Second Brain

The idea of a second brain really hit home. Steven and I were doing some refactoring of some code in our Amiga podcast last night, and every time we moved something between files we had to remember which header files needed including. Neither of us were familiar enough with the libraries to know this, so people in the chat had to keep helping us.

But these are things we’ve already done, so we ought to be able to recall that stuff, with or without support. And when I say with support, I mean with what that post is calling a “second brain”, i.e. with an external, indexed cache of my brain. I shouldn’t need to reconstruct from scratch information I’ve already come across, but neither should I need to remember it all.

There are three problems I can see on the path to second brain adoption. The first, and the one that immediately made itself felt, is having a single interface for all my notes. When I read this article I thought that blogging about it would be a good way to crystallise my thoughts on the topic (it’s working!). So I saved the URL to Pinboard, I wrote a task in OmniFocus to write a blog post, and then when I was ready I fired up MarsEdit to write the blog that would end up on my WordPress.

Remembering that all these bits are in all these systems is itself a brain overload task. And there’s more: I have information in Zotero about academic papers I’ve read, I have two paper notebooks on the go (one for computing projects and one for political projects), I have a Freewrite and a Remarkable, which each have their own sync services, I have abandoned collections of notes in Evernote and Zim…

I have a history of productivity porn addiction that doesn’t translate to productivity. I get excited by new tools, adopt them a bit, but don’t internalise the practice. So then I have another disjoint collection of some notes, maybe in a bullet journal, a Filofax, Livescribe notes, Apple Notes, wherever…making the problem of second brain even harder to manage because now there are more places.

So step one is to centralise these things. That’s not a great task to try to do in a Big Bang, so I’ll do it piecemeal. Evernote is the closest thing I already use to the second brain concept, so today I’ve stopped using my paper notebooks, writing those notes in Evernote instead. I also moved this draft to Evernote and worked on it there.

The second problem is implicit in that last paragraph: migration. Do I sit and scan all my notebooks, with my shocking and OCR-resistant handwriting, into Evernote? Do I paste all my summaries of research articles out of Zotero and into Evernote? No, doing so will take a long time and be very boring. What I’ll do instead is to move toward integration from this moment on. If I need something and I think I already have it, I’ll move it into Evernote. If I don’t have it, I’ll make it in Evernote. It will take a while to reap the benefit, but eventually I’ll have a single place to search when I want to look for things I already know.

And that’s the third of my three problems. Being diligent about searching the second brain. You have to change your approach to solving knowledge problems to be “do I already know this?” The usual, for me at least, is “what do I do to know this?” Now I’m good at that, with lots of experience at finding, appraising, and synthesising information, so doing it from scratch every time is mostly a waste of time rather than a fool’s errand. But it’s time I don’t need to waste.

I think that the fact I haven’t internalised these three aspects of the second brain is due to the generation of computing in which I really invested in computers. Most of the computers I learned to computer on could only do one thing at a time, practically if not absolutely. They didn’t have much storage, and that storage was slow. So that meant having different tools for different purposes. You would switch from the place where you recorded dance moves to the place where you captured information on Intuition data types, and rely on first brain for indexing. You wouldn’t even have all of it in the computer: I was 23 when I got my first digital camera, and 25 before I had an MP3 player. I did my whole undergraduate degree using paper notes and books from libraries and book stores. First brain needed to track where physically any information was in addition to where logically it was.

What I’m saying is I’m a dinosaur.

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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