Illustration by Mark Weaver

We are living in the midst of an Informational Apocalypse.

The volume of information we’re exposed to every day continues to explode without regard for the number of hours in a day. “Information overload” has evolved from a narrow preoccupation to a pervasive state of mind. Every minute of our day has been colonized by information consumption. And yet the apps, newsletters, podcasts, and notifications keep coming. 

Instead of empowering us and setting us free, this explosion of information has left us more stressed and exhausted than ever. The staggering number of choices we make every hour has left us inefficient, indecisive, and ineffective. One school of thought advocates for “digital abstinence” – turning off our devices, locking away our computers, and cutting off internet access. Yet our lives are now intertwined with the digital world. We can’t just “turn it off.” 

Fortunately, we are also seeing signs of a Note-Taking Revolution.

Academic disciplines such as Personal Information Management (PIM) and Knowledge Management (KM) with strong theoretical foundations have been around for decades. But the combination of the two disciplines – sometimes referred to as Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) – is much newer, having emerged from library science in the late 1990s. 

Although various books and papers have touched on certain aspects of PKM over the last 20 years, there wasn’t yet a practical approach designed for individual use. My online course Building a Second Brain is designed to make Personal Knowledge Management available to every knowledge worker who thinks for a living, with a practical, step-by-step system that fits into their daily lives.

 

There are seven trends I believe make it essential for every knowledge worker to create their own “Second Brain” – a trusted archive of their most valuable knowledge and expertise saved outside of their head: 

  1. Digital notes have become mainstream
  2. Organizing is on the rise
  3. Online education is exploding
  4. We are in a golden age of content
  5. We all work in the gig economy
  6. Millennials are taking leadership positions
  7. Mental health is becoming a central preoccupation

Digital notes have become mainstream

After years as a niche product, digital notes apps have finally become a mainstream category of software used by hundreds of millions. The launch of the iPhone in 2007 gave everyone a “digital notepad” they carried around with them at all times. Evernote launched around this time, riding the smartphone wave to become the default notes app on the devices of more than 200 million people as of 2018.

The technology has now been commodified and made available to anyone with a smartphone. What’s missing is a framework for how to use these tools. I speak to many people who use digital notes every day. Many of them have years of experience and consider themselves “power users.” Almost universally, I hear them say they don’t know how to best organize their notes, don’t have confidence they can find them when they need them, and fear that all the effort they’re putting in is going to waste. I don’t know of another category of software of this size whose users are perpetually so dissatisfied.

We are now in the midst of the “second wave” of notes apps. Digital note-taking has evolved from a tiny niche for writers and academics to a daily practice for nearly every knowledge worker. This new generation of note-taking and “idea capture” tools are flourishing in the market pioneered by Evernote, including Notion, Bear, Simplenote, Agenda, Zoho Notebook, Notability, GoodNotes, Drafts, and many others. Meanwhile, the default notes apps made by technology giants, such as Apple Notes, Google Keep, and Microsoft OneNote, are receiving major upgrades as notes become an essential feature of every device. These free apps come pre-installed on the computers and mobile devices of billions of people. 

It is effortless to download an app, create a note, and jot down some ideas, but it is not at all clear what to do next. The popular “Inbox Zero” concept gave people a framework for email management starting in the late 1990s. The rise of Getting Things Done (GTD) in the early 2000s provided a framework for task management, launching the “personal productivity” revolution and a tidal wave of productivity apps. But there exists no similar framework for knowledge management – organizing our thoughts and ideas to be able to access them in the future. 

Organizing is on the rise

The incredible popularity of Japanese organizing expert Marie Kondo and her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has continued to fuel the dream of “organizing” all aspects of life. Kondo has demonstrated that organizing our homes and possessions involves so much more than putting things in neat rows. It is a practice of introspection and personal growth that can actually bring vitality and fulfillment into our lives.

I am constantly asked, “Are you the Marie Kondo of the digital world?” There is an incredible hunger to apply the same principles of simplicity, elegance, and ease to the digital world, where we now spend more than 11 hours per day on average. By organizing their digital lives, people gain not only a sense of calm and peace of mind, but entirely new capabilities. They massively expand their ability to organize their ideas and put them to use in their projects and goals. Organizing information is not an end in itself – it is a gateway to a new world of creative self-expression and personal effectiveness.

Online education is exploding

The past few years have seen tremendous growth in online learning, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered through platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, and edX. The online education industry as a whole is growing 28% per year, and is expected to reach $133 billion by 2023. As a comparison, this is about the same size as the global film industry in 2018. As popular as online courses have been, there are serious concerns over whether online learners successfully complete them. Few students seem to have the organizational and self-management skills needed to structure their own learning in the absence of accountability systems such as tests and grades. They are not equipped with the “meta” learning skills of note-taking and idea management needed to take advantage of the abundance of educational resources online.

The most popular MOOC of all time, Learning How to Learn, has more than 1.7 million enrolled students. Yet even this course focuses on theoretical models of learning, not the practical skills of note-taking and organizing. One of my course participants once commented, “This is the course people should take to be able to take advantage of all the other courses.” A Second Brain will allow online learners to fully take advantage of the wealth of learning resources they have access to online.

