4 min read

"second brain should be a mess imo, like first brain"

Now that I'm messing up my second brain even more with yet another place for writing it seems like a good time to figure out what I meant by this.

(Note: I associate the 'second brain' term pretty strongly with Tiago Forte but I haven't read his stuff or done his course, so I don't mean whatever he specifically means. I'm just using it in the way I see other people use it, to refer to any old externalised system of notes, reminders, etc etc.)

So, my second brain is definitely a mess. I'm going to write this out in tedious detail because I'm honestly curious to know what I'm doing:

  • My main way of internalising and learning stuff is by writing. I have a blog, and a newsletter, and whatever this static site is (maybe I'll move it here?) and now this thing
  • To write blog posts, I write them in markdown in a text editor (usually Notepad++ now I'm back on Windows, previously gedit) and then paste them into Wordpress and hope for the best. Or if they're short and straightforward I write them straight into Wordpress and really hope for the best
  • To write newsletter posts, I write them into the Substack editor. Or sometimes paste bits of markdown notes in
  • To write on that static site, I try to set up Jekyll, and oh god there are so many dependencies, why did I choose something Ruby-based when I never use it otherwise, oh yeah because it works with GitHub Pages, now how does the templating work again, etc etc etc. Or more likely I just don't bother
  • Then there's Twitter, which is just full of... stuff. I often link to newsletter or blog posts from there, and I also have a lot of references to interesting things I've read that I can dig up with the right query. Or I can reread interesting things other people have said
  • I sometimes write notes on books, generally just into a text file, and save the file... somewhere. I made a folder for book notes but sometimes they end up in with the blog posts instead
  • More recently I've been trying out Logseq (markdown-based Roam-like notes thingy) so some book notes are in there instead, and a few other ramblings
  • I very inconsistently write a brief daily summary of what I've been doing, what I've read etc. This is in a Google Doc for some reason
  • For anything maths- or drawing-heavy I use paper and pen. I have a big stack of A4 lined exercise books for this
  • I have some Kindle highlights
  • If I need to remember something timebound I set calendar reminders
  • I use Google Keep for shopping lists and a bunch of other lists
  • I used to just dump notes into Gmail drafts a lot. I don't do that so much now but there are a lot of book recommendations and stuff in there still
  • Lots of random useful information in emails. For personal email I never sort them into folders or anything, I just have tens of thousands of them sitting in the inbox and find things by searching
  • I use WorkFlowy for... well... I'm not sure what the connecting theme is, other than nothing too aversive or to-do-list-like so that it doesn't go stale. Sort of generative 'here's things I could do' stuff I think
  • Sometimes I just write a paper note
  • I've just started using OneNote again for... again, I don't know what, really. Mainly just because it's there and I like it a lot

Yeah, that's a lot, and probably not comprehensive either. I'm not going to try and defend all of this mess, some of it is just pointlessly overcomplicated web nonsense. But overall I'm fine with this, for two reasons:

  • The costs are not that costly. It's fragmented but that doesn't matter so much, because I can use my memory and search skills to find things anyway
  • There are also advantages in avoiding staleness, consistency paralysis, wrong-tool-for-the-job etc etc

Both of those are fairly self-explanatory but I'll expand on them a little bit. For the costs, I generally can remember which of my many messes anything I want is in, and it's very rare for me to completely lose track of something so that I can't pin it down to say two or three potential messes. It might be that I have an unusually good memory for this sort of thing, but it also seems likely to me that humans in general have a good memory for this sort of thing... like, we have pretty good memory for places, and these are sort of like different places.

Then, once I've found the right bit of second brain to look in, I need to search inside it. At this point I think I do rely on some more unusual skills - I'm good at searching and I also have a very good memory for fragments of text, so I normally have something to search for. So, it works for me.

Then there are the advantages. I think the biggest is avoiding what I'm now going to call 'consistency paralysis' - I don't know if this term already exists but I mean like analysis paralysis but specifically about how to organise things into a consistent scheme. Like, say you have some scheme in your notes where you're highlighting books in red and blog posts in blue, and then you remember that newsletters exist... do you lump them in with blog posts or do they need their own colour? These decisions tend to overwhelm me - I find that a lot with programming, where the computer is stupid so I have to give it an explicit organising principle. Even something like figuring out which directory to save a file in can really throw me. And there are so many decisions... this really adds up. My brain is a lot cleverer than a computer so it can cope with a much more opaque associative scheme.

Another big advantage is something like 'aliveness'. If you cram everything into a consistent scheme, inevitably some of it won't fit very well, and it starts to feel unpleasant. And also everything looks like everything else. My stuff is all fragmented over many different locations with different aesthetics, which makes it more memorable and better adapted to the task.

I'm interested to see what I get out this notebook blog. The different format will probably elicit some different kind of writing. This already feels different to normal - for a start I've written this almost linearly with very little editing, which is very different to my normal style. Feels a little uncomfortable, but useful to try. I'm hoping that the advantages of this will outweigh the extra mess.