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Blog // Technology
February 5, 2020


The increasingly popular note-taking app Notion is something of a productivity powerhouse. Here’s why I switched to it.

The latter part of 2019 was sort of a sabbatical, kind of a mess, but, most important of all, a time to experiment with the technology I use in day-to-day life. This started with switching my work to an iPad Pro.

And it continued with switching to Notion.

The easiest way to describe Notion is to call it a note-taking app. But it’s not just the ability to take notes that drew me in. Plenty of apps can take notes for you and share them reliably across devices.

Also, note-taking alone isn’t enough of an explanation for why Notion is rapidly becoming so popular among creatives and other fans of productivity apps.

The Notion Shaped Hole

A few years ago, I decided to blow up a lot of my habits and established routines. So many things in my life just weren’t working for me anymore. Much of that was documented in the ‘This Week I Quit’ series of blogposts. Two pieces of software I’d used for years were part of that cull: Evernote and OmniFocus.

Evernote, my note-taking app since forever, was so clogged with years’ worth of random notes, PDFs and web-clippings that it was useless as a tool for research and refining my ideas.

As a task management app, OmniFocus is incredibly powerful. But I’d made the mistake of filling it with so many things I could do one day, maybe, that I couldn’t always see the things I had to do now.

So I switched to a paper planner for task management and started from scratch with Bear as a minimalist digital note-taking app. It worked well – but something was missing.

The Bear Experience

What I loved about Bear, what I still love about Bear, is the writing experience. It’s a beautifully designed app – fast, reliable and clutter-free – with an ever-so-slight touch of whimsy built into the user experience. Bear is a fun app to use.

The switch from Evernote to Bear happened after taking Tiago Forte’s ‘Building a Second Brain’ course. Originally designed for Evernote users, Building a Second Brain (or BASB for short), is a productivity-oriented approach to creating a system for your digital notes. It’s a way of organising your notes, research, and reference material for all the projects you undertake and all your areas of responsibility.

The goal is not just to take a lot of notes, but to synthesise and organise them in ways that help you come up with fresh ideas and insights.

At first, Bear did this well. It allows you to tag notes, so you can see all the notes related to a topic or area of interest. But it doesn’t have a folder or binder structure, so you can’t really see a bunch of related notes or reorganise them easily.

Over time, this became a huge problem. It was hard to bring together a large quantity of notes for a major project, like writing a book, or look at a collection of similarly tagged notes for an ongoing commitment, like running this blog.

This got in the way of what Forte calls ‘progressive summarisation’, which simply means revisiting your notes again and again to refine their quality and focus on the information most important to you. The goal isn’t a vast collection of dormant notes but an active set of notes you interact with in a way that inspires you and keeps you feeling intellectually fresh.

I still love Bear, but I needed something that allowed me to navigate notes via a folder or binder structure and, if possible, in other layouts as well, like the calendar views and context-specific perspectives available in OmniFocus.

The Burden of OmniFocus

As I wrote back when I quit OmniFocus, it was for many years the backbone of everything I did. But the thing about digital to-do lists is they let you capture far more ideas for things you’d like to do than you’ll ever have time to actually do. They’re rather like an elaborate garden – amazing and beautiful when you invest the time to tend it regularly, but a costly pain to manage when you let the weeks pass with no pruning or weeding.

I have no regrets about choosing paper as the main technology for planning and managing my life. A digital calendar is fine for appointments and things that will trigger reminders on mobile devices. (iCal works fine.) But for everything else, my hybrid version of Bullet Journaling, using a quarterly planner and notebook, works well.

But some things could work a little better in software. A blog editorial calendar is one example. Watching this video from Thomas Frank, showing how he used Notion to plan his YouTube videos, felt like the sort of thing I’d always wished I could do with my content planning, for this blog, and for experiments with podcasting and YouTube. As good as my Scrivener for Blogging template is, it doesn’t really do the editorial calendar thing in a completely satisfying way.

Enter Notion

You’ve probably guessed where this story is going. Notion turns out to be the fantastic new app that lets me doing everything I couldn’t do with Bear (or Evernote), and it allows me to include some cool productivity tricks I missed from OmnniFocus. It’s the perfect hybrid of a note-taking app and a task manager.

But before I get all evangelical about Notion, I have to acknowledge that opening up the app for the first time, and trying to get started, is a bit frustrating.

Bear is beautifully minimalist, like an exquisite temple or spa. But Notion is minimalist in a far more austere way, like an unfurnished government school or office building. And while OmniFocus makes you aware of all the different ways you can see and manipulate your data, Notion kind of expects you to go on an adventure figuring out what the app can do for you.

For those reasons, I’m not sure I’d recommended Notion as an app for people starting out in their note-taking or personal productivity journey.

But if you’ve ever used a note-taking app or digital to-do list, or even planned out your work with a spreadsheet, database, or something similar, wishing there was a way to customise it, then Notion might be for you.

Because Notion is fabulously, intoxicatingly, wonderfully customisable.

