear and anxiety in our lives comes from scarcity, and that mostly has to do with scarcity in our time and bandwidth. When you begin to leverage the power of external thinking tools, a lot of that scarcity goes away, and I finally feel that I have more than enough. That makes everything from my health, to my finances, to my relationships, to my hobbies feel more spacious and hopeful.
RC: Who are your greatest influences in the PKM space?
TF: I’ve been influenced by a lot of people and borrowed ideas from many sources. From Sönke Ahrens and his bookHow to Take Smart Notes, to Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten system, to Anne-Laure Le Cunff and her ideas on digital gardens, to Annie Murphy Paul exploring the science of extended cognition inThe Extended Mind. Each of these thinkers has done important work to reveal an aspect of humans’ practical relationship with information. I’ve cited them in my book, and I recommend anyone who wants to go deeper to check them out. More broadly, I’ve also been influenced by writers like Venkatesh Rao and his Ribbonfarm blog, by fiction authors like James Michener who taught me the power of storytelling, and most recently, Michael Singer inThe Untethered Soul who awakened me to the connection between information and matters of the soul. I’m indebted to all of them.
RC: What do you think is the ultimate purpose of PKM?
TF: The ultimate purpose of PKM is to usher in the era of transhumanism – the fusion of man and machine. I think we are destined to use technology to enhance and augment our natural abilities. We already use prosthetic devices to improve our eyesight, our hearing, and even the beating of our hearts. But we are only beginning to do the same with the most powerful capability of them all: thinking and the human mind. I see PKM as the early stages of this historic transition, using simple software and human behaviors to amplify our intelligence. Everything we want to do, achieve, have, or experience is limited only by our imagination and intelligence, which means if we find a way to do that, there is almost nothing we can’t accomplish both as individuals and as a society.
RC: What is the last meaningful thing you changed your mind about?
TF: A major mindset change that I had when I first started writing this book, and continued to have as I went along, was about the value of boiling things down to their simplest, most digestible form. My editor continuously reminded me that the purpose of a book is to reach new audiences, and so I had to learn time and again how to simplify my language and leave out unnecessary details. I discovered that so much of my ego was attached to sounding smart and sophisticated, but that that often didn’t serve my audience. I’ve changed my mind about the importance of easily accessible explanations and entertaining content. Once someone is engaged and entertained, they can find all the more in-depth resources on their own. But if they never have their imagination captivated in the first place, they will never care to pursue further learning on their own.
RC: Where can people learn more about you or BASB? Where can they get the book?
TF: You can find everything about the book, the course I teach, and free content we’ve created about Second Brains at buildingasecondbrain.com. If you’d like to read my writing, watch our YouTube videos, or listen to the Building a Second Brain podcast, visit fortelabs.co. You can find the book at any retailer, online or in person, in the US or the UK starting June 14, 2022.