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Selling the Couch - Melvin Varghese, PhD 28th January 2021
264: Building A Second Brain, Melvin Varghese, Ph.D.

264: Building A Second Brain, Melvin Varghese, Ph.D.

Do you love learning new things but struggle to retain the information you’d like to remember for later use? This problem is an ever-present obstacle in my nerdy quest to accumulate knowledge. The good news? I’ve found something that works for me, and I’m sharing it in today’s show. Join me to learn more.

This is a solo episode about building a second brain. You may or may not have heard of this concept, but it has revolutionized my life. As I stick to my commitment of setting aside two hours every day to learn new things, I find that I can grow as a business owner, gain knowledge and expertise, become more proficient in offering valuable products and services, and improve my physical and mental health. The problem is that I can’t always remember everything I read, hear, and think. That’s where the magic of the second brain comes in to help. Let’s dive in.

You’ll Learn:

●     How note-taking helps me remember things and stay organized

●     How I was introduced to the “second brain concept” through the work of Ali Abdaal, a physician in England

●     The basics of the second brain: Instead of feeling pressure to store accumulated knowledge in my brain, I can store it online in a digital brain

●     How the second brain principles of productivity were developed by world-renowned productivity expert Tiago Forte, who has a free 10-part podcast on the topic (see Resources)

●     Ten Principles in Building a Second Brain:

○     Borrowed creativity

○     The capture habit

○     Idea recycling

○     Projects over categories

○     Slow burns

○     Start with abundance

○     Intermediate packets

○     You only know what you make

○     Make things easier for your future self

○     Keep your ideas moving

●     “The key is not to just consume content, but to personalize and recycle it.”

Resources mentioned:

Ali Abdaal

Forte Labs 

Find the 10-part podcast series on Building a Second Brain at Forte Labs

Apps and tools recommended by Melvin:

For live transcription of Mastermind groups: Otter

For pulling highlights from Kindle books: Readwise 

For capturing snippets of podcasts: Airr 

For pulling highlights from blog posts: Instapaper 

To use a central repository for information: Notion or Evernote or Roam Research.com  



Hey friends, welcome to session 264 of Selling the Couch, I hope that you are having a wonderful day. So today's episode is a solo one. And I wanted to start this episode by sharing a story or rather a scenario. As you may have figured out based on these podcasts episodes, I’m a little bit of a nerd when it comes to learning new things. And in fact, as Selling the Couch has grown and as I've really worked hard to create a schedule that's conducive to both doing things as well as ample time learning.

What I have actually tried to do is set aside two hours each afternoon to simply learn. And these days, I'm learning about podcasting, because, as you know, I'm a podcaster, and the world of podcasting is constantly growing. And so I think a lot about how to grow the STC podcast. I also have a course called Healthcasters, which helps you create and launch a successful podcast. And I'm learning a lot about online courses as well, because Healthcasters is an online course, and I'm constantly trying to figure out how to tweak things and all of those different things.

Then I actually have my second online course that's coming out in the future, with hopefully three to four more in the pipeline. And it's a course that's actually focused on helping you create, plan, launch and scale a successful online course. I know that most of us are really nerdy, and we're probably nerds just walking around as therapists.

I imagine, for you, if you're like me, which I imagine you are, you read through a lot of clinical stuff, a lot of business books, you go to a lot of trainings and conferences, and maybe you watch YouTube videos or live streams, or you listen to podcasts, or you read blog posts, or watch webinars, or however, the many ways that you can consume content. And I do this in the same way as you do so that I can grow as a business owner, I can get proficient when I offer products and services and gain knowledge and expertise that way, or just to improve my own physical or mental health.

Now I have a little bit of a confession which is; when I go to these things, generally I try to take notes, just because I find that taking notes and actively engaging with that material helps me to remember things a lot better. So I might jot down some notes at a conference or a training on some paper, or a Word document, or I might even - if I've got my laptop near me, I'll pull up the Notes app on my Mac, and just take some notes there.

