This is a full live recording of the presentation delivered by Tiago Forte and Lauren Valdez on their Notion As A Second Brain tour, on how they think about and use Notion in their work at Forte Labs. Scroll to the bottom of the post for a full transcript and slides.
Below are two guest presentations delivered by Conrad Lin on how to gamify your productivity with Notion, and Visa Veerasamy on the mindset of sharing your ideas publicly:
Transcript and slides
Read the full (lightly edited) transcript of Tiago and Lauren’s talk below, and download the PDF slides here.
It’s really good to see everyone here. My name is Justin. I’m one of Notion’s community ambassadors for Los Angeles, specifically for UCLA. I’m currently a student that’s going to UCLA, and Notion asked me to help organize this event with Tiago & Rita House. Thank you so much again, Sarah and Rita House, for having us here. It’s really great to see everyone. We’re going to have a great event tonight. We have a talk given by Tiago Forte, as I’m sure you’re aware, followed by a shorter talk by Lauren Valdez.
A little bit about myself. I’m one of Notion’s community ambassadors as I mentioned. I help Notion get organized at UCLA and help students get on board the product as I’m sure many of you are aware. I’ll let Tiago introduce himself and we can get this event started.
Thanks, Justin. Hey, everyone. I see a lot of familiar faces actually. My name is Tiago Forte, and I teach a course called Building a Second Brain. Has anyone here heard of Building a Second Brand by any chance? Can I see a show of hands? Okay, lots. Awesome! Building a Second Brain is a course, but it’s also a methodology, a philosophy, some would even say a way of life. BASB teaches people to use technology in a certain way, not just as a distraction or as an interruption or as a burden, but as an extension of their mind, an extension of their intellect, an extension of their intuition, and lastly an extension of their self. It’s very deep stuff.
I’ve partnered with Notion to do this series of events to talk about the relationship between that methodology, which has a lot of interesting ideas, concepts, frameworks, and a very practical thing which is the Notion software. The tool. So, what I want to talk to you about tonight is Notion as a Second Brain. It’s kind of self-explanatory in the title.
But, what would it look like, or could it look like or should it look like, to use Notion, a piece of productivity software, as something as grand and lofty and profound as a second brain? As an extension of the most complex and amazing mechanism machine in the universe, which is the human brain?
Can I see a quick show of hands of how many of you use Notion or have used it? Okay, similar numbers. So, that’s the course I teach. I’m not going to really talk about it much. If you want to learn more you can go to buildingasecondbrain.com. There’s a form at the top of that page that if you enter your email address, I’ll send you a series of seven emails that has my basic seven principles. One per day for a week. But I’m here to answer a different question.
Which is the question I receive day in and day out: Not are you switching to Notion, but when are you switching to Notion? The only question I receive more often is “Are you Elon Musk?” It’s the only one – they’re neck-and-neck though.
Really this is a question I’ve been slightly obsessively thinking about as we’ve been going to different cities and meeting some of the most passionate, smart, and engaged people we’ve seen anywhere. It’s really incredible to see the movement, the community that Notion is building. And so I had to really go back to the beginning.
We have to go back to the beginning, to a history of productivity apps, which may not sound like the most exciting topic ever, but I promise you it has a ton of relevance for what we talk about today. What I saw was that it all started with email. Email was like the big bang of productivity software, right? I don’t know if you remember, probably not everyone in here remembers, the arrival of email in the 90s. Remember AOL, when you’d hear that sound, that “You’ve got mail.” That was like a world-changing thing. I mean truly a singular moment in history. Before that you had to send telegrams, write letters, or maybe make phone calls and suddenly you could fire off an electronic message to any person with an email address in the world. And it’s funny to think back. You know, you hear that you’ve got mail and it was like, oh my gosh, I’m so special. Someone thought of me. There’s like this privilege. It was like you were the chosen recipient of this email. Now you see the red dot and the 50,000 number badge. Just like, oh more emails. It’s amazing how fast it changed from the greatest blessing to the greatest curse, and that’s a pattern we’re going to see again and again.
