Tiago Forte wants you to thrive in our digital world. Imagine you had a system to collect the sea of data and information that surrounds you every single day, in which it is then organized, filtered and delineated according to your goals.
Tiago Forte wants you to thrive in our digital world. Imagine you had a system to collect the sea of data and information that surrounds you every single day, in which it is then organized, filtered and delineated according to your goals. Now imagine how much more creative and prolific you could you be and what you could accomplish? Tiago teaches you how to build a second brain and fulfill your potential.
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Tiago: No problem. It's always a pleasure to be here.
Srini: Yeah, it's been a while since you were last with us. So, why don't you tell us what you've been up to since then?
Tiago: Sure. Well, since I last spoke to you I've been taking on some new projects and really diving deep into the creative process.
Tiago Forte: Thank you. Rinni, it's a real pleasure to be here. I have been looking
Srini: I've been looking forward to this conversation for so long. You have a new book out, Building a Second Brain, which I am happy to say I introduced to my literary agent; and I did that entirely for selfish reasons because I wanted you to write this book for me.
Srini: Fortunately, lots of other people have benefitted from this book, but before we get into Second Brain, I want to start by asking you a question that has absolutely nothing to do with that. What social group were you a part of in high school? And what impact did that have on your life and your career?
Tiago Forte: Wow, that's an interesting one. And actually, I think it does explain a lot. I wasn't really part of one group. I think that's largely because, for various reasons, I went to five different schools, five years in a row. Wow. For sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, five grades in a row.
Tiago Forte: I either switched from elementary to middle and then middle to high school, or I was switched from public school to private school, which I tried out for a year or I was switched from the US to Brazil, where I spent the eighth grade. And so I came into high school, just having all of my established social circles obliterated, which meant I had to just be this kind of chameleon.
Tiago Forte: I had friends, my best friend was in student government, but then I had a girlfriend who was in cross-country, track, and field. And then I had other friends who were in the French club and chess club who were nerds. I had to cross multiple social circles. Yeah. It's funny because I don't know if you know this about me.
Tiago Forte: Wow. Super similar. Yeah. Yeah. Minus living abroad in Brazil. When you started working, I know that you didn't start out really in this field.
Srini: And really, you and I both have careers that couldn't have even been possible prior to the existence of the internet or when we were in high school. Yeah. Again, I think this was a huge influence on me and it was the exact opposite of what you just described. My dad is an artist, and a painter, and has been his entire life.
Srini: I had the same experience, but I lived in the same town. We just changed schools every year. So I was in a different school every year from fifth to tenth grade.
Tiago Forte: And my mom is from Brazil. So she has that alternative cultural perspective. And she's a musician. And so we grew up in a family of artists. I think if I had become a doctor or lawyer, it would've been the biggest disappointment to my parents.
Srini: And I think the last time we spoke, you and I were talking about the fact that you had spent some time in the Peace Corps. What did your parents teach you about making your way in the world and what career advice? Cause I know you're partially Brazilian, with Indians, we have this sort of cultural narrative: doctor, lawyer, engineer, that's the path.
Srini: We would never hear from an Indian parent.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. I think that's the sense I get; it's the exact opposite. I wanted to become a poet, artist, or dancer. My parents tried to be very open and they encouraged us to pursue whatever we were interested in, but the subtext was a really powerful message.
Tiago Forte: That is literally something you
Tiago Forte: What made me feel alive, what expressed my unique talents? What would give me a meaningful career, not just a profitable one? Yeah.
Srini: It's oh my, my son's such a disappointment because he became a doctor.
Srini: Wow. Yeah, I wish that narrative was more prevalent. So, talk to me about what started to shape this perspective on the concept of a second brain. Cause I haven't read the book, I know where it started, but for our listeners, can you share what the impetus was for starting to think about organizing our digital lives in this way?
Tiago Forte: But I think it really goes back to just my temperament and my personality. I love to collect things. I always have collected baseball cards, coins, Star Wars cards, and leaves from the ground. Like I'm just a natural collector. I'm also a huge nerd. I've always loved, from the youngest age, the world of ideas.
Tiago Forte: Sci-fi books, fiction, historical fiction, big kind of big picture ideas. And then also I'm neurotic, OCD, I need, I want to need a certain level of order in my surroundings and my life and my thinking. And so that kind of has always led me to naturally organize like one story from my youth.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. The story that I tell in my book is the origin story of my chronic medical condition that I had. But, because of the questions you're asking, it's priming me to realize that it actually started way before then. The medical condition was just this kind of shock.
Tiago Forte: My parents always scratched their heads, wondering why I seemed to organize Legos more than I played with them. Yeah, which is totally right. To me, it was playing; I found there was something about an order, about structure that was so elegant and beautiful to me. It's so fascinating to create categories, principles, and patterns and to shift them around, move them, and try different things.
