By the time you read this sentence, over 1,000 people will be part of the Building A Second Brain community. This milestone has me thinking about the “paradigm shifts,” or changes in perspective or attitude, that I’ve seen graduates go through.

This may sound strange, but I increasingly believe that the purpose of this course is not to give students new ideas. It’s not even to give them useful techniques. Endless ideas and techniques are already out there for the taking. No, the purpose of this course is to take people through a series of personal paradigm shifts in their relationship to technology, knowledge, and the new world that is evolving ever faster.

Every tip and technique has a shelf life, and will someday become outdated. Even the most cutting-edge new app will eventually lose relevance. The history of managing ideas reveals a constantly changing stream of tools and techniques. But the underlying principles of idea management are timeless. They were present hundreds of years ago, and will be present hundreds of years from now. And these are the principles worth learning.

As Silvano Arieti says, “Creative products are always shiny and new; the creative process is ancient and unchanging.”

The process of creating paradigm shifts, however, is complex. You can’t just tell someone what it is, or expect them to “get it” instantaneously. The problem is, they are hearing everything through the filter of the very paradigm you are trying to change. Which means you need to lead them through an experience in which it becomes personal – something embedded in their daily life, emotions, body, and relationships.

These are the 20 biggest paradigm shifts we’ve witnessed as students have moved through our online course Building a Second Brain.

1. The Capture Habit

There’s much more than playing catch and release with passing thoughts. Your thoughts and ideas have value, but tend to arrive when you least expect them. With an idea capture tool, you can let them live forever in a system that reflects your goals and interests.

2. Idea Recycling

Ideas are not single-use only. They can outlive the projects they were originally a part of. Every document or deliverable you create represents valuable thinking you’ve done, and can be recycled and reused in future projects. By putting in a little extra effort to preserve your work for the future, you’ll never have to do the same work twice.

3. Micro-Projects

By redefining your projects as very small, discrete targets, you can make it easier to organize your ideas while simultaneously giving yourself a consistent sense of progress. 

4. Projects over Categories

Instead of organizing ideas by type or category, which leads to silos that they can’t escape from, organize your ideas according to the projects where they will be most useful and actionable.

5. Centralized Creativity

By keeping all your best ideas in one trusted place outside your head, you’ll be able to connect them together in novel ways that you never would have thought of on your own. Seeing unusual combinations of ideas makes it easier to notice patterns, leading to more powerful and unique insights in your work.

6. Borrowed Creativity

Creativity is not a mysterious force to be conjured from nothing – it emerges organically from practical efforts to gather, organize, and digest the ideas of others. Before you create novel work of your own, you can prepare by imitating the masters.

7. Slow Burn

Instead of planning and preparing far in advance for projects that might not even pan out, you can slowly gather notes in the background and then quickly snap them together right when they’re needed. This approach saves you from grueling slogs while also making use of all the background reading and learning you’re already doing anyway.

8. Favorite Problems

Problems aren’t undesirable things to be solved – they can be open-ended, recurring questions that provide direction to your reading, learning, and growth over long periods of time. Your interests and goals are not completely random – there is a coherent pattern to your thinking over time that your Second Brain allows you to document and understand.

9. Putting a Handle on the Suitcase

By distilling or summarizing your notes, you put a “handle” on the “suitcase” of a large idea. This makes it easier to get the gist of what it contains and move it around without too much effort.

10. Start with Abundance

Instead of sitting down to a blank canvas and trying to think of something good, start your creative process by sifting through a plentiful supply of interesting ideas, insights, and inspirations that you can build off of.

11. Future Self

If you make your notes a little better each time you touch them – a little more organized, a little more succinct, a little more clear – then your future self will find it easier and easier to access the knowledge you’ve saved.

12. Intermediate Packets

Cranking out work in one big push or digesting information in one big gulp is not the only way of working. By breaking down your work into a series of small, intermediate “packets,” it will be much easier to make consistent progress. And with these packets at your disposal, you’ll have many options for how to combine and remix them into new things in the future.

13. You Only Know What You Make

Instead of just passively consuming huge volumes of information that soon gets forgotten, you should use it to make new things. Applying what you learn in tangible projects not only helps the learning stick, it allows you to get feedback and incorporate the thinking of others.

14. Progress Over Perfection

Systems that must be perfect to be reliable are deeply flawed; concentrate on consistently making forward progress with your ideas instead of organizing them perfectly. Ideas only have value when they are alive and moving out in the world.

15. Just-in-Time Productivity

Once you have your ideas documented outside your head, you can create solutions to problems just-in-time, on the spot, by snapping together pre-existing parts. This not only results in better, more relevant solutions, it saves your time and energy for the things that truly matter.

16. Deoptimize yourself

Your biological brain is the bottleneck in the flow of information you are able to acquire and use. Instead of “optimizing” yourself, optimize an external system that can handle unlimited amounts of information, remember it forever, and never sleeps. Your biological brain isn’t meant to be optimized – it is meant to imagine, to wonder, to wander toward whatever makes you come alive.

17. The Perspective Era

The source of value in knowledge work is no longer the resources you control, the time you spend, or even the attention you’re able to dedicate – it is the unique perspective you offer based on your experience and knowledge. The future of work will increasingly be dedicated to interpreting information and persuading people how to use it, not just communicating it. This necessitates that each of us curate a collection of supporting material and research to support our point of view.

18. Containers vs. Streams

The world no longer fits into neat little boxes, or “containers” – it is all streams, which you cannot fully control or consume. You can only immerse yourself in them, and collect anything interesting that happens to float by. Now that we have almost unlimited knowledge available for free, what matters most is the situational awareness to know which knowledge is worth acquiring.

19. Ideas as Food

There is no particular food you need to survive – you only need a diverse supply of nutrients. Likewise, there is no one particular piece of information you need to accomplish any goal – you only need a diverse supply of interesting ideas to stay healthy and informed.

20. Mindful Engagement with Information

There are more choices than “be overwhelmed” and “total abstinence” when it comes to technology; idea management tools allow us to create a filter and a membrane around ourselves and intentionally decide what to let in.

Thank you to Haziq Azizi Ahmad Zakir, Sonia Sanchez, Olivier Cantin, Anna Lundbergh, Juanca Asensio, Parabhjeet Sidhu, Jeremie Rykner, Raúl Hernández González, Russell Kroeger, Ben Ford, David Laing, and Michael Grant for their valuable feedback and suggestions.


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