The amazing thing is the people who invented these things are still around and some of them still working. There’s people on those postcards out there that are still working, like Ted Nelson, right? So from reading, from talking to people, and from just looking at different sources I noticed that there’s a pattern and this isn’t mine. This is from a company called Gartner which is a research firm. It’s very well-established, and well recognized – this is nothing controversial. It talks about the hype cycle of how technologies enter the mainstream. So something happens, there’s some invention, some breakthrough, or some new kind of capability. Then it tends to get overhyped, everyone says that “this is going to change everything, the whole world will be different, nothing will ever be the same, our daily life will be transformed” and it kind of goes way beyond any reasonable expectation of what a technology could do.
Then of course nothing can fulfill those expectations. So it drops into the trough of disillusionment, but then it’s not that bad either right? It’s just a tool. It’s a technology and it kind of goes up the slope of enlightenment, and I love the parallels here to meditation and stuff, and then it hits the plateau of productivity. It’s interesting because all through this roller coaster it’s not really having a an effect on the way people work. Maybe some people like the fringe nerds like you and me, but for most people it hasn’t entered the mainstream, hasn’t become a part of a normal kind of work culture.
So what started to happen in the 1990s as we had this email explosion, what tends to happen is as the tool gets adopted and as it becomes really mainstream people start to stretch the use case, right? Email was started for a very simple thing: send and receive messages, but then as people spent more and more of their day in email it became like another limb. They started going: “But we could use this for notifications, we could use this as a to-do list, we could use this as so many things and all these functions started being added on to email.
If you think about it though, that really is not ideal right? How many of you use your email inbox as a to-do list sometimes, even I do it sometimes, come on, and that’s really not ideal. That’s not what it was invented for, right? How much sense does it make to have a to-do list that anyone in the whole world who has your email address can add something to at any time of day or night and when they add it to that list, it goes right up at the very top? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, right? So to kind of relieve that pressure, task managers were invented. Task managers are essentially digital to-do lists. It’s a piece of software for managing the things you have to do. So how many of you use a task manager like OmniFocus, Todoist, or Wunderlist? A lot of us, right?
Okay, and that was again a revolution. It really was kicked off, the explosion was in 2001 with the publication of GTD, Getting Things Done, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with. I mean, the reason GTD needed to exist was because of the incredible volume of what were called open loops, basically new things for you to think of and keep track of.
But then the same thing happened, the percentage of the population who was ever going to adopt a task manager is not a hundred. It’s never a hundred. They started going, “Oh we could use this for more things.” So does anyone have any guesses as to what we started using task managers for? Any ideas? Yes, notes. Yeah, right, you’re already there. You’re already writing things down in a list format, why not write your grocery list, a note to self, a reminder, and a quote from a book. All these things started going into your task manager which again created a pressure because it’s not ideal. When you’re there in the midst of the chaos of your day and you’re just needing to know the next action, next action, next action you don’t really want that Shakespearean Hamlet quote in there. You don’t really want that passage from a cognitive psychology book, and all these random notes that we take aren’t really helpful in that context. So in the 2010s really with the rise of smartphones, starting with the iPhone in 2007, we had what I call the digital notes revolution.
And I don’t know how many of you remember this. The early days of Evernote, the fervor and the excitement was surreal. I mean now we completely take for granted the ability to save text and different kinds of media and then just have it show up on different devices and be completely synced; it was absolutely magical. And the big difference that digital notes had was that it could capture large volumes of notes, it wasn’t just one line at a time like in a task manager. You could save thousands of words of text, you could save images, you can save links, you could save PDFs, attachments, gifs, all that kind of stuff in a place that it didn’t interfere with your day-to-day work. So it’s now on the eve of 2020, an almost sci-fi-esque year and I think this is where we’re at right now.
It’s like the bubble of digital notes is in the process of popping, and this is what I want to explore and look at more closely because I think it’s really interesting and has big implications. So the question is: if Notion is this new layer, this kind of new level of the pyramid, what is the job that it’s best suited for? And we have some clues from what we’ve just seen. It’s probably the job that the previous generation of productivity software is not doing very well. So here’s what I notice with digital notes. There’s a small percentage of notes, maybe two, three. five percent at most, that people access and relate to in a very different way. There’s your book notes and your random, static notes, but there’s certain notes, for example – dashboards, documentation, dynamic lists – which are more than just a list of 10 things that doesn’t change but lists that have more action and change – procedures, checklists, and templates, right? So things like standard operating procedures. How do we do this process in my business? Things like a list of goals that changes, that evolves. Things like checklists for say how you pack when you travel, or a checklist for how you publish a blog post, all sorts of different things. I’m starting to think that this job is the job that Notion is primarily going to be taking over.