Srini: But one of the things that you say in the opening of the book is that we spend countless hours reading, listening to, and watching other people's opinions about what we should do, how we should think, and how we should live, but make comparatively little effort applying that knowledge and making it our own. So much of the time, we are information hoarders, stockpiling endless amounts of well-intentioned content that only ends up increasing our anxiety.
Tiago Forte: But to me, that was just as fun as building. Yeah, it's funny that we use Legos as a metaphor because I think it's such an apt metaphor for thinking about how we build things out of knowledge in ways that we never thought of before, because I think that was really what struck me in the book was this ability to create one in spurts, regardless of how much time we have.
Srini: I just remember reading that thinking. Yeah. This is like a summary of the joke I always make, that if I could actually implement the advice from every podcast guest I've ever interviewed and the books I've read, I'd be a billionaire with six-pack abs and a harem of supermodels.
Srini: Yeah. And I, none of those things, how did we end up here? Like, how did we end up in this mess? Because technology, to me, seems like a double-edged sword. If it's used properly, it can lead to beautiful things, but it also has led us into a state of disarray in a lot of ways.
Tiago Forte: Yes, I see it the same way.
Tiago Forte: It's a double-edged sword. It's not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. It's just how you use it. There are so many causes for that—the way the internet has evolved, the fact that we're in a knowledge-based economy that values knowledge, and the way that software has made it easier.
Tiago Forte: And hardware has made it so easy to create content. So now everyone is creating content about even things like politics and society becoming more divided and more controversial. All these things drive people to seek, consume, and acquire information. Which feels great for a while. We have all these scarcity biases; we have such scarcity-based psychology where it's like, "More and more, acquire, acquire, just collect and stockpile as much stuff as you can."
Tiago Forte: And I, I always observed that in the context of the physical world of goods and services, we've started to realize, wait a minute, endless acquisition of consumer goods is not actually making our lives better. We're just starting as a culture to have that realization.
Tiago Forte: But in the digital world, we haven't even started. We haven't even begun. I guess there's something like digital minimalism, but most people haven't yet turned the corner and started to realize, oh, it's actually about being very selective and mindful and intentional about the information that I let into my life.
Tiago Forte: And then it's what I do, how I use that information that actually determines its value.
Srini: Yeah, I think the thing that makes digital spaces so unique, and I've said this before, is I wrote an article about the disadvantages of using folders for personal knowledge management in relation to why I like MEMA.
Srini: And I said, the problem is that in the digital world, your storage spaces are like closets with infinite space. Yeah. And that I think is what contributes to this problem. So you do absolutely have to be much more mindful and intentional. And I remember writing in an article somewhere.
Tiago Forte: problem. Yeah. In fact, I don't know if you've ever or your listeners have ever lost a computer or like completely lost it, like a large amount of data, like a hard drive or a backup or something.
Srini: I told someone once I bet if you deleted 90% of the things on your computer, you wouldn't miss a beat and your life would go on with no
Tiago Forte: I felt a sense of loss and grief, but at the same time, I was like, "What do I actually care about? The memories, the places I traveled, the people I met, the experiences I had, the food I ate—no one can really take away those experiences for me." And I think that's one thing that has led me to this focus on actionability.
Tiago Forte: It's really not. The endless acquisition of these information assets, it's what creates singular unforgettable experiences and outcomes and results come out of them. That's what you keep. Yeah. I think that initially, people view what you teach as a method for organizing information.
Srini: And I realize that's the surface-level yes of everything you do after reading this book. But there are a couple of things that struck me in particular that I want to talk to you about. You say that information is the fundamental building block of everything you do; anything you might want to accomplish -- executing a project, getting a new job, learning a new skill, or starting a business -- requires finding and putting to use the right information. Your professional success and quality of life depend directly on your ability to manage information effectively.
Tiago Forte: It's a really, really interesting moment to me. Having had that experience, you feel a tremendous sense of loss, almost grief, like you've lost this asset, this treasure, but you're right in a way. When this happened to me, I lost a computer when I was traveling overseas.
Srini: And then you go on to say that research from Microsoft shows that the average US employee spends 76 hours per year looking for misplaced notes, items, or files. And it, that just struck me as like, 76 hours is a shitload of time in which you could accomplish something. Yeah.
Tiago Forte: It really is.
Srini: Yeah. You talk about the fact that you know, the world is becoming more manufactured.
Tiago Forte: To increase. Oh, absolutely. It's increasing every day and it's not going to stop; it's just not.
Srini: So how do you balance this sort of evolution of information, I think we are producing and consuming information at a pace, unlike any other time in history. And the funny thing is that it's not going to decrease. It's only going to increase.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. So, one of the things I've been experimenting with lately is using the Pomodoro technique for writing.
Srini: One thing I want to talk about, and then we'll start to get into the tactical aspects of this. The more I dived into your work, the more time I spent on myself, and the more I started to really explore this idea of network thinking. I realized we basically had people write all these books, like Deep Work, like Digital Minimalism, the world of that email.
