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When I started writing this I had not finished Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. I was originally optimistic that he’d deal with the items I thought were missing, but that didn’t happen.
Unfortunately, this book follows the standard self-help guru pattern of being lots of filler and handwaving. Forte seemingly wants to be the next guru in productivity, the GTD for PKM.
Capture is Too Easy
My first issue is that Forte makes capture way too easy for people1. He spends a decent amount of time talking about how effortless software makes getting new resources. While I agree this can be a benefit, he doesn’t address the fact that most people take way too many notes on stuff that they should skim and never come back to2.
That’s not to say Forte doesn’t expend some effort to talking about filtering your notes. He gives you some vague handwavy ideas about what shouldn’t be in your system3. He has some criteria for capture4, but I find they’re either bad or entirely miss the idea that much of what you come across should never be captured at all.
If we capture stuff that’s “surprising”, which is one of the things Forte said we should watch out for. But with the pressure to publish for promotion and raises many scientific papers are of dubious quality5.
Take the original “jam study” from which we derived the idea that way too many choices make it harder to make a choice. In short, we are less likely to purchase jam if there are 25 choices, but if there are only a few choices we’ll buy more jam. This was a surprising result that people flocked to and wrote about in many different places.
But it’s actually far more complicated6 than the original paper set out. A number of papers have found that it’s simply not true. Others have backed it up. And one recent meta-analysis says it works sometimes, but not every time.
The problem is that research journals are far more likely to publish studies that are surprising. When the title amounts to “That thing you thought worked one way…does” people don’t read it and thus it doesn’t get published7.
The right answer to what types of information you should collect is much more difficult than “surprising”. No one wants to hear that most of what they capture is useless drivel that has no meaning. They don’t want to hear that they should read The Data Detective so that they may have a better grasp of what’s even being said in research. People don’t want to hear that once they have some experience with a topic they likely need to go back and toss most of their starting notes.
When you’re getting ready to take notes it’s much better to ask yourself hard questions. What would make this idea false? Am I naturally inclined to believe the idea, and what would change my mind? What is the sample size of the study? Is the study surprising, and are there studies that take the opposite view?
The problem is that these questions don’t fall into the “easy quick capture” that Forte is talking about. They take focused time for work instead of simply using the “in-between” times he says you can use to capture and process your notes.
Permission for Collector’s Fallacy
On Page 38 Tiago talks about another writer who says they only have writer’s block when they don’t have all the research done. He goes on to say that you need more raw material to work with and if you’re not inspired, then you just need to research more8. Then 10 pages later he says that you should be consuming less and creating more.
This is why I recommend you shift as much of your time and effort as possible from consuming to creating9.
Forte says you need to focus on creating so that you don’t get stuck consuming all the time with nothing to show for it. But he also says that if you’re stuck, you need more research.
Now, which is it? Can you use “writer’s block” as an excuse to research, or should you start creating so you’re not stuck in Collector’s Fallacy?
According to Paul J. Silvia in How to Write a Lot writer’s block is entirely fake. Writers write on a schedule and they don’t get blocked because they don’t believe in inspiration10. Some new tools won’t help you11. The only thing that will help you write is to sit down in your writing time and write.
I certainly fall into this category. I sit down a few times a week and write. I don’t get blocked, just like I don’t get blocked writing code. I sit down and do the work that needs to get done. I don’t get blocked building a shelf either, I just go to the shop and do it because it needs to get done. Writer’s block is an excuse for poor time management and focus.
In the third section of the book, Forte puts a bit more effort into telling you to just do stuff, but it’s still ambiguous. When you get a “critical mass” of stuff start creating12 but there is no definition of what a critical mass is. At what point do you make the transition to creating?
There is no answer in the book outside of the “universe juice13” that will come your way to help you write or collect the right things.
My Issues with self-help
One of my big issues with self-help books is that they often coddle their reader. They give you some magical system that will solve your issues. But they never tell you that you’re bad at keeping your schedule clear so that you can use the process. In this Tiago Forte doesn’t deviate from the expectation.
He has a magic system and if you use it your note issues will be solved. So just use the system and don’t worry about all the extra crap open on your screen like social media distracting you. Let your notifications flow, they’re not the problem now that you have CODE and PARA.
Oh yeah, if you want the last chapter on building a good tagging system, that’s behind an email marketing wall. It’s not enough to purchase the book to get all the content, you must also trade an email address to get it. Yeah, that means the tagging chapter is out there disconnected from the book so you’ll have to store it in its own spot.
I hate that marketing crap. Total disrespect to readers.
Should You Read Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte?
If you’re looking for a reasonably detailed summary of CODE or PARA then it’s in the book. But Forte takes a lot of pages to explain them and many of these pages have very little useful content between explaining the next letter in his acronyms for processing notes.
So skim those chapters if you must, but I can’t recommend the book. There is simply far too much handwavy advice and filler.
- Deep Work
- Digital Minimalism
- How to Write a Lot
- How to Read a Book
- The Data Detective
- How to Lie with Statistics
- Building a Second Brain Page 24 ↩
- This is addressed well in How to Read a Book ↩
- Building a Second Brain Page 60 ↩
- Building a Second Brain Page 67 – 69 ↩
- Scientific Publishing is a Joke ↩
- The Jam Study Strikes Back ↩
- Believe It Or Not, Most Published Research Findings Are Probably False ↩
- Building a Second Brain Pg 38 ↩
- Building a Second Brain Pg 48 ↩
- How to Write a Lot Loc 125 ↩
- How to Write a Lot Loc 240 ↩
- Building a Second Brain Page 183 ↩
- Universe Juice is my term for the handwavy coddling of “you’ll just know”. It’s bad advice and lets people get away with doing nothing. ↩