My Second Brain: How Productivity Makes Me More Creative
The topic of productivity raises skepticism, and in my opinion, rightfully so. However, the tools and techniques of productivity can help us maintain clarity in today's information overload and make time for what truly matters to us. Productivity can support us in leading a mindful and fulfilling life.
In recent years, I have built a second brain from apps. This technology can relieve our first brain and allows us to focus on what we do best: being creative. Therefore, productivity can also be a topic in my CREATIVITY Coaching. I am happy to support in building a second brain and introduce individual apps like Notion.
Reading time: 23 min.
Author: Tobias Rebscher
Foto: SHVETS production 🔗
Productivity and Creativity
Productivity and creativity are not always easy to distinguish from each other. Creative individuals can be productive, and many productive individuals are also creative. However, the goal of creativity is the development of new and valuable ideas. This process is not always efficient, as it requires time and patience to truly develop original ideas (Adams, 2019; Said-Metwaly et al., 2020).
On the other hand, the productive process is not always creative. Productivity is based on a system that we must rely on completely for it to work (Allen, 2019). Conventional thinking, reliability, and orderliness - all of which are negative for creativity - make it easier for us to be productive (da Costa et al., 2015; Reiter-Palmon et al., 2009).
The relationship between creativity and productivity reminds me of the metaphor by Dion & Star (2021) called "Artist and Guardian." We are creative when our inner artist can play and take risks. For this, we also need to be a guardian who protects our play. Productivity can help us with this, defending our creative space against the distractions of the world.
Isn’t Productivity a Bad Thing?
I am a productivity nerd, but I believe it is important to approach productivity with skepticism. Productivity carries the danger of becoming an end in itself. However, "bigger, faster, further" cannot be a desirable goal. Our resources are limited, and a constant pursuit of more exhausts us - and our planet. "Bigger, faster, further" is not what life should be about.
What life should be about, we can learn from people at the end of their lives. According to Bronnie Ware (2012), the dying regret five things above all: not taking enough time for the beautiful things, working too much and neglecting their friendships, not having the courage to express their feelings, and not living a live “true to themselves”.
Productivity as an end in itself leads us into a dead end, but we no longer live in the forest. Nowadays, professionals from all over the world are fighting for our time. Productivity can help us maintain control over our attention. Thanks to it, we can do beautiful things, work less, maintain friendships, and lead a fulfilling life.
The Idea of a Second Brain
The term "second brain" may sound intimidating, but most of us are already using a second brain. This is a system outside of our bodies that helps our brain with certain tasks. We use calendars, notebooks, diaries, photo albums, filing cabinets, and business cards, because all of these tools can store information better than our brain.
The late sociologist Niklas Luhmann is considered the "father" of the second brain. Over the course of his life, he collected over 90,000 notes and connected them together in his famous slip-box. If you are interested in learning more about the art of note-taking, you can read about it in the book "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens (2022).
Nowadays, many analog tools are available in digital form. In this article, I will introduce the apps that I currently use personally. A question that I want to answer upfront is: Why not use an app that can do everything? Simply put: because there are many apps that can do one thing well, but no app that can do everything well. Therefore, the question is more about which apps work well together.
I also want to mention at this point that I find handwriting to be very important for creative processes. However, in this article, I will focus on technology. In another article, I will delve into why it is still useful to continue using our hands.
Three Ideas for Increased Productivity
In building my second brain, I rely on three ideas:
- “Our mind is for having ideas, not holding them” (Allen, 2019). This may be because, over the millions of years of brain development, it was not crucial to hold onto ideas. The concept behind the "second brain" is to delegate the task of storing information, allowing us to focus on what we do best: generating ideas.
- We can either have ideas or organise them. Doing both simultaneously is challenging, as they require different states of consciousness. Tiago Forte (2022) refers to these steps in his CODE system as "Capture" and "Organize," for example. With our second brain, we must be able to both capture and process information.
- We must commit 100% to our second brain. Only with this level of dedication can we trust that the second brain will truly function. Without certainty, we will fear forgetting something, unnecessarily consuming mental resources that could be used elsewhere (Allen, 2019).
