With burnout and mental stress at every level of our lives, I find my Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system even more valuable. As a human, I forget lots of things. As a dad, I have more responsibilities with remembering all things related to my kid. As a developer and knowledge worker, I re-use code snippets or create new things. That’s why a PKM system such as a Second Brain to store all of it in a sustainable way is crucial to me.
It’s stress-reducing and good for my mental health because I do not need to remember, I’ll get more creative ideas when connecting them, and I plan and integrate my to-dos and futures plans organically—a deep life results additionally from reading and learning a lot over time.
How it started: Minimalism
To your surprise may be (at least to mine), it all started when I learnt vim. After the steep learning curve, I used the vim-language and used it everywhere I could. I downloaded the chrome extension Vimium, installed vsvim on vscode and started blogging and writing in vim with plain text notes. After a while, I procrastinated and was distracted way more whenever I wasn’t in vim. Being in a terminal with no buttons and no fancy UI, my brain focused on the essentials. It was mental clarity at its best, almost like meditation. What vim did as an editor, did Markdown as a format. It is plain text with added formatting. That way, own my notes fully and free of any proprietary format, which is liberating.
Vim, together with lots I’ve read from Derek Sivers and many others from the Tim Ferriss Podcast, were a big inspiration for me. Derek with his fantastic writing and podcasts taught me how to write, make it fun to find better wording and strip all sentences to a bare minimum. He practised minimalism to its best in all kinds of ways of living. He removes all unused HTML tags or
<div>-blocks from his websites in the same way he does in his digital life in his journaling or writing. This is important as minimalism with less stuff gives you clarity and more freedom. All of this and many more set the foundation for my PKM workflow.
What came later was a flow of methodologies I learned from books and podcasts, which I integrated into my workflow so that my brain could focus on the creative part of the equation, the thinking.
The PKM System
The PKM workflow to capture knowledge and todo’s is essential for any human, developer or knowledge worker. It should reduce stress and improve your quality of life in a way you wouldn’t believe before you had one.
Smart Note Taking
Let’s get started with the first thing you want to learn and integrate: To take Smart Notes. Why is this important? Because without the smart, you’ll add more clutter to your system, leading to a minor organisation and more stress.
For your mind to relax, you need to let go of things in your head. Best to release them in an external system. I usually let off my thoughts by dumping them all into a blank file in my text editor of choice. Doing this is more the journaling approach to the note-taking journey. The other is general note-taking.
When you write about an idea or a blog post, the goal is not to start from a blank paper or a file, which leads to more procrastination. So what’s the alternative? With Smart Note Taking, you write smaller notes and start connecting them in your Secon Brain. Instead of brainstorming, you connect thoughts and naturally generate new ideas.
In life, no projects arrive in sequence. It’s easier to work on multiple projects and ideas simultaneously because you write the current state of thought. Next time you can continue at the exact spot you left. No dread to forget the latest. You have personal responsibilities you need to take care of, work, family related. All of which have their project and thoughts.
Another important aspect is that your brain will not rest until a task is finished. As we can’t complete all tasks on the spot, it helps that it does not distinguish between finished or written down. Therefore writing things down lets your mind and yourself rest, which is what Getting Things Done focuses on.
When taking notes, it’s essential to stay open and even seek opposing opinions and challenge what you already know. Through that curiosity, you will get better at writing and, therefore, thinking.
Recall seven random numbers is hard. It’s much easier if numbers are connected years, such as all football world cups events. That’s why we connect the notes when we take smart notes and bring them to the next level with the Zettelkasten Method (covered later).
Nick Milo calls it note-making instead of taking to emphasise the thinking part of just capturing notes.
After mastering the process of smart note-taking, the next step is to put it into a sustainable system. The best format I found was the Second Brain. Before I read all about it, I had already taken notes for 10+ years and saved them in Microsoft OneNote in several notebooks. Hearing Tiago Forte’s Podcast (short and concise) blew my mind. I took notes almost all my life but never thought of it as my second brain. On top of it, sometimes valuable information I didn’t capture just because I didn’t have that mental model of a second brain and nowhere to save, so I just skipped it.