Srini: Not that I'm picking on Cal, 'cause I love ya, Newport. It's one of my favorite people in the world, and we've built all these distraction blockers, and come up with all these productivity hacks. And yet...
Srini: I realized there is not a single one that addresses the root cause of all these problems; they all alleviate symptoms.
Tiago Forte: The thing that
Srini: And yet that is the one thing nobody has ever tried to really solve. They've just put Band-Aids on all these.
Srini: Because after going through your book and spending a lot of time really thinking about this, I realize the root cause of all these issues is how we organize information. I totally agree.
Tiago Forte: Problems.
Tiago Forte: Oh yeah. The thinking has been that it's not possible, that there is no, giving up it's hopeless. There is no way to organize your own information and thus the solution becomes to outsource it to Google, to Facebook, someone else has to come in and save you. Yeah. And I think that's just, there's you need to have agency and empowerment to do it for yourself, to have a place that you truly control.
Tiago Forte: That is not just Google or so. Yeah. Let's talk.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. So the broadest definition is really just a trusted place outside your head where you keep and make use of the most important information in your life. And that can be paper. I tend to prefer software, and that's what my book is about. But it's really the same way that you have this first brain, this biological brain that is the repository of what you know and has experienced.
Tiago Forte: There are certain things to remember and things to memorize that your brain is really not suited for. Memorizing details is pretty much the worst thing that your brain does. The thing that it's worst at. And software is still rudimentary in many ways. It's nowhere close to artificial intelligence, but it can take over; you can delegate the very easiest tasks, which is remembering.
Tiago Forte: Yeah!
Srini: About what a second brain is. Let's assume that somebody who has never heard of it doesn't know what it is. Is like, "What the heck is a second brain?" Describe the actual definition of a second brain.
Srini: How does the second brain do that?
Tiago Forte: So these are really four things that your brain, your first brain, is not good at that software can do easily. Do you want to go through them one at a time? Yeah, sure. So the first one is the starting point of all the rest. You have to make your ideas concrete, right?
Tiago Forte: As long as they're in your head, there're these vague, mystical, ambiguous concepts. And writing them down, the ancient, timeless practice of writing them down suddenly makes them an objective artifact outside of your subjective mind, which means once they're concrete, you can play with them.
Srini: I think that it's fascinating. 'Cause I, I had said it was like using your brain to store information is like buying a Ferrari and then driving it through a school zone where the speed limit is 25 miles an hour. You're basically wasting its power. Yes. And so let's get into what you call the four essential capabilities that we can rely on for the second brain to perform for us, making ideas concrete, revealing new associations between ideas, incubating our ideas over time, and sharpening our unique perspectives.
Tiago Forte: Pieces. Yes. So the second one reminds me of the second one.
Tiago Forte: You can edit them, you can annotate them, can connect them together. You can combine them and build something bigger. All those capabilities depend on first, having them be in a concrete place, outside your head. So let's go into the other.
Tiago Forte: Again, revealing new associations between ideas. My brain has atrophied at this point, so I can't, Yeah. Yeah, so this is building on that first one. We know that the connectivity of ideas is extremely important. We know that associations, especially unexpected associations, unusual associations are important.
Tiago Forte: And so if you want the links and associations that you've discovered to last, basically you want them to be preserved over time. You have to make those linkages somewhere outside of your head, such as in a piece of software. Yeah.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. So the third one is really just that of preservation. You could, I don't know if you've ever had just a crazy one, I'm sure you've had many crazy caffeine-fueled brainstorming sessions either by yourself or with a group of people. And it's amazing. It's fun. You just discover these incredible new ways of looking at the world.
Tiago Forte: But that is also a thing that's hard to do in our first brain. You might be able to connect two ideas at any given time, but then you shift your attention to think about some other third thing. And that first connection kind of dissolves; it's like our working memory is so tiny we can only remember basically a few items at any given time.
Srini: And then let's finally talk about incubating and sharpening perspectives.
Tiago Forte: So that the next time you come back, it's what did we talk about in that brainstorm? Does anyone remember? It's funny. Yeah. And so it's just about letting things last so that they can slowly, organically develop and build and evolve over time. Yeah. We, I know you and I talked about Ryan Holiday last time.
Tiago Forte: But then you reach your biological limits. You get tired, you get hungry. And it's almost like when you step away from that brainstorming session unless there's a lasting record of it. It's like a sandcastle getting dissolved by the ocean waves. You are basically just letting it all flutter away into the wind.
Tiago Forte: Off of.
Tiago Forte: I love that so much because I think that's true of everyone. I think that everyone, anyone listening to this, you have almost incalculable value just sitting in your inbox, documents folder, or notes app. It doesn't have to be the most world-changing insight about theoretical physics or something.
Srini: We spoke and I still, to this day, remember when he told me that he wrote down the idea for the novel on a note card, four years before he wrote the book and that book went on to sell a million copies. And he told me, he said most of these notes lead to nothing, but one of them is enough to build a career.