This article consists mostly of a description of various apps. This can be overwhelming. In organizing, I have tried to follow the idea of two states of consciousness: capturing and organizing. Therefore, I use some apps more for capturing ideas, while others are more for processing ideas.
- First, I will discuss the apps I use for capturing ideas. These include calendars, task managers, note-taking apps, voice recorder apps, email apps, messengers and social media apps, diary apps, read-it-later apps, apps for audiobooks, podcasts, and book summaries, the eReader, browser add-ons, and my beloved password manager.
- Then, I will discuss the system that supports me in processing these ideas. This includes cloud storage, Readwise, Notion, writing programs, graphics, film, music, collaboration software, habit trackers, focus apps, Brain.FM, and a few little helpers.
Apps, to capture ideas, I understand as "inboxes". They are a kind of container for me to simply store interesting information and thoughts without getting distracted by them.
Ideas come to us in all sorts of places, such as during walks or showers (Irving et al., 2022; Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). In these situations, our brain is active but not cognitively engaged, allowing it to make subconscious connections.
For every app to capture ideas, we need a system to empty the containers. Only with a system can we trust that none of the ideas will be lost. For example, I empty my task inbox every day, and my note inbox once a week. I delete uninteresting ideas and further process the ones that inspire me.
Calendars have been a fixed part of our lives for a long time. School calendars, advent calendars, yearly calendars - even the ancient Egyptians are said to have used calendars 6,000 years ago. So why are we still talking about them 8,023 years later? Because calendars possess a secret superpower that not many people know about.
Cal Newport (2016), David Allen (2019) and Nir Eyal (2019) urge us to consider our calendars as sacred. These productivity experts advise us to commit 100% to what is in our calendars. Therefore, it would be sacrilege to ignore appointments.
Why so strict? Because calendars not only serve to remind us of appointments, but also help us understand what we should focus our attention on. If nothing is in the calendar, it is difficult to determine what is a distraction (Eyal, 2019; Newport, 2016).
For example, if "Playing with Johnny (that's your son)" is in the calendar, then it is clear that our phone has no place there. The phone does not help us achieve our goal. On the other hand, if nothing is in the calendar, it remains vague.
In fact, many authors like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Haruki Murakami swear by strict schedules. Inspiration comes when we get to work (Godin, 2020; Pressfield, 2002). I will delve deeper into schedules in another article.
As a calendar app, I have invested in Fantastical for a long time because it has the most beautiful UI for me. However, Fantastical is a paid app, so currently I use the free apps from Apple and Google. Alternatives include Calendars, minical, Simple Calendar, or Structured.
I tend to exaggerate, but in this case it's definitely true: task managers are the best invention since the printing press. Ever since I started using the app Things 3, I basically don't forget tasks anymore - and without burdening my brain.
Task managers are so important because tasks are important. If we don't complete a task, there are consequences. This applies not only to deadlines; maintaining friendships also involves commitments. For this reason, the fear of forgetting tasks is a daily companion for many.
With task managers, we have a free assistant at hand that can take away all this cognitive burden. It's no wonder that David Allen (2019) writes that a large part of our everyday stress comes from inadequately managing commitments. Imagine never forgetting anything again without even wasting a thought on it. A dream? No: a task manager.
So, whenever a task comes to mind in my daily life, I throw it into the inbox of my task manager using the widget or voice function of my iPhone. "Apologize to Jeff"? Inbox! "Buy bird food"? Inbox! "Water plants"? That's right, inbox - with a weekly repeat!
An exception is the 2-minute rule by David Allen (2019): tasks that can be done in less than two minutes, I do immediately - unless I should actually be doing something else. "Pet the guinea pig"? Immediately! The reason is that organising such mini-tasks would take more time than doing them directly.
So how do I actually work with my task manager Things 3? Every morning, I look at my inbox and process my tasks. For each task, I set a day on which I want to complete it, and add a deadline and reminders if necessary. I also add spontaneous notes and checklists, such as a shopping list.
One of my favourite features in Things 3 is the tag function. I use tags like "phone", "computer", "office", "on the go", or "home" to categorise tasks and save time. For example, when I'm on the go, I can use the tag function to see which tasks I could still complete while I'm already out and about; and then I do them right away.
