In this second post of the series “Building a Second Brain with Emacs and Obsidian I will present the key ideas of Getting Things Done and Building a Second Brain methodologies, at least those which resonate with me. We are going to explore their limitations, and how both integrate and extend to eliminate these limitations.

Please, be pragmatic about everything you read here… about everything you read, actually. This is not a guide you have to follow step-by-step to achieve success or get super organized. I am neither. This series of posts are only meant to share ideas, and therefore you should take only what resonates with you, what you think may help you improve something.

Getting Things Done and it’s limitations

GTD is a system proposed by David Allen, which aims to serve as an organizational system to declutter our minds. Basically you capture new ideas crossing your mind or something you just remembered in an Inbox, and keep working in whatever you are doing right now. This way you reduce the recurrent thoughts about something you want or need to do: it is now written down, it has now entered the system.

Afterwards, you will come back to clean the Inbox, and there’s when you will find this new idea you had, or the task you needed to do. Then you follow the system represented in the scheme below to find a place for this captured thought, or plan an action to do based on it, etc. There are a lot of resources on the internet in case it’s your first time with GTD.

GTD scheme

GTD scheme

GNU Emacs with Org Mode is just perfect for implementing this system. It has great capture capabilities, task and projects management, time tracking, agenda, etc. But there is an area Emacs, and most other apps, adds some friction to if the right approach isn’t followed: References.

When you have some information in your hands that you found interesting, where do you save it? In a folder in your file system? In a note in Emacs? In a dedicated note or in a note with all related information you have captured? etc. This is precisely where Building a Second Brain enters, and expands the GTD methodology, providing us with the right approach to know where each piece of reference information goes. But more importantly, it has the capability to bring that information back to us right when we need it in the future.

The sole implementation of GTD fails to identify the projects important to us, those aligned with our goals, those we want to move forward today, this week, or this month. Strictly following the GTD scheme presented above has the capability to turn us into machines just working to mark tasks as DONE, and therefore leaves no room for the intentionality we should put in everything we do.

Building a Second Brain

BASB is based in four main principles, known as CODE: Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express. When you get some new idea, thought, or remembered something, just write it down, capture it. In this regard the GTD system can help.

CODE scheme

CODE scheme

Organize with PARA

However, once you have identified what you have in your hands is a resource, a piece of information that sound interesting to you, how to know where should it go so you can find it when you need it in the future? There’s where the PARA organizational systems enters the scene. PARA stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives.

As mentioned in the previous post of the series, I used Logseq, then Denote, then Obsidian, and then I was changing between them from time to time. All this changing was due to:

  1. I entered way too much into the apps, pretty much everything I crossed over went into the system, probably because of what people is calling now fear of missing out.
  2. I entered information into the apps, but wasn’t able to retrieve it easily and right when I needed it.

From my point of view, and my experience, if you mix up all your notes in a single place, even worst if your projects go in there also, and tomorrow you will start with a white canvas again to put more in it, the system will go bankruptcy at some point, and you will struggle to retrieve information. Of course you can search for anything and use the backlinks to go from one note to another related to it, but

  1. You will probably never do that in real life.
  2. Every time you want to look for some information you will have to spend some time trying to search for it, re-reading the note, and remembering why was it relevant to capture.

This happened to me. I sat down and started writing everything from zero, without taking a look at all the notes I could have had about it, or looking superficially. Basically, I did wrote about the ideas I had captured into the system, I did mark them as TODO, I did set a date and time for them, but I did not gather the material I need to support the ideas I wanted to express. I only had TASKS, not projects.

For this reason, I think we need to have the projects we are actively working on now right in front of our faces. They are the first thing we need to see when we enter our system to manage knowledge, and everything we capture should add information to one of them. Information has to be considered in terms of its utility.

We need to think about it as if we had physical folders, each representing one single project, and gathering the information related to it. We took a note, recorded something, took a picture, printed a PDF and highlighted it… all that goes into the physical contained where it is going to be useful.

But hey! This is just an approach to tackle that organizational problem you could be having. It is not magical. There have always been great authors, thinkers, philosophers, etc. None of them knew what the BASB, CODE, PARA or GTD methods were, and still succeed in managing their information. One common thing I am sure they all had, however, was the consideration of information in terms of utility.

Anything that is interesting to you, that resonates with you, but doesn’t has a place in any active projects, should be tested with the Areas: In which area of my life would it be useful? If it still doesn’t find a place, throw it into Resources.

You can find a lot of resources about the Building a Second Brain system online, and therefore I will limit myself here to the main ideas. Nevertheless, to be self-consistent

  • Projects are important and actionable right now. They are action oriented and with a short term focus.
  • An Area is any role or responsibility that has a standard you want to maintain over time. They are never completed, there is no goal you can check off for ever. For example, Health, Taxes, Fitness, Family, etc.
  • Resources are any topic of ongoing interest or any type of useful reference. They are basically a catch up for everything else that isn’t something you need to keep track of right now, but it might be interesting in the future.
  • Archives contain inactive items from any of the three previous categories. They are just waiting in case you need them in the future.

Distill when creating

The final goal of any information you capture and organize is to be useful in producing something new. Therefore, it makes no sense to capture some information and start highlighting, summarizing, linking, etc. We don’t even know if we are going to actually use it.

Therefore, the process of distilling the information we have already gathered happens when we are creating something. Each time we find a note and enter into it, we have the obligation to leave it better than it was.

Suppose we had this new idea concerning a new blog post, we capture it, we had it in the resources some time (as a SOMEDAY project), and its time has finely arrived. We moved it to the projects, and started searching in our system all the information that could be useful for it. In this process, we bold the ideas we found interesting, which were the reasons we moved that note into this project’s archive. Then, actually writing the post we came over to a note, and this time highlighted the one or two sentences expressing the essence of the note. Eventually we finished the blog post, but found the information in one of these notes interesting for another project down the road. This time we write a small bullet pointed summary of the ideas with our own words in the topmost section. That’s what distilling is about, to make notes more useful for your future self, and the goal is that just by a quick look at them you remember or get the main ideas they express.

Distill never happens when capturing nor organizing notes, but in the creation process.

Express

The last step in the creative process is… to create. It may seem counter-intuitive because it’s the shortest section of this post, but all others above are just preparations to carry out creation.

Whatever you do, whatever you capture, whatever you plan, needs to be tied to a project you are carrying out. Otherwise the result would end up in the trash one second after you finished it, which I don’t think is the objective of anybody.

Conclusions

In summary, we capture information that interests us, and then follow the GTD flow to categorize and organize it. In consequence we create projects, and save that new piece of information where it best fits, where it is needed to make move forwards one of those projects. If that isn’t the case, if the information collected doesn’t fit any current project, then we move it to an area or a resource to be used in the future.

We need to change our perception about the collection of information, here some times less is more. Information needs to be considered in terms of utility, and be organized where it will be more important, not categorized with similar pieces.

Having the projects right in your face each time you enter the app will ground you into the present, and focus all your attention in doing what is most important to you right now. Although it is true that the projects we have active right now are not precisely all the time those more important to us, take for example the report your boss wants you to make about this subject you know irrelevant. But what can we do in those cases, right?

The next post in this series will discuss the selection of the applications. Should we sacrifice privacy over convenience? Which is the best app of them all (spoiler: neither)? Do I need this super complex PKM system and integration between apps (spoiler: no)? What does one app needs to employ the organizational techniques described for the GTD and BASB systems? etc.

Until then, stay tuned.

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