Knowing my penchant for a productivity tool, my good friend Pazy suggested I investigate one that I hadn’t heard of before: Notion. From what I could gather, it was a central place to store a whole manner of different kinds of notes.
I was initially a bit wary of diving head-first into Notion, as I have both used and built up a significant amount of content in Evernote over the years. However, the temptation was too much to resist, and I gave it a whirl. After just a short time, I was convinced. Notion is the promised land.
Coming from Evernote
While Evernote has been touted as the single place that you can quickly grab and throw all of your various ideas, links, clippings, and files that you come across on a daily basis – Notion takes that idea a step further. Rather than just acting as a huge repository with search capabilities, Notion encourages you to store information in a far more organised way, making heavy use of its own databases. At first, I found this a bit confusing, as my Evernote ‘save it all’ approach didn’t quite fit neatly… but once I realised that Notion involved a fundamentally different approach to data organisation, it made much more sense.
Databases versus Notes
I can already hear people turning off at the sound of databases. I was the same. Pazy is a database guru as part of his day job, so I just assumed he was naturally inclined to gravitate towards databases in his personal life too. However, Notion utilises and presents databases in a way that you wouldn’t even realise they were there unless you stopped to think about it. Essentially, rather than storing information in a text-note, you are gently prodded to put it into tables, with tags – all of which is presented in a logical hierarchical structure. Before you know what’s happened, you suddenly have the ability to organise, filter, and display your notes in a much more powerful and diverse way than would have been possible with the alternative.
To give a concrete example, as a musician I keep a note of tracks I have started working on, but which might not be finished. In Evernote, that looked something like this:
and here is an excerpt of how it looks in Notion…
Of course, Evernote can also present data in tables… but with Notion the key point is that the information is treated as a searchable database, rather than just text presented in a different way. With Notion, I can now quickly and easily see which projects are at which stage, and filter them depending on the different variables that I want to display.
For another example, I used to collect recipes to give me ideas for what I could eat on days where I lacked inspiration. In Evernote I would collect these by meal type, but in practice I found that the limited ways to filter these outside of just a plain search meant that I almost never referred to them. Now, they are stored in a dedicated database in Notion:
Looking for a vegetarian dinner? What about an egg-based breakfast? Maybe just a gluten-free snack… It’s as simple as combining the tags and filtering for desired results.
So much easier than sifting through a huge pile of text-note clippings.
Personal Workspace and Linked Databases
One of the other most useful features of the database storage model over using text notes, files, or simple tables is that you can create ‘linked database views’ in different places. In other words, you can have one central database for a particular purpose, and then filter that database to display the relevant data for the appropriate section you are working in. That sounds a bit convoluted, but here’s a practical example. If I want to compile a Reading List of different blog posts, books, journal articles etc that I want to read… rather than having different databases for each area of my life (work, personal, music, language learning, etc), I can have the main database like so:
and then under a specific page, I can have a dedicated ‘view’ of that same database, presenting only the relevant entries. For example, here is how I have the Reading List set up to display on my dedicated Japanese learning page:
Note that it isn’t just displaying a particular sub-set of the data (filtered by those articles tagged ‘Japanese’), but I can also choose how it appears on the page. There’s a bunch of different options including simplified lists, full tables, galleries, etc.
As you can see, rather than creating a typical file structure where you collect pages and files or notes within a hierarchy of folders, Notion encourages you to put together what are essentially ‘dashboards’ of data. This means that on the top level you can display the data from the various collections underneath it – not just act as a blank ‘storage box’. This is an incredibly useful feature, which means you can set up different workspaces for different projects, or for different areas of your life… even if just to separate out work and personal items.
Evernote’s Web Clipper tool is known for its ability to grab almost anything from the web and squirrel it away for reference – whether it’s screenshots, selections of text, full web-pages, or whatever else – so Notion has a tough act to follow in that regard. In practice, it isn’t as configurable on the surface, which is a bit of a shame. However, it is deceivingly powerful. Here is how it looks when saving an article from a site:
As you can see, there aren’t all that many options. On the bottom right you can click and search for the page you wish to import the clipping to – but not much else. What isn’t obvious though, is that Notion will grab various fields, and import them into the appropriate tables of a pre-existing database. That means, that it will save the URL into the ‘URL’ column of your Reading List table. This is really handy, as it means you have to do less leg-work when it comes to getting different kinds of info into your custom databases. Unfortunately, the extent to which you can modify this is fairly limited… (as in, to tell the clipper to save the URL to a different table field, etc) but hopefully that will come in a future update.
UI and Page Formatting
The UI of the Notion block-style editor is particularly nice. Emojis are littered everywhere, acting as icons or nice little visual indicators, and you can customise pages with images pulled from around the web. There’s even an Unsplash integration, which is a pretty great way to directly get access to high quality images for free.
There is also a wealth of different ways to format the information on your pages and organise them as you see fit, including collapsible sections, different headings, etc.
Anyway, you’ve all seen rich text editors before… but it’s worth saying that the options here are far more fully-featured than I would have expected.
File Handling and Embeds
It should go without saying, but embedding content from other parts of the web like YouTube is really easy. However, at first I thought that file handling in terms of uploads might not be so great, based on various reviews talking about how great Evernote was at handling all kinds of different file types. In practice though, this wasn’t really the case. While you have to purposefully create an ’embed’ block first and then upload your file to Notion for it to display inline (if you just drag and drop, it will create a download link instead) – it is still perfectly functional, handling PDFs, MP3s, etc.
The one caveat here is that while Notion is free for personal use, uploading files larger than 5mb requires a paid account – which starts at 4USD per month for an annual subscription (or 5USD on a monthly basis).
How I use Notion
Years ago I helped create a Wiki style ‘portal’ for a company that I worked for. The idea being to serve as a central Intranet dashboard full of links, news, and other resources that folks might need. The software we used wasn’t exactly up to scratch, but it got the job done. If Notion had been available back then, it would have fitted the bill perfectly – and that’s one of its major strengths.
Instead of having all different kinds of data stored in different services that I inevitably forget about (Pocket, Evernote, Google Spreadsheets, etc), I now have a single personal ‘portal’ which displays a whole bunch of stuff that I need and use on a daily basis – or simply want to be reminded of. Links to commonly used sites, goals for the year, habits I want to track, articles I want to read, etc. There’s so much information collected and organised in the one place that it’s hard to show just what I mean, but here’s something of an insight…
Having everything I need organised and presented in this way, where I can see the status of a bunch of different ongoing projects at a glance, and dig in deeper into the sub-pages for more information as required has been really liberating. Instead of just chucking every little thing I find on the web which might be useful one day into vaguely defined categories in Evernote (which never really worked very well), I now have things much more neatly defined, and feel so much more organised. It has lifted some kind of low-level mental pressure around accumulating so much data that I would never be able to find again because of its haphazard nature.
I really didn’t expect to take to Notion in the way that I have. While it did initially take some adjustment to understand its core kind of usage philosophy, and a bit of time to set up and input my data in a way that made sense for me, it has replaced and improved on so many different areas of my daily workflows that I can’t imagine going back to Evernote.
Ultimately, the data that I save is now far more organised, far easier to access, and much more useful than it ever has been before as a result. I would definitely recommend it to anybody interested in keeping track of their digital knowledge base.
There is so much more to the app than I can squeeze into a single post, including the ability to manipulate or query the databases via scripts, etc… and so I’ll post a few follow-ups with specific use cases for more details.