Once I've cleared my inbox in the morning, I take a look at my today list in the task manager. This list contains all the tasks I have set for today. Following the Eisenhower principle, I decide what is both urgent and important from this list. What is not urgent but important, I schedule; what is unimportant, I consider delegating or deleting. Then I choose a highlight task that I prioritise for today (Keller, 2013; Knapp & Zeratsky, 2018).
I find the ability to create projects fundamentally helpful. Projects are nothing more than a bundle of tasks. If we procrastinate and put off projects, it is often because we are not clear about the first step. Often, clarifying the next step alone gets projects rolling (Allen, 2019).
In my experience, it is difficult to get people excited about task managers. Many find it difficult to truly delegate 100 percent of all tasks to the manager. I can only recommend it. No other tool has taken away my fear to such an extent. Alternatives to Things 3 include Todoist, Microsoft To Do, TickTick, or Any.do.
The alternatives to Things 3 sometimes have collaboration features, but I don't think task managers are the best solution for collaboration. For this, I used to use Trello or Asana. Today, I organise my collaboration in Notion. All these systems offer Kanban boards. For me, there is no better method for organising collaborative projects.
The Notes app is the most important place for me to capture ideas, as I usually have my iPhone with me, except when I'm in the shower, and I can type or record any idea directly using the voice function.
The central collection point for my ideas is a note with the creative title "Ideas". If I have ideas for specific projects, I name the note accordingly, for example, "Ideas for Concrete Project". Future Tobi has often thanked me for it.
I use the Notes app not only for text ideas but also for capturing visual inspirations; simply take a photo and send it to the app. I even create simple sketches in the Notes app. For example, I would collect initial sketches for a logo in the note "Logo Ideas".
Once a week, I empty the Notes inbox and see which ideas still inspire me, following the motto: "Is that art or can it go away?" I then move interesting ideas into my system to use them. The rest gets deleted.
The great thing about the Notes app is that it is free and synchronises across all my devices. So if I save a note on my iPhone, it appears on my Mac the next second. Alternatives include Evernote, Google Keep, Bear, Simplenote, or Joplin.
The Voice Recorder app, which is available on every smartphone, is suitable for capturing auditory ideas. For example, if a melody comes to mind that I don't want to forget, I record it directly and name it in a way that I can find it later, like "Idea Anti-Hit Number 3".
Naming is especially important for recordings because we can only search through audio recordings by listening to them - and that takes time. I listen to the new ideas once a week and move them to my music folder if they still excite me.
Nothing works without email. Email is one of the few communication methods, alongside traditional mail, where our messages are at least briefly acknowledged before ending up in the trash. But what emails can do even better is distract us.
My solution: Turn off email notifications and schedule fixed periods during the day to empty our inbox (Eyal, 2019; Newport, 2016). Emails that I cannot address directly during this time are forwarded as tasks to my task manager or typed in there.
Personally, I use the free version of the Spark app. I like the design and all my email addresses are neatly consolidated there. Additionally, the integration with Things 3 works very well. Alternatives include Outlook, Aqua Mail, Airmail, Canary Mail, or Superhuman.
Furthermore, I adhere to Nir Eyal's recommendation (2019) to reduce the information overload in my inbox. This includes promptly unsubscribing from all newsletters that I don't read. I also follow the "Inbox Zero" principle. This means that no unread emails are left lying around in my inbox. Only unprocessed emails should be in my inbox. Processed emails - and this may surprise some - go into my archive.
I have sympathy for the email archives of the world. Hardly anyone takes them seriously, even though they only want to help. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to support them: Processed emails go into the archive, not the deleted ones. Emails to be deleted are - well, deleted (Allen, 2019, Bailey, 2016).
Messenger Apps and Social Media Apps
Apart from emails, our smartphones are flooded with messenger and social media apps. I find it really challenging to keep track of everything. That's why I've set two rules for myself that make a real difference:
- I only respond to non-urgent messages twice a week. The problem with productivity is that it not only supports us at work but can also create extra work for us (Burkeman, 2021) emphasizes. The faster we respond to messages, the faster we receive a response.
