154: Building a Second Brain, with Tiago Forte

My technique for note taking during in-person instruction on technical topics is to note down things that will help prompt my memory later. This usually includes enough high level chronological info about what was covered for me to reconstruct the “structure” of the lecture, to help make sure I don’t forget entire sections. Within that structure I try to note down particular details I thought were especially helpful or that I would be likely to forget. If there are specific facts that would be difficult to look up later, I try to include those as well. I may do some quick (ugly) sketches if a concept would benefit from a visual. I also note down direct quotes that I particularly like.

Then, as soon as possible afterwards, I go through my notes and fill in as much of the detail as possible surrounding what I had noted down during the lecture. This second round of notes are the combination of what I originally wrote down and what I can remember and it lets me capture a lot more detail than I could write down during the lecture or than I could remember without my written notes to prompt me. If my original notes were handwritten, this also includes typing them up.

If it’s something particularly important I’ll go through the typed notes a second time to clean everything up (I find that if I don’t do this second pass, my unrevised notes often resemble brain vomit). It’s often helpful to wait a while before doing this, both because I’m usually a bit burnt out after the first pass and because a bit of distance can make it easier to think about concepts, rather than the details of the original lecture.

Finally, since I’ve moved to a PKM system I’ve started doing another pass concentrating on organizing and linking my notes. Often this involves splitting or combining individual notes, tagging/categorization, linking notes together, and adding external references.

This is definitely time consuming, but the benefit from going through the topic multiple times pretty huge:

  1. I learn by hearing the original material.
  2. I learn from taking notes during the presentation.
  3. I learn from typing up the notes and filling in details from memory, based on the notes as a prompt.
  4. I learn from revising and cleaning up my typed notes.
  5. I learn from linking and reorganizing my notes in a PKM system.
  6. I have a nice set of final notes for reference.

While #6 may seem like the point of the exercise, I actually find that the more effort I put into 1-5, the less important the final notes are because I’ve internalized a lot of the information in the process (important since in a lot of circumstances I won’t have access to my PKM when I need this info).


I had this exact thing happen to me in high school.

We had to give a speech for an English class, and we were allowed notecards - but our notecards had to be in the form of an outline. So I did a “verbose outline”, where just about every word was on the outline somewhere. Got it all typed out, and the computer crashed (Apple IIe!) before I could save.

With 10 minutes left until the end of study hall (and the beginning of the class where I potentially had to give the speech), I re-did the entire verbose outline. Printed it out, and between classes cut the printout to index card sizes.

Went to class, got called on to give the speech, I got up there, looked at my notecards, and realized I’d inadvertently memorized the speech in the process of outlining. :slight_smile:


Exactly that. Highlighting/annotating/jotting down what people say will do nothing for information retention or internalisation. It merely extracts a subset of the book/article/talk in a generally forgettable form. Students often feel that’s the job done, but it’s only the process of creating one’s own interpretation, summarising arguments in one’s own words, does it become information rather than data.

The Cornell Notetaking system is a good example of a simple attempt to build information multiple times in ways that engage your brain differently. Take notes, ask questions, summarise briefly the main arguments.


It allows on the fly note taking, trying to get down the main points, but asks that you return to the text afterwards to make sure the main points are evident.

Your points 1-5 are good examples on repeated use and refinement of the information in different ways. I’ve done this in different ways in the past - currently using a combination of mindmaps (which allows regrouping of information after the event if done digitally), rewriting notes as SketchNotes (a personal favourite, even though I can’t really draw - engaging in a visual way is transformatitive) and using Obsidian (again!) to process documents (in my case Bible chapters) in ever deepening levels of detail over a matter of months - insight may come after some dwelling with the text.


@webwalrus I’m more practitioner than academic but here is the general process I follow. It is not complicated and it has evolved overtime. I don’t do all of these steps every time but I do most of them most of the time.

  • Take bullet point notes of main ideas/themes during a presentation
  • Note reference information for later review, e.g., a book or article title, author(s), etc.
  • As soon after the presentation as feasible I go back over the notes and add details from memory and look up the referenced material. I may read through some of that then or plan to do so later.
  • I summarize the main points and then ask, “how does this apply to me, my work, project x, etc. If they are meeting notes, I enter follow-up items to my task manager
  • If the presentation content has relevance for a project I’m working on, I’ll add that note, or a link to it, to the related project in my task manager (Reminders), Apple Notes, or both
  • The notes are saved as text and PDF for future reference.
  • When applicable, I link the notes to other notes in my research folder, which is now an Obsidian vault.
  • I will also go ahead and look up any needed bibliographical information, e.g., from a book or paper referenced during the talk, and add it to Bookends

I started teaching college students in English classes in the 1980s. They didn’t know how to take notes, or annotate books. They didn’t in this century either. I have a blog post drafted, but I need to create the images for it.

