The need for a second brain 🧠✨

November 6, 202011 min read

diver looking for a brain
Picture by Vlad Tchompalov

"Mind Like Water: A mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions, and split focus."

-- David Allen

In his book Getting Things Done2, David Allen compares our lives with the lives of our previous generations. He points out that we are subjected to a faster rate of change - be it our jobs, our role, the things we own. The nature of things we own has also changed. Our digital assets and our digital lives have sneaked in on us. Consider simply, the number of photos and messages that we click, share forward. Now go ten years back. Besides, every bit of information on the internet, has a life of its own. It replicates itself, to survive, to thrive like a ...(coughs) virus you may say. To add to this, we are also constantly plugged into the Matrix, so that we can feed it with our attention. Your news anchor fighting with a movie streaming service for your attention, and the streaming service fighting with your sleep to keep you awake. The rate of change itself is going up and our lives may seem equally uneventful to future generations. It is not going to get any simpler.

This post is perhaps about the value of your attention. We've all heard about how "Time is money". I'd like to add, "Attention is the currency of our current times". It is how we measure things, it is how advertisers evaluate price. If something is popular, viral, if it has millions of likes OR even it has bad publicity, it attracts the attention of the masses. It becomes a podium, for people to sell their goods and their ideas. Guess who benefits if your attention spans are smaller? That way, they all can get a bit of it. If you focus on one thing too long, the other content will miss you terribly. It might wither away and die?

Now considering that attention is such a valued resource, would you give it away easily? If it were your money, we would think about it. I am deriving my argument from Randy Pausch's Lecture on Time Management which makes the same point about time. I am specifically pointing at attention because it is the silent killer.

We might have resigned ourselves to the idea that we don't have time to learn a new skill, or to take on a new project but we readily tap, click, scroll, repeat on our mobiles giving it away drop by drop. You would argue that you only do this to fill the gaps i.e. to use the time that was previously useless. Maybe, when you waiting for the elevator, or eating food, or maybe when you are on a conference call and you are happy to let the others drive the conversation while you contribute your time and attention to your favorite Internet Giant. Every time, you do this you lose a bit of your attention. For instance, I posted drafted this article, then I spent time cleaning the house. I didn't have anything plugged into my ear or playing in the background. And it helped my brain review the draft in a diffused manner, a couple of changes and a couple of new ideas. I had to give it space to do it.

Although our brains are more powerful than the best computers out there, there is a similarity. The RAM space is limited, and it is always bursting at its seams. Even if we don't indulge in social media, there are a thousand things that can take away our attention. David Allen's company has published a Incompletion Trigger List to go through some of the things that need our attention but there could be more, say any of the below ...

  • An email notification
  • A message on your phone
  • The millions of tweets
  • Your office chat
  • A random idea that came to your mind
  • A commitment that you are nodding to while in a call
  • The status report you promised tonight
  • A missed deadline to pay your bill
  • A new login you created with a password, that you think is cleverly different in the last two digits

Hmm, not all of these are from the corporations that are trying to suck attention from you to increase their advertising value. Most of these are our responsibilities and we are accountable for them. The key question that we don't ask is - When do we do these things?. If you try to even think about all these things simultaneously, your brain will freeze and you will feel overloaded. You will soon be found tapping at your phone for a small dose of dopamine to relieve your stress. In my previous article, I touched upon this kind of paralysis and how we can fight it. A simple mind dump can help us clear our minds.

“Writing is nature's way of telling us how lousy our thinking is.”

-- Leslie Lamport

As we write things down, our brain lets go of trying to hold it in our brain, we can then filter out items that don't need our immediate attention, and try to conquer a smaller list of tasks. We suddenly feel that we were worrying for no reason. We feel better, our mind feels at ease and we live happily ever after. Perhaps, let ourselves enjoy a little more of that tap, click and scroll. Unfortunately, the fairy tale doesn't end here. The tasks that you didn't work on are slowly upgrading themselves to be urgent sergeants and an army of the future events is slowly making its way towards you. What happens next will neither shock nor surprise you. I think you are smart enough to figure it out.