For example, when I visit my doctor or the dentist today, I will write the condition of my health or my teeth in my second brain. I had COVID recently, and I found it necessary enough for my future self. Therefore added my symptoms and the details so next time I have a check-up or want to assess my health, I can open my notes from my second brain and connect the dots.
So what is the second brain? In short, it is a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we’ve gained through our experience. It expands our memory and intellect using the modern tools of technology and networks. It is for preserving those ideas but turning them into reality. It provides a clear, actionable path to creating a “second brain” – an external, centralised, digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come. If you want to know all about it, read more on Tiagos’s new website B.A.S.B..
After reading that, I transformed my folder-organised notes into an entire second brain. I started changing the structure from my nested librarian folder to Folder Structure P.A.R.A.. PARA stand for Project, Area, Resources and Archive. And that are the only four folders you have in this system. Regarding Tiago, our brain not built to handle an infinite amount of nested folders. That’s why PARA tries to keep no more than four levels.
To give you an idea of what the structure of my second brain can look like, below you find folders I created inside the PARA structure:
If you want to build the same structure yourself, follow the step by step explanation by Systematic Mastery from Zowie). There is no right or wrong, it’s your second brain, and you need to find out what works best for your brain.
Some benefits you’ll get from the second brain:
- it transforms your knowledge into your physical second brain by acknowledging and be able to bring it everywhere you go
- it uncovers unexpected patterns and connections between ideas while writing down and tinkering with your thoughts
- it reduces stress and “information overload” by trusting in your system and growing your knowledge and connections
- it develops valuable expertise, specialised knowledge, and the skills around your notes and thoughts which help your personal life, new job, career, or business
- and it cultivates and captivates valuable knowledge and insights over time without having to follow rigid, time-consuming rules
Generally, when taking notes, remember to make them for your future self. It does not hurt you to add a lot of copied text now, but within a couple of years, it will clutter your second brain and take away most of the joy. Instead, envision that all notes you linked are thoughts of yours. You’ll be instantly reminded of what a particular thing was and can easily connect these thoughts to other ideas when you read. It starts to form a second brain with connections from one note to one or several others. And our (first) brain works the same, and because of it, it feels so natural to store it in such away.
In the following chapter, we’re going to cover the Zettelkasten method, which in some cases is used interchangeably with a second brain. They are not, and I will explain what it is and how I integrated it as a dedicated folder in mine.
We made already many references to this chapter, especially in the second brain before. Let’s get into the Zettelkasten started by Niklas Luhmann, or also called “Slip Box”. This approach will further dilute the idea of a librarian who organises books in main categories and sub-folder and focuses only on the thought at hand as an individual note. Instead of spending lots of your brainpower on which folder to put a specific note in, you start creating it in one folder for all and linking them together. Usually, you wouldn’t have any structure in these concepts, but I combined the two methods into my second brain. You also see in the above design under
💡 Resources/🗃️ Zettelkasten I have its folder.
The Zettelkasten method is a personal strategy process for thinking and writing. Similar to the second brain, It helps the daily consumed overload of data. It does not only help to store and organise knowledge but also improves your memory and knowledge retention. The Zettelkasten method is suitable for when you want to systematically organise vital information, find the information again, even years later and develop your ideas.
In a Zettelkasten, we talk about three main types of notes. Firstly you start with Fleeting Notes, which are quick, informal notes on any thought or idea that pops into your mind. They don’t need to be highly organised, and in fact, shouldn’t be. They are not meant to capture an idea in full detail but serve as reminders of what is in your head.
The second is Literature Notes. Niklas Luhmann would write them down on index cards with the bibliographic details on the back. Each contains the main point he didn’t want to forget or thought he could use in his writing.
Sönke Ahrens offers four guidelines for creating literature notes:
- Be highly selective in what you decide to keep
- Keep the overall note as short as possible
- Use your own words instead of copying quotes verbatim
- Write down the bibliographic details on the source.
