Getting More Out of Digital Note-Taking

Getting More Out of Digital Note-Taking


Getting More Out of Digital Note-Taking


In his book Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential, productivity expert Tiago Forte outlines strategies for managing and making better use of the overwhelming amount of content we absorb daily. He suggests beginning with the notes app on your phone. But from there, his approach to digital note-taking, how he organizes information, and what he gets out of the method is less expected.

  1. Tiago Forte Building a Second Brain Bookshop, $26

    Tiago Forte
    Building a Second Brain
    Bookshop, $26


A Q&A with Tiago Forte

What is personal knowledge management and the second brain?

It is the art and science of how human beings keep track of the knowledge and the information that’s important to them. That can range from practical information to academic information to medical information to work-related information to raw creative material. “Second brain” is the term I coined for knowledge management.

How can we develop our second brain?

The classic example is using the default notes app on your phone. This is the place either to begin note-taking or to build on any note-taking habits that you already have. Most people have things in these apps, like checklists, grocery lists, quotes they’ve heard, or notes from meetings and phone calls.

Take that further and start writing down excerpts from books or articles that you read. Write down something you found interesting from a podcast. Save links to websites and record any productivity tips. There’s this whole range of day-to-day information that we come across that is not super formal and complex. Document everything in your notes app so that it’s searchable and easy to find.

Is there a difference between taking notes digitally and doing it on paper?

The main difference is that when you jot things down on a notepad or legal pad, it’s informal and messy. It’s free-form and spontaneous. They’re so easy to lose track of, and you can’t make it like a database.

Digital note-taking apps give you incredible capabilities. Notes can be searched instantaneously. You can search for a word and see every time you’ve mentioned it. You can link to notes, or you can link from notes to articles or resources on the web. You can add attachments, imagery, and bookmarks. Everything is always backed up to the cloud.

How can we learn to better manage the amount of content we consume in the digital age?

The methodology I developed is called CODE. This is the creative process of taking your notes and using them to produce new work or new results or to make decisions. The first step is Capture: You have to save and record the information outside your head. That’s the key part. It can’t be something you are trying to memorize. It should be captured in software.

What do you do with that captured content? It goes to the second stage, which is Organize. Information should be organized according to actionability. Instead of coordinating according to categories, organize your information according to your active projects. It’s more feasible and practical.

After organizing the content, then you are ready to Distill. This is when you summarize your notes. Pick out and highlight the key points, takeaways, conclusions, or anything that you find interesting. Once you’ve done that, the information is easier to work with and to draw inferences from at a glance.

The final and most important step is Express. The point of taking notes is not just to physically record information. The purpose is to express something—your voice, your story, your message, your expertise. Note-taking is ultimately designed to enable your self-expression.

What are the benefits of externalizing your thoughts?

The act of writing something down has so many benefits for your psychological well-being and even your physical health. It’s associated with lower blood pressure and heart disease, decreased stress levels, and better sleep. When an idea or a thought is in your head, it can be vague, unclear, and messy. It can make you anxious. When you externalize that, you outsource and offload it from your mind. Suddenly your mind knows it’s been recorded and documented. You don’t need to keep worrying about it so much.


How can these practices enhance our creative process or productivity?

There are three main benefits. The first one is remembering. There’s no reason to memorize and keep track of all the details and facts you find important. Everything from what your boss said in your most recent one-on-one to the details of a remodel you’re working on: Those small but important details should be the first things that you transfer into your notes.

Once you’ve written down a number of things, people often begin finding unexpected and spontaneous connections between ideas. This is the second benefit—connecting. For example, you start realizing an article you were reading about gardening has a connection to cultivating your audience. These connections start to appear and emerge from your notes. This helps with creativity and formulating better, more-original ideas.

The third benefit is creating. Once you’ve combined a few of your written-down thoughts and ideas, you can create something. It could be a piece of content, like a blog post; or a project deliverable at work; or the schedule for your kids this summer. We can always create more efficiently and effectively.

Tiago Forte is an expert on productivity and the author of Building a Second Brain. Forte has taught thousands of people around the world about productivity, creativity, and personal effectiveness.

We hope you enjoy the book recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.

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