I've spent hundreds of hours researching and tinkering with personal knowledge systems. For the past several years, I've attended the annual Building a Second Brain course by Tiago Forte, and the advice presented in this workshop has been tested in the real world by countless people.
However, just like organic brains, exobrains vary from person to person. I would be shocked if anyone creates an effective system that uses all my advice, but the advice in this workshop is broad enough that it's probably helpful. Try out my recommendations and deviate as needed.
Be skeptical of anyone who makes grand claims about how they used such-and-such productivity systems to run a business/youtube channel/newsletter. You have no way to verify their claims, and it’s easy to deceive ourselves. The only thing I will claim in this workshop is that this will hopefully help you “get up to zero” and become at least average in competence.
Thinking is bad; humans should do less of it. — David Youssef
In other words: reduce the energy spent on thought, and use it for more important actions. Cognition and memorization are expensive — both in time and literal energy — but failing to remember critical information is even costlier. Human minds are good at having ideas but terrible at storing them.
If you don't offload tasks and thoughts to an external system, they stay in your head as "open loops". Each extra loop sucks up a little bit of mental processing. Like a laptop bogged down by too many browser tabs, a mind burdened by too many open loops will struggle to achieve its goals. Closing unnecessary loops is the focus of this workshop.
That said, this isn't a typical productivity course. "Productivity" implies a value judgment on "being productive" or (even worse) "being busy". Your worth is not measured by how much time you spend on the grind. My goal with this workshop is to help you be lazier, to help free up time and energy to do things you want to do.
In this workshop, I use "productivity" to mean "maximizing your time and energy". Once you reduce your wasted motion, you'll have more time to spend on the things that matter to you.
- Identify your inputs.
- Establish a calendar, a note-taking tool, and a task manager.
- If applicable, streamline your existing personal knowledge management (PKM) system.
An input is a tool or path through which information enters your mind. Some examples include:
- Internet articles
An inbox is a type of input that accumulates information over time. Examples include email, text messages, and project management systems like Trello.
- The One Touch Guide to Doing a Weekly Review
- Choose one:
- Pick Your Notes App (video)
- How to Choose the Right Note-Taking App (article)
Note. The above content focuses on choosing your note-taking app. Notes are not the totality of your exobrain — you also need a calendar and a task manager. However, the note app is crucial and choosing the right one can feel impossible. Unfortunately, it's also a very personal choice. Whatever app you choose, stick with it for at least a month. This is how long it takes to build familiarity with the tool and accumulate a robust knowledge database.
Set Up Your Exobrain
Step 1: Choosing Your Tools
Choose a calendar, a note-taking app, and a task manager. Each tool should do one thing and you should have three of them. Pick tools that work on your phone and computer, and avoid multi-function tools.
Example. I use Google Calendar because it's ubiquitous and does a good job of covering the basics without getting bogged down in frills. I chose Roam as my note-taking app because of its bidirectional note linking, letting me revisit my notes and grow them over time. Finally, I use ToDoIst for my task manager because it's feature-rich and has a natural language interface.
Step 2: Reduce Friction
Once you've chosen your tools, make them front-and-center in your workspace. Put them on your taskbar, bind hotkeys, pin them to your phone's dock. The goal here is to make it take less than ten seconds to add an input. Any more, and the app will be too awkward to use in most cases. Beware trivial inconveniences.
Example. My tools are all webapps, so I bookmarked them at the top level of my bookmarks bar. They also have iOS apps, so I put them on the front page of my phone.
Step 3: Inboxes
Create an inbox folder in your note app and your task app. Use these folders as places to stash inputs that would otherwise be lost. Quick capture is an essential part of having an exobrain, and you should be able to add new inputs in under ten seconds.
Step 4: Review
The best exobrain is the one you actually use. A periodic review is a necessary component of maintaining and using an exobrain. Using the One Touch Guide, do a review of your productivity system. Include all major inboxes (except your notes and tasks) in the email step.
After finishing your review, schedule it as a weekly recurring event in your calendar.
For people who already have a system:
- List out your 12 Favorite Problems
- Make a top-level folder for projects in your note system
- A project is a task that takes multiple weeks and has multiple subtasks
- Moving forward, only capture information that resonates with you, or is helpful for an active project
- If you haven't chosen your three tools yet, share your current situation and discuss what you are having difficulty with. As per the Practical Decision Making course, try to narrow your search down to just a couple options.
- Share your current system with the group, and how your weekly review went. What challenges did you face? What could be changed?
- If you have time, share your 12 Favorite Problems, and see if any of your fellow cohort members have similar ones.
Tiago Forte's podcast and blog are excellent resources for PKM, especially note organization. I recommend you listen to at least the first episode of the first season. Afterwards, you can listen to whatever episodes resonate with you.
If you prefer pen-and-paper, I highly recommend the Bullet Journal system. Handwriting is a very meditative process that eliminates digital distractions. The Bullet Journal also includes the three core elements of an exobrain: calendar, notes, and task management. On the other hand, we live in a digital world. You will sacrifice a lot by not leveraging modern tools.