- I capture important information immediately to prevent it from getting lost. If (voice) messages inspire me with an idea, I jot them down directly in my ideas inbox in the notes app. If a message contains a task, it goes straight into my task manager's inbox. And if a message includes an appointment, I enter it into the calendar right away.
By the way, voice messages are only convenient for those who send them. As a recipient, I find them annoying, with one exception: if someone wants to say something sweet to me. I really appreciate that. Otherwise, voice messages take time, hide information, and resist the search function. The only chance is to jot down tasks in the task manager while listening for the first time.
We have a long life. If it seems short to us, it is either because we were distracted our whole lives or simply cannot remember anymore. An ancient tool: writing a diary. In our diary, we can store experiences and process emotions (von Werder & Schulte-Steinicke, 2010). I use the app DayOne for this.
DayOne synchronizes across all my devices. Additionally, I can create multiple diaries, such as a "Dream Diary" and a "BJJ Documentation". I have also created templates with questions for my morning and evening routines. Photos can also be included. Alternatives include Journey, Penzu, Grid Diary, Five Minute Journal, or Dabble Me.
An often underestimated tool is the Read-it-later app. We often encounter a common problem while researching on the internet: we come across numerous articles that we would like to read, but easily get distracted. The question is, how can we remember all these articles?
The solution is simple: we can save the article to our Read-it-later app using a browser add-on. The app will then download the article. Read-it-later apps serve as our inbox for online articles. Personally, I use the Reader app. Alternatives are Instapaper or Pocket.
Once a week, I review the articles in my Read-it-later app and tag them, allowing me to easily access articles on the same topic when needed. I can then read the articles at my leisure, whenever I have the time.
But the best part, and I will explain more about this later, is that everything I mark is automatically synced to my Readwise app.
I love listening to books while jogging or commuting. Often, I listen to books before reading them later, as I understand them better that way. Additionally, I really enjoy it when the original authors read the books.
So far, I haven't found a solution for marking interesting excerpts, so I take notes in my notes app and record the processing of these notes in my task manager. Some alternatives are Audible, Libby, BookBeat, Skoop, Legimi, or Thalia.
To listen to podcasts, I use the Airr app. Airr has more bugs than podcasts, but it has a feature that I haven't found in any other app so far: I can highlight excerpts. These highlights are automatically transferred to Readwise, sometimes even as transcripts. Brilliant! As far as I know, alternatives like Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast, or Castro don't have this functionality.
Book Summaries App
I am a big fan of book summaries. I not only read them to save time, but also to gain access to books I want to read, remember their content, and compare them. Personally, I use the app Shortform for this.
Shortform is extremely expensive, but it is worth the investment for me. Shortform not only summarizes books, but also provides commentary and compares the content with other books and studies. Additionally, Shortform has a read-aloud function and a browser add-on that summarises webpages.
Basically, I could recommend all eReaders at this point. Although I appreciate paper books, I simply love the ability to access books from anywhere instantly and carry a whole library in my pocket.
Kindle has features that are essential in my productivity system. Apart from syncing books across all my devices, my highlights are also automatically forwarded to Readwise. Alternatives include Tolino, Kobo, or PocketBook.
Furthermore, there are now eReaders like Remarkable, Supernote, Boox, or Onyx that advertise a paper-like feel and allow for note-taking. Handwritten notes can be directly transferred into our filing system.
Information on Websites
When I come across a passage online, I use the Readwise and Notion add-ons in my browser to forward it to my system with just one click. I capture graphics as screenshots or directly copy them into the appropriate Notion card. Web page addresses that I don't want to forget, I organise in a note called "Webpages" in my note-taking app.
My password manager has greatly simplified my life. Nowadays, we should have different passwords with many colorful characters for each login. No one can remember such passwords.
Nevertheless, I spent many years trying to keep my passwords in my head and simply guessing them until I had to reset them if in doubt. These experiments not only take time but also prevent us from getting started right away.
James Clear (2018) emphasizes that we should make desired behavior obvious, easy, attractive, and satisfying. Password managers support us in doing so. The trick is to have each new password created directly in the password manager.
Personally, I use the SecureSafe app because it is cost-effective and seems reliable. It synchronises across all my devices. Alternatives include LastPass, 1Password, Dashlane, or Keeper. There are also browser solutions available.