We are in a golden age of content

The entire internet is becoming a source of learning. Though online courses are widely available, you no longer need to take a class to learn a new skill – just download a free PDF, watch a YouTube video, or follow thought leaders on social media. This universal, 24/7 access to knowledge is wonderful, but also overwhelming. We are constantly told to “take notes” on what we learn in school, but no one actually teaches us how to do so effectively. Digital note-taking is an essential life skill in an age of abundant content – how to extract an idea you encounter from the stream of media you are consuming and save it for later use even if you don’t know exactly what that use will be.

As technology evolves, expectations around our access to information change as well. We now expect most of our data will be permanently saved and instantly accessible via “the cloud.” How do we reconcile the total accessibility of our digital lives with a concern for the security of our most private thoughts? By creating private repositories where we save the data that matters most to us. Repositories that we control and that only we can decide to share. This is the Second Brain.

 

Creatives work in the gig economy

An increasing percentage of the modern workforce is made up of freelancers, independent contractors, entrepreneurs, and makers. The tools of creative production, from cameras to software to social media, have been completely democratized. This has fueled a “gold rush” of people creating new things and sharing them more easily and for free online. Whether as a full-time job or a side hustle, millions are redefining themselves as “independent creators.” We all now work in or work with those in the gig economy..

But this newfound independence has created a desperate need for strategies and frameworks to help structure the work environment. In the absence of offices, a fixed work schedule, and a manager looking over our shoulder, creators have had to develop their own creative process. They need to follow their own rules and routines to be able to consistently produce their best work, manage multiple projects, and manage the balance between work and life.

At the same time, work is becoming more flexible and location-independent even in the most traditional corporations. Teams of collaborators that span cities, countries, time zones, companies, and even industries are now the norm and not the exception. The hidden requirement for such work is documentation – work must be saved in a visible, tangible, and understandable form before it can be shared across the world. Respected companies such as Amazon and Stripe espouse a “text-first” culture where everything gets written down to encourage clearer thinking and communication. This practice will spread throughout the business world, as more and more companies rely on mobile, distributed teams to get things done.

Millennials are taking leadership positions

The largest generation in U.S. history is taking the reins of business and government – the Millennials. They are the first “digital native” generation and expect to work in a mobile, flexible, digitally savvy way. Digitally saving information is second nature to them, and organizations that don’t allow or facilitate this behavior will lose out on the best available talent.

Millennials are taking professional and leadership roles while machines are becoming more capable than ever. Pervasive fears of “robots taking our jobs” obscure a central finding of research: the best performing teams are made up of humans and computers working together. Studies have shown that having internet search engines available at all times decreases our ability to remember facts. But instead of treating this trend as evidence of cognitive decline, we could embrace it. If computers perform so much better than humans at memorizing detailed facts and figures, we should let them have that job. This leaves more mental capacity for the work only humans can do – creativity, communication, and innovation.

Income inequality among white-collar workers is growing, and increasingly, mere access to information makes no difference in their performance. The ability to manage one’s ideas and reliably turn them into concrete results will be critical to standing out. Having a Second Brain will enable a new generation of knowledge workers to make their creativity a reliable engine of insights – one that combines the best qualities of humans with the best qualities of machines.

Even in our personal lives, we will increasingly feel the need to save the information that defines so much of our lives. From photos to messages, emails, documents, notes, and beyond. We will seek solutions to curate the best of this material in a single, centralized place we control. People of all ages increasingly value relationships and experiences over possessions, and so much of our relationships and experiences now take place online and via digital media. A Second Brain is a digital vault where those precious memories can be stored safely forever.

Mental health is becoming a central preoccupation

Recent trends in mental health also underscore the need to save our memories outside our heads. The population in most developed countries is declining, and populations are rapidly aging. What if we could save the memories of our parents and grandparents in a durable, external medium? What if we could provide thinking tools to help them make the best of the time they have left, even if they experience cognitive difficulties or conditions like Alzheimer’s? 

Even for young people, ADD and ADHD have been diagnosed among wide swaths of the population. The ability to sit still for long periods of time and meticulously memorize facts is increasingly challenging. We need better tools for allowing us to think and create even as attention spans dwindle. 

Now is the time

Alongside all these trends, the world continues to change faster and become less predictable. Traditional career paths no longer make any sense, communities and neighborhoods are fragmented, and the culture is full of conflict. More than ever, people need to be able to make sense of what is going on around them and, to draw in the information that educates and enriches them, without getting overwhelmed or unduly influenced. 

A Second Brain allows you to manage your informational environment. To create a buffer against the onslaught of ads, notifications, incoming messages, and distractions, while also selectively pulling information in to be examined, digested, and made into better models. In an era of information overload, our Second Brain gives us a powerful tool for shaping the flow of information through our lives and redirects it to create the life we want to live.

Thank you to Kathleen Martin, Saul, Artur Piszek, Christof Appel, Joel Runyon, Manan Hora, Luke Butler, Bryan Broome, and Joseph Wells for their feedback and suggestions on this post.


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