I’m trying to come up with a word for these. I’m very open to suggestions because I think these ones are not that great. But I am currently calling them dashboards and I’ll tell you in a minute why. Or, “working documents” is a bit broader option, and I like the double meaning of working documents in that you’re using them to work but they’re also working. They’re working when you sleep. They have a certain intelligence. They have certain abilities beyond just a static document. Here’s some kinds of characteristics that I’ve picked out: they’re essential for action, right? So these aren’t just your notes on a textbook you read in college 15 years ago. It’s something you need to do your work each day. But they also change frequently, so there’s an updating, there’s a dynamic, there’s a responsive element that they need. They’re much more sharing-friendly than in the past. They’re designed with the assumption that you’ll share instead of sharing being this like backdoor kind of contingency plan.
Multiple views needed, right? You need more than one way of seeing that data. Sometimes it needs to be in a calendar, sometimes in a checklist, or sometimes in a template. It’s the same data, just needs different views. Its multi-dimensional and has more than just one kind of way of sorting it. And modular blocks. I think the analogy to dashboard is interesting because if you think of a dashboard it has to be accurate and informative. Your life depends, your safety and the safety of others depends on the dashboard. So it has to be accurate, has to be correct, but it also has to change constantly, right? Think about when you’re driving and you see someone come out onto the road you have to be able to glance in just a moment for a second at your dashboard and get just the information that you need to take the action to swerve.
It’s interesting if you look at how often the predecessors to these things start in business, right? Where we lived, my wife Lauren and I lived up until a year ago, you can’t walk into a startup office in San Francisco without seeing dashboards. It’s kind of like a trend of the past few years. There is sales metrics, there’s revenue metrics, there’s customer metrics, usage metrics, and all these kinds of things. Until now you had to be an engineer or have a ton of APIs with a ton of training, backend access, a designer, a UX designer, all these things to be able to create these. Now it’s sort of like they’re filtering down potentially to consumers. There’s a movement called the No Code Movement. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe not? Notion is part of it, other apps like Airtable & Webflow, that basically allow the creation of interfaces, the creation of software to a certain extent, without the use of code. It’s like drag-and-drop stuff. It’s things that you can not exactly create from scratch, but you can configure, you can customize, you can sort of build on your own using very user-friendly tools. So maybe this new generation, this new layer of the pyramid, can be working documents. If that’s the case, there’s three patterns that we should look for.
Three patterns that we saw in each of the previous generations. The first one is that the new generation of apps, productivity apps, takes over primarily the most sophisticated, complex, higher order jobs, right? They don’t take over the whole thing. They don’t even want to actually because most of the old jobs are kind of boring, they’re not very sexy, or they’re not very trendy. They want to do the new cutting-edge, the frontier stuff.
Second, and this is really kind of unexpected and counterintuitive, the previous generation doesn’t become unnecessary. Think of after all these generations, is email obsolete in any way? I’d say it’s more important than ever. It’s the one platform that doesn’t change constantly every few years, right? The previous generation doesn’t become unnecessary. In fact, it actually becomes better than ever because it no longer has to constantly keep innovating and trying to be something it’s not. It can just refocus on its original use case and especially efficiency in that use case. So, you look at what is the other hot, up-and-coming productivity app alongside Notion right now – Superhuman. What is Superhuman? It’s going back to that first generation and reinventing it with an insane focus on efficiency. Like they have in the corner, they show the number of milliseconds, microseconds it takes to delete a message or to send the message, all these things. It’s like they removed all the cruft of Gmail. Gmail has become this really kind of monster and they’re helping you do that one thing with extreme speed.
