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Matthew Hodgkins Blog

❤️er of Platform Engineering, SRE, K8s, Golang, Observability and working with nice humans. Aussie living in the Netherlands.

Creating a VSCode Second Brain

I have been diving into the topic of a “second brain”, a method of saving and linking our ideas, insights and thoughts. I was interested in this for a few reasons:

  • To assist in active reading. I’ve read a lot of books and blog posts which often resonate with me. I find one week later, I’ve forgotten the advice or ideas that the reading inspired. I wanted to reduce the amount of reading (and re-reading) I was doing, while increasing the value I was getting out of it.

  • To act as a personal knowledge base of things I was researching or working on (eg. personal electronics projects or home automation).

  • To improve my thinking by linking thoughts, concepts and subjects together. This was inspired by reading about the Zettelkasten Method.

  • A large part of my job as an engineering lead is understanding many complex problems, and trying to write roadmaps on how my team aims to solve them. I wanted to improve my ability to distill complex topics down into written plans in plain english so they were easily consumable for others.

  • Cut down on open loops (commitments I made to myself or someone else that I haven’t done yet) in my brain. I would do this by writing down ideas or to do’s as soon as they popped into my head.

This post shares takes a look at some of the tools, workflows and observations I’ve discovered along the way.

🗣 High Level Workflow

I wanted to keep my workflow fairly simple:

  • When I read or learn something I summarize it in 1 or 2 paragraphs and create a note
  • I have a think about other topics and try and relate it to other ideas I’ve taken notes about
  • When I have meetings or technical discussions, I offer to be the note taker. I share my summary to the people in the meeting so they can validate that what I summarized was right. It helps my personal understanding, my summarization skills and provides a meeting history for everyone.
  • I spend a few times a week going through notes, tidying them up and thinking about what I wrote down. I try to link it to other topics, or write down new ideas
  • Every time I think of something when I am away from my laptop, I add it to my or (ideas / thoughts). These are just rapid brain dumps to try and close my “open loops”
  • I start every day by looking by reviewing and

🔧 Tools

Based on my research there were many tools that people were using for capturing their knowledge such as Roam Research, The Archive, Obsidian, Foam, Dendron, Notable, Joplin and Notion.

I had a set of my own requirements for the tool I wanted to use:

  • I must own the files in my knowledge archive, and be able to interact with them on disk
  • I must be able to interact with my knowledge base offline
  • I must be able to work on my second brain from my laptop or iPhone
  • The tool should be open source

Of all the tools I tried, Foam came the closet to what I chose. It’s a simple tool, just a VS Code extension that brings in a few other plugins for working with markdown documents.

Joplin was also close, I like that you could click a button to edit notes in VSCode, and they have a really nice iOS + Android app.

The advantage for me is that VSCode is already my editor of choice, so I am already efficient with using it. Foam gave me the inspiration to piece together my own VS Code Second brain based on plugins that already existed.

Below is a list of the plugins I now use for my VSCode Second Brain, with some of the main features they provide.

🔌 VSCode Extensions

Markdown All in One


  • Automatically completes / continues lists
  • Mark one or many to do list items done with a shortcut (option+c)

Markdown All In One Todo Management

  • Creating a table of contents based on markdown headers
  • Format’s markdown tables so they are readable
  • When you have a URL on your clipboard, select text and paste over the top to create a markdown link

Markdown All In One URL Pasting

Markdown Checkboxes


  • Adds “to do” checkboxes to VSCode markdown preview

Markdown Preview Github Styling

Github Markdown Preview


  • Makes the VSCode markdown preview look as it would on GitHub

Markdown Memo svsool.markdown-memo


  • Navigate notes in the VSCode using wikilinks ([[link]]) to create links between your notes
  • option+click on a link with no note created for that link will automatically create the file and open it. This is one method to quickly create new notes on the fly.
  • Support clickable wikilinks in markdown preview
  • Automatic renaming of links when you change the name of markdown files

Paste Image


  • Enables using > Paste Image in the command pallet to paste into the markdown document from clipboard. The image is then saved to the file system.