Basically, the point of notes from audio/spoken live contexts is

to have something to remind you later of the high points.
to have something to document specific details

It isn’t, outside of court reportr, meant to be a word-for-word transcript. I find often people taken notes with a keyboard, (including me) frequently go into transcript mode. That isn’t effective or efficient, at least for me.

I can create a fairly accurate transcript on a keyboard (if I can correct typos), but I don’t remember whet I typed. Writing by hand, even when I also engage in doodling or copying diagrams etc., helps me remember even without the notes.

Even if I"m given hardcopy of a keynote or PowerPoint, I write on tha hardcopy.

I listen for verbal clues that something is important. Often the word important, or similar words, but also the tone of voice, or the amount of time spent on something.

I listen for key terms and concepts. In writing down my own questions, or making marginal notes I use symbols like * or ! or ? to help me navigate the notes. If the lecture is organized with clear topics or sub-topics, I used headings, or leave space for them later.

I leave lots of white space, in the margins and between sentences, ideas or sections, so I can add to them later. I may make my own comments in a different color of ink/pencil.

I pay attention to the use of visual aids, like something written on a board or emphasized in a digital slide.

I re-read them and add to them. Often even years later.

I keyboard handwritten notes if I think I will have use for them in digital form, but the really important notes, for instance my teaching notes, get hardcopy and get annotated.

Digital notes for me have always included backlinks, even if it’s just a see also with a link.

For me, whether annotating a text or taking notes on my reading or listening, my primary purpose is to make the information mine. I do that by listening more than writing, by making connections, between what I hear or read, and what I personally know or think. For me, it’s the connections that help with recall as much as muscle-memory.

Some caveats about my personal experience/practice. I’m very very good at remembering what I hear, usually. This is important because I can’t see very well. I am a slow writer. So I have to pay attention to what is really important/interesting. I find paying attention, listening very carefully, and thinking about what I’m hearing, is tied in part to what I write. Seeing /reading my notes, reminds me of what I heard, even if it isn’t specifically quoted.


One resource I found helpful was Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson. I was building a workshop for teachers on how to prepare lectures with an idea toward good notetaking by students/trainees. Like you, I didn’t really get good education in taking notes, so it was a useful experience.


Evernote is a rich text environment and handles all manner of input. Obsidian doesn’t. You can’t send an email, video, docx, keynote, etc to Obsidian.


A fun episode. It is obvious that Tiago is book-touring, although he did actually make me more interested in reading the book. Moreover David and Mike did a good job of making it about a bit more than the usual stuff.

I picked up on an interesting paradox.

Early on in the episode, Tiago suggests that ideas are dilutive. Having too many of them waters down the quality of the best ones. Or, as David puts it, it can be like fountain drinks: you might be tempted to put Sprite, Mountain Dew, and Coca Cola in the same cup, but the result will be worse than if you just stuck with one of them.

Then, later in the episode, Tiago suggests that ideas (and knowledge) have compounding value. Obviously, this is in tension with the dilutive property he referred to earlier.

So, which is it, when? And how can we tell in the moment of capture or during the work of organizing?

I have thoughts on this, but they’re still being formed. Curious about the hive mind’s!

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Wouldn’t the hive mind run the risk of diluting good ideas with too many? :thinking: :slightly_smiling_face:


Neither — if you spend too much time thinking about the qualities of ideas, you end up not having room to come up with novel ones. Sort of like the whole “spending so much time optimizing your workflow, that you get less work done” thing :wink:


Have you considered giving Notability a try? It records the audio as you take notes. While listening to a lecture or presentation, you simply need to make notes to future self to provide a high level outline of the presentation. Then, afterwards, you can go back and fill out your notes after some reflection of what is important. The nice thing about Notability is that you can jump to any point in the presentation and the audio picks up at that point.

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There is a persistent idea in the Zettelkasten communities that one can so successfully note-take that any one text can be broken down to its constituent parts after which you can put the source text forever away because your notes essentially stand in for it. I find this wrong and fundamentally misunderstanding the process and point of note-taking. It is very helpful to have a page-long resume of a longer work which will help you focus on what’s going on; whatever you thought were the salient points; and so on.

But many texts repay careful re-reading time and time again, and the notes are only ever a crutch around which you can build new understandings. I think the problem is as @ChrisUpchurch also hinted at: that many of the note-taking gurus on social media channels take to digesting self-help lit, which (no offence intended) is fairly rudimentary in the way they impart information (I’m looking at you Youtubers demoing a note-taking app by taking notes on a famous book about how to take notes…).

