Skip to main content
Anna e só

My second brain remembers: Battling ephemerality with note-taking

My brain is excellent at finding patterns and connecting the dots, but terrible at storing fine details at a greater scale. So I let my “first” brain do what’s great for and my “second” brain does the rest — it always remembers. · 5 min read

Marina Zhurakhinskaya, founder of Outreachy, was an exceptional organizer. I often hear stories about the lengths she would go to meet and help our community members — be it interns, alums, mentors, coordinators —, and how remarkable it was that she remembered every single one of them. She would keep track of everyone’s achievements and be there at the right place, the right time with the exact right piece of information at hand. I can't stress enough how admirable that is.

Her kindness and dedication are some of my biggest inspirations. In the early days of my career, I'd attribute that to an innate talent; as I approach my 30s, I realize her excellence was not only a sign of a great memory, but also of a remarkable discipline. While I’m not sure how Marina kept notes, I’m fairly sure she took them, and she took them often. In doing that, her mind was trained to identify what should be remembered or forgotten.

Seeking permanence #

It feels impossible to work with information systems architecture without having the humbling realization your brain can only do so much to harbor the complexities of life. It didn't take me too long to realize my brain excels at finding patterns and connecting the dots, but can be really terrible at storing fine details at the scale my life practically requires me to.

My note-taking habit was born from the desire to register my fleeting thoughts and my perception of things I've felt, witnessed, or heard about. I needed a way to capture the richness of my own reality, to attempt to counteract ephemerality with permanence. If it's useful for an organization to use documentation to establish a link between drive and practice (see The way forward), the same can be said for an individual.

My notes are a just model of reality, and like any other model, it doesn't fully capture the full dimension of reality itself. But it's precise enough to work like a map — always there to help me remember my way home.

Writing about what feels important #

My trigger for note-taking is that feeling that something is just too important to be forgotten in the chaos of my mind. I'm the subject-matter expert of my own life — after being confronted time and time again with situations where remembering a piece of information was vital for a positive outcome, I just know when I come across something worth remembering. Getting familiar with that feeling is the key for good note-taking and note-keeping.

I understand it can be frustrating to hear that — admittedly, that's a very vague guideline —, but my point is to remind you that the primary goal of your personal notes is to serve and assist you above anyone else. They're there to help you register, digest, and distill information.

Focusing on utility, not tooling #

Every time I mention my note-taking habit, the first question people ask me is what tool I use. I know it's tempting to spend hours watching videos or joining discussions on how to be more productive in search of the perfect tool for note-taking, the perfect format to use when writing notes, the perfect way to form a habit. Throw that out the window — don't think too much about it, pick something and just start writing.

I've gone through a fair bit of applications before settling in Obsidian (proprietary application); a significant amount of the notes currently in my vault were created with jrnl (open application under GPL 3.0), Notion (proprietary SaaS), Joplin (open application under AGPL 3.0), Logseq (open application under AGPL 3.0), Apple Notes (proprietary application), and Anytype (source-available application under a custom license). Is it a pain to migrate notes from an app to another? For sure! But don't let that detain you from experimenting. My sole recommendation is to elect a preferred markup language and stick with it. Years working as a technical writer made me grow fond of Markdown, and that's what I've been using for almost a decade.

Other free software activists may be disappointed in my use of a proprietary application. While I understand where they're coming from, that's a feeling I've made peace with ever since the deteriorating state of accessibility on Linux forced me to switch operating systems. I'm a pragmatic free software user: I seek free software first, but ultimately I use what feels most useful. "Using non-free software is not a personal failing."

All my knowledge management is computer-centric; I barely have any pens and paper. Personally, I find digital systems to be better to manage information at a bigger scale, and easier to interact with when it comes to my use of assistive technology.

Recognizing interconnections #

Another enticing proposition is to have a separate place to write notes about work, another for personal matters, one more for hobbies, and so on. Frankly, as a systems practitioner, I found that to be fruitless — all aspects of my life are too intertwined to be separated. Additionally, I don't separate notes in English from notes in Portuguese — I'm bilingual, my notes are bilingual too. They're written in whatever language my thoughts are flowing.

Backlinks are an extremely useful tool to interweave my notes. Obsidian in particular keeps track of both linked and unlinked mentions, which is fantastic for when I create a new reference note.

Unraveling a note taxonomy #

After years of experimentation, I realized that I create two types of notes:

I created a specific folder structure to store them, but honestly, that isn't as important as the taxonomy itself. Unless you're using more analog tools, the majority of note-taking applications include a search function. My recommendation is to make sure you're naming every note and folder something relevant to its context — something intuitive and memorable.

Embracing it as assistance, not replacement #

My notes are my second brain, they weren't created to replace my actual brain. I don't need a tag to make it explicit that something is about work or university or my life with my spouse — if I read it, I can tell which is which. My notes should be a reflection of the flow of my mind, and they cannot restrict it. Let your thoughts run free.

Writing because I enjoy it #

I joke with my spouse that my note-taking habit is a way to harvest fair trade, organic thoughts; in a hellscape of promises to squeeze more productivity out of things with artificial intelligence, that doesn't seem that farfetched. I don't write because it's the most efficient, fastest, better way to store information; above all, I write because I deeply enjoy the process of writing. I grew up in a household where I was forced to never leave a trace of what truly went on in my head; it's liberating to finally connect with the wilderness of my mind.

Writing to honor #

My note-taking habit is a memorialization of Marina's desire to make the world a better place; it's the continuation of a chain of hospitality and appreciation. It's a reminder to pay attention to the world around me, to welcome introspection and to externalize my passion, transforming it into drive.