How do you scale a second brain system to make knowledge growth a true team effort? Can teams adapt the tools and tactics of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) to lower stress and increase the quality of their work?
Remote workers can learn a lot from the concept of the Chinese garden - a place of contained chaos designed for contemplation. A space intentionally created to exist between the “knowing and not-knowing.”
Information overload is one of the biggest problems facing the online workforce, and building a second brain is one way to tame the chaos and cultivate knowledge. In a second brain system, linked notes create pathways that allow you to explore connected ideas.Personal productivity experts swear by second brains, and we talked to several for this article to learn more about their philosophies and tactics.
As fascinating as it was to get a peek into the second brains of successful people, the question we were most interested in was: How do you scale a second brain and make knowledge growth a true team effort?
TL;DR: we're just beginning to find out.
The concept of second brains was largely developed by Tiago Forte, author of Building a Second Brain (2022) and founder of Forte Labs. He originally set out with a simple goal: to capture and remember important information from his own life and work. The typical knowledge garden or second brain is a personal and personalized space - which is why those interested in the topic call it personal knowledge management, or PKM.
Second brains and digital gardens are slightly different concepts, but for the sake of this article, we're going to refer to them as interchangeable. In a way, it's like the distinction between a wiki and a knowledge base - at one point the distinction mattered more than it does now.
A quick definition: a second brain or digital garden is simply an online space, often a visualized database, of linked notes and files where one can freely jump from idea to idea.
There are several excellent free resources on the topic. I recommend:
Maggie Appleton sums up the broad strokes best:
“It’s a different way of thinking about our online behaviour around information - one that accumulates personal knowledge over time in an explorable space."
Second brains challenge people to go about their digital consumption in a more conscientious way.
Because PKM is still a growing field, let's first nail down some of the basic terminology. Consider this section a PKM glossary.
CODE is Forte's acronym for the key functions of a second brain. Again these are his definitions, not ours:
These functions build upon each other, with expressing your thoughts being the end goal. This usually means turning your ideas into a product - whether that's an actual physical product, or content you can share with others.
PARA is Forte's method for organizing your second brain into four main categories: Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives.
Looking for a basic knowledge base template? PARA has got you covered.
In a previous OYOT post, How to build a company wiki that doesn't suck, we discussed the two types of information design in modern documentation software: hierarchical and content-based.
Hierarchical design nests smaller units of knowledge within larger units in a vertical structure. Think the classic Databases > Folders > Files.
Content-based design (sometimes called graph-based design), links related units of knowledge via embeds and/or hypertext so that you can easily move from one discreet unit to another without ranking them in importance.
Neither content-based or hierarchical is a "superior" design system. In fact, most knowledge bases combine both. If you're using the PARA template, then your projects will be nested in the Projects folder, but they may share notes or tasks that are linked via content-based design.
A knowledge graph is a visual representation of all the ways your notes/docs/files connect to one another in your second brain system. Obsidian, a newer second-brain tool, is known for its visually stunning representations of knowledge graphs that look like galaxies. The more notes you have, the more "nodes" you create, showing you which ideas you return to again and again - and how they relate to each other. This Twitter thread has a bunch of advanced examples:
"Your brain is not for storing, it's for processing. I think of it as a washing machine. If you stuff the washing machine with too many clothes, it has no place to spin."
Bianca Damoc, marketer at Visible
"I have actually two databases. Two vaults. For work, I just put stuff that I really would need to come back to...Any kind of note, a link for something for the company, if I need to do a draft for an idea. In my personal life, I use it mainly to study. I usually put information that it is not going to change that much. The way I start is by putting everything in my own words. So, every time that I don't remember [something], this works. I come back to my notes and say, Okay."
Philipe Steiff, Android engineer at TravelPerk
"People have reduced their anxiety [by creating] a system that holds things that they were probably delegating to their brain to hold onto. In that way you're wonderfully more connected and present. And certainly I feel that way when I have less to worry about and less to burden my brain with. So anxiety reduction is a huge benefit."
Mitch Schwartz, partner at Pragmaflow
The main challenge for knowledge sharing of any type is that no two (or three or four) brains are alike. Your ideal second brain will not look like your colleagues'. Other challenges include:
On the other hand, the challenges of having many different types of thinkers, from all over the world, means you’ve gathered a group where everyone is an expert in something and an amateur in something else. An engineer may be more familiar with database design, whereas a writer may be a fastidious note-taker. A true "productivity nerd" may be willing to show everyone the latest graph-based tools. No matter how you choose to build it, simply having that common space can facilitate knowledge transfer between teammates.
Collective knowledge-bases are all the rage among software teams (we would know, we build one). One thing we've personally observed is how far collective knowledge bases are behind personal ones. So, here are some tactics teams can use to adapt personal knowledge management into a communal knowledge garden:
Melanie Broder is on the Marketing team at Slite, where she works on all things content. She helps Slite users gain new skills through guides, templates, and videos. She lives in New York City, where she likes to read novels and run loops around Central Park.
Aron Leah is an illustrator and designer, who can usually be found thinking up new ways to clear his mind over a cup of coffee and has yet to realise the irony in that. His work is informed by an enthusiasm for uncovering meaning and emotion to develop ideas.