Sometimes I use Evernote, or something like that to summarize a blog post that I want to incorporate into a future podcast episode or something for an online course or if I'm providing direct services, just something that I can reference later. Other times, I might even just put it in like a Google Drive document.

So here's the confession part in this episode; I try to take a lot of pride in just being organized, I find that just being organized makes business a lot easier, and my mental health just a lot better. But honestly, how I take notes and more specifically how I connect my past, current and future learning is not really very organized and in fact, I would say it's almost chaotic. And if I'm just being completely honest, there are times where I've taken notes in the past that I keep thinking, “Okay, I'm going to remember this and I got a reference this for something for the future,” and then I actually never do that, and it’s okay, I guess in some scenarios.

But to me, one is I’m just being honest, I don't have like the greatest memory where I can access all of this, like accumulated knowledge at the drop of a hat, and so I have to kind of take notes and in order to just remember things. I think, personally for me, and this is just something I've realized as a business owner, having a great way to take notes, and being able to access these notes when needed is really important. Because as healthcare professionals and business owners, we're knowledge workers, people seek our services based on our knowledge and expertise. We're also knowledge shares. So in other words, we accumulate this shared knowledge and we share it through various free mediums and through paid products and services.

So for example, let's say you go to a brain spotting training and you read an article later on brain spotting. And then later, you might listen to a podcast interview on somebody that has built a successful practice based on brain spotting. How do you take all of that knowledge? So how do you connect your past knowledge, your current knowledge and your future knowledge, so that you can make it easier to access this knowledge for your future self in however you want to use it, whether it's to incorporate it into a therapy session, or let's say you end up doing consults on brain spotting, or you want to plan some future content, or maybe you want to do some sort of a webinar or something just to explain, or even just create a simple video just explain to potential clients what brain spotting is.

But how do you do that? How do you take that knowledge and store it in an organized way so that you can access it when you need it? As I shared kind of at the beginning, this is something I've been thinking a lot about, especially now that I'm six years into my small business journey, I've crossed the five year mark, and I think one of the most important lessons I've learned as a small business owner, and as an online creator is that you have to optimize your environment and schedule for learning.

I came across this YouTube video in late 2020, from Ali Abdol, who when it was all about something called the second brain. Ali is actually a physician based in Cambridge, England, and he has over a million subscribers and the channel is a great one to check out, especially if you're interested in tech and productivity and learning and all of these different things. And I've been fortunate to actually meet Ali and we actually got on a zoom call fairly recently and it was just really nice just to be able to connect with him and just learn about some of the things that he's doing in the world.

And the second brain that Ali mentioned is simply this idea that instead of feeling all of this pressure to store accumulated knowledge in our brains, why not store this online in our digital brain in an organized way, so that we can maximize our output with it. And this way we maximize productivity, we maximize creativity, all of these different things.

The second brain concept is actually based on the work of Tiago Forte. His website is over at fortelabs.com, which is another blog that I highly recommend checking out. Tiago actually has this crazy expensive online course that goes into the second brain concept. I've heard really good things about it. Honestly just haven't had the financial resources to take it yet, I'm hoping to one day, because I tried to be really discretionary in terms of just taking online courses. But this is one of these things that it's absolutely changed the way that I look at my business and more specifically, it's absolutely changed the way that I look at learning.

Tiago also has a free 10 part podcast, like a mini podcasts. And I'll link to in the show notes for this episode that's well worth listening to. I've listened to those series; they're just basically 10 minute episodes. And I've listened to that about four or five times just to really wrap my mind around this. Today, I actually want to share the 10 principles, of how you can build a second brain and just briefly share how I'm actually employing this in my own business so that it can help you as well.

The first principle is something called borrowed creativity. Borrowed creativity is basically this idea that creativity is less about original ideas, but more about blending existing ideas to create novel connections. Basically, you take things that you see here and watch. You see them through your experience and perspectives and connect them in new and unique ways. For example, I didn't realize I was doing this at the time. But my first online course was, as I mentioned was a course on how to plan launch and generate income from podcasting. So I took notes that I had learned from going to a bunch of podcasting conferences, from mentors that I had done consult with, from people that I consider experts in the podcasting space. And then I used all my own experiences in creating and growing the Selling the Couch podcast.