This third step starts with looking through the first two kinds of notes that you’ve created: Fleeting Notes and Literature Notes.Permanent Notes are the last and most important ones. They make up the long-term knowledge that gives the Zettelkasten its value. As you go through them, think about how they relate to your research, current thinking, or interests. The goal is not just to collect ideas but also to develop arguments and discussions over time. If you need help jogging your memory, look at the existing topics in your Zettelkasten since it already contains only things that interest you. Ask yourself open questions to deepen your thinking and bring you outside your comfort zone thinking.
This approach needs time to get used to, and I’m still in its progress. But I can already feel considerable power, and I’m starting to put all my notes in my Zettelkasten folder, except for the
⚛️ Areas folder where repeated things come in, such as family, health, work, etc. and
📬 Inbox where any notes get put into as first before being moved to Zettelkasten or Areas.
It saves me a lot of time, while as a Swiss, I’m very organised and want to structure. The Zettelkasten helps me to focus on the content instead. It also gives me a relaxed state if I write something down quickly without too much thought, that I will organically find it later when needed or when I go through my open loops in my Inbox. Which most often sparks new ideas and starts my connected thinking yet again from another angle.
Getting Things Done (GTD)
Up until now, we managed ideas and knowledge, which enlarges the second brain and how to link our thoughts. Besides this, much anxiety and stress come from not being on top of your tasks, jobs, things you might want to do, ideas, and lists you want to read. The to-dos you put yourself somewhere on a post-it, a todo app, or anywhere else. I also tried to incorporate to-dos in my note-taking apps but never succeeded. It works best for me when having a dedicated tool and workflow.
To prove that, I tried all possible apps there is out there from Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, Any.do, Todoist, Trello, Simple List, Google Tasks to Microsoft Todo. But none of them did the trick BECAUSE they missed the deeper methodology or framework. So what worked, you might ask? The book by Getting Things Done by David Allen had it all and clicked for me. To start with, you can follow these two simple steps:
- asking yourself: What’s the next action?
- finish every task you can do within 2 minutes immediately
Another big one was the separation between adding a task to an Inbox versus reviewing each task and asking the above next action question. This way, during capturing, I could focus on saving the tasks as quickly as possible, and in the reviewing face, I’d use a different part of my brain to make more profound thoughts on how to accomplish it or directly do it if lesser than 2 minutes. This differentiation many of us ignore, and we add tasks such as “do tax” and “change tires”. Instead, we could add actionable tasks such as “call accountant for a date”, “collect payslip”, or “call garage for appointment”.
As you can see, they are multiple times less stressful, and we can do it quickly, whereas the first one usually stays in our todo-apps for months and stresses us out every day.
There are other critical points such as putting the next action into different lists such as “Next, waiting, scheduled or someday/maybe”. By adding tags such as #calls #atcomputer and others, you have a powerful way to filter all your tasks by the physical location where you can do them all in a row. There are more such filters, such as adding an energy level (low, medium, high) to pick tasks on a low energy phase or maybe a hard one in the morning after a good sleep. These are assigned to a project and categorised further into personal/work, which helps quickly find the relevant tasks.
In an app such as NirvanaHQ, this looks something like this:
There’s much more to the GTD method. For example, the five steps, the first capturing to the fifth engaging, and how to integrate the higher-level goals into the system. I suggest reading the book as it can make a big difference in your life.
I found that above mentioned NirvanaHQ implements the method the best way for me. There is no distraction as it hasn’t calendar integrations, no image upload, or no fancy emojis. I used Todoist last and tried to implement the GTD method until I switched for the same reasons mentioned in My thoughts on changing to Nirvana.
The more human and overall goal is to put everything into an external system as your brain doesn’t do well storing/remembering things. By writing everything down, you will feel relieved. The challenge is to keep your system up-to-date so that the brain trusts it. That you won’t think: “Oh, I need to remember this because the system is not trustworthy”.
A big part of everyone is email. Although I argue against email and instead propose a way we (should) communicate, it’s still a big part of work or other areas of life. Unfortunately, it’s like an empty to-do list for everyone else to add tasks, making it dangerous. The GTD method from above integrates email into the workflow by going through your email in the weekly reviews and adding essential emails to your to-do list. I do that by forwarding the email to Nirvana which adds them automatically to my inbox.