Tiago Forte: Yeah
Srini: And what I realized was that there are so many seeds for what you should create next in what you've already created, but it's very difficult to see that if you haven't externalized what you're talking about.
Tiago Forte: It can just be something that could help someone. There's no way that you don't have a ton of knowledge that someone somewhere in the world could benefit from so much. And it's just sitting on our hard drives and our cloud drives. What it's waiting for is for us to actually take ownership of it and turn it into something new, which kind of brings us to the perspective point.
Srini: Absolutely. It's funny that you've talked about revealing new associations between ideas because we've mentioned Ryan Holiday. If you ask Ryan about his writing process, he'll tell you, believe it or not, he said often the next book is basically an extension of an idea in a previous book.
Tiago Forte: About that. Exactly. Oh, I love this point. Sereni, this is so good. So, I think people often think, oh, I'm going to create something.
Srini: Yes. Or a chapter from a previous book. And then recently Steven Pressfield had a new book coming out called, "Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants To Be". And. Wait a minute, Steven Pressfield literally took one word, one sentence from "The War of Art". And he turned that into a whole new book.
Tiago Forte: It's iterative. It's so iterative, you put something out and then people say, "Okay, 90% of it is really about this 10%." And then you double down on that 10% and then they give you another 10%. You just keep doubling down on what I think of as the signal; there's always a signal and there's always noise.
Tiago Forte: And they think they have to go into the workshop or the cave and just hammer out this singular, perfect diamond of creative work. Which of course is impossible. And they'll just be there forever tinkering away. That's just not how creativity works. Especially in the internet age.
Tiago Forte: If you can just find that signal. And honestly, the best way of finding it is having other people find it for you. It's almost like by working in public, you are outsourcing so much of the work to other people. You're actually drawing on their intelligence and their perspective rather than trying to do all that effort yourself.
Tiago Forte: It's
Srini: Funny you say that because my friend Gareth and I co-host this weekly segment of the podcast called the Unmistakable Creativity Hour. And every idea we have for the next one is almost always based on something he says in the previous one. And I usually just take a note while we're talking inside my head.
Srini: And because I have 8,000 notes in here at this point or 7,000 plus notes, it literally takes me two minutes to plan the episode. Yeah. Using what you're talking about, just because we have so much content at our disposal. He says one thing and I'm like, okay, cool. And sometimes I don't have an idea 15 minutes before and I'm like, what are we gonna talk about?
Srini: And then I looked and I'm like, "Oh, okay. Let's just use
Tiago Forte: That. It's something that I think works across mediums. There are these little moments in this conversation; people will listen back and there will be this one little thing we say that will be the most important point in the whole conversation.
Tiago Forte: There is always just this like 80-20 momentary spark. If you can just listen for that spark it can become, like you said, the next thing. And then the next thing and the next thing, and it almost becomes like this. You're following. I think of it like a river. The river is flowing where it wants to go, right?
Tiago Forte: The water always follows the path of least resistance. I can tell you, you can try to force the river to go somewhere else, but it'll be an unimaginable amount of effort and won't work. It's much better to just follow where your own creativity wants to flow, rather than try to force it. It's also much more fun and much easier.
Srini: That makes a perfect segue into talking about this concept that you call CODE, which I know stands for Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express. So could you explain this to our listeners?
Tiago Forte: Yeah, I think
Tiago Forte: Yeah. As I was writing the book, this was actually a relatively late addition and it became the very core of the entire book, which was surprising.
Tiago Forte: I basically realized at some point through writing and speaking and teaching my course that there's no such thing as a second brain, apart from simply the tools that you use to execute your projects. I think people think, okay let me build this contraption, this one machine. And then once it's totally done and perfect, then I'll start to use it to get things done.
Tiago Forte: And that doesn't make any sense. It's like someone spending six months perfectly outfitting the ultimate commercial kitchen, buying every appliance and every knife and everything. And they don't even boil an egg or make a pot of rice.
Tiago Forte: All the little building blocks that you have gathered from the previous three steps – that is it.
Tiago Forte: It doesn't make sense. How do you know what appliances you need? How do you know the best way to lay out the kitchen? How do you know where things should be stored? The decisions about how to build your second brain have to come from the daily reality of simply moving forward, your projects, and your goals.
Tiago Forte: And that's what that process looks like, and this is why I made it. The core of the book is four steps: capture information (C), organize what you've captured (O), distill what you've organized (D), and finally express your voice, message, story, or idea, not out of the blue or on a blank slate, but drawing from and compiling together.
Srini: Yeah. It's funny because when I read that, I realized for 90% of people—myself included—prior to really understanding your work and the work of Sanka Aarons and really taking it to another level, that's where knowledge management kind of comes to an end.
Srini: And then when I combined both smart notes and progressive summarization, the results were mind-blowing to me.