Recommended Settings:

  • Change the location of where images are stored with automatic naming by adding this a .vscode/settings.json:
      "pasteImage.defaultName": "${currentFileNameWithoutExt}-Y-MM-DD-HH-mm-ss",
      "pasteImage.path": "${projectRoot}/assets/images"


  • Uses the links (the relationships between your notes) to display a graph. This allows for exploring how ideas or topics are connected visually.



  • Enables using > Emoji: Insert Emoji to search for and insert emojis in your markdown ✨

Markdown Emoji


  • When you paste a markdown link, it can lookup its title and insert it into the document. This is great for linking to references or the source of ideas for your notes.

Expand URL



  • Allows quickly creating new notes based on templates. For example you might create a new note per meeting or per idea, and have a certain template for each note type.

Quick Create New Note

Recommended Settings:

  • Change the file name for all new notes in .vscode/settings.json:
    "vsnotes.noteTitleConvertSpaces": "-",
    "vsnotes.tokens": [
            "type": "datetime",
            "token": "{dt}",
            "format": "YYYYMMDDHHmm",
            "description": "Insert formatted datetime."
            "type": "title",
            "token": "{title}",
            "description": "Insert note title from input box.",
            "format": "Untitled"
            "type": "extension",
            "token": "{ext}",
            "description": "Insert file vsnotes.",
            "format": "md"
  • Create a VSCode Snippet called Header which will be the default template inserted into a new note.
	"Header": {
		"scope": "markdown",
		"prefix": "head",
		"body": [
			"tags: []",
			"related: []",
			"# ${1:title}",
		"description": "The default note template"
  • Tell VSNodes the name of the snippet to use when new notes are created in .vscode/settings.json:
    "vsnotes.defaultSnippet": {
        "langId": "markdown",
        "name": "Header"
  • Add a new shortcut to keybindings.json to allow quickly creating new notes
        "key": "alt+shift+n",
        "command": "vsnotes.newNote",

Quick Extension Setup

If you want a quick way to setup extensions:

  • Create a directory that contains your second brain (say /~secondbrain)
  • Inside that directory, drop in a .vscode/extensions.json file in it that contains all the extensions you want installed:
  "recommendations": [
  • VSCode will prompt you with recommended extensions when you open that directory.

📱 Editing Markdown on iOS

To make sure I could make notes or add to do’s when I was on the go, I needed a way to work with the markdown documents on my iPhone.

1Writer was the app I chose:

  • Wikilinks, including creating new notes from them if they don’t exist works
  • It has a shortcut bar with lots of most the actions when working with markdown
  • It supports syncing using iCloud or Dropbox, allowing me to edit on my laptop or phone
  • It’s possible to automate using iOS URL Scheme and even Javascript
  • It has a clean and simple editing and preview view with several customization options

🤔 Impact

I’ve already noticed several positive things in my first few weeks of using this system.

  • I am able to very quickly refer back to information from previous discussions, or find documents I have read based on the references I am making. I just do a search VSCode and can pull up the relevant information. I deal with a lot of documents, and this saving me a lot of minutes each day.
  • My stress levels feel lower, as I am not constantly thinking about all the things I have to do. I know that it is safely stored and I can find it easily.
  • I’ve always considered myself as “not great” at coming up with ideas or visions for the future of what we should do or build at work. I’ve had 2 cases in the last few weeks where I’ve had an “AHA!” moment just randomly. I am not sure if it is because my brain is clearer, or because the complex information is laid out in a way that is easier for me to comprehend, but so far this seems to be improving.
  • I am reading less articles or blogs due the barrier of entry of forcing myself to make notes about them. I’m not sure if this is a bad or a good thing just yet.
  • This blog post was actually written based on a note I was taking to track all my VSCode extensions and what they did. It’s handy being able to spin my thoughts easily out into blog posts to share.


So far my experiment with using VSCode as a second brain has been fairly successful. I can see myself sticking the workflow for a while and tweaking the things based on things I discover along the way.

The next thing I want to work on is a way to dictate notes to my Apple Watch when I am out on a bike ride and have them be inserted into my It’s always the places that it’s hard to take notes where you come up with the ideas. 🚿