The book of Proverbs could be summarized in four words: Get wisdom, get understanding (Prov. 4:5). This theme recurs throughout the text, and is usually accompanied by a complementary command: Do not forget these teachings (Prov. 3:1).
All our efforts at getting wisdom and understanding, though, are futile if we can’t remember insights long enough to apply them. This is why Proverbs is emphatic that we remember them by keeping these teachings close (cf., vv. 1, 3).
This is why we need to read the Bible as frequently as possible. But how much other understanding, wisdom, and knowledge have we allowed to slip through the cracks of our memory? We may remember once jotting down a profound quote we heard in a sermon or highlighting a penetrating passage from a long-forgotten book, and yet cannot remember the wisdom that was conveyed.
Creating an External Brain
What we need is an “external brain” to supplement our faulty memory. An external brain is a system for collecting and reviewing data that we might otherwise forget. We usually have some form of external brain system for mundane information, such as tax receipts kept in a filing cabinet. We need a more expansive system, though, that helps us retain the insights and understanding we collect in the present and sends that information to our future selves.
For example, consider a pastor preparing a sermon for the next Sunday service. While doing research for his message, he reads a commentary and stumbles upon an insight into a passage that had previously confused him. Since it’s not directly applicable to his forthcoming sermon, he underlines the passage, closes the commentary, puts the book on his shelf and . . . forgets all about it.
Three years later, that insight would have been relevant and valuable for another sermon. But while it remains highlighted in a book on his shelf, the passage has long ago slipped his mind. The pastor may have a library full of resources, but if he can’t send that information to his Future Self, it’s of limited value. As productivity consultant Tiago Forte says,
The challenge of knowledge is not acquiring it. In our digital world, you can acquire almost any knowledge at almost any time.
The challenge is knowing which knowledge is worth acquiring. And then building a system to forward bits of it through time, to the future situation or problem or challenge where it is most applicable, and most needed.
By adapting some of the suggestions of Forte, I’ll explain how to create a system—an “External Brain and Future Self Messaging System”—that can increase the effectiveness of pastors and other knowledge workers. After explaining how to set up the process, I’ll also show how it can be of use for almost anyone, from artists to autodidacts and parents to photographers. (If you’re skeptical it’ll be useful for you, skip down to the Addendum section.)
Your external brain needs four core elements: A collection method, an organizational structure, a summarization process, and a schedule for review.
1. Collection Method
The first step in creating an external brain is to capture and transfer information to your collection system. While it’s possible to create a paper-based system, a computer based note-taking application requires less time and work. And as Forte says, you should “design a system for the laziest version of yourself.” The more time-consuming the process becomes, the less likely you’ll use it regularly.
There’s a wide variety of note-taking applications, but the one I’d recommend (and will use as an example) is Evernote. (There is a free version that may be all you need, and an upgraded version is available for $35 a year. I’ve used the upgraded “Basic” version for years, and it’s proven to be more than worth the $3 a month I pay.)
Your note-taking application (hereafter abbreviated as NTA) is where you collect all the material—texts, PDFs, images, and so on—as individual “notes,” the basic unit of your external brain system.
What type of notes should you collect? Anything you consider enlightening, interesting, intriguing, useful, and so on. At the collection stage you want to err on the side of more rather than less since you can always throw away a note that turns out not to be relevant to your needs.
Your notes will include such items as web pages (using a tool such as Evernote’s Web Clipper), PDFs, images, and selections highlighted in ebooks (such as the passages you highlight in Kindle, which can be exported directly to your NTA). If you produce any type of content (essays presentations, spreadsheets), you might also want to your own material here too. (You’ll be surprised at how often you forget content you’ve produced yourself.)
You can also add notes directly, including copying passages from printed books. Incorporating selections from books is a time-consuming process, so it’s often helpful to simply use your phone to take a picture of the highlighted passage and save that as an initial note. Remember the Lazy Rule: make is easy on yourself as possible. If the passage turns out to be of long-term interest, you can always use the image to copy it out into a text version.
2. Organizational Structure
If you use a paper-based system, you’ll want to leave the first few pages to create an index. Computer-based systems are more easily searchable, so you have more flexibility in organizing your information.
Don’t waste a lot of time creating a fancy organizational scheme; you just need something that is usable for yourself. Many NTAs, like Evernote, allow you to save notes with “tags” or in “notebooks.” While it can’t hurt to use both, I recommend using notebooks labeled with broad categories. For example, my lists of notebooks includes “Theology,” “Bioethics,” “Economics,” and “Quotes.” If your notebooks are too granular (e.g., Ecclesiology, Stem Cell Research, Military History) they can impede the review process. Oftentimes, we stumble across information that’s relevant but not in a category we would have expected. Design your system to maximize serendipity.
