I Couldn't Handle a Second Brain

I Couldn't Handle a Second Brain

There's been a lot of chatter about the idea of a "second brain" in the last year or two. The idea has largely stemmed from Tiago Forte's wonderful course and system he called "Building a Second Brain". The high level is: you leverage modern notetaking, media capture, and graph visualization software to store information quickly and be able to effortlessly recall it later. Productivity influencers swear by the process and each have their own take on how to implement the core principles for themselves.

Sometime last summer I discovered this idea of a second brain and thought it was a wonderful idea. I found it around the same time I found out about the Zettelkasten method of notetaking, which I also found extremely interesting. At some point this winter, I decided to take a weekend to get myself set up, and even made daily notetaking one of my habits for the new year.

Turns out, it's not for me.

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The Software

There's an exploding market for modern notetaking and knowledge storage software right now. I can name 9 without even thinking about it (in no order):

There are countless ways to boost your information storage setup, and certain systems work better for certain people. People who write long pages and want to manually search and link information may prefer something like Evernote or Bear. People who want a connection graph to form naturally from their notes may want something like Roam or Obsidian. And some people want to manage everything about their life in the same place for searchability and progress tracking; they should probably use Notion or something similar. If you have a preferred way of storing information, there's a service out there that will be better optimized for that workflow.

This choice on its own might be overwhelming, as many products don't have a very good free tier or trial for you to play around with before spending money on all the features. Even worse, many of these products don't use a standard format for storing notes, so there's no way to migrate you information out of the service if you decide you don't want to pay or you think another service does it better. I played around with Notion a bit at work (my company pays for the service) and decided it wasn't what I was looking for. I was hoping for a map of my mind.

In the end, I decided on a system of Apple Reminders, Instapaper, and Obsidian for my trial run. My reasons for Reminders are listed in the linked post, and I chose Instapaper because I've been using the service since 2011 as a "read it later" service. Obsidian worked around the issues I just listed above by being a frontend to regular markdown files, so I could switch services at any point if I wanted to, and provided a graph of my notes so I could see connections.

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My System

The goal of the second brain is to offload some of your cognitive power into a permanent system as quickly as possible. If that's not available, you need to save something that will remind you of your thought when you have enough time to start preserving that information.

There are all sorts of ways to do this, and some people have different notetaking applications for different media, and then transfer those notes into something more permanent like Evernote or Notion when they have the time. I didn't like that idea, partially because I don't really have issues with my memory. But I did decide to be more diligent and formalize my "in a rush" system:

  • Any to-do gets put in Apple Reminders
  • Notes and thoughts get written on paper if I have paper around, otherwise they're filed as a reminder
  • Any article that looks interesting gets saved to Instapaper

Then, when I had the time, I'd read the article or transfer my notes in Obsidian, where it would get added to my knowledge graph.

There are simpler systems, as well. I've heard of people using just Apple Notes for everything, or just Notion, or just a physical notebook. But because I already had decent habits with Instapaper and Reminders, I saw no need to change those habits and could try out something fancier for more permanent storage.

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Let's get this out of the way: I haven't even opened Obsidian in more than a month. In fact, the blog post was inspired by my uninstalling of the application.

My biggest problem seems to be my notetaking skill. My second biggest problem is my memory. And the other big problem was the things I was taking notes on.

Bad notetaking

I take very bad notes. This was part of the motivation for trying out an tool like Obsidian and formalizing my knowledge acquisition process. But my notes are so bad, they border on useless. For example, I started watching the Invicible TV show and wanted to try out some structured notetaking. My note starts with:

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An exercise in terrible notetaking.

"Invincible is a TV show about superpowered entities. It's almost a superhero show, but not quite. It is available on [[Amazon Video]].‌‌‌‌Great introduction to character struggle concealing their identities in a social environment."

This is a completely useless set of sentences. Maybe I'll forget that this was a story about superpowered people, but why did I think it was useful to write down that it wasn't quite like a normal superhero show? Wouldn't the other notes talk about superpowers? What in the world is that last sentence?

These sentences are how I processed the show as I watched it, and the transfer from thought to page didn't go very well. I just couldn't figure out what level of detail my notes needed to be, and this applied to more than just my reviews of TV shows or books. My thoughts are almost always connectly is some way to something else, but it's not core to what I'm really thinking about. A note like this might actually confuse me if I read it a year later and had forgotten some of my impressions of the show. The switch between summarizing and some very specific conclusions about the show's storytelling style is difficult to process even as I read it now.

Note taking is a skill, and if you haven't developed that skill you'll take bad notes. If you take bad notes you'll build a useless second brain.

Bad subject matter

A lot of the things I do in my free time are related to programming. I'll read programming books and write some code. Recently I've been learning Rust, and I've written about some of the gotchas I've encountered picking up the language.

Taking notes on a programming language is weird. Again, I might just be terrible at taking notes. But I have such a hard time differentiating between information that's useful to record, and information that's just part of learning the language.

Mind maps like Obsidian are great for tying together ideas, not necessarily pulling together documentation. And while I do read books and articles that are interesting and thought-provoking, the majority of my fun reading is spent reading technical articles with low-level details of technologies. It's extremely difficult to take good notes on these things because they almost never tie into anything else I'd take notes on.b

In my personal Rust example, I initially needed to remind myself of the Rust function call syntax. But searching the internet was faster than opening up my second brain and finding the section in the Rust document with the correct information. That information is so easily searchable that it's not worth writing down, even though at one point it was extremely valuable for me to write.

Things get even weirder when we get to my own code. Should I write my code down in my notes? Obviously not, that's what a git repository on my computer is for. Maybe I could keep track of specific, useful, non-trivial code blocks, but that requires knowing what counts as non-trivial before fully learning the language. Maybe I could document some "a ha!" moments. I did that briefly, but they didn't really come in the way I thought they might.

I ended up being very impressed with Obsidian's simplicity. I love how straightforward Apple's Reminders application is. And I'm a heavy Instapaper user. But none of these ended up being a good store of permanent information for me.

When I read something, I really read it. I dedicate 100% of my brainpower to understanding what's in the text. Taking notes slows down this process, which is already slow to begin with, and takes me out of my focus zone. As a result, when I take notes on something, I don't remember it as well as when I just sit down and focus.

This reading style, combined with my decent memory, has led to some issues with notetaking. And not just because my notes are bad and they slow down my reading: I can generally remember something before I could possibly go look it up in my second brain. My first brain is enough. And it makes searching for anything feel slow.

Of course I forget things. I forget things all the time. But I can often do a quick search on the internet and have it jog my memory for all the details that were once there.

Too much time

For all of the above reasons, I struggled to pull together anything useful in Obsidian. And it took too much time. I knew I was writing bad notes and had to constantly edit the tone and flow of the notes as they were being written. I struggled to figure out the important nouns and verbs to create relevant links in the relation graph. And I never, not once, went into Obsidian looking for something I had learned or thought before. Right before I deleted the application, I tried to find some new piece of information from my notes. I couldn't find any.

Too Much

My second brain was sucking time and energy out of my primary brain. It made it harder for me to remember things I would normally remember. It wasn't something I ever referenced. It was a source of stress as I struggled to find the right type of notetaking to provide value.

So I ditched my second brain. It wasn't a match for my first brain, and I couldn't handle the differences.