In this section, I will describe how I process the captured ideas. It includes cloud storage, Readwise, Notion, AI, writing software, drawing programs, film and music, collaboration tools, habit trackers, focus apps, Brain.FM, and a few small helpers.
I have painfully developed the habit of creating backups of my data on external hard drives. Additionally, I now store all my files in the cloud. In this case, a "cloud" is storage space in a data center somewhere in the world that I can access over the internet.
Currently, I use iCloud because it is logical for Apple users and all photos are automatically saved. For larger amounts of data, I use Google Drive. Alternatives include Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive, pCloud, or Dropbox.
When organising my data, I follow the PARA system by Tiago Forte (2023). The PARA system consists of four folders on the first level of our files:
- Projects: In this folder, I save everything that is current, such as my current writing projects or everything related to my work as a creative coach.
- Areas: Here, I store everything that is not a current project but is still relevant, such as my tax returns. Personally, I divide the folder into six subfolders that cover my everyday life: Home, Work, Financial, Legal, Social, and Health.
- Resources: Here, I find everything that doesn't fit into the previous categories but could be interesting for the future, such as completed projects. Following Tiago Forte's recommendation (2023), I try to organise them with a focus on the future. So, I ask myself when I might need the files again, for example, for a leadership presentation.
- Archive: In this folder, I move everything that I no longer need. In the future, we may be able to recycle completed work and make our work easier.
I search for files using the search function with a keyboard shortcut. I save myself the trouble of searching through the folders. Computers search faster than humans. All we need to do is give the files meaningful names.
For naming documents, I use the format "YYMMDD Filename Sender". For example, my Christmas wishlist from December 27, 2022, is labeled "221227 Christmas Wishlist TR" - TR being my initials. With this labelling, files are sorted by date and it is immediately clear what they are and who created the document.
Readwise - The App That Brings It All Together
Readwise is the heart of my productivity system. It is the charming oak tree in the backyard of my Neukölln apartment. Everything changes, but Readwise remains. Readwise is the app that holds everything together.
Readwise solves a huge problem for me. It takes away the worry of forgetting what I have learned. I use Readwise to store all the information that I don't want to forget. Every day, Readwise reminds me of some of this information.
The magic of Readwise is that we can not only manually enter information, but Readwise also automatically pulls information from other apps.
For example, when I read a book on Kindle and highlight a few lines, Readwise will eventually remind me of these lines. Then, I can further edit the information, add tags, make notes, and decide how important this information is to me. With the help of tags, I can find this information again when I need it.
If I don't want to forget information from the Notes app, I manually copy it to Readwise. I use Readwise to scan analog texts. Readwise automatically pulls in all other highlights - including from Kindle, the Read-it-later app, or the podcast app. For highlights on the internet, there is the browser add-on.
But it gets even better: Readwise not only offers this wonderful import function, but also an export function to our knowledge management app. For me, that is Notion.
Notion - My Knowledge Management App
For me, there is a time before Notion and a time after Notion. I don't even know how else to describe it. In it, I organize my business, develop my expertise, and manage my online content. I'm even writing this article in Notion. The official introduction to Notion can be found here.
Notion is the app for my knowledge management, to store information, learn, and develop my expertise. I also really like Obsidian - Roam Research and Evernote are alternatives - but Notion makes the most sense for me personally.
Example: In Notion, I have developed a Knowledge Management Canvas. It contains "Topics" that are important to me, as well as "Tools," "Techniques," "References," "Individuals," and "Frequently Asked Questions." Everything is linked together. Whenever I find information about obstacles - whether it's texts, quotes, images, Instagram videos, music, etc. - I forward them to the Notion page. This can be done with add-ons in the browser or the "share" function on the smartphone.
Over time, a lot of information accumulates. I learn by editing the content. Here, I follow the technique of "Progressive Summarization" by Tiago Forte (2023). I initially format important information in bold, then highlight parts of it in yellow, summarize it, and formulate my own text.
I find the paid feature "Notion AI" quite helpful. Specifically, I use Notion AI, for example, to have long notes from audiobooks summarized and to identify action steps. I also correct spelling with Notion AI. In addition, Notion AI helps me with translations and brainstorming.
