Keeping track of literature – the Second Brain approach

Keeping track of literature – the Second Brain approach

Whether you are a PhD student, an active researcher, or a final year student researching for their main project, keeping track of literature is key.

The availability of modern bibliometric tools like Google Scholar, or Web of Science makes literature discovery easy. A broadband search can yield anywhere between 5K to 50K hits (or worse, more). But even if you develop the skills to speed-read papers – the question is, how do you keep track of the relevant ones? And more importantly, how will you be able to remember and find the relevant ones when you need them the most?

I must emphasize this – forget relying on your brain for recollecting facts. Your brain can be good at a lot of things – but memory recollection isn’t one of them. The safest bet is to find a way to catalogue your thoughts in a manner that is easy to use, access, and facilitates rapid retrieval.

As researchers, we are knowledge workers. And knowledge workers need all the bandwidth they can get for making connections between concepts, assimilating the information, towards the creation of new knowledge. The book ‘Building a Second Brain’ by Tiago Forte offers a general template for getting this much-needed bandwidth. Specifically, the template provides an approach to delegate the task of information storage and archival to a ‘Second Brain’ – preferably one that is electronically searchable.

Using a ‘Second Brain’ offers a three-fold advantage.

  • Firstly, it helps you develop an archival system – instead of dumping stuff on the desktop, you will know exactly where to put a particular piece of information – and also make it easy to recover it.
  • Secondly, by doing so, you will be freeing up the brain for carrying higher-order executive functions.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly – you will not have to worry whether you will remember a piece of information. The book predicates the use of a note-dump – this is where you quickly jot down your fleeting thoughts as they come. At a later point in time, you can come back to these notes, and archive them into their appropriate locations in the Second Brain.

While the Second Brain offers a general strategy for capturing your thoughts and archiving them for action, I find that some of the frameworks that are described in the book can be very effective in keeping track of the papers you come across.

For instance,

  • The PARA (Projects-Areas-Resources-Archives) framework offers a streamlined methodology of keeping track of your active projects and resources. In my opinion, if you don’t have an organizational system, start from here, and you wouldn’t go wrong.
  • The CODE (Capture-Organize-Distill-Express) framework offers an effective way of capturing your fleeting thoughts, and organizing them in a way that you don’t lose them. But here’s where the Second Brain approach differs from other frameworks out there – it underscores the fact that knowledge has to be actionable. For the knowledge you have amassed to be useful, you have to distill it to its essence, and then use it to express/create new knowledge. The Second Brain is not just a hat-rack (let me know if you get that reference) – it facilitates, and empowers you to take action.
  • The approach of progressive summarization can be very helpful in identifying the essence of the knowledge contained in the papers, and can help you to quickly pick up the paper where you last left it.

You would have noticed that I have purposely not given any details of the frameworks/approaches above. This is because I insist that you to get a copy of the book and read it. The book goes in much deeper in explaining the above strategies and provides real-world examples. It is also a quick and smooth read – I am quite certain it was written with the support of a Second Brain (meta, much? :)). With experience, one eventually develops a system of information storage and retrieval. But the dividends are greater if you adopt an approach early on.

Age comes with the blessing (or curse) of hindsight. So I often find myself asking, ‘Where was this when I was growing up/doing X!!?’. Tiago Forte’s “Building a Second Brain” has left me asking this question again. This is one book I would surely have liked to get my paws on and devoured voraciously my initial PhD years, and I strongly recommend all young academics and knowledge workers to read it.

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