How I'm Building My Second Brain

Slides + Video

“How I’m building my second brain” video (2022) (YouTube)

“How I’m building my second brain” slides (2022) (PDF)


Creativity is bound up with making connections between disparate ideas. The connections piece is crucial - personal knowledge management falls apart without it.

Long ago, I treated the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system as gospel. The way I used it, though, resulted in a large, messy collection of digital notes in Evernote. The five stages of the GTD workflow are capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. I captured anything that I could digitize. I clarified with a complex system of tags. I organized by putting things in hierarchies of folders. I reflected by creating journal entries during weekly reviews. And ultimately fell short on the engagement piece.

Having declared bankruptcy on my notes too many times, I knew I needed something different. I discovered the Second Brain concept and got hooked. I clearly saw the pitfalls inherent in my old system. I stopped creating arbitrary collections in single files. I abandoned rigid hierarchical directory structures and complicated tagging systems. (I also migrated out of Evernote - vendor lock-in being one of many reasons.) With my shiny, new second-brain notes collection, notes connect to each other and structure emerges, almost effortlessly.

My notes are now in markdown, a plaintext “markup” language that allows headings, bullet points, checkboxes, blockquotes, etc. The document can output as rich text like you see on the web, but it’s readable as is. To connect notes in your second brain you can use standard link syntax or take it up a notch with backlinks - where notes have an automatic awareness of any notes that are linked to it.

By connecting notes in this way, we approach how the brain stores and retrieves knowledge. Building links over time allows us to create a reservoir of connections which have connections, which have connections, which becomes a nice web of digital neurons. To aid the creative process, you can view your linked notes as a knowledge graph like the ones in these images to add fascination to your connection sessions.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If your brain craves more, below is the text for a talk I gave on how I take notes, synthesize ideas, and manage my tasks.

What’s a “second brain?”

In concept, it’s an external information collection that aids thinking and memory.

The way I put this into practice is a collection of markdown notes linked with bi-directional backlinks (notated with double square brackets: [[]])

The collection is basically a wiki.

The wider concept is Personal Knowledge Management (PKM).

I first discovered these ideas through Zettelkasten concepts.

Around the net, it’s also known as:

  • digital gardening
  • life operating system
  • “Linking your Thinking”

See “Resources” below for more info on the related concepts.

The problem: One brain is limited

  • We usually have multiple projects to juggle
  • Learning something new can be intimidating
  • Info comes from many disparate sources: Slack, emails, bookmarks, notes, etc
  • We can’t just Google repeatedly or save bookmarks (sites go down, etc)

The key to the solution is being able to make and discover notes without too much friction.

Second brain benefits

  • Solidify knowledge
  • Readily search and share ideas
  • Consolidate and reduce clutter (collector’s fallacy)
  • Structure emerges from links within notes, not directories

What are Backlinks?

Weblinks are uni-directional - the destination has no knowledge of the source that linked to it. Backlinks are bi-directional - the destination links back to all of its sources.

backlink syntax: [[link-to-note]] (note that we omit the .md file extension.)

Demo - The practice of building a second brain

1. Taking notes on

  • Copying content from browser documents into a google doc to retain formatting
  • Docs to Markdown: convert formatted text to markdown in Google Docs
  • Paste markdown into your notes collection
  • Give it a unique filename like

2. Putting link to above notes into a reference schema, aka “Map of Content”

My dev notes schema:

- Bash
  - [[bash-notes]]
  - [[css-grid]]
- Docker
  - [[docker-notes]]
- JavaScript
  - [[node-notes]]
  - [[react-notes]]
- ... etc

Since I have a lot of notes on node, I’ll put it in the file:

Node notes:

- [[node-logging-best-practices-isiah]]
- [[node-log-object]]
- ... etc

3. Writing: linking original writings to reference material


What I've learned about logging

Combining [[node-logging-best-practices-isaiah]] with [[logging-best-practices-uhrig]]

- experiences with lambdas
- experiences with chat-bot and sumo
- [[node-log-object]]


4. Task management: Todo list that links to project docs with original writings


# This week todo

## Sprint work


## Else

Don't forget -> [[0-backlog]]

@! Respond to email

Respond to slack message

Write [[logging-best-practices-dec]]

Prepare slides

Post meeting notes

## Done

x 2022-03-01 Thing I got done


# Todo backlog

Working group

Professional dev:
- Learn x
- Learn y


# Title

Here are some very interesting notes

Parting thoughts

Experiment to find your way

  • Learn: research / collect information and organize it in a way that’s relevant to you
  • Create: synthesize your collected knowledge into original writings
  • Manage: keep track of work in progress, increase productivity

Make a habit of connecting as much as you can

  • creative synthesis: new ideas form effortlessly from linked ideas

Compound growth

  • In ~6 months, work/personal second brains: 870 backlinks in 226 files. >50 article highlights, ~12 book takeaways, weekly micro-blogging



Building a Second Brain: The Definitive Introductory Guide | Forte Labs

Zettelkasten, Linking Your Thinking, and Nick Milo’s Search for Ground | The Daily Pony

Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method |


“VS Code - flavored” second brain:

Example sites:

Knowledge site generators:


Forte Labs

How to Manage Your Digital Files: 9 Tips and Tools to Keep You Organized see The Noguchi Filing System