Notion has two disadvantages for me: The data can only be stored in the Notion cloud, not on your own computer. Additionally, for data privacy reasons, Notion should not be used for storing personal data, at least in Europe. A bitter pill that I still swallow.
If you made it this far, I'll give you my Notion Knowledge Canvas. Just sign up for my newsletter and then send me a short message from the email you used to sign up, with the subject line "Notion Knowledge Canvas". I'll then send you a link to copy the canvas.
For a long time, I paid for Microsoft Office. However, since I started using Notion and the Google Cloud with all their office features like Docs, Sheets, and Presentations, I have stopped using Microsoft Office. Open-source alternatives are LibraOffice or Open Office.
For writing my novels, I use the separate app Scrivener. It offers a wonderful focus mode and helpful features to manage the story in the background. It is my sacred place for creative writing. When I open it, my heart starts beating. Alternatives include NaNoWriMo, Novelist, FocusWriter, Ulysses, Plottr, or Typora.
Otherwise, for drafting short texts, I actually use my notes app. For example, when I'm drafting poems, I write them in the "Poem XY" note before publishing them. This way, I can find all drafts of poems instantly.
Graphics, Film, Music
If you're into filmmaking, music production, or art, you'll probably be more knowledgeable than me in this area. I can only list what I personally use: Cubase for music, Adobe Premiere Pro for videos, and Canva for graphics. I'm currently learning Procreate for drawing as well. I'm always open to tips!
To collaborate online in a group, for example in workshops, I use Miro and Google Jamboard because I enjoy using them and have had good experiences with them. Depending on the focus, alternatives include Figma, Mural, and Conceptboard.
To master a habit, we should not try to perfect it, but simply repeat it continuously (Clear, 2018; Duhigg, 2014; Fogg, 2019). Habit trackers are small apps that are designed to help us with this. I use the app Streaks. Alternatives include Habitica, Habit Tracker, Strides, HabitNow, or Daylio.
Habit trackers digitize the Seinfeld Method. The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld is said to have marked on a yearly calendar whether he achieved his daily goal or not. The idea behind the exercise is to achieve an uninterrupted green chain (Clear, 2018). Such visualization motivates us to stick to our intentions.
To minimise distractions, I turn off all notifications, remove distractions from my digital and analog workspace, and use the focus mode of my writing program. If my iPhone is nearby, I use the Focus App Forest.
In focus apps, we set how long we want to work with focus. We can also play background noises like the café in Paris. In any case, we are rewarded for adhering to the focus time. We then receive coins that we can use to plant real trees. Alternatives to Forest are, for example, Plantie, Flora, Flow, Study, or AvocaDO.
Just as important as the focus app is the built-in parental control feature of my iPhone to avoid automatic clicking on social media and YouTube. I have also added links to skip the feeds and go directly to managing my page (Eyal, 2019).
We can also use blocking apps to block certain apps or websites. This is useful because one of the most important tactics to break a habit is to increase friction (Clear, 2018). Examples of such blocking apps are BlockSite, Freedom, Cold Turkey, SelfControl, or FocusMe.
What also helps me a lot to concentrate is the use of focus music - preferably in combination with noise-cancelling headphones. Personally, I use the app Brain.FM. On YouTube, there is free music available, specifically for people with ADHD. For those who prefer working in the sound of rain, they can use apps like Noizio, My Noize, Calm, or Forest.
Finally, here are a few mini-apps that make my life easier:
- Yoink is a visual clipboard on my Mac where I can drag and drop documents and files.
- Moom is an app that provides more options for automatically arranging my windows.
- Alfred is a fast search function.
Admittedly, this text has become long. It is not so much an article as it is a current insight into my second brain. I will keep the text up to date. If you are interested in specific apps, feel free to check back regularly.
The creation of a second brain fundamentally changes our lives. Suddenly, we can have a clear mind without the fear of forgetting something. We can cruise through our everyday life with ease and have the capacity to do what we truly want.
I can only recommend making this effort. I am happy to support you in building a second brain and introduce you to apps as part of KREATIVcoaching. If you are experiencing the same as I am, this investment will make your life easier for decades.
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