Srini: Yes. It's like they save a bunch of quotes to read wise or whatever, and then they don't do anything with it. They might refer to it in a conversation. Like, that was the extent of it for me, but when I started rewriting stuff in my own words, which was distillation, it just took on a whole other level.
Tiago Forte: Absolutely. It's so true. Yeah. I think capturing for long was the hardest part because you had to use scrolls or pen or eventually paper there were so many obstacles to surmount that note-taking essentially just became just the taking, like you said, just, you could just get it down.
Tiago Forte: Oh my gosh. That's a success! But now, with capture tools - which is what I call - digital capture tools, you can just snap a photo with your phone and then use the live text feature on iOS to copy a string of text and paste it into your notes. You can just hit a button and speak into auto AI and have your voice transcribed.
Tiago Forte: You can have something like Readwise, which automatically detects highlighted text in an ebook or an article and saves it in your notes. These are tools we're starting to be able to use that create notes with little or even no effort. However, this solves one problem but then creates another problem of over-capture and over-accumulation.
Tiago Forte: Yeah!
Srini: Let's talk about your four capture criteria because I think that was really a good way to get people to be much more deliberate about how they go about this.
Tiago Forte: Absolutely. Could you remind me what they are? Yeah, that's
Srini: If you asked me five months from now, I'd probably have to look it up. It's personal, surprising, inspiring like it was inspiring, useful, personal, and surprising.
Tiago Forte: Yes. So these are the four criteria. The way that I came up with these is basically there's the most frequent objection that people always have, which is, "Why don't I just do a search on Google?" right?
Tiago Forte: That's essentially the extent of most people's knowledge management. They need to know something, so they do a search. And it's a great question because honestly, Google has taken over a vast swath of knowledge-seeking. Think about the past, if you wanted to know what was the population of South Africa.
Srini: It's hilarious because now I know this book better than you do, even though I didn't write it. But don't worry, because it's mainly because I've been living and breathing the concepts day in and day out, mainly because I've been writing this guide.
Tiago Forte: How would you even have to go down to the library or have an encyclopedia or something? Now it's instant, an instantaneous search away. And so it's like Google has replaced, maybe 60 or 70% of our knowledge-seeking activities, but there's still this 30 or 40% that Google can't do at all.
Tiago Forte: And so one way of thinking of your second brain is just a, it's like a motivational treasure chest. It is like an archive of everything that moves you, inspires you, makes you feel passionate, makes you feel interested, and those could be quotes, stories, images, or memories from your past.
Tiago Forte: And that's the four criteria. So one is information that is surprising or inspiring. I always say you can Google the answer to a question, but you can't Google a feeling. You can't Google a state of mind. You can't Google a perspective or a lens that makes you see things a certain way.
Tiago Forte: Those are things that Google simply can't surface for you as an individual. Wow.
Srini: Because, as I noticed myself, highlighting less. And I figured it out. Finally, I thought to myself, "Okay, I've written two nonfiction books." And I've explained this to people before. I was like, "If you look at every single nonfiction book, it follows a very similar structure. The author basically will make a key point in the opening of a chapter."
Srini: And then yeah, that's true. You're absolutely right because I like having those capture criteria; I think it really leads to a lot more discernment in the way that you pick up things from books.
Srini: Then he'll support that key point with a couple of examples. Maybe you'll keep one or two as a point of reference, and then they will give you the key takeaway. And I'm like, "Oh, the key takeaway and the key point, you don't really need to capture anything else."
Tiago Forte: And what I, yeah. If you saw
Srini: The number of notes that I rewrote in my own words for your book, I literally used all of them to write the ultimate guide to build a second brain in less than a week. That's why the book is better than me at this point.
Tiago Forte: It's so true. You, your behavior around highlighting and saving excerpts really changes when you start systematically keeping them and then reviewing them, and then using them.
Srini: That's the thing, right? Is that when you rewrite stuff in your own words, and I learned this from San Aarons, it reinforces your understanding, 'cause I think for me. That book made one thing clear: it made it clear why I got bad grades in college because if you think about high school versus college and knowledge consumption and knowledge testing in high school, you don't have to be smart to get good grades.
Tiago Forte: You start to, one thing I love to do is write book summaries. When I really want to understand the book. When I'm like, "Okay, this book could be a major milestone in my own journey," it's not enough to passively sit there and just read it or even review the highlights; I have to write. I have to put it into my own words.
Srini: You have to be good at memorizing facts and regurgitating information. Yes. You don't actually have to understand anything. And I realized this after reading The Wealth of Nations where I had to study economics in college and I was terrible at it. What I realized was that often what will happen is you have presented a concept, but then you're tested on that concept in a context that you've never seen before.
Srini: And that is really, I think the true test of whether you understand something is that, can you take this knowledge and apply it in another context than the one in which you acquired it?
Tiago Forte: Exactly. That's really it. And for me, that's what expression is - it's implementation, application, trial, and error - whatever word you use, it's like you hear an idea.