Third, each new generation provokes a massive explosion in the volume of the thing it helps people create. So you see this again and again, think about email, who would have guessed if you went back 30, 40 years that the average knowledge worker or the average professional needed to receive hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails per week? Like who would have thought? We had no idea! I mean how many letters did you get a week before email? It’s not even in the ballpark. It’s like two or three orders of magnitude more. Same thing with tasks. When the first task managers came out, It was like “Oh what are your ten tasks now.” Now they have to be able to track hundreds if not thousands of tasks. It’s normal to have hundreds of tasks. Anyone who does GTD knows that hundreds is normal as modern humans. Same thing with notes – who would have guessed these Evernote collections of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 notes are normal, right? If you’ve been using these apps for any period of time they make it so fast to create whatever the thing is that the volume just explodes.
So, if these repeat and I think they will, here’s what we should see over the next few years. Specifically for Notion, Notion will fulfill the demand primarily, it will be used for other things, like some people will use it for tasks or notes, but its core use case, the most interesting thing, the most innovative thing, and the thing that really allows it to start a new paradigm will be working documents. Will be documents that are essential for action and also need to change quickly and have different ways of interacting and viewing them.
Second, and this is definitely controversial if you follow the digital note controversies on Twitter, as I’m sure you all do. The digital note-taking apps will survive and will thrive. Everyone’s predicting the imminent demise of Evernote. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that whole generation of apps, there’s so many of them. I mean you have Microsoft OneNote, kind of the old dinosaur. There’s Google Keep on the sidelines. There’s Simplenote. There’s a whole group of note-taking apps for the iPad that are kind of reinventing digital notes almost in the original way of drawing and sketching. And they’ll be better than ever because they’ll be able to focus on really the one thing that they were always destined for which is just taking notes. Think about a Moleskine. A Moleskine paper notebook just takes notes. That’s it. It captures. It saves. It sort of pulls things from the physical world into the digital world and that’s enough. That’s a big enough job I think to support an entire category of software.
Third, there will be an explosion. It’s hard for us to imagine now. I think just like with the other ones, working documents are going to explode. Dashboards are going to explode. Think about if you had as much information on your productivity as you did about your car or your computer or some device that has a dashboard. Imagine if you had a dashboard for your health that inter-related and showed you the relationships between your cholesterol and blood pressure and your exercise and your sleep. Imagine if you had dashboards for your relationships, you kept a personal CRM (customer relationship manager) that kept track of your different relationships – how strong they were, when you had checked in, what plans you’re making with them. Imagine if you had a dashboard for your finances; one that you created and not just some software someone gave you, but one you could customize. What do you want to see about your finances? What do you want to know? Imagine what would happen if we had the ability to create these working documents, anyone did, with whatever data they wanted, with whatever data they could get their hands on. It’s really a powerful future I think that we are looking at.
So some of you came here I know to answer this question, which is “Should I switch to Notion?” And I hope by seeing this kind of more complex history that you now see that that is a really overly simplistic notion. It doesn’t take into account that our productivity, as you saw with the pyramid, is multi-layered. It’s not just one thing. It’s not one dimension. Your productivity itself is this multi-dimensional stack of interrelated capabilities. Some of which are always there, have been there a long time, and maybe will always be there. Other ones that are much more advanced, that maybe not everyone in the world needs, only the most kind of advanced knowledge workers who work with the highest volumes of information or the most complex information. Okay, so I think it’s not about switching. It’s more about layering. It’s about layering the new generation onto the top of what you’re already doing.
So let’s get a little more practical. This is a note. This is a note from Evernote. I picked it at random from a recent Black Friday sale that I did. It was my notes on making an analogy of the second brain idea to the pensieve in Harry Potter, which is this magical dish that you can pour your memories into it and then relive your memories. It’s a very cool analogy, and I have a post on it. If you search pensieve on my blog you can find the post. This was just some simple notes. I think a quote from one of the books that I saw online, a couple forums, maybe some social media – just a few sources – that I used to write this blog post for this promotion and I discarded it essentially. It’s a disposable note. I mean, I’ll keep it in the archives but it’s super unlikely that I would refer to this note in the future. I’ll refer to the blog post. To me, this is a perfect note, right? This is a note that doesn’t benefit from more structure, doesn’t benefit from headings and toggles and tables and interlinked databases and all these things. Structure would not be an improvement on this.