But by having these notes digitally, I could then visually see things and form patterns and create. Then when I was ready to create the course I could create the course based on my unit bent and my own unique experiences.

Principle two is called the capture habit. And one of the most honoring things that I think we can all do as business owners is to write down every idea that pops up in our brain without judgment, just the act of saying, “Hey, this is a great idea brain, I'm going to write this down,” is so powerful. So the capture habit is basically this idea that every time you have an idea that comes in your mind, no matter how silly or any of those things that it seems, at the time, trying to just find a good and simple system to be able to write these things down. This does not come naturally for me, because I have a very strong critical voice that often says, “Oh, Melvin, that's a really dumb idea, or, oh, no one's going to pay for that. Or someone's already thought of that. So why are you trying to do that again?”

Or sometimes I convince myself, “Oh, Mel, this is a good idea. You can remember it later.” But the reality is, I hardly ever remember it later and so it usually then ends up getting lost. Now I'm still trying to figure out a great way to have a good capture habit, but I wanted to at least share a little bit about how I'm capturing ideas depending on where I am.

So I get a lot of ideas in the shower, and I keep shower markers to write things down that come to mind, because I noticed that my mind goes into creativity hyper drive when I'm in the shower; I'm calm, I'm relaxed and all of those different things. And shower markers are basically these markers that you can use to write on glass, or on tile. And the cool thing is they wash off when you're done. Usually what I do is I'll jot down ideas and on the tile, and then after I'm done taking a shower or whatever, I will take my phone and take a picture of it, and then I'll wash it or whatever. The shower is actually how I came up with the name Selling the Couch, and so I really do try to think about how I can alter that shower type.

The second thing is I usually do masterminds with various folks during the week talking a walk. Specifically I try to do many of these when taking a walk. I'll do a future episode on this. But there are a lot of benefits of hiking, and creativity. And so what I've been trying to do, actually pretty much most days of the week is I do a 1pm hike and that's usually my mastermind time as well. And what I do is we usually meet on zoom, and I use otter.ai to do live transcription of what we're talking about during the mastermind. After the mastermind, I have a fairly flawless script; otter.ai uses artificial intelligence. So it's not like a real person transcribing. But it's pretty accurate and I can then use this transcript to pull things from. I can then go back later or do this even in real time and highlight things and pull things into my central repository.

So usually during masterminds, what I'm doing is I'm asking a question that I'm struggling with in my business, and I'm getting feedback from my mastermind friends. Then I take that piece of advice and then I put that into my central repository. I use an app called Readwise to pull highlights from Kindle books that I'm reading. I use an app called Airr, A-I-R-R to capture snippets of podcasts that I hear. I capture blog posts using Instapaper, which is a really cool app that lets you clip blog posts and videos that you want to check out later, perhaps during your own learning time. I believe Instapaper is still something I've just recently downloaded. But I also believe you can actually copy or you can actually like clip tweets, things that you might find on Pinterest, all of these into like a central repository.

So basically what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to use these different pieces of software to capture ideas in environments that I'm usually in, and then I'm taking those ideas into a central repository. And that central repository that I use is called Notion, N-O-T-I-O-N. There are a bunch of different ones. Evernote is a really common one as well. There's one called Roam Research that is well worth checking out. I like Notion because I feel like for me, I like having structure and I also like having a little bit of unstructured or chaos in structure and so I feel like Notion is kind of a good balance of those kind of things.

So principle three is this idea of idea of recycling. So in other words, you can reuse or repurpose ideas in multiple ways. So for example, I've spent quite a bit of time researching and scripting for this podcast episode. I'm doing this because I'm planning on using second brain concepts into future videos that I might create, or as part of an online course. So for example, as part of my Healthcasters course, one of the pieces of content I'll likely create is how do you come up with new podcast episode ideas without starting with a blank canvas?

