ICE Book Review – Building a Second Brain

By Rob Cooney (@EMEducation)

Building a Second Brain
By Tiago Forte

The field of personal knowledge management (PKM) has fascinated me for several years. We all know how much “data” we are exposed to and must process in medical education. Not only must we learn the accepted evaluation and treatment of patients, but we must keep up to date with new developments that happen at an accelerating rate. As educators, we must also stay up to date with the latest in educational changes, from new thinking around competency and trust to assessment and evaluation.

Building a Second Brain (BASB) is the book geared towards those who have an interest in the field of PKM. The author promises to help you, “find anything you’ve learned… organize your knowledge… Connect ideas… spend less time looking for things, and more time doing the best, most creative work you’re capable of.” At its core, BASB is a methodology that seeks to identify best practices for information processing, information storage, and information retrieval using digital tools. As the author points out in chapter 2, “anything you might want to accomplish-executing a project at work… learning new skill, …requires finding and putting to use the right information.” Unfortunately, we are often so surrounded by information that we can get lost in the overwhelm.

The technique proposed by the author throughout the remainder of the work takes its inspiration from commonplace books used by intellectuals from bygone eras. These books served as a combination of diary and learning tool and often included a significant amount of information relevant to the writer and projects of interest to them. With the variety of digital tools available to us today, we can take advantage of the same habits to organize and process our own information overwhelm.

To me, some of the more helpful parts of the book were simply how the author approaches knowledge management. To make sense of data, he utilizes a process that he terms CODE. The components of CODE are:

  1. Capture
  2. Organize
  3. Distill
  4. Express

Within capture, you collect data but keep only that information that resonates. Within the organize phase, you were looking for actionability. Within this phase, I also found the author’s approach to organizing notes very helpful. He calls it the PARA method, or Projects, Areas, Responsibilities, and Archives. This arrangement allows for linking notes to action instead of organizing by information type. The distillation face involves reviewing your notes to look for connections to existing knowledge or to create new knowledge. Finally, during the express phase you utilize your collected information to create new knowledge that you can share with the world.

Overall, I found the book to be thought-provoking. Some criticisms of the book focus on the lack of evidence to support the methodology. While I may not implement everything described, I have already re-organized my preferred digital note taking tool to take advantage of the PARA method and find that this helps me when taking on new projects. Documents from the archive can be moved into a project folder or back to archives when the project is over. If you find it difficult to deal with the variety of data and your day-to-day work, you will also likely find this book a helpful introduction to PKM.

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