You see, all the content you consume online and through all the different kinds of media you have at your disposal isn’t useless. It’s incredibly important and valuable. The only problem is that you’re often consuming it at the wrong time.
It is in the power of remembering that the self’s ultimate freedom consists. I am free because I remember.—Abhinavagupta, tenth-century Kashmiri philosopher and mystic
Before we do anything with our ideas, we have to “off-load” them from our minds and put them into concrete form. Only when we declutter our brain of complex ideas can we think clearly and start to work with those ideas effectively.
In its most practical form, creativity is about connecting ideas together, especially ideas that don’t seem to be connected.
Even when we do a brainstorm, that still relies only on ideas that we can think up right now. What are the chances that the most creative, most innovative approaches will instantly be top of mind? What are the odds that the best way to move forward is one of the first ways we come up with?
We tend to favor the ideas, solutions, and influences that occurred to us most recently, regardless of whether they are the best ones.
When you feel stuck in your creative pursuits, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. You haven’t lost your touch or run out of creative juice. It just means you don’t yet have enough raw material to work with. If it feels like the well of inspiration has run dry, it’s because you need a deeper well full of examples, illustrations, stories, statistics, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, photos, mindmaps, conversation notes, quotes— anything that will help you argue for your perspective or fight for a cause you believe in.
Most important of all, don’t get caught in the trap of perfectionism: insisting that you have to have the “perfect” app with a precise set of features before you take a single note. It’s not about having the perfect tools— it’s about having a reliable set of tools you can depend on, knowing you can always change them later.
The first way that people tend to use their Second Brain is as a memory aid. They use their digital notes to save facts and ideas that they would have trouble recalling otherwise: takeaways from meetings, quotes from interviews, or the details of a project, for example.
The second way that people use their Second Brain is to connect ideas together. Their Second Brain evolves from being primarily a memory tool to becoming a thinking tool. A piece of advice from a mentor comes in handy as they encounter a similar situation on a different team. An illuminating metaphor from a book finds its way into a presentation they’re delivering. The ideas they’ve captured begin gravitating toward each other and cross-pollinating.
Eventually, the third and final way that people use their Second Brain is for creating new things. They realize that they have a lot of knowledge on a subject and decide to turn it into something concrete and shareable. Seeing so much supporting material ready and waiting gives them the courage to put their own ideas out there and have a positive impact on others.
When it comes to digital notes, we can use much easier and lighter ways of organizing. Because our priorities and goals can change at a moment’s notice, and probably will, we want to avoid organizing methods that are overly rigid and prescriptive. The best way to organize your notes is to organize for action , according to the active projects you are working on right now. Consider new information in terms of its utility , asking, “How is this going to help me move forward one of my current projects?”
The human mind is like a sizzling-hot frying pan of associations— throw a handful of seeds in there and they’ll explode into new ideas like popcorn. Every note is the seed of an idea, reminding you of what you already know and already think about a topic.
Why is it so important to be able to easily find the main point of a note? Because in the midst of a busy workday, you won’t have time to review ten pages of notes on a book you read last year— you need to be able to quickly find just the main takeaways. If you’ve highlighted those takeaways in the flow of the reading you were already doing anyway, you’ll be able to remind yourself of what the book contains without having to spend hours rereading it.
Every time you take a note, ask yourself, “How can I make this as useful as possible for my future self?” That question will lead you to annotate the words and phrases that explain why you saved a note, what you were thinking, and what exactly caught your attention.
Your notes will be useless if you can’t decipher them in the future, or if they’re so long that you don’t even try. Think of yourself not just as a taker of notes, but as a giver of notes— you are giving your future self the gift of knowledge that is easy to find and understand.
A common challenge for people who are curious and love to learn is that we can fall into the habit of continuously force-feeding ourselves more and more information, but never actually take the next step and apply it. We compile tons of research, but never put forward our own proposal. We gather untold business case studies, but never pitch one potential client. We study every piece of relationship advice available, but never ask anyone out on a date.
It’s so easy to endlessly delay and postpone the experiences that would so enrich our lives. We think we’re not ready. We fear we’re not prepared. We cannot stand the thought that there is one little piece of information we’re missing that, if we had it, would make all the difference. I’m here to tell you that that is no way to live your life. Information becomes knowledge—personal, embodied, verified— only when we put it to use. You gain confidence in what you know only when you know that it works. Until you do, it’s just a theory.
Information is always in flux, and it is always a work in progress. Since nothing is ever truly final, there is no need to wait to get started. You can publish a simple website now, and slowly add additional pages over time. You can send out a draft of a piece of writing now and make revisions later when you have more time. The sooner you begin, the sooner you start on the path of improvement.
The word “productivity” has the same origin as the Latin verb producere , which means “to produce.” Which means that at the end of the day, if you can’t point to some kind of output or result you’ve produced, it’s questionable whether you’ve been productive at all.
The consumerist attitude toward information— that more is better, that we never have enough, and that what we already have isn’t good enough— is at the heart of many people’s dissatisfaction with how they spend their time online. Instead of trying to find “the best” content, I recommend instead switching your focus to making things, which is far more satisfying.