How I Use Notion

As you start using Notion, you’ll have to figure out what it will be for you. For me, Notion is a digital note-management tool for the background research needed for my projects and areas of responsibility and for the administrative tasks related to those that are best handled by a cloud-based database.

Notion can do a lot more than that. People use it to track habits, plan their projects, manage contacts and relationships, even keep a personal diary. You can embed databases within databases, relate them to calendars, and get all sorts of custom views, or dashboards, into your work.

But for me, Notion fulfils a very specific, and intentionally limited, set of parameters.

Notes are an ecosystem that allows initial snippets of information to grow into insights. So a few words highlighted on the Kindle could, via the Bookcision applet, be imported into Notion as a collection of quotes. Upon revision, a quote might stand out, inspiring a few thoughts, and be pulled into the orbit of similar ideas as a potential blogpost, idea for the book, or maybe potential topic for a podcast or video. Eventually, it might leave Notion and be written into something in Scrivener.

Then for projects, Notion is a great way to manage administrative tasks perhaps better done digitally, like creating editorial calendars. For this blog, I have all the potential blogposts in a database, which I can easily view in a number of different ways: like a conventional spreadsheet, like a list, or maybe in a calendar view, and – a personal favourite – as Kanban-style cards, perhaps arranged by stage in the writing process, or by category on the blog.

Following Tiago Forte’s lead, my Notion binder is set up with folders for Projects, Areas of Responsibility, Resource Material, and Archive for non-active stuff that I don’t need now but might want to look at again in the future. This ‘PARA’ format is also the way all my root folders are set up in iCloud Documents, DropBox, and Abode Creative Cloud. Even my email is set up that way. So, if I have things related to an upcoming project, like the next edition of my zine, they’ll be under /Projects/Zine/Modularity3 in one of those places. Same with an ongoing area of responsibility, like my fitness, which would be under /Areas/Health/Fitness.

The Allure Of Customisation

You could think of Notion as the digital counterpart of Bullet Journaling. The appeal of Bullet Journaling is being able to create your own paper planner, calendar and diary, totally customised to your needs. Of course, the cost of doing that is the time it takes to create your own layouts and spreads.

In the same way, Notion is a customisable digital note-taking and task management app, but you’ll have to take the time to create your own set-up as well.

With both approaches, every person’s experience is different. This makes sense because personal productivity is an inherently ambiguous activity.

Creating something new on Notion can start with something as basic as a word on an existing page, and that little entry can grow into a page, a database, or some highly configured variation, like a database within a database, or a page with data embedded with all sorts of information drawn from different parts of your Notion workspace. You don’t have to architect the structure first; you can let it grow organically, as the little snippet of an idea suggests to you the format you need to manage it.

You can even have multiple workspaces, maybe one for personal and one for work, or different ones for different projects, teams, or clients you work with, each one with different access for other users.

The Fine print

Notion isn’t perfect. The design still feels a little clunky. Notion doesn’t have the polish of apps like Omnifocus or Bear. I haven’t had any synchronisation issues, but it does occasionally lag or go blank. And while there is an iOS app, it’s frustrating that it doesn’t have all the features of the desktop version, and on my iPad Pro even requesting the desktop version via Safari doesn’t reveal everything, so I’m stuck going back to my old Mac to manage my account or clean up some layouts.

But this feels like an app and a company on the way up, and it’s exciting to be creating with something that feels new and fresh. The limitations and set-up hurdles feel minor compared to how delightful it is use something so customisable.

Notion is initially free to use if you’re working alone and running a small set-up. I’m on the basic $4 a month plan for unlimited data, files, guest user access, and priority support. There are special plans for students, start-ups, and educational institutions, and even enterprise-level plans for larger organisations needing added security and archival features.

Perhaps the biggest cost is the time it will take to figure out how to use this in your own way. But if, like me, you delight in the joy and possibility of a freshly opened paper notebook and want a bit of that in your digital world, then maybe Notion is for you.

Update – Notion Mastery Course

I’ve signed up for the excellent Notion Mastery course which is a great deep dive into customising Notion to suit your workflow. You don’t need to take a course like this since there’s so many great Notion resources out there. But, this course does accelerate your understanding of how Notion works and quickly free you up to get the most out of the platform.

Randall 4 years ago

Ah my friend, how my story follows yours.
Evernote to Bear to Paper and back to Evernote last month because I had forgotten about Notion. Through all that I haven’t been able to find a system that answers all my needs. Your post interests me.
I had looked at Notion last year but honestly I just couldn’t get a handle on it properly. Your experience has encouraged me to go back and take another look at it. I’ve been spending time with it, trying to see how it can answer my needs. The seed of what I want is there, but I need to learn more how to shape it.
It is an incredibly powerful tool beneath it all, but as you say the learning curve is steep.
Thanks for the reminder of its possibilities.

fernando 4 years ago

Randall – Notion is so daunting at first. But, it slowly starts to come together in fascinating ways. I will write a follow up to this.

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