My 'Second Brain' App List

Here lists my favourite productivity apps that act as my second brain with brief use case(s) for each.

This is a live document and will of course evolve over time where needed.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication - Leonardo Da Vinci

Embarrassingly, it’s taken years of experimentation and pruning to finally develop such powerful but simple system that does not overlap in functionality, meets my personal requirements, attractive, enjoyable to use while allowing information to seamlessly flow from one app into another.

No objective statements of these being the ‘best’ apps is being made here, this is just my humble opinion based on my research and workflow needs.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged. I originally created this document for myself but after finishing it thought I may as well share it and therefore re-wrote some sections to make it more readable by others.

Drafts 5

Core function: Short-term notes

  • ’Front end’ for Evernote: Drafts limit exposure to Evernote’s cluttered, unattractive UI and lack of feature parity across it’s various platforms. Drafts is further beautified when using iA Writer’s fonts coupled with Margin and Max Line Width increased to maximum.
  • Note-taking: New notes are created in Drafts and if deemed worthy, are passed on to Evernote for long-term storage via Draft’s fast 2-step ‘Send to Evernote’ Action feature. Subsequently, the note in Drafts is archived.
  • Mind Sweep: Bucket for random thoughts, insights, potential but yet undecided tasks and projects that don’t yet belong in my official Someday/Maybe list, small research project notes (i.e product research, forum post drafts) etc.
  • Quick capture: 1-click on app icon to begin writing a new note plus it’s ability to take notes on the fly via dictation on Draft’s Apple Watch app.
  • Pricing model: Powerful, free version with an optional and reasonably priced cross-platform subscription model which supports actual active development.

Side note: Waiting for soon-to-be-released Evernote editor update, among other promised features, which may replace some, if not all, of the utility of Drafts. However, I’m not going to count my chickens yet.

Evernote

Core function: Long-term storage

  • Depository of best notes: Entries originally created in Drafts that made the cut.
  • Kindle, Instapaper, Medium and Liner highlights synced via Readwise: This way I keep all the best things I’ve seen, read and hard all in once place. Furthermore, at an unspecified future date, these highlights undergo a process of Progressive Summarisation (see Tiago Forte for more details). See also RandomNote.
  • Weekly, Monthly and Annual Reviews and Goals
  • Categorised reference materials: On topics of interest i.e. GTD, Sleep, Productivity, Checklists, Meditation, Data Analysis, Hobbies, Radical Undoing techniques etc.
  • Project related research materials: pdfs, articles, notes, web clippings, links to files etc

Side note: My folder structure is organised as per the PARA methodology (Projects, Areas, Resources and Archive).

Things 3

Function: Task/Project Manager

  • IU: Beautiful, simple and intuitive UI that does an excellent job at progressive disclosure and not offering too many features which sometimes service to have the user toying with the software rather than getting things done.
  • Capture: New tasks are usually captured within either Inbox or Today views. Also, the Quick Entry keyboard shortcuts are incredibly useful.
  • Task Management: Organises my day via single and repeating tasks, some of which are linked to a project.
  • Project Management: My projects, decided upon in my Weekly, Monthly and Annual reviews, are listed here with their respective next actions. Headers are sometimes used within a project to further delineate between different areas/stages.
  • Someday/Maybe List: A list of tasks and projects I’ve put on the backburner for any number of reasons.
  • Pricing model: A single, upfront fee per platform.

Airmail

Function: Email

  • Beautiful, clean UI with a powerful suite of useful features.
  • Currently has no sync issues.
  • The main selling point of this application is the ability to mark an email as a task in Things 3. I then archive the email to reach inbox zero. At a later date, I just click on the link inside the task in Things 3 which will then open up Airmail straight to the associated email to view/respond.

Side note: I am aware of the shady practice this company tried to implement several months prior with removing features people paid for but they’ve now backtracked and re-added the features removed and so I no longer have any gripes with this company. I’m not going to punish myself by using another email application I deem inferior just out of principle.

Mindnode

Core function: Mind mapping

  • Occasionally used to solve a difficult problem or outline a new project before migrating the information to Drafts to flesh out the finer details and organise step-by-step.

Readwise

  • As mentioned above, I highlight insightful/useful text, mostly using my iPad, from Instapaper, random websites via Liner, Medium and Kindle ebooks and then have them automatically exported to Evernote via Readwise.

Google Drive

Stores files.

1Passwords

Stores passwords.

BONUS SECTION!!

Notability

Great app but could not find a legitimate use case for handwritten notes in my current workflow despite how cool I found the prospect and tried to make it work.

Notion

Cannot yet be an Evernote replacement for the following reasons:

  • No API
  • Missing whole host of capture methods which are vital to my workflow
  • Slow performance
  • No offline access
  • Barebones web clipper
  • No encryption - Notion staff can read your stuff when bored
  • Note creation involves a lot of friction even when you’re good at using the software.
  • Slow capture for mind sweeping
  • No simple, non-relational database tables
  • The lack of constraints promote playing around with the structure rather than getting things done.
  • Fantastic, gorgeous looking app but quickly found I wanted to use it more than I needed to use it. It was a “solution in search of a problem”.

Side note: Considering using Notion for my live documents such as reviews, goals, tracking project statuses, someday/maybe lists etc but will need to mind map this out to see if the juice is worth the squeeze.

I’d love to hear about your system. I found the process of writing this post cathartic and clarified what my workflow is and why I use the apps I do. You might gain the same benefit by sharing.

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Thanks for sharing so much detail! I’m all in on Notion, hopeful for an API soon and eventually better offline support. Using Drafts helps mitigate most of the capture issues I have.

I wrote some of my thoughts here: https://chrisbrooks.org/blog/2020/01/29/my-productivity-suite-switcheroo/

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Have you taken the Building a Second Brain course (https://www.buildingasecondbrain.com/)?

Good info here, thanks for sharing.

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Yes, waiting for the March 2020 cohort as a refresher. I bought it in Dec 2019, before the price increase, but there wasn’t a cohort at the time so haven’t gone as deep until as I liked (even though still watched and applied 80+% of the material/exercises).

Been thinking about taking it. Would you recommend it?

Maggie Appleton has done a visual summary of part 1 of the course. She promises a part 2 is forthcoming after the March session.
She has other great illustrated explainers and notes of various topics at her site. I admire her ability to not only do wonderful illustrations, but to distill information too. (An ability shared by Maria Popova, but not Mac related.)

@MacSparky @ismh potential guest?

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Thanks for sharing, I’ll take a read.

I met Maggie a couple months back at a BASB meetup, she’s lovely and knows her stuff!

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Thank you JohnAtl. I look forward to seeing her illustration especially since you compared her to Maria Papova whom I like a lot!

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