I thought long if I should include this section in this article. But to my journey, all of the following chapters came way before I even knew what a second brain was or sustainably linking my thoughts. Besides a sound PKM System, a place to store all your knowledge and handle your to-dos, much more is needed for a fulfilled life. Without the content of the following chapters, I wouldn’t be here talking about productivity and other tools to improve life. Most of them happen inside my PKM system anyhow. Therefore I’m going through different parts of a deep life, which helped me keep grounded and to have a better meaningful life, similar to what the PKM system does to me.
A word to the term Deep Life. I heard it in the latest Tim Ferriss Podcast with Cal Newport, one of the leading people in the productivity space. He talked about Deep Life and explained what he thinks about it as of today. With my already written chapters at that time, I found that it perfectly fits his description. But without further ado, let’s get into each of them and see how they connect to my PKM system and other parts of my life.
Stoic - The Philosophy by the Greeks and Romans
In case you never heard of the term stoic or stoicism, it’s a philosophy designed to make us more resilient, happier, more virtuous and wiser–and as a result, better people, better parents and better professionals. Sounds a bit utopic? Maybe it is, but it helped me early in my personal life and career. I first heard of it by, again, Tim Ferriss and all his guests reading it. Famous leaders have been practising and shaping it, such as Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, Theodore Roosevelt, Epictetus, Seneca, to name a few.
I got hooked when I read my all-time favourite book The Daily Stoic, which makes it easier for people new to it. Quotes such as focusing on what’s in your control are stayed strong until today:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I control… — Epictetus
I practise this every day. For example, with COVID19, we can’t control it, no cursing, no ignoring will ever make it away. So the only way is to control ourselves and decide how we want to react to it. It’s another classic one, but many people face it twice a day and valuable waste energy in traffic when they get angry at other drivers. Why? Does it make any of it go away? Not really.
Instead, I try to think for myself that these people we get angry at just having an emergency, maybe they are on the way to the hospital. If thinking it in that way, at least to me, I’m not even mad at them anymore. The same goes for the weather. How many people are in a bad mood if the weather is not as the weather forecast proclaimed, or if it’s just bad? Next time, try not to think you can control the outcome; instead, maintain your reaction towards it by not getting angry or just staying calm.
This book is so powerful that I always have it on my phone, and at least once a week, I listen to two or three chapters. As the title says 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, is applied meditation to me. By doing so, I’m always more calm and more understanding of my outside world and things I can’t control.
Read all and more about it in the book or on Daily Stoic Blogs.
Another one that goes hand in hand is Journaling. It grounds me similarly to meditating. I always heard on the Tim Ferriss Podcast that “successful” people meditate and journal a lot. I never understood the term journaling until I started it myself.
What helped me get started was the instructions by Derek with the idea of Thought On files. By doing all journaling digital in a plain text file and creating a separate one. Therefore I can read at a glance what I journaled, pondered, thought off last time, can reflect on it and go deeper. Sometimes the previous journal entry is years back, and of course, I do not remember, but giving me tons of insights as these are my thoughts. It’s a little like time travel back and talking to myself back then.
Besides the thought of journaling, I also do dailies whenever I have time. In these, I usually dump whatever is stuck in my head right now and offload it to my journal and then ask questions about it. Why do I feel like this, or what can I change to feel better and so on.
Every two or three months, I reflect on all levels where I have a bunch of questions (I use the reflections template by Zowie) about all kinds of things which takes me about 30 minutes and more.
Digital vs Paper
Writing is therapy! I usually write as much as possible on my laptop because I can type as fast as I think. At the same time, my handwriting can’t keep up with my thinking speed. There is no slowing down and forgetting ideas or thoughts. On the other hand, I can reformat, re-arrange, add, and delete, which will help my thinking process that wouldn’t happen in my brain. The advantage of pen and paper is that I use different muscles and brain activities when I write, which helps me think differently. I usually use them when I need to outline my blog post, if I’m stuck or distracted on something, or if I go out in nature and only bring my physical journal.
Also, when writing journals or other ideas within my second brain, I can start connecting them. Improving my thoughts over time and generally refind easily and read them, whereas, on paper, notebooks get lost over time and finding the right things when needed is very hard.