So this is my Notion. This is how we manage the blog workflow, Praxis is my blog, and it’s really central to our business because everything goes through the blog. Every announcement, every promotion, every new product, every interview, every partnership, and every event like this one. It’s almost like the pipeline of all things that are happening in the business and we use this columns view of the workflow. Each one of these cards is a post. So, they start as ideas, then they have some notes attached (you can see some links here to Evernote), then they become outlines, then they become drafts, and then posts and then social media and then email and then finally they’re archived.
This I think is a really great use case for Notion if you think about what’s happening here. There’s a dynamic quality, things are moving in non-linear ways – something may move forward but then I realize oh it’s not ready and has to come back. If I realize they’re similar one post might get split up. There’s a lot of different ways that they move and then of course by clicking here and creating a different view I could see these in a different way. I could see them in a calendar. So, I want to know what are we going to be publishing six weeks from now, right? What is an announcement with that new blog post that’s coming out in six weeks that I can align with? There’s all sorts of strategic things. Some things have to be published before other things. Some things can’t be published until something else is published. Really that dynamic kind of behavior is captured well in Notion. Just in case you’re curious, there are a few other things I’m currently using Notion for.
Running my online course Building a Second Brain. So if you think about it, that’s something that repeats but is also different each time. So there’s kind of a template quality, and then this is now called Forte Labs HQ, our operations. We have standard operating procedures like how to set a meeting, how to organize a meetup, how to publish a blog post, and all that kind of stuff. And they all interlink. So, all the actions in these two that have to be done more than a couple times have links to the standard operating procedures. And of course, this is all shared with the team.
I think what’s going to happen with digital notes apps, such as my beloved Evernote, as I said before they’re going to revert back to their true nature and become like a universal inbox. Imagine an app that was a universal inbox. You knew that you could capture anything from any source, in any format, for any purpose. That is an important job and it’s one that still to this day, Evernote does much better than Notion. Not for technological, like oh they did better code, but for architectural reasons. Evernote is like a black box with a slot in it. You can just drop things in it because each note is the same. Each note exists on the same level. Each note is sort of interchangeable, the fact that it’s kind of dumb and it doesn’t offer that same level of capability and intelligence is actually a feature, not necessarily a bug.
So I’m going to leave you to think about your holistic productivity stack. To not necessarily have FOMO about jumping on the Notion bandwagon just because others are or just because it seems cool, but to think about what is really at the peak of that pyramid, which is your goals. It’s a perfect time of year. We’re on the eve of 2020. Everyone’s doing New Year’s resolutions. I myself am running a two-day online Annual Review Workshop, January 4th and 5th. We do it via Zoom. I encourage you guys to join us, it’s going to be super fun. But when people ask which app should I use? How should I use them? All these kind of questions. It depends on your goals and I really encourage you to start there and work backwards. What is that thing that pops up every year at the beginning of the year that you go: “I’ll do that next year”? What is that unicorn that you find yourself dreaming about, daydreaming about, that’s always there kind of at the back of your mind, that you want, that calls to you, that moves you, that touches you, that you know is in some way related to your purpose, related to what really matters to you in this world. Then to work downwards from there into, what are the pieces of infrastructure that you need, not that you want, that you need to accomplish that. Productivity software even can just be another distraction if it’s just an excuse to keep making things and keep trying things rather than the thing that really matters in the end, which is action.
A couple notes. Notion has programs for education. I believe if you’re a student or teacher, you can get the personal individual plan for free. Okay, if you have an .edu email address, and also for startups, I think you have to apply and kind of go through some things but you can potentially get it for free or discounted if you’re a startup, so I encourage you to take advantage of that.
If you have not just questions, but anything to offer really, this is like the beginning, these events are the beginning of an R&D process of potentially one day offering a course, doing more workshops or writing a book, who knows. But if there’s anything that you saw in this presentation that you have thoughts on, that you think you can add some clarity to, that you have some personal experience with, because I always just have primarily my own experience – reach out. That’s my website. You can find from there my email address, my Twitter. May take some time to get back to you, but I will get back to you, and that’s the talk.
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