The best way to think about idea recycling is I was trying to figure out a good image. And when I was a kid I used to love Connex. I don't know if you remember Connex, but they're like Legos, but they have blocks, rods, and these various different shapes and you can use them to create things like a simple car, or a Ferris wheel.

The only reason I remember this is my AP physics teacher passed away really recently, and I saw social media posts and it reminded me of this project I did in AP Physics, when I had Mr. Renshaw. And it was, I created a mousetrap car out of connects and connects comes with these gear sets and so I basically use like CDs, to create this mousetrap car, and got this mousetrap car to go down this hallway using gears and stuff. But so think of your ideas like pieces of Connex or Legos, and you can then swap out those ideas in and out of like different situations.

Principle four is projects over categories. One of the roadblocks that I was having with my previous way of taking notes was how I organize things. So for example, let's say I wanted to learn more about Instagram, what I used to do was I have a folder called Instagram, and then I put a bunch of stuff in there and that's where it set me never looking at it again. Instead, what second brain says is thinking projects. So what I should do is if I have my Healthcasters online course folder. I should have a folder called Healthcasters online course, and then put the content that I find into those, because it will further enrich that course.

And going back to principle one of borrowed creativity, I can more easily form connections between ideas. So another example of this would be let's say that you are creating a productivity course for entrepreneurs who are held back by their trauma. Instead of separate folders for productivity and trauma, you actually create a folder for your online course, and put related ideas in there. And that way, you are accumulating all of this store's knowledge over time, and when you are ready to create that course, you actually have a nice repository to work from. And it's literally like then, like pieces of Legos or Connex, where you're just connecting these pieces in order to form your online course.

Principle five is called slow burn. So think of your business products and services as slow burns versus heavy lifts. This is what the language that Tiago uses in there. So in the second brain, I love this idea of slow burn versus heavy lift. So for example, let's say that you want to write a book, I know that many of us have plans to write a book or are in the process of writing a book. This is actually something that I want to do in the future. I actually want to write a children's book about daddy-daughter days. So as you guys may know, Fridays, after our daughter Chloe was born, I decided to take those days off to spend time with her. And the children's book is actually going to be about the adventures we have and the lessons that we learn along the way.

So a heavy lift would be like, okay, I'm going to set aside one year to write my children's book. But for most of us, especially when balancing life and business and all of our other various commitments, it's just not possible. Plus, it's super intimidating. Right now, I'm so early in the children's book journey. This is I think, a couple of years away, but I don't know anything about writing a children's book and it's super intimidating. I'm not going to sit down and be like; this is what I need to do. Actually, I see this all the time with our colleagues. They have wonderful ideas and they even might share on social media that they're going all in on doing something, but it never happens and I suspect it's because it's this idea of trying to do this heavy lift, and it just feels super intimidating.

So another way then is to think about it is in slow burn. So for example, with my children's book, I'm creating a folder called children's book, and I'm clipping articles and tweets and people that I find that are in the world of children's literature, I'm finding animators that I like, the pros and cons of traditional versus Kindle publishing articles of the top children's books of all time, so that I can look for common themes and all of those different things. And I'm doing the same thing for a number of online courses that I've got down the pipeline, slowly and intentionally creating a database that I can pull from so that when I'm ready, and almost to that finish line, I can just sort of assemble the pieces together and this is sort of a side note.

Slow burns also means that you can slowly and intentionally work on a number of projects, and just slowly move the needle forward on them, instead of doing this heavy lift of this is my one kind of thing for the year. I would actually love to hear your thoughts on this specific because I know that many of us we may have different perspectives on this. So in other words, do you think it's better to do something like this heavy lift idea? Or is it better to do something like slow burns?