Tiago Forte: This is a fact, this thing that I just thought of just now that's ridiculous. You're not allowed to call that a fact. You have to create a hypothesis. You have to test it. Then the results have to be replicated. We have such a rigorous process for what we call science.
Tiago Forte: You're like, "Wow, that idea is fascinating. You have no idea. If that idea has any value, it can be completely 100% BS. In fact, you have to assume it is. Yeah. I always like to make the comparison to science; imagine a scientist just sitting back in their chair and thinking of a new theory and going, "Ah, yes, this is the truth."
Tiago Forte: That's empirical. And maybe in our personal lives, someone gives you, I don't know, a health tip or an exercise routine. You don't need to go to that extent, but there's gotta be some experimentation. Like you can't just take it on faith that this thing is good advice. You have to test it or try it out in some way.
Tiago Forte: Exactly. There are so many things that could be wrong. It could be dangerous. Maybe it works for certain personality types, but not others. In fact, I would bet this is true of all advice. It works given some assumptions, right? Under certain circumstances, but not others, or it depends on your stage of life or it depends on what you're trying to achieve, or it depends on what resources you have.
Tiago Forte: Yeah, this is why I've been joking and teasing out a book I've been working on titled "Everybody's Full of Shit, Including Me," which is about the fact that all prescriptive advice is context-dependent. So, the same advice that works for one person could royally screw up another person's life.
Tiago Forte: Yeah!
Tiago Forte: Every piece of advice in the universe has some limitations or conditions under which it's true. There's such a thing as universal advice, and so part of testing is exactly what you said: determining whether you fit the criteria for that advice to make sense for you.
Srini: So explain it to people who are unfamiliar with your work or don't know anything, because I think the thing that really struck me is that you always need to use multiple platforms to move your projects forward. No single platform can do everything. The intention here is not to use a single software program, but to use a single organizing system—one that provides consistency, even as you switch between apps and platforms multiple times.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. So I really always use the word system and a lot of the time people assume I'm referring to a software program, like one software program, and I'm really not. The system transcends any particular piece of software. It's manifested partially in a piece of software and various ones, but I really, I don't know.
Srini: Let's talk about para. Because I think that, as I said, para was something that I embraced right after our first conversation, but when I understood it through the lens of your book, it was just a whole other level of clarity and execution speed that I have yet to experience.
Tiago Forte: I've just been burned too many times by identifying too closely with one. I can cite lots of examples for one reason or another. My loyalty was punished and so I've arrived at a platform-agnostic approach and system that, if any single company, if any single app went out of business or turned evil or decided to sell my data or whatever it was, I might be sad or disappointed and might have to do some work to transition, but there always needs to be an exit plan.
Tiago Forte: Basically, there always needs to be a way for you to take your data with you and not have it go down with the ship. Yeah. Yeah. I cause I think I re-read the book one more time just for the sake of this conversation, just to get some ideas. And I remember you talking about TWI and this whole idea of project containers and how the nice thing about having everything in a container is...
Srini: You can move it without losing any of the content. So what does PARIS stand for, for people who don't know? Because, like I said, to me, once you start organizing every app with this same structure, it does build a reduction in your cognitive load. Freaking amazing.
Tiago Forte: That's the hidden theme.
Tiago Forte: I don't even know if I actually directly mentioned it throughout the entire book. The whole thing we're trying to do is reduce the cognitive load on your brain. That is the overarching thesis. Every little decision is made through that lens. And Para is a great example. So Para is the way that I recommend people perform the organizing step, which is the second step that the O in.
Tiago Forte: And it's actually, probably in fact, definitely, the single most, by far, the single most popular technique that I've ever taught. It was how everything started with the problem of organization. As you said, that's where most people are stuck. They've captured some notes, written some things down, they have some files, but it's like, what is the structure that allows me to make sense of all this?
Tiago Forte: And it's simply four letters. I'm a huge fan of four-letter frameworks. I love four letters which stand for the four categories into which all information, from all sources and all formats, can be placed: projects that you're working on (P), areas of responsibility (A), resources that you're keeping track of (R), and archives that are no longer active (A). We can go through them one by one if you'd like. Yeah, let's do that.
Tiago Forte: So the operating principle, you could say the organizing principle of para is instead of organizing information by these very broad subjects. This is what most people do because it's what they've seen in the library. Like psychology, science, architecture, and biology, as if it's like your class notebooks in school.
Tiago Forte: The problem with that approach is when you have 15 minutes in between meetings in the middle of a workday, you won't have time to look through a gigantic folder or tag called "psychology". It's simply too vast, too unspecific. So what I have people do is organize according to horizons of actionability.
Tiago Forte: So how actionable is something? And typically what that looks like is that projects are just generally the most actionable thing, right? They have a deadline, they're happening now. There are people waiting on you, there are milestones to meet. So really, most of your attention should be going to your active projects, which is why the "Projects" category exists.
