Have you ever recited your to-do list to remind yourself of the next task, only to get sidetracked by a Slack message or a dishwasher that needs unloading?
In our chronically online, fast-paced lives, it’s near impossible to rely on our memories to keep track of the barrage of information. That’s where building a second brain comes in: Attributed originally to Tiago Forte, the practice relies on technology for storing information, freeing up our minds for more creative endeavors.
Now, companies are tailoring tech to act as a digital dumping ground for your every thought. Take notes in meetings, take notes at the dinner table, jot down your goals, heck — use them as a diary.
As a writer, I often picture the contents of my brain as one of those rubber-band balls – all my thoughts are intertwined and messy, building on one another until there’s a big mass of stuff.
To start plucking off some of those rubber bands, I explored second brain apps and what they have to offer. Come along:
Full disclosure, Notion and I go way back. We’re in a serious relationship, you could say. I downloaded Notion in early 2022 when a convergence of personal, professional, and educational commitments meant my brain was at capacity.
The app is a convenient place to empty your thoughts so you don’t have to carry them with you. I’m an entry-level user, and rely on Notion as a life aggregator: I have my work to-do list, personal to-do list, grocery list, annual goals, recipes, and a list of restaurants where I want to eat.
But the real pros use it for much more. You can make pages private or shared workplaces, depending on what you need, and every page is fully customizable. There are tons of pre-made templates to help you get started.
Here’s what my Notion looks like (real 2023 goals deleted so I don’t get made fun of). The dropdown menu includes extensive options such as text boxes, headlines, lists, images, tables, videos, and pretty much anything you could think of.
If you want to level up and use it as more than a text editor, Notion lets you build databases that house and track multiple pages, and you can implement sub-tasks and dependencies to understand blockers that might arise in your goals.
You can also customize with emojis, photos, and banners to make your pages feel like you. When it comes to a second brain, the more natural the interface feels, the more likely you are to actually use it to hold your thoughts.
Notion is free, unless you want to upgrade to paid plans that allow for more guest collaborators.
Similar to Notion, Workflowy has a seemingly endless list of features that allow you to create any type of second brain you’re after.
This is a blessing and a curse: It can be overwhelming to learn new tech. But once you know the different templates and systems, you can fully customize your experience.
Workflowy is great for simple task management, jotting down thoughts, and logging meeting notes. The app even has a step-by-step guide for building a second brain using the interface.
A page of yearlong goals looks very similar to Notion’s. The template allows you to have content drill-downs within sections. From the 2022 Review, simply clicking the gray dot on the left will take you to > Personal, People, Professional, each of which houses its own list of notes (for example, “What did I do well” and “What could I do better?”).
The site also has a handy guide to bullet journaling, which can be used to track tasks, events, and notes in the short and long term to better understand and optimize how you work.
The app is free to use, and if you’re overwhelmed, there are plenty of pre-made templates available to get you started.
If you’ve made it this far you know that Evernote has — you guessed it — free templates you can use as a jumping-off point for your second brain.
I used the “Reflect and Connect” template to generate the below page:
To make sure you’re hitting your short- and long-term goals, Evernote lets you create tasks, set due dates, schedule recurring tasks, add reminders, and view your tasks from different lists together. You can also flag specific tasks to find important action items in one place.
Another template I love: The daily mental health journal that guides you through tracking your daily mood and intentions. There’s also a habit tracker if you want to boil your goals down to simpler tasks and track them day to day.
The app includes a free seven-day trial and then costs $8.99 per month.
As far as overall format, these apps have fallen in line: The nav bars are a column on the left-hand side, and minimalistic blank pages in the middle can be mapped out for whatever you need.
If you’ve spent a lot of time on tech Twitter, you’ve probably seen people replying to a fire thread with “@memdotai mem it.” That’s because Mem uses “Flows” that can automate tasks — one of which can be saving threads you want to come back to later.
Mem will not only save the thread to your account, but also provide you with an auto-generated summary, an AI-generated title for the thread in your Mem account, and recommendations for similar threads you might like.
Mem incorporates automation in other helpful ways: You can create templates or scheduled flows that tie your pre-made notes or template to a specific time or day of the week.
If you select “Flows” on the left-hand sidebar, followed by “Daily Mem,” you can create and customize a Daily Mem template for yourself. The Daily Mem will appear at the top of your timeline on the days and at the time you select.
The template can be used for taking meeting notes, journaling, or tracking and reflecting on your weekly goals every Friday.
Mem is free to use, but you can upgrade to a plan that includes AI writing assistance for $8 a month.
We’ve highlighted personal, goal-tracking features, but if you’re looking to prioritize collaboration, most of these apps can do that through tagging co-workers or peers.
Here’s to a more productive, organized, memorable 2023.