Sketchnoting and the Second Brain

One of the reasons I get so excited about sketchnoting (also known as visual note-taking) is the power of creating helpful little artifacts for your brain – a visual summary of something you just learned.

For similar reasons I was drawn to the idea of the second brain, which Ali Abdaal explored in this video from last year. I’d like to sketch out the 10 principles that he shares and apply them to the world of sketchnoting, a space where we work with ideas in a more visual way.

The first principal that Ali shares is that of borrowed creativity, thinking about creativity as a remix of the individual ideas that you come across in the books you read, podcasts you listen to, and videos you watch.

Borrowed creativity.

I think that what we do as sketchnoters – creating short visual summaries from those information sources – helps us to do that remixing. It’s easier to combine ideas in different ways when you’ve got a visual reference to work with. It’s easier to imagine smashing two distinct diagrams together than it is to imagine smashing two paragraphs together.

The second principle is the capture habit, which encourages you to develop a system by which you capture interesting ideas, whether they’re your own ideas or from somebody else.

The capture habit.

As much as I’m into sketchnoting, this act of capturing doesn’t always have to be a full on visual summary. It could just be a short sentence or a bullet point list, so long as those ideas are retrievable when you need them.

I’ve been using Notion as the container where this first stage of capture takes place, often just with bullet points lists, and then when I’m ready to go visual and spend more time with those ideas I hop over to an app like Concepts or Keynote (what I’m using for the visuals you see here) where you both capture and then present ideas visually.

The third principle of the second brain is idea recycling, which points out that ideas are not single use, but instead are building blocks that can be used in multiple projects in the future.

Idea recycling.

I like to think of each sketchnote that I create as one of those building blocks. It serves the initial purpose of helping me remember and apply what I just learned, but that image and the ideas within it can be woven into an infinite number of projects in the future – new videos, new written essays, new online courses.

The fourth principle is projects over categories. Here the encouragement is to put the ideas to use as soon as possible, rather than just filing them away.

Projects over categories.

For me, that’s one of the purposes of my YouTube channel – I create videos like the one above to summarize what I’ve learned and how I’m applying these new ideas to my own life and work. After I build these ideas into this specific project, I then store and tag the sketchnotes within Notion for future use.

So the idea is attached initially to a specific project, which gives it a contextualized first home, but then when you store it in a retrievable way, you increase the likelihood of it popping up when you need it in the future.

The fifth principle: slow burns. Here the idea is to have a list of projects that you’re working on, each of which is on a slow burner, where you make small contributions over a long period of time. This is a more sustainable and practical way to approach creative work than the mythical “month in a cabin to write your great novel”.

Slow burns.

For me these slow burns show up in the handful of sketchnotes and videos that I’m working on at any given time. Each day I read a little, sketch a little, and script a little, but never on one single project. I keep three to four going on a slow burn. And as I shared in my last video, I’ve been refining my tools to fit this slow burn mentality, where I can easily pick up any project to work on for as short as 20 minutes, then set it back down and move on to something else.

The sixth principle is to start with abundance. Once you get a reliable capture system in place, it becomes less and less likely that you’ll ever have to start with a completely blank page. Instead you can pull in the individual chunks that are relevant to the current project, and that provides a starting point.

Start with abundance.

Here I think about the instructional videos that I’m working on right now, ones that focus on teaching the skill of sketchnoting. No matter what aspect of sketchnoting I choose to focus on, I can pull from two sources as a starting point: my own sketchnotes as examples, or the work shared and conversations that take place within Verbal to Visual (the course and community platform that I created for folks who want to master this skill).

Since I’ve been tagging both my own sketchnotes and the topics that come up in our weekly workshops, it’s easy for me to pull out those that are relevant to the current topic I’m exploring to help inform how I teach it.

The seventh principle: intermediate packets. This one is essentially the same as idea recycling, but here the focus is on the creation of packets of information that can be plugged into different projects whenever you need it. So once you embrace the fact that ideas can be recycled, here is where you create the form of those ideas that you can plug into multiple projects.

Intermediate packets.

For me that’s what a completed sketchnote represents. That final image (the one I’m building up to here) is a ready-to-use resource – something I put a decent amount of effort into once, then get to keep reusing as often as it’s relevant and helpful to the project at hand.

The eighth principle: you only know what you make. Here we get to the idea of creation versus consumption, that unless you actively do something with the ideas you’re taking in, you’re unlikely to remember them in the future.

You only know what you make.

This is the core of sketchnoting – you actively create your own visual summary (in your words and with your pictures) of the ideas you’re taking in.

The ninth principle: make it easier for your future self. Here the idea is to store your ideas in a way that your future self will think to go looking for them. What file structure, what tags, what details will be beneficial to you a year or two from now, when you’ve forgotten the context of the note you’re jotting down right now?

Make it easier for your future self.

With sketchnotes I like to add my own short written reflection that shares why these ideas are interesting to me right now and what I’d like to do with them. Then as I store them in Notion I add relevant conceptual tags so that they’ll surface when I go searching for those concepts in the future, and I have that short written reflection there (or perhaps even a five to ten minute YouTube video) to remind me why those ideas struck a chord when I first heard them.

The tenth principle: keep your ideas moving. Don’t worry about getting down the perfect form of the idea, and don’t worry about getting down the perfect note-tasking system. Just keep moving, and just keep making.

Think of each thing you make as a little gift – maybe it’s a gift for your future self, maybe it’s a gift that you share with others in the form of tweet or a blog post or a YouTube video. If you stay stuck in your head you’ll be denying folks (your future self included) that gift.

Keep your ideas moving.

It’s for this reason that I do my best to stick to a weekly publishing schedule on YouTube, and it’s also why we have weekly workshops inside of Verbal to Visual. Those commitments force me to keep the ideas moving, and to keep perfectionism at bay.

What this all builds up to, then, is a sort of second brain. It’s about creating an imperfect but invaluable system for capturing and working with ideas in a way that extends what your brain is capable of.

For me, the type of visual processing that you’ve seen throughout this video is a key component of that system. If you’d like to build this skill into yours, come join us inside Verbal to Visual. We’ve got complete-at-your-own-pace online courses, weekly live workshops, and a global community of visual thinkers working to master this skill.

And do go check out Ali’s channel if you’re not already familiar with it. It’s one of my new favorites.

-Doug