I speak as someone who teaches literature at university. Like @Medievalist I spend my research time in rare books and manuscript libraries making sense of, among other things, medieval and renaissance commonplace books and ‘verse miscellanies’ (essentially, premodern people’s compilations of things they like, like scrapbooks; which tell us a lot about how these people organised their knowledge). And with that type of material, re-reading is essential. I have taught some of the same poetry for years now, and no amount of notes can ever stand in for re-reading part of the entire poem before I teach it again. Really inhabiting some texts takes persistent contact with them, over long stretches of time, digesting them slowly, again and again.

So I think that having a robust note-taking workflow is a really important thing (in fact I’ve spent way to much time refining my DEVONthink and Obsidian set-up, have hundreds if not thousands of notes, and goodness know I love my tinkering, and what else would I be doing here on MPU!) – but any set of notes don’t in fact ever really come to stand in for the text.

So I’ve come to believe that my note-taking is most powerful because it helps me think more productively about a text in the moment. Sometimes, going back to a text and encountering a note means I can retrieve that historical thought I had which may or may not help me; other times, I will have new thoughts because everything else has moved on.

Anyway – nice discussion. Happy note-taking all!


This strikes me as spot on. In fact, I’ve saved your post in DT for future reference.

I experienced the benefits of this just recently when re-reading Augustine’s City of God, a monumental work in and of itself, not to mention its impact on Western culture.

I’d recalled reading a passage years ago about subsequent generations losing the Roman Republic that had be bequeathed to them. I was able to finally find that passage because of my notes and going back to the book and re-reading an extended section.

For those who may be interested, the passage to which I refer is below. It speaks to me about our modern political state, which I’ll not comment on, other than to mention that as Solomons says in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

But our age, receiving the republic as a chef-d’oeuvre (a masterpiece) of another age which has already begun to grow old, has not merely neglected to restore the colors of the original, but has not even been at the pains to preserve so much as the general outline and most outstanding features. For what survives of that primitive morality which the poet called Rome’s safeguard? It is so obsolete and forgotten, that, far from practicing it, one does not even know it.

And of the citizens what shall I say? Morality has perished through poverty of great men; a poverty for which we must not only assign a reason, but for the guilt of which we must answer as criminals charged with a capital crime. For it is through our vices, and not by any mishap, that we retain only the name of a republic, and have long since lost the reality." – Augustine

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PS, I would love to learn how you integrate DT and Obsidian. I use DT extensively and Obsidian some. Would you be willing to share a bit more and perhaps share a screenshot or two?

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One of the things I note in reading not only Forte but also Sönke Ahrens. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking — for Students, Academics, and Nonfiction Book Writers (and others as well) is that theydon’t seem really aware of how Humanist scholarship works.

We read the same texts over, repeatedly. Margin notes and glosses accrete, providing a fossil record of our thinking. Primary texts are at the core of what we do. Despite Ahrens assertion that no one returns to their annotated books, we absolutely do.

And as SebMacV notes, we return to the source. I have super notes about secondary discussions of my primary texts, but I used the notes a pointers to my own thinking, not substitutes for the secondary source. I check the source again, if I think I will use it, and absolutely check it if I’m publishing and refer to or use it.

I also note that Forte emphasizes highlighting in books that you ten transfer to notes. If I write in a book, it’s probably a primary literary text, and my notes, glosses, annotations and underlines provide a navigational path through my reading of a text, and through the changes in the way I read a text.


The idea of writing notes as a replacement for the original text seems - dare I say - foolish, especially in a day an age where we have GPT-3.


I don’t think there is such a thing as too many ideas. How do you know which ones are “worthwhile”. You will need some discretion on which ideas to develop and deepen but why would you ever stop thinking of new things. This only trains to mind to stop exploring.

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It depends. If you want to learn and understand, writing notes in your ‘own language’ generally works better, especially when making sure you fully understand what you write in your notes.

Just copying text will not make you remember, or understand the text. But if you just want to be able to find a certain piece of text at a later moment, copying that part to your notes might be sufficient.

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Nice! And this is a great example of a beautiful text that has centuries worth of thinking and meaning accumulated around itself, and which cannot exactly be exhausted by a few simple rounds of effective note taking!

I would also be more than happy to expand on the integration of Devonthink and Obsidian as you asked, but please bear with me since I have just one more day of work and then a screen free holiday coming up. But I will not forget and return to this post when I can.

Nail on head! And I bet that this also goes for lots of other knowledge workers, whether they are engineers, or project managers on power plants, or mathematicians, or whatever.