Routines such as Sports or Meditation
Many studies say that we should start a routine or it doesn’t stick. I’m not too good at this, but I try to do it primarily for my weekly sports, meditation, or writing habits. But as with kids, it is not as easy as before. I do my best whenever possible and do not try to feel bad if I can’t find the time. As it’s important to me, as any parent knows, there is no more important task in life than being a parent and spending undistracted time with your kids.
On the other hand, I go more often for a walk with no audio and no distraction: just by myself and my mind. For me, it’s another way of meditation and doing sports simultaneously. Also, walking inside a forest or nature grounds me typically to what matters and releases stress automatically.
Stop reading News
A long time ago, I stopped reading the news. Not reading news doesn’t mean that I’m uninformed. But I stopped reading the newest, most attention-driven headline updated 100 times a day. As everyone probably knows, the news makes us depressed if we read it every day. They are rather focused on the negative or radical things instead of things that would make fun to read.
I usually read once a while in my RSS feed, where I have subscribed to all blog posts, specific categories of news I’m interested in and read through it. The significant benefit: I can quickly glance over 100 posts without distraction. On top of these tools, for example, I’m using Feedly, they have some ratings and marks on how many others have read it. These ratings give me a sense of urgency if I only have a short time, and I want to know what’s happening. I can just read the high rated once.
Reading negative headlines and depressing news will, over time, make you think wrong and depressed. With COVID, where most probably all of us read the news hourly, we know how this feels. Another aspect is that news typically reports from the whole world. In contrast to a couple of years back, when you primarily were informed about the place you lived in, now you know every detail of everything in the world. Famously A Sack of Rice fell over 😃.
Since doing that for a long time, I have had exciting conversations with co-workers or friends and family because I am not up-to-date on the latest and can ask genuine questions about what has happened. Compared to everyone knowing from reading the news all day which usually stops any conversation from starting at all.
Another exciting aspect are Positive News, which try a different approach to all news portal we know. Some other articles worth reading in that matter are After Reading This, You’ll Never Watch the News Again and The Low Information Diet.
Reading Books for a Happy Life
Instead of reading depressing news what will make you happy, is reading books. If you are not a bookworm or not reading generally, you won’t agree with this. But as someone who didn’t read at all or was slow for a long time, I can tell you it’s true. Because by reading, you enlarge your horizon, you learn something new, or if you read a fantasy book, you dive into another world in an undistracted calming way.
I rarely read fantasy, though. I get quickly bored as I’m not learning anything new. That is fine for me on vacation, but other times, I do not want to “waste” my precious time on it. For sure, that is different for everyone.
A game change was opening an account on Audible. I’m listening now to a book a month compared to before, maybe once a year. Additionally, I listen to many podcasts and try to produce besides only consuming. But reading, or in my case, listening to books, is a pleasure. If you are not reading or listening to books, I’d say you didn’t find the right book yet. Because there are 129'864'880 Books in the world, and if you find a good one, you do not want to stop reading it.
What keeps me listening to more audiobooks is that these are downloaded offline to my phone. So when I’m on a plane or anywhere else, I can listen. It’s also handy to read ten minutes if I am standing in a line, waiting for a friend, doing the dishes or a couple of minutes before bedtime with the phone in flight mode. Listening to my favourite book instead of only waiting in line always gave me a sense of happiness.
By reading, you learn more. By learning, you are a happier person, I believe. Therefore Live as you die tomorrow, learn as you live forever.
What Makes a Happy Life?
Besides stoicism and journaling explained above, it’s relationships. According to the most comprehensive study in happiness, the happiest people are the once having genuine relationships.
I always keep this in the back of my mind and add the value of time to it. It keeps me grounded in the things most valuable to me. With meditation on death, for example, called Memento Mori, where you always be aware that you could die tomorrow or have an irreparable sickness.
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
It also shows the factor of time as the most valuable thing we have on this earth. Being mindful about it and sharing it with friends and family also makes good relationships, which again was shown to be the best indication of happiness. I also believe in The More You Share the More You Get and generally being somewhat positive than rather negative also helps a lot in going through my life.