Again, so before I get to principles, six, let me just review principles one through five. So principle one is borrowed creativity, creativity is less about original ideas, but more about blending existing ideas to create noble connections. Principle two is the capture habit, which basically says, in whatever environment you're in, try to figure out the most efficient way to capture your ideas. Principle three is idea of recycling. So instead of saying, I'm going to use an idea that I have one time, you can actually reuse and repurpose it in different ways and with different content. Principle four is projects over categories, which is basically focused on your paid products and services, or even your free paid and products and services and take your learning and put those into those folders, versus just random folders that you may never access. And principle five is slow burns, which is basically do small tasks, do small projects, or do small tasks for a big project, slow and steady over time, and accumulate the knowledge so that when you are ready to almost get to the finish line, you have most of that stuff ready to go.

Principle six is called start with abundance. So when you're creating anything, whether it's to share online or in the therapy room, we have a tendency, at least I do to start with a blank slate. For example, let's say that you're working primarily with Bipoc clients who are navigating the challenges of COVID-19, and that's an area that you have an interest in, and you have expertise and knowledge and training and all of those things. So in your note taking app of choice, you've gathered stuff over time, whether it's tweets, or blog posts, or videos, and you've tagged them with relevant things so that now when you're ready to write future blog posts, or you're ready to create an evergreen webinar, that leads to products and services, you're not starting from scratch. Instead, you're starting with a garden of different ideas that you can pluck from.

And this was one of the most beautiful images that I heard and that I've even thought through. So this idea of starting with abundance means there is a vast in this world of the internet, there's a whole bunch of ideas, a whole bunch of neat things that are happening, taking those ideas. And what I actually do is, if I'm focused on a certain niche, because there are so much ideas and stuff out there. So for example, as I mentioned, I've got my course on courses coming out. I'm calling it online core school. And what I'm kind of doing is following the top three companies or people that are talking about online courses. And what I'm doing is just pulling from those folks, and seeing what they're creating, taking my own bent to them, agreeing in certain areas, having a different perspective and other areas, all of those different things. And so essentially, then I'm building this nice garden, and then when I'm ready, I can just kind of pluck things as relevant.

Principles seven is called intermediate packets. So the best way to think about intermediate packets is like when we're writing our thesis or our dissertation, if you look at either one of these, they're actually sections; there's the intro, the method, the results, the discussion, and then even within those sections, there's even smaller sections. So what you can actually do is then take these smaller sections and then repurpose them in certain ways. So the best example of this is even just this podcast episode, as I'm recording this, I have this page of notes that I've taken on second brain concepts, and I've broken it down into each principle and then under each principle, I've kind of put bullet points. And so then if I want to create, let's say that I just want to take one of these principles, let's say I want to talk specific about slow burns; I have that little packet right there, then I can talk about that in various products and services that I might offer, whether it's free or paid.

Principle eight is you only know what you make. So this is basically the stuff that we've created is what we will more likely use. So for example, let's say you highlight some things in a Kindle book that you're reading, you can then send that over to Notion. Notion doesn't have a direct link to be able to link it to Kindle. So I use something called Readwise, and Readwise then connects to Notion. So you can send it over to Notion via Readwise, and take some additional personalized notes or thoughts on it. You can then add to these notes over time. So now you're connecting your past, current and future knowledge.

Ali actually shares this in the YouTube video that I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. But he says that, one of his biggest regrets, and I actually think he said his biggest regret is not taking notes on books and stuff that he was consuming, since he was pretty much like a kid or could like take decent notes. That's actually one of my regrets as well. I feel just looking across my life, there were seasons of life where I became really interested in certain things. For example, there was like a stage of life where I knew a ton of information on personal finance, and specifically about options trading and I was like really like consuming this stuff, and knew a lot and I was actually running these mock simulations as Uber nerd, as I'm recording this so part of this. But I was running these mock options, trading simulations on investopedia and I actually did pretty well. But I didn't take notes, and now I can't remember a decent chunk of it.

So especially if you are listening to this, and you're like a grad student, really think about some of this stuff and how you can start to take notes, so that you can use it for future sessions for that future book that you've got down the line as you become a professional, or even if you're a licensed professional, think about how you can even start this habit today, so that you can make it easier for your future self.