How about we improve this system a bit? Perhaps be a bit proactive to be prepared for our tasks. Automate some of our payments, unsubscribe to unwanted feeds, cut down on things that don't add real value. Yes, I am hinting at the Eisenhower Matrix but it is still not enough. The nature of work has become amorphous. Most things that we do, need some amount of research and self-learning. Be it buying a new phone or a new workout routine. To some of it doesn't even fit into our plain old TODO list - it could be a project requiring multiple actions or a fortnightly reminder about a status report. How do you file away ideas, notes for your upcoming blog, study notes personal data, photographs, and those inspiring quotes that you have been collecting? How do you remember where they are? Will it still make sense when we look at it at a later time?

Eisenhower Matrix
Image Source The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

We need a system to help us with the below and more ...

  • Not forget things but move them in and out of focus
  • A dedicated and labeled place for everything so that we can find them easily when we look for them.
  • Clarity on next actions based on time and availability of resources
  • A place for all forms of tasks, projects, responsibilities, even the amorphous ones
  • Get an overview or a quick status
  • Capture and record to make it meaningful for the future
  • A system that we can trust

This is what we need from a system that reduces stress so that we can give our dedicated time and attention, and our mindful presence to the task at hand. Human brains may be more powerful, and complex when compared to computers but they don't do somethings well. Above is an indication of where we can use technology to help ourselves. Perhaps, it can help us build ourselves a second brain?

"If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.""

-- Plato, Phaedrus

And yes, I count paper as technology too. Above is an excerpt from Plato questioning the impact of writing on human memory. It is irony, that we remember Plato through his work because of the written word. But, it is something to think about. I also don't think that throwing money or superior hardware at this problem can help you. Consider this, if you get a faster laptop or a phone, would you be better at executing your life?

"One size fits all: Great for socks, bad for beliefs"

-- Colin Wright

And for systems too, I'd argue. While systems like Getting Things Done2 and Building A Second Brain1 promise some form of stress-free productivity3 and means of organization to dramatically expand our creative output, I am in no position to recommend them at the moment. They are surely worth a try and I will be implementing them soon. However, one size will not fit all and if you are trying these or any other systems, you will need to customize them for your needs and your workflow. My implementation will look different than yours. We can of course share notes, and take inspiration from each other.

No single application would work to satisfy all use cases. The productivity apps space has seen interesting some improvements in recent months. With applications like Notion and Roam Research threatening to take users away from old-timers like Evernote and the slurry of TODO list applications out there. I believe that this change is good, but it needs investment in terms of time and sometimes money for you to figure out what works for you. You may find free alternatives too, it just needs a bit research. Again, sharing ideas and collaborating should help make this easier.

"Trust comes with consistent use."

-- David Allen

David Allen says "The behavioral ingredients of GTD are relatively simple and familiar to everyone". I think that this might be oversimplified. In other words, he book relies on the readers to form a new habit on their own. Depending on how conducive their environment is or their awareness about the way habits are formed, success is left to chance. Habit formation is a science on its own. In other words, although we may externalize our brain and have a productive system, it will remain connected to us. Our habits will play an important role in nurturing and maintaining it so that it acts as a trustworthy side-kick for us.

"Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup"

-- Bruce Lee

We may say that we don't need a digital brain, but if you look closely, we all already have one and it is spread across various systems. It and our digital habits may have not been intentionally developed. They have been formed organically through default settings and our natural impulse towards scientifically crafted workflows of our favorite applications. I want you to check if they are healthy for you, and are helping you execute better. Is it less stressful to work with the system? Is it optimized and has less friction? Does it enable you? You would need to review it based on your current use cases and where you want to be.

Example: Password management, budget tracking, bill payments, the structure of your notes.

Relying only on our current self, and current set of habits to accomplish everything indicates the presence of ego within us. A natural tendency of not changing intentionally due to inertia. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone, and you may make feel that it is not (for) me. Not to be morbid here, but for some people, it is equivalent to killing a part of themselves because their current behavior is tied to their identities. We don't need to kill ourselves. Be like a tree and shed a few leaves, grow new appendages. Slowly becoming the next version of ourselves. Always willing to bathe in the light of knowledge. Being humble and teachable.

a digital brain
Image source Openclipart

~ ▪ ~ close your eyes for a minute, and breathe ~ ▪ ~

For more fun posts like these, click here to see a list of all my posts