The idea of a second brain is nothing new. In fact, the concept dates back to the late 19th century when German psychiatrist Karl Westphal used the term to describe the way our brains store and process memories. But what is a second brain? And why do we need one?
Simply put, a second brain is a way to store and organize information so that we can offload some of the mental burdens that come with trying to remember everything.
In the past, people have used things like folders and physical notebooks to try and create a second brain. The problem with using these methods to build a second brain is that they require you to spend a lot of time managing the systems that manage your information.
But with the advent of new technology, we now have better tools at our disposal to help us create a more effective second brain. Enter the personal network of knowledge.
A personal network of knowledge is a system for organizing information that enables you to find, connect, and use your knowledge more effectively. By building a personal network of knowledge, you can reduce the time you spend managing your information and increase the time you spend using your knowledge to achieve your goals.
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The Hierarchical Second Brain
A hierarchy is a system of nested groups. A standard organizational chart is a hierarchy, with employees grouped into business units and departments reporting to a centralized authority. Other kinds of hierarchies include government bureaucracies, biological taxonomies, and a system of menus in a software program. Hierarchies are inherently “top-down” in that they are designed to enable centralized control from a single, privileged position- Tiago Forte, Tagging for Personal Knowledge Management.
With most note-taking tools and productivity tools, you store and organize information in hierarchies. Common examples include folders, subfolders, and files, or projects, tasks, and subtasks. This is what I call the hierarchical second brain.
Limitations of the Hierarchical Second Brain
PARA, which stands for projects, areas of responsibility, resources, and archives, allows you to standardize your organizational systems across multiple platforms and tools. But the hierarchical second brain has major limitations.
Note: The examples below are based on folders but apply to any hierarchical structure.
Ongoing Maintenance and Organization
Folders are like digital closets with infinite storage space, and when you use them for personal knowledge management, you have to organize and maintain them continually. The burden of remembering where you saved something is a waste of valuable cognitive bandwidth, and you spend more time looking for information than you spend creating new knowledge.
Information in Silos
Any information you capture can and should serve multiple purposes. But in a hierarchical second brain, your information is in silos. For example, say you have notes for one project that might be useful for a future project. To find and use those notes, you have to remember where they’re saved and move them to a new folder.
A High Toggling Task
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, people toggle between different apps and tools an average of 1200 times a day. For each toggle, you pay a tax of 2 seconds for a total of 40 minutes. The toggling tax compounds throughout the day, resulting in excessive context switching and an overall decrease in productivity.
Lack of Scalability
The biggest limitation of The Hierarchical Second Brain is that it doesn’t scale. The more information you add to it, the bigger the hassle it becomes to manage. I have more than 8000 notes in my Personal Network of knowledge. If they were in 1000s of folders, subfolders, and files, it would be close to impossible to find or use my notes.
The Personal Network of Knowledge
What distinguishes the network of knowledge from The Hierarchical Second Brain is the way that information is organized.
A network has no “correct” orientation and thus no bottom and no top. Each individual, or “node,” in a network functions autonomously, negotiating its own relationships and coalescing into groups. Examples of networks include a flock of birds, the World Wide Web, and the social ties in a neighborhood. Networks are inherently “bottom-up” in that the structure emerges organically from small interactions without direction from a central authority. -Tiago Forte, Tagging for Personal Knowledge Management
In a personal network of knowledge, all your knowledge assets are nodes in a network, not notes in a database. Because everything is connected to everything else, you can capture anything and find exactly what you need when you need it without having to remember where you saved it.
It’s a self-organizing second brain that functions autonomously, negotiating its own relationships and coalescing into groups, allowing for spontaneous recall and retrieval. This dynamic network of knowledge makes it easier to convert knowledge into action and free up your brain to do what it does best: imagine, invent, innovate, and create.
Advantages of the Personal Network of Knowledge
The personal network of knowledge provides several key advantages over the hierarchical second brain, including allowing users to find the exact information they need quickly, enabling idea sex to create new ideas, and requiring little to no organizing or maintenance of information.
Networks Aggregate the Flow of Information
None of your notes exist in isolation in a network of knowledge. This reduces the speed of information accessibility. As a result, you can retrieve knowledge with zero friction.
Networks Enhance Discoverability of Notes
In a hierarchy, information flows in one direction. Your notes become like cars on a one-way street. A file can’t live in two folders simultaneously.
In a network, information flows the same way water flows from multiple jets in a hot tub. Because your knowledge assets are nodes in a network, not notes in a database, one node can be connected to multiple nodes simultaneously. Networks enhance the discoverability of your notes because of the way information flows.