3. Summarization Process
This is where the external brain goes from being a glorified filing cabinet to a tool for developing new ideas and insights.
The goal of the system is to take information discovered by your Present Self and send it, in a usable format, to your Future Self. But what sort of information does your Future Self need? Your Present Self doesn’t have the answer, so you have to transform your notes in a way that makes it quick and easy for your Future Self to know the information is something it needs right now.
To do this we’ll apply a method Forte calls “opportunistic compression” — ”summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.”
Here’s an example of how I use this method and combine it with the review process (which we’ll consider in a moment):
Step #1 — I take the material I want to remember, add it to a note in my NTA, and file it under a particular notebook. For example, if I find a noteworthy web article (or even one that looks interesting, but I haven’t yet had time to read), I add it as a note. I include the author and the link, to make sure I don’t forget where it came from, and add any initial thoughts I might have at the top of the note.
Step #2 — The second time I encounter the note during the review stage, I look for key passages that help remind me what I found of value in the article. I put these sections in bold and make the font size slightly larger, providing me with a visual cue that stands out from the rest of the text. At this point, I’ve reduced the need to read a lengthy article to a few key areas.
Step #3 — The third time I encounter the note during the review stage, I use Evernote’s highlighter feature to highlight (i.e., outline in yellow) the most important words or points of context from the key passages I previously put in bold. Now I’ve reduced even the most important sections into a more skimmable form.
Step #4 — For most notes, the previous three steps will be sufficient. The gist of the note can be gleaned in a few seconds by scanning the highlighted areas. But for some notes, I want to mix in my own thoughts to add an extra layer of potential value for my Future Self.
4. Review Schedule
You may have thousands of notes collected and summarized, but they’ll be useless if you don’t have a way to deliver them to your Future Self. The information you’ve collected can only be transformed into ideas and insights or used to create wisdom and understanding if you are able to see it, reflect on it, and apply it to your life. That is why the Review Schedule is the most essential aspect of the external brain system.
How often should you review your notes? That’s something you have to determine for yourself. I recommend at least once a week, and no less than once a month. I’ve found it valuable to review a few notes every day, using the time I’d normally waste on social media to review old notes and summarize new additions.
Remember to design your system for your laziest self. Over time the notes should be summarized so that it takes no longer than a few seconds (10 seconds at most) to get the gist of what the note is about. The goal is for each note to be summarized in a way that within a few seconds your Future Self will have enough context to know if it’s something to examine in more detail.
Even if you have several hundred summarized notes, you can get through the review process quickly. At an average of 10 seconds a note, you could review six notes a minute, about 180 in a 30-minute period. If you review different notes each time, you could cover 700 notes a month and 2,100 every quarter. Even if you spend half the review time summarizing the latest notes you’ve added, you’ll still be able to review enough to make the process worthwhile.
Why This System Works
In his modern classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young explains, “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Young outlines a five-step process for generating new ideas:
First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge. Second, the working over of these materials in your mind. Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis. Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea-the “Eureka! I have it!” stage. And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.
The external brain system collects the raw materials and ensures you have them when needed. But also, by frequently reviewing your notes, it keeps them incubating in your mind. Even when you’re not consciously thinking about your notes, your brain begins looking for ways to use this information to generate new ideas.
What if you’re not a knowledge worker and don’t need to generate new insights or content on a regular basis. How could this system be useful?
There are numerous ways that everyone can gain value from an external brain system. Tiago Forte has a series of articles explaining how to use this system for general project management. But I think with a few tweaks it can be used for a wide variety of roles and vocations. Here are a few brief examples:
Take snapshots of people, items, or locations that might inspire you to return to later. The system can be used to capture visual ideas that you can return to develop when you have more time to expand them into full compositions.
Parents and Other “Family Historians”
With the advent of the smartphone, we can now capture video or pictures of our children and family members more easily than ever before. But the most memorable moments often occur outside the camera’s lens. Make a note whenever something interesting happens and file it in your system. Your Future Self may find many of them mundane, but you’ll also have captured priceless moments that you will have otherwise been forgotten.
Autodidacts and Generalists
Two years ago I wrote about “How to Glorify God by Being a Generalist.” In that article I mentioned a similar method that has since grown into this larger, and more useful external brain system. If you’re a generalist, read that older and article and consider how an external brain can be used to gain understanding.
Create Your Own Devotional
Devotionals are tools for spiritual growth. Often, they are published by writers who include quotes and illustrations that they found can illuminate particular passages of Scripture. But why not create your own? By adding insights from sermons you hear or books you read, you can create a devotional tailored to the interest of your Future Self.