Tiago Forte: Then you have a slightly less actionable category, which is your areas of responsibility, which is not projects, but aspects or domains of your life or your work that you have to manage and keep track of over time. So things like your personal life, your finances, your health, your friendships, your spouse, your dog, and your car, right?
Tiago Forte: It's not "Oh, I have a deadline in three days." It's more just like an ongoing kind of management. And then "Resources" is all the other things you're learning about, things you're researching, reading, you're doing highlights from books—kind of like everything else. And then "Archives" is simply anything from the previous three categories that is no longer active.
Tiago Forte: You don't want to delete it. Like in the digital world, pretty much, there's no longer ever any reason to delete. You can just keep it all. Don't even have to make that decision, but you do not want it front and center crowding and cluttering your attention, your workspace. So the archive, I think of it as like the deep freezer, like down in the basement, I can stick something in there.
Tiago Forte: It's preserved exactly as it is forever. And if I want it, I can go find it. But in the meantime, it's out of sight, out of mind. Yeah. It's funny because when we did the most recent launch of the Maximizer app, one of the things I advised people to do was to start by archiving everything.
Srini: Yes. And because then you get this sort of level of clarity because just the sheer overwhelm that people were feeling was mind-boggling to me and to watch the way they work. And, the way the metaphor that I came up with when I was trying to describe this is, the way that most people manage knowledge day to day is a bit like going to different grocery stores to buy every item on the list.
Srini: When all you wanna do is make a freaking peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Tiago Forte: That's such a great analogy. Yeah. And yet it's amazing. 'Cause I think that, once people see this, and I think the thing that frustrates me is that this is really hard to describe verbally, and it's so much easier to see.
Tiago Forte: Visually
Tiago Forte: Oh, yeah, this is the big challenge of all this. It's so abstract. It's so abstract. We're talking about information and categories and associations and patterns—like, before consumer technology really took off, the only people who even thought about this stuff were information scientists and information theorists.
Tiago Forte: Now it's like we each have to be like an information scientist just to get through our day-to-day lives. Yeah. So one other thing that you say, and I think this really was the thing that stood out to me when I started to understand what made this so powerful was that you say “PARA” isn't a filing system.
Srini: We want to generate knowledge. And so I thought, we need a new term to describe this and it's "personal knowledge generation," which is why I like it because it doesn't just manage knowledge, it generates knowledge.
Srini: It's a production system. It's no use trying to find the perfect place where a note belongs; there isn't one, and the whole system is constantly shifting and changing in sync with the constantly changing life. And that's what I realized - I'm like, yeah. And it's funny because as I'd been working with me, I said the whole term "personal knowledge management" is nonsensical because none of us want to manage knowledge.
Tiago Forte: It really is. I would even say it's not really worth all this effort if you're not creating anything. Now, the distinction though, is that today many people who are into knowledge management systems and whatever are content creators, they're writers, bloggers, podcasters, and YouTubers; that's been like many of the early adopters.
Tiago Forte: They're writing dozens of emails a day. They're giving presentations, they're writing memos and reports. They're creating deliverables and presenting them to clients, even something like a decision. Let's say you're a senior executive and you're not doing much execution - to me.
Tiago Forte: This is such an important perspective. Yeah. Yeah. It's like the purpose of all this is to create.
Tiago Forte: But I sincerely believe that is just the very leading edge of the first wave. Content creators are just a little bit ahead of the curve because that's their profession. But when I work with people who work in even the largest, biggest traditional organizations, to me, they're creators too.
Tiago Forte: Even making a decision is such a creative act. In a world of infinite possibilities, for you to arrive at a subtle, yet effective decision to me is on par with a ballet, an orchestra, or a painting. It requires so much deep thinking and innovation, and sensitivity. And so, when I look out on the world, I just see nothing but creators.
Tiago Forte: If there's any job that a human is still doing, I always say it's because it has an element of creativity in it. Some, yeah.
Srini: Absolutely. It's funny because the first time we spoke, I remember you walking me through the concept of the archipelago of ideas, which I think really makes a nice way to talk about moving a project forward.
Srini: And when I saw how it was explained in the book, I was like, "Holy cow!" And you just got a glimpse of how I planned the ultimate guide to building a second brain. For those of you who want to know how I did it, you can go watch the YouTube video that I did about Toggl's book.
Srini: But walk us through this idea of the archipelago of ideas and how people use it. Because when I saw that, I was like, "Wait a minute, this literally changes your ability to create content in a way that you never could before. And it speeds up the process." I already thought I had figured out a way to get really fast, but when I saw this, it was just like, "Oh my God!"
Tiago Forte: That makes me so happy. You're already such an incredibly prolific creator. So, if it has something to offer you, then I feel confident in it. Oh!
Srini: You should trust me. What you saw was what I said about the book, and we'll share that with our listeners towards the end. But explain this concept really quickly.