• First, it’s seamless to make connections between your ideas with bidirectional linking.
• Second, there’s a higher likelihood of spontaneous recall and retrieval.
With increased discoverability, you make your notes easier to find and use in the future.
Networks Enable More Products, Less Storage, and Organization
The purpose of taking notes isn’t to become an expert at organizing information. It’s to convert knowledge into action. Unlike the hierarchical second brain, the personal network of knowledge requires little to no organizing information.
- In a personal network of knowledge, you can focus more on intention and less on the structure. You don’t have to think about how to tag a note, where to save something, or how to find something when you need it.
- You can follow your creativity where it wants to flow. When you’re working on something that sparks an idea for something else, you can capture ideas as they occur using bidirectional linking and develop ideas when you’re Ready.
- Additionally, bidirectional links help you retrace the line of thought that sparked an idea.
The ultimate purpose of a Second Brain is to enable you to access and use the knowledge you accumulate for creative expression and to help you think more clearly and express your ideas more effectively. By creating a personal knowledge generation system, you can access the information you need quickly and easily and use it to create, solve problems, and reach goals faster than ever before.
Networks Make Knowledge Management Infinitely Scalable
The 9000-plus nodes in my personal network of knowledge include book notes, blog post ideas, works in progress, random thoughts, project plans, podcast transcripts, and more. It would be impossible to organize, find and use this information with a hierarchical second brain. Because it’s in a network, I can find and use it in seconds.
Unlike the hierarchical second Brain, a personal Network of knowledge doesn’t become more of a mess to manage the more information you save in it. It’s infinitely scalable, compounds in value with every node you add to the network, and you can easily find and retrieve information regardless of how much you save.
The Flow Doesn’t Deplete the Stock in a Network
The stock of a system is the raw materials or inputs, while the flow is the outputs of the system. In a typical knowledge management system, the stock decreases in proportion to the flow.
Say you capture five different notes or ideas in a spreadsheet. Then you use those ideas to write an article. Unless you capture five new notes or ideas, the flow (content) depletes the stock.
However, when you organize knowledge in a network, it becomes a renewable resource because the flow does not deplete the stock. You can use and reuse your knowledge repeatedly and even turn elements of previous creations into new ones. Many of the sections in this article are notes I’ve used for other articles and projects.
Workflow in the Hierarchical Second Brain vs. Network Of Knowledge
If you observe the behavior of some of the world’s most successful people, you’ll notice that they all have one thing in common: the way they work. As Scott Belksy says in Making Ideas Happen, Creativity X organization=impact.
Workflow in the Hierarchical Second Brain
With the hierarchical second brain, people default to the hyperactive hivemind which Cal Newport defines as “A workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.”
When you manage a project with the hyperactive hivemind you
- Communicate with collaborators via email and instant messages
- Retrieve key resources by sifting through bookmarks, folders, and inboxes
- Manage tasks in a project management tool of some sort
Even if you use PARA to organize our knowledge, this workflow forces you to work like a person who goes to a different grocery store to buy every ingredient you need to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Workflow in a Personal Network of Knowledge
When you organize your knowledge in a network, you aggregate the flow of information, which allows you to retrieve knowledge with zero friction and separate work execution from workflow.
When you manage a project with a personal network of knowledge you can
- Gather All Resources for a Project in One Place
- Retrieve knowledge with zero friction
- Communicate with collaborators and share Knowledge assets
- Manage and assign tasks for the project
In a Personal network of knowledge, everything you need is at your fingertips. But the caveat is that YOU have to Accumulate a critical mass of knowledge to build the network.
Build a Personal Network of Knowledge Instead of a Second Brain
The Internet is a fountain of knowledge. But as Tiago Forte said on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, “It really is not about the endless accumulation of information assets. It’s about what singular unforgettable experiences and outcomes and results come out of them.”
Even though the hierarchical second brain provides a phenomenal framework for thinking about how we organize information, the personal network of knowledge is more effective for translating information into knowledge, wisdom, outcomes, and results.
If you want to convert knowledge into action and create at the speed of thought, don’t build a hierarchical second brain. Design a personal network of knowledge.
Free Webinar: Build a Self-Organizing Second Brain
Personal networks of knowledge provide a way to reduce the time you spend managing your information and increase the time you spend using your knowledge to achieve your goals. Join us on Thursday December 15th at 5 pm PST to learn how to build a second brain that actually does what you need it to. Click Here to Register