Principle nine is this idea of make things easier on your future self. So I think of it like what I'm creating now is going to make life easier for my future self. I believe it's in the podcast, but Tiago then talks about this idea that he has a lot of friends and friends parents who are, as they've gotten older, they seem to be just working more and more and more, and he actually wants to try to do the opposite. As he gets older, he wants to have systems and processes in place, and he wants to have his second brain in place so that he can just pull relevant content as needed, instead of just laboring away.

The final principle of the second brain stuff, principle 10 is; keep your ideas in moving and the biggest thing I could share with you from this is progress over perfection when taking notes. I'm using Notion right now and Notion is super new to me. I've only been using for about two and a half, three months as I record this. I can I know the basics of it. But there's still a lot of stuff, I don't know. But I feel like I will learn that stuff over time. But the system right now that I have, it seems to be working pretty well and I know that one of the lessons that I've learned in the small business journey is sometimes you just got to get started. The key is just to move forward instead of worrying about getting it perfect.

The idea also of principle 10 keep your ideas moving is the key is not just to consume content, but rather personalize it and recycle it because that's where it can really move to unique offerings that you offer, whether it's free or through paid products and services. So let me just, again, review principles six through 10. One more time, and then we'll wrap up.

So principle six is start with abundance. So basically think about this online space, think about you have so much access to knowledge and think of almost like being in a garden with a bunch of different ideas. So you might have a garden for a certain product that you offer or a certain niche and therapy, and then you want to take that knowledge, and kind of use it as relevant.

Principles, seven is intermediate packets. And so thinking of it like this is the dissertation or the thesis examples. So thinking about small sections, and actually thinking that you can almost pop these small sections out and use them in different ways.

Principle eight is you only know what you make. And so basically, it's this idea that the more engaged you are with your notes, as opposed to just highlighting something on a Kindle document, or passively listening to a podcast like this, and not actually taking it to the next level, and actually figuring out okay, how do I employ this in my business? Or how do I employ this in my life side note? You can use an app, it's free, like Airr in order to record, in order to gather notes from this.

We also have transcripts of all of these episodes, starting in 2021, and so you can also go to sellingthecouch.com/podcast, and then you should be able to pull up transcripts for each of these episodes. And you can download them copy, paste them whatever you need, in order to make your second brain.

Then principle nine is make things easier on your future self. That's pretty self-explanatory. So don't think the way that you're working now is the way that you're going to work for future. Think about your future self, and think about that future self in creating a business and a system that's kind of makes it much easier on that future self.

And principle 10 is keeping your ideas moving. Again, this is the idea of progress over perfection when taking notes. The key is again, to consume not just consume content, but personalize it and recycle it.

I hope that you enjoyed today's session. I know this is a little bit nerdy, but I honestly nerd out on this stuff. And this idea of the second brain has been really life changing for me and when I'm ready, I can't wait to take this course because I feel like this will allow me especially as an online creator, just to be able to create things and just be gentle on myself, my future self.

What I'm like nerdily excited about is being able to say this knowledge that I have today, you know, being able to look at it like a couple of years from now, and be able to be like, Man, I'm so glad like I wrote down these notes because now I can build on this; on what I've learned and wrote. And yeah, and it just makes so much easier on my future yourself.

Have a great rest of your week, and I will see you next time. Bye. Thanks for listening to the Selling the Couch podcast; for more great content and to stay up to date visit www.sellingthecouch.com.


Disclosures: Please note that all opinions are my own and based on my personal experience. Sponsors are acknowledged. Some links in the description are affiliate links where if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a commission at no additional cost to you. I use these funds to continue to create helpful content to serve our field. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.

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Hi. I'm Melvin. I'm a psychologist (PhD), entrepreneur, and online creator living in Philadelphia, PA.

In 2014, I began to think about how to use the therapy skills we learn in grad school, and in our clinical work into different realms (e.g., podcasting, consulting, online course creation, etc).

This allows us to serve others on larger scales while diversifying our income beyond 1 to 1 work.

I make podcasts and videos about business, tech, productivity, and lessons I'm learning from becoming the CEO of a lean, mean 5 person 100% remote team (we're not really mean..it just rhymed =P).