The elephant in the room is today’s distractions, such as social media apps that the most advanced technology companies make and Neuroscientists to make you addicted. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport suggests that deleting all social media apps is already a good start as all companies will track you through the app. Instead, use the browser, they will have less or no GPS information when you open the app, cannot send you push notifications etc. You are already addicted, as hard as you want to tell yourself otherwise.
Another way to get out of the loop is a 30 day sabbatical from social media. To get back to you and see what you truly miss. Instead of scrolling through Instagram whenever you wait 2 seconds, maybe you can do it once a week Friday evening with a glass of wine. Wouldn’t that sound amazing?
After all I’ve said already, I want to state that it’s clear that nothing will work without the fundamentals such as sleep, healthy food, hydration and general habits with sports and family.
Reading lots of the above probably overwhelms you more than anything else. Please understand that these systems and learnings have been assembled over the last 10+ years. They helped me in my daily work or gave me more mental clarity. The same I’m trying to provide for you here.
Below we go through other factors that I find necessary to round up the whole PKM system with the deeper life.
Family, Music and Environment
Same as the physical elements, family and emotions are a big thing is seen in the What makes a happy life chapter.
Same as changing the tooling such as vim to a distraction-free editor. It’s also for the environment. If you switch to a coffee place or co-working space you have never been to, your brain will be inspired by the surroundings and get creative. If you work in a dull place or feel reminded of something terrible, you will also perform as such.
Same as the environment is also the music. Listening to distract free music or your favourite song on repeat will boost your productivity by a lot compared to emotional music that sole purpose is to touch you emotionally, which is a terrible thing when you try to get things done.
Money and Emotions
Most of us live in a first world country where money is everywhere. We want all to have more. We admire rich people and want to be like them, but do not work as hard. We can’t pay taxes or health insurance because we worry about not having enough. Even if we don’t admit it, worries about money are always there, especially as parents who want to provide for our families.
We need to know about The Psychology of Money to have an excellent mental workflow, which says that everyone should save for a future unknown. It’s okay to save for a house, a car. But it should be even more okay to save just for saving. Having spare money on the side is the best thing you can do for a deeper life. It gives you the possible freedom and a calm state. If you know at any time that you can leave a job can go to a deserted island for a while to reload your batteries, this will give you more mental clarity than any other. And how do you achieve that? Exactly, by saving for tomorrow. To have that extra cash when you need it, on that unfortunate occasion, something terrible happens.
Another one is compounding. Warren Buffet is only overly decadent than anyone else because he started to save at age 5. Derek Sivers got rich when he was 22, reducing his spending to 1000$ while earning 1800$ a month for two years. That gave him 12k to leave his job and be a full-time musician.
Besides the financial value of money, it’s a lot about emotions. For example, nobody can judge another person’s decision to buy an expensive car or invest in the lottery. Everyone has a different perception. For the poor who spends on average 400$ for lottery and at the same time average poor person misses exactly that money to buy food, it seems like a dumb decision. But if you try to understand that that person may be all year fights for getting enough food, buying a lottery ticket is the only moment he can dream of getting out of that hard work and providing a good life for his family. Although we can’t feel the person’s emotion, we can much better understand why poor people might buy lottery tickets they can’t afford.
Think of it this way: we give up 40 hours a week to have cash. Time is the currency of life, and wasting time is wasting money. Invest your time wisely.
While writing all this, I listened to the book Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals, and I have to say it’s the best conclusion and much more in terms of time-management and productivity hype, in a very grounding way.
He also gets lots of time philosophical, which I believe is a good thing. Today we need to be more mindful of it: Living more in the present, aware of minorities, other cultures, and other opinions.
This article began with a simple PKM system in mind but ended with all facets of life. The more I wanted to keep it solely about PKM, the more it became clear that the very existing and involving my second brain is about life. What I like, how I do things, what is meaningful to me.
So no matter what you think about the second brain and sophisticated PKM workflow (or what they will become in the future). In the end, it’s also about our life, what we want to learn, and how we want to be in this world.
If you read it that far, I have to congratulate you. People rarely read such long articles in today’s attention-driven and high dopamine searching economy. I thank you and wish you the same joy and excitement building and optimising your PKM system and, therefore, your second brain for a deeper life.