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How to Extend Your Mind

Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers once argued that anything we use to help us think or remember becomes more than just a tool – it’s part of our ‘extended mind’.

Ancient civilizations extended their minds with clay tablets. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations relied on notebooks and filofaxes. Today, we have supercharged access to information through the incredible processing power of our digital devices. The possibilities for our extended minds should be almost infinite! 

But the reality is often quite different. Rather than feeling like we’ve been blessed with a mind-extending superpower, our phones can feel like an addictive burden we’re desperate to put down.

So how do we make the most of this huge upgrade? With so much information at our fingertips, could a better system for managing our personal knowledge be the solution that finally empowers us all to be more productive, more creative and more fulfilled? 

Watch my short video to find out more...

Drinking from a firehose

It’s little surprise that life in the modern world can sometimes feel overwhelming: inboxes overflowing with a deluge of daily emails; social media feeds and WhatsApp groups pinging with updates around the clock; articles, videos and podcasts on every topic you could think of just a search away.

We’ve got more information at our disposal than ever before. This should be a brilliant thing – the greatest knowledge upgrade in human history! But for many of us, it can feel a bit like being sprayed in the face with a high-velocity fire hose when we just need a sip of water. Our challenge today isn’t trying to access knowledge and information, it’s finding a way to take what’s useful without drowning in the rest of it.

Personal knowledge management is a grand name for something that we all do, and which can be pretty simple. We all have systems for managing knowledge – from writing reminders on sticky notes and shopping lists to keeping a diary.

But let’s say there’s a lot on your to-do list – reply to yesterday’s emails; finish tomorrow’s presentation; shop for tonight’s dinner… With all that to take care of, how do you find time to focus on what you really want to achieve: the long-term, creative goals that will bring you personal fulfilment or advance your career?

There are many popular personal knowledge management systems which claim to be able to help. While they all work slightly differently, they largely agree on the most important first step: Make notes, lots of them…

Notable figures 

Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Jerry Seinfeld, Ronald Reagan, Virginia Woolf and the 17th century English philosopher John Locke all have something significant in common. It’s not just that they are all famous high achievers in their respective fields. There’s something else which unites them and underpins their success – their obsessive note-taking.

For almost 50 years, Seinfeld has been carrying around a yellow legal notepad which he uses to write down ideas and work out jokes (the contents of these pads formed the basis of his 2020 book Is This Anything?).

Swift uses voice notes on her phone to record ideas and lyrics that she will subsequently turn into hit songs. 

Kendrick Lamar described the importance of note-taking to his creative process, comparing it to a form of time travel:

“I have to make notes because a lot of my inspiration comes from meeting people or going outside the country, or going around the corner of my old neighborhood and talking to a five-year-old little boy.

“And I have to remember these things. I have to write them down and then five or three months later, I have to find that same emotion that I felt when I was inspired by it, so I have to dig deep to see what triggered the idea. It comes back because I have key little words that make me realise the exact emotion which drew the inspiration.”

In his book How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens posed the question, "how much of what you experience slips through the cracks of your imperfect human memory?" For thousands of years humans have been tackling this conundrum by noting things down.

However, this is only the first part of the solution: for notes to be useful, we also need a system… 

Long before Pinterest boards and Kindle highlights, people would transcribe favourite literary passages, log ideas and record useful facts into their own ‘commonplace books.’ The likes of Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson and Virginia Woolf all kept these personal anthologies.

In the 17th century, John Locke even published a book of recommendations for people to optimise their commonplace books, like adopting his elaborate and intricate new indexing system.

Today’s personal knowledge management systems are a modern-day version of this concept. Thankfully, they tend to be a little easier to maintain.

Zettelkasten: How index cards were like an early internet

Niklas Luhmann was a prolific writer, publishing hundreds of academic papers and more than 50 books. The key to his productivity, he said, was Zettelkasten – the note-taking system he devised in the 1950s.

Luhmann used a box (Kasten) to store notes that he scribbled on index cards (Zettel). Each card contained a single note which fell into one of two categories: a fleeting note – random thoughts and epiphanies; or a literature note – inspired by something he was reading.

At the end of each day Luhmann would review his cards and decide which ones were worthy of being filed away.

So far, so simple. But the magic of the system was how Luhmann was then able to start making connections between these apparently random thoughts. Rather than filing by topic, he developed a numbering system for linking notes together – like an early version of hyperlinking.