Tiago Forte: All at once, in one gigantic 'heavy lift', just get it out there. That is really difficult and it's stressful, and it's not sustainable. And you don't actually come up with something that great, because you're only drawing on the ideas that you can think of right at that moment.
Tiago Forte: Yeah. It comes from a book by Steven Johnson. I think it's called "Where Good Ideas Come From". And I think I even have a quite lengthy quote from him right in the book to cite where it came from. And it's really just this idea that if you're going to create something new, whether it's a reasoned email all the way to a book, you don't have to sit down and just furrow your brow and clench up your fists and then just...
Tiago Forte: So essentially an archipelago of ideas is a very "second brain" approach to creating new things, which you lay out essentially an outline like you, you lay out bullet points or even links to a series of different notes in a sequence that makes sense, in the order and in the sequence that you're going to present it in the final version.
Tiago Forte: So that the clearest example here is writing. Every time I sit down to write, to actually do the writing, virtually a hundred percent of the time on the left side of my screen, I have my outline, my archipelago of ideas. So I've already done all the thinking; there's no new research. I don't open any new browser tabs.
Tiago Forte: And so it's easy. The final step of writing, which people describe as torture. It's so hard and so painful, but when you have a second brain it becomes the easiest; you're just snapping together a collection of Legos that you've already found and already decided to use.
Srini: No, it's truly a game-changer. I, you know, as I said, I think people really need to see this in action to see how it works and how powerful it is. If there's any testament to that, I can think of the book; I remember telling my roommate, Matt, my old roommate, Matt, I said, "You know what? I'm gonna buy the book."
Tiago Forte: I don't find any new articles, nothing, all the research has been done. So all I have to do is translate this outline of a logical point-by-point argument, message, story, or whatever it is, translate it from the outline format on the left side of my screen to the right side of my screen, where I have a Google Doc, basically translating it from outline format into prose.
Tiago Forte: And you even have one of those instructional pamphlets for how to put them together. Yeah
Srini: If you don't think it was worth your money, and by the way, this is not an offer I'm making to everybody listening, just as an FYI, I told him, "I will give you the $20 for the book if you don't think it's valuable." And he sent me a text saying, "After reading the first chapter, I think you got your money's worth."
Srini: And he was like, "Holy cow!" I'm like, "Yeah, I was. When it comes to books, Matt, I'm always right—not that that's entirely true, but I was like, I've never given him a book recommendation where he didn't end up finding it to be an absolute game-changer when it comes to organizing our lives."
Tiago Forte: This before. I know. I'm first of all, thank you so much. You've been really, I'm really not sure this book would exist without.
Tiago Forte: Your introduction to our shared literary agent. But also just as importantly, I could find an agent, but you just believe in being on your podcast. I don't know if you even know this, but this was really one of my biggest breaks. I can remember back...
Srini: There are books that I would put at the top of my list. And this one is going to go into that list; Carol's bullet journal is the book that I've gifted the most. The one I've purchased on Amazon for people. And yours is going to be added to that; as the combination of the two, it's going to be like, I'm sending you these two books, read both of them.
Srini: Because together they're life-changing. Like I can't think of one person I introduced the bullet journal to who didn't say, "I don't understand how I lived without it."
Srini: Absolutely. As I said, I am just blown away by this, so I have one final question for you, which is how we finish all of our interviews. And I'm curious to see how you'll answer this after having written this book and I'll have, I think, almost three or four years later, what do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Tiago Forte: That felt like lighting a fuse under what? Today is about building a second brain. So thank you. Yeah, no.
Tiago Forte: I think more people have said that they first discovered me through the Unmistakable Creative podcast than I think. And it's not even the biggest podcast I've been on. Yeah. But there was something about the combination of your audience, your passion and support, and the timing quite early on.
Tiago Forte: Gosh, I think it comes back to that idea of perspective. Every single person has a unique perspective. It's a mathematical fact. No one has had the exact set of life experiences and learned the exact lessons in the same order, in the exact same way. And we're taught in school and elsewhere that our perspective limits us; that we have blind spots and biases and that we miss things, which is completely true, but there's another side of that coin, which is that our perspective gives us unique insights.
Tiago Forte: Also allows us to see things that no one else can see. And this is the reason I think everyone can be a creator; a creator should be a creator. If you don't communicate even to one person what you see through that unique lens of yours, I think the world has lost something forever. I think that it's inherently valuable to share something that you see uniquely through your own lens.
Tiago Forte: And that's why we need everyone. We really need everyone on the planet to capitalize on the value of their ideas and take ownership of their story and their message. We really can't get enough because the world has a lot of problems and we really just need everyone's contributions to solve them. Yeah.
Tiago Forte: Awesome! And
Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story, your wisdom, and your insights with listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything? You're up.
Srini: For everyone listening, we will wrap up the show with that.
Tiago Forte: They can find everything at buildingasecondbrain.com, including the book, the course, the podcast, and the blog - it's all part of the Second Brain extended universe.
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