Everything not saved will be lost.—Nintendo “Quit Screen” message
Just as with the food we put into our bodies, it is our responsibility and right to choose our information diet. It’s up to us to decide what information is good for us, what we want more of and less of, and ultimately, what we do with it. You are what you consume, and that applies just as much to information as to nutrition.
You may already consume a lot of content from many different sources, but perhaps never put much thought into what you do with it afterward. Maybe you are already a diligent organizer, but you’ve fallen into a habit of “digital hoarding” that doesn’t end up enriching your life. Or, if this is all completely new to you, you may be starting at square one.
For Swift, writing songs is not a discrete activity that she can do only at certain times and in certain places. It is a side effect of the way her mind works, spinning off new metaphors and turns of phrase at the most unexpected times:
Note: Good people makes one good thing and stays stagnant. Where great people goes through evolution, changing in every step of the process.
This story sheds light on how even the world’s most successful and prolific creatives need support systems to pursue their craft. It’s not a matter of having enough raw talent. Talent needs to be channeled and developed in order to become something more than a momentary spark.
Innovation and impact don’t happen by accident or chance. Creativity depends on a creative process .
The meaning of a thought, insight, or memory often isn’t immediately clear. We need to write them down, revisit them, and view them from a different perspective in order to digest what they mean to us. It is exceedingly difficult to do that within the confines of our heads. We need an external medium in which to see our ideas from another vantage point, and writing things down is the most effective and convenient one ever invented.
You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
How do I start reading all the books I already have instead of buying more?
Take a moment now to write down some of your own favorite problems. Here are my recommendations to guide you: Ask people close to you what you were obsessed with as a child (often you’ll continue to be fascinated with the same things as an adult). Don’t worry about coming up with exactly twelve (the exact number doesn’t matter, but try to come up with at least a few). Don’t worry about getting the list perfect (this is just a first pass, and it will always be evolving). Phrase them as open-ended questions that could have multiple answers (in contrast to “yes/ no” questions with only one answer). Use your list of favorite problems to make decisions about what to capture: anything potentially relevant to answering them.
There is a way out of this situation. It starts with realizing that in any piece of content, the value is not evenly distributed . There are always certain parts that are especially interesting, helpful, or valuable to you. When you realize this, the answer is obvious. You can extract only the most salient, relevant, rich material and save it as a succinct note.
If you try to save every piece of material you come across, you run the risk of inundating your future self with tons of irrelevant information. At that point, your Second Brain will be no better than scrolling through social media.
There is a way to evoke a sense of inspiration more regularly: keep a collection of inspiring quotes, photos, ideas, and stories. Any time you need a break, a new perspective, or a dash of motivation, you can look through it and see what sparks your imagination. For example, I keep a folder full of customer testimonials I’ve received over the years. Any time I think what I’m doing doesn’t matter or isn’t good enough, all I have to do is open up that folder and my perspective is completely shifted.
Sometimes you come across a piece of information that isn’t necessarily inspiring, but you know it might come in handy in the future. A statistic, a reference, a research finding, or a helpful diagram— these are the equivalents of the spare parts a carpenter might keep around their workshop. For example, I keep a folder full of stock photos, graphics, and drawings I find both online and offline. Any time I need an image for a slide deck, or a web page, or to spark new ideas, I have a plentiful supply of imagery I’ve already found compelling ready and waiting.
No one else has access to the wisdom you’ve personally gained from a lifetime of conversations, mistakes, victories, and lessons learned. No one else values the small moments of your days quite like you do. I often save screenshots of text messages sent between my family and friends. The small moments of warmth and humor that take place in these threads are precious to me, since I can’t always be with them in person. It takes mere moments, and I love knowing that I’ll forever have memories from my conversations with the people closest to me.
The renowned information theorist Claude Shannon, whose discoveries paved the way for modern technology, had a simple definition for “information”: that which surprises you. 7 If you’re not surprised, then you already knew it at some level, so why take note of it? Surprise is an excellent barometer for information that doesn’t fit neatly into our existing understanding, which means it has the potential to change how we think. Sometimes you come across an idea that is neither inspiring, personal, nor obviously useful, but there is something surprising about it. You may not be able to put your finger on why, but it conflicts with your existing point of view in a way that makes your brain perk up and pay attention. Those are the ideas you should capture.
If what you’re capturing doesn’t change your mind, then what’s the point?
As you consume a piece of content, listen for an internal feeling of being moved or surprised by the idea you’re taking in. This special feeling of “resonance”— like an echo in your soul— is your intuition telling you that something is literally “noteworthy.” You don’t need to figure out exactly why it resonates. Just look for the signs: your eyes might widen slightly, your heart may skip a beat, your throat may go slightly dry, and your sense of time might subtly slow down as the world around you fades away. These are clues that it’s time to hit “save.”