Luhmann called his box of cards his ‘second memory’ and came to think of it as more than just an archive of research notes – it was his collaborator. As he followed the references through his lifetime of research he would discover new connections that took him by surprise. You could argue that his system not only pre-empted the internet, but AI too.

Index cards make it easy for information to be re-organised, manipulated and connected in surprising new ways. This makes them an invaluable tool for driving creativity. Robert Pirsig’s classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance began on hundreds of loose slips of paper; David Bowie used a similar approach to write lyrics; U.S. President Ronald Reagan logged jokes and one-liners to use in his speeches (cards were quickly expelled from the box if the material didn’t raise a laugh).

As the writer and self-confessed productivity geek Oliver Burkeman writes in a Guardian article with the promising headline This column will change your life:

“To get theoretical for a moment, the cards fulfil two requirements of any good information storage system. First, it's easy to put stuff in: I'm far less likely to record a thought if I have to fiddle with a handheld device. Second, it's easy to manipulate stuff once it's in. You can't, by contrast, endlessly rearrange the pages of a notebook in order to prioritise tasks, structure a piece of writing, discard things you no longer need, etc.

“But might the power of index cards be greater still – mysterious, almost? I've wondered this ever since reading Robert Pirsig's novel Lila, in which the lead character is a philosopher who lives on a boat, writing his magnum opus on thousands of cards. As each thought occurs, he records it. Then, for hours, he rearranges the cards, grouping similar ideas together until a structure begins to emerge, seemingly independent of his will. This kind of 'emergent order' is a hallmark of the web – think Wikipedia – but it's somehow spookier when it happens on paper, and involves only one human.”

These days of course, index cards don’t have to literally be index cards. Tools like Trello and Notion make it possible to create a digital version of the Zettelkasten system. The website includes many more recommendations.

Building a Second Brain

While Zettelkasten is concerned with nurturing creativity through the serendipitous linking of information, recent systems take a more practical approach to productivity and task management.

Building a Second Brain was developed by productivity guru Tiago Forte, who pitches it as a method to “increase your productivity, and lead a more fulfilling life with more ease and less stress.”

One of Forte’s big insights is that we should completely rethink how we organise information: 

“Over time, everyone needs an effective way to organise their digital files and information.I’ve found that most people organise their information by topic (for example, web design or psychology), filing them away in folders that are forgotten and never touched again. I’m proposing a radically new approach: Organise by Actionability.

“That means organising your files and information according to when you’ll need them next – and according to the goals that are most relevant to your life (not ‘just in case’). To help organise by actionability, I’ve developed a framework I call PARA – which breaks down your note’s organizational structure into Projects, Areas, Resources, or Archives.”

This is one of the ways in which Forte believes his system is well-suited to our modern-day challenge of information overload, while also taking advantage of the functionality of note-taking apps like Apple Notes, Google Keep, Obsidian, Evernote and Roam Research.

There are dozens of YouTube videos from people sharing how they’ve used one of these apps to build their own second brain.

Here Ali Abdaal, one of the more high-profile champions of Tiago Forte’s system, details how it works for him.

As well as Zettelkasten and Building a Second Brain, there are many other systems offering their own twist on how we can best collect and organise knowledge. These include:

  • Bullet Journal: a versatile analogue system for rapid note-taking, task management and goal setting. The pen and paper (expensive notepad optional) approach makes it very adaptable and Instagram-able.

  • Linking Your Thinking: building on the Zettelkasten method, this system encourages the creation of visual maps to represent the relationships between ideas.

  • Johnny Decimal: an organisational system for large volumes of digital files and information where every file is categorised into a decimal-based hierarchy. 

Deciding on the right system

With so many productivity hacks and apps claiming they will help change your life, it’s easy to be slightly sceptical. Might personal knowledge management just be another passing fad?

And when we already feel chained to our devices, do we really want to adopt a system that makes us even more reliant on them? 

However, if we accept the argument that anything we use to think or remember forms part of our extended mind, then it surely makes sense for us to get the most of the tools we have at our fingertips.

The author David Allen argues that “your mind is meant for having ideas, not holding them.” If you can find a good system that helps you to retain your ideas and do more with them then that’s got to be worth making a note of, whether it’s in a notebook, an index card or an app.

Recommended links and further reading


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