Using TheBrain

- 5 min -
Joe Buhlig

Memory is a limited resource. And we usually ask it to do too much - from what task to work on to our kid’s birth date to a new business strategy.

Your brain thinks that remembering dog food is just as important as remembering that meeting with your largest client. They take up the same amount of space in your mind. Unless you have multiple reminders, it’s easy to forget tasks and ideas at all levels of importance.

I’ve found that with the vast amount of information that floods my mind every day, I’m better off using an external system to keep it all straight. I can’t trust my mind so I need help remembering. Enter TheBrain.

What is TheBrain?

TheBrain is mind-mapping software on steroids. It allows you to create Thoughts (think of these as nodes in mind-mapping) that are linked in multiple places. A single Thought can have multiple parents, multiple children, and multiple “jump” Thoughts. The Jump Thoughts are the oddballs and also where the magic happens. I found it hard to understand until I saw an example, so I recommend taking a quick look at Jerry’s Brain.

Jump Thought Example: Sam lives in Utah. Sam is not the United States, so he’s not Utah’s parent. He’s also not a city of Utah, so he’s not a child. But I still want Sam connected to Utah. So I add Sam as a Jump Thought to Utah. Now when I’m looking at the Thought for Sam, I can see Utah. And when I’m looking at the Thought for Utah, I can see Sam.


1. Contacts

This isn’t an address book as much as a connection book. TheBrain makes it possible to create connections between people and concepts, ideas, and locations. The power of this comes with the review process later. Before I meet with someone, I’ll pull up TheBrain to see what connections I have with them. It helps me remember that Jill is a homeschooler who likes fountain pens even if I haven’t seen Jill in a year or two. And if I’m honest, it makes small talk for an introvert easier.

2. Concepts

These are ideas or systems that I enjoy or participate in - developing intuition, dash/plus note-taking, GTD, etc… If I keep these in TheBrain, I can make connections to other people, tools, and locations, but I can also see a list of my favorite concepts. It’s interesting how many new ideas I get when I see these side by side.

3. Service Providers

How handy would it be to see all of the mechanics that you know? How about all of the physicians or lawyers? That’s exactly what this does. When I have work done or have someone recommended, I put them here.

4. Interests

This is similar to concepts, but it’s more about specific things - fountains pens, homeschooling, scotch, espresso. Again, I can use these to make connections elsewhere.

5. Autobiography

Sometimes I forget when an event in my life happened. So I’ve started logging big events in TheBrain. I have Child Thoughts under this for Education, Hobbies, and Timeline. The first two are easy, but the last is the most helpful. If an event happens that I want to log, I put it here under the appropriate date. I can add notes about it but I can also give it Jump Thoughts for the location, any people involved, or anything else that I may want to recall. It’s nice to know who helped me out when I was doing foundation work on my house.

6. Locations

I travel regularly and I’m reaching a point where it’s hard to remember who I’ve met and where. I also like seeing what I’ve done in different places. So I add locations here as I need and use them as Jump Thoughts elsewhere. Having them collected in one place makes it easy to see all the things I’ve done or know about a place.

7. Tools

These are mostly apps that I use. I sometimes like to see what concepts or interests are connected to these apps. I can also connect these to contacts that use them as well. It’s fun to ask someone how their use of Evernote has changed over the last two years when you haven’t seen them. It usually sparks a fun, geeky conversation.

8. Influentials

These are people that have had a big impact on me in some way. They’ve been mentors, confidants, or all-around wise people that I enjoy being around. If I have an opportunity to be around these people, I will take it every time I can.


There isn’t a list of best practices anywhere on how to use TheBrain (that I’ve found) and I certainly wouldn’t tell you that there’s a bad way to use it. But here are a few pointers:

1. Single Brain

I can have multiple Brains! But it’s not a good idea. I tried it once and found that I was switching a lot. It’s easier to create a new branch off the Home Thought and work from there. It also allows you to create more connections in the long run.

2. Using Jump Thoughts

Be very clear on what is a Parent Thought and what is a Child Thought. Everything else is a Jump Thought. States or regions are children of countries. People can be parents of concepts (ex. David Allen and GTD). But a coworker may be a Jump Thought of a concept. They aren’t the creator of the concept and it would seem silly to have someone as a child of a concept. Create a Jump Thought for the relationship in order to see the connection later.

3. Leverage Notes

This is especially useful if you have contacts in your Brain. Use the notes field to capture someone’s background or to take notes on your last conversation with them. Use them as they’re intended - for taking notes.

4. Orphaned Thoughts

Don’t be afraid to have Thoughts out there without a Parent or Child Thought. If you start to create a connection in the future, the search mechanism will still show them and you can continue building connections off of them.