If you ignore that inner voice of intuition, over time it will slowly quiet down and fade away. If you practice listening to what it is telling you, the inner voice will grow stronger. You’ll start to hear it in all kinds of situations. It will guide you in what choices to make and which opportunities to pursue. It will warn you away from people and situations that aren’t right for you. It will speak up and take a stand for your convictions even when you’re afraid.
The moment you first encounter an idea is the worst time to decide what it means. You need to set it aside and gain some objectivity.
If you’re looking for a more precise answer of how much content to capture in your notes, I recommend no more than 10 percent of the original source, at most. Any more than that, and it will be too difficult to wade through all the material in the future. Conveniently, 10 percent also happens to be the limit that most ebooks allow you to export as highlights.
This is called “detachment gain,” as explained in The Detachment Gain: The Advantage of Thinking Out Loud by Daniel Reisberg, and refers to the “functional advantage to putting thoughts into externalized forms” such as speaking or writing, leading to the “possibility of new discoveries that might not have been obtained in any other fashion.” If you’ve ever had to write out a word to remember how it’s spelled, you’ve experienced this.
This order gives us a convenient checklist for deciding where to put a note, starting at the top of the list and moving down: In which project will this be most useful? If none : In which area will this be most useful? If none : Which resource does this belong to? If none : Place in archives.
Instead of organizing ideas according to where they come from , I recommend organizing them according to where they are going—specifically, the outcomes that they can help you realize.
As you distill your ideas, they naturally improve, because when you drop the merely good parts, the great parts can shine more brightly.
Unlike Capture and Organize, which take mere seconds, it takes time and effort to distill your notes. If you try to do it with every note up front, you’ll quickly be mired in hours of meticulous highlighting with no clear purpose in mind. You can’t afford such a giant investment of time without knowing whether it will pay off.
every time you “touch” a note, you should make it a little more discoverable for your future self*—by adding a highlight, a heading, some bullets, or commentary.
Don’t make excuses about what you don’t have or what you would do if you did, use that energy to “find a way, make a way.”
“Use what you have; even if it seems meager, it may be magic in your hands.”
If there is a secret to creativity, it is that it emerges from everyday efforts to gather and organize our influences.
To truly “know” something, it’s not enough to read about it in a book. Ideas are merely thoughts until you put them into action. Thoughts are fleeting, quickly fading as time passes. To truly make an idea stick, you have to engage with it. You have to get your hands dirty and apply that knowledge to a practical problem. We learn by making concrete things— before we feel ready, before we have it completely figured out, and before we know where it’s going.
Creative products are always shiny and new; the creative process is ancient and unchanging.—Silvano Arieti, psychiatrist and author of Creativity: The Magic Synthesis
As powerful and necessary as divergence is, if all we ever do is diverge, then we never arrive anywhere. Like Francis Ford Coppola highlighting certain passages and crossing out others in The Godfather novel, at some point you must start discarding possibilities and converging toward a solution. Otherwise, you will never get the rewarding sense of completion that comes with hitting “send” or “publish” and stepping back from the canvas or screen knowing you got the job done.
The more imaginative and curious you are, the more diverse your interests, and the higher your standards and commitment to perfection, the more difficult you will likely find it to switch from divergence mode into convergence mode. It’s painful to cut off options and choose one path over another. There is a kind of creative grief in watching an idea that you know is full of potential get axed from a script or a story. This is what makes creative work challenging.
How do you create a Hemingway Bridge? Instead of burning through every last ounce of energy at the end of a work session, reserve the last few minutes to write down some of the following kinds of things in your digital notes: Write down ideas for next steps: At the end of a work session, write down what you think the next steps could be for the next one. Write down the current status: This could include your current biggest challenge, most important open question, or future roadblocks you expect. Write down any details you have in mind that are likely to be forgotten once you step away: Such as details about the characters in your story, the pitfalls of the event you’re planning, or the subtle considerations of the product you’re designing. Write out your intention for the next work session: Set an intention for what you plan on tackling next, the problem you intend to solve, or a certain milestone you want to reach.
You can’t wait until everything is perfect. There will always be something missing, or something else you think you need.
It’s crucial to stay organized, but it needs to be done a little at a time in the flow of our normal lives. It needs to be done in the in-between moments of moving your projects forward as you notice small opportunities for improvement.
An idea wants to be shared. And, in the sharing, it becomes more complex, more interesting, and more likely to work for more people.—adrienne maree brown, writer and activist
Life tends to surface exactly what we need to know, whether we like it or not.
I believe most people have a natural desire within them to serve others. They want to teach, to mentor, to help, to contribute. The desire to give back is a fundamental part of what makes us human.
What’s the point of knowing something if it doesn’t positively impact anyone, not even yourself? Learning shouldn’t be about hoarding stockpiles of knowledge like gold coins. Knowledge is the only resource that gets better and more valuable the more it multiplies. If I share a new way of thinking about your health, or finances, or business, or spirituality, that knowledge isn’t less valuable to me. It’s more valuable! Now we can speak the same language, coordinate our efforts, and share our progress in applying it. Knowledge becomes more powerful as it spreads.