How I replaced everything with Notion

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.

Notion logo

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:

Notion for song tracking

and here is an excerpt of how it looks in Notion…

Song List 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:

Recipe List - 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.

Recipes - Notion filtered

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:

Notion Reading List

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:

Japanese Reading List

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.

Web Clipper

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:

Notion Web Clipper

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.

Unsplash Integration - Notion

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.

rich text editor Notion

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.

File handling Notion

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…

Notion homepage

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.

Conclusion

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.

Staying Productive with Things

Things Logo

More than productivity

I am a person that needs to have a bunch of different projects going on at any one time. Whether it’s making music, writing blogs, building weird keyboards, or restoring old iPods, if I don’t keep my mind busy, it quickly begins to turn in on itself. At the same time, my work involves managing a variety of disparate projects that can vary from day to day.

All of this has become increasingly difficult to keep track of over the years, and none of the various calendars, diaries or bits of software I tried really helped. However, about six months ago my colleague and friend Bryan convinced me to give an app called ‘Things’ a go, and it has pretty much transformed how I manage my time. As well as becoming far more productive, I have found that I am far less stressed out, and feel more in control. I had never appreciated just how significant the cognitive load of having to juggle so many tasks was, or how much anxiety I had internalised as a result. Now, I no longer worry about forgetting to do something, or lie awake at night unable to sleep while my brain organises the things I have to do the next day.

At the end of the day, Things is just a To Do list app, but it’s an especially pleasant one to use, with a really smart workflow. Rather than wasting what Bryan would call ‘brain cycles’ worrying about er, things, you let Things take care of them. In particular, it wasn’t until I found myself increasingly filled with despair about the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic that I realised just how invaluable Things had become for keeping my mind clear. Rather than allow myself to become consumed with the developing news cycle, I instead chose to rely on Things more, and focus on what I wanted to get done in the following days. While it seems trivial, this helped tremendously. So in this blog I wanted to share a bit about how I make use of Things, and what I’ve learned.

The Basics

Things is a beautifully designed to-do list app from Cultured Code which runs on both Mac and iOS. It doesn’t run on Windows, and (annoyingly) there is no web or Android version (though see this post for my workaround). The current version at the time of writing is Things 3. It is apparently based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ methodology.

Boiled down, Things essentially just provides a very pleasant way to quickly create and manage tasks – the beauty of it though is the myriad of different ways that you can view and organise these. At its most simple, you have an Inbox where you can dump all sorts of to do items to be organised, and then categorise them into different subject matter areas or projects.

Things Inbox

Tasks can be set to only appear on a specific ‘due date’ – presented in the ‘Today’ window. They can also be set to recur upon completion, or at set intervals.

Things Today view

For tasks that absolutely must be completed by a certain date, you can flag them up with a deadline.

Deadline - Things

Selecting an Area or Project on the left will display only the tasks that are associated with it, if you want to focus on something specifically.

Things

If you have tasks that you want to get to, but they aren’t time specific, you can throw them in the ‘Anytime’  bucket… and for ideas that you want to explore at some point, they can be filed away under ‘Someday’ for when you get time. You can also tag any task to further organise them to whatever level of detail you want.

Things Anytime

There are a bunch of other features as well which I won’t go into in any depth just now – such as the Logbook which keeps track of all of your completed tasks, the calendar integration so you see what appointments you have on any particular day, and the ‘Upcoming’ view which provides a longer term perspective of what’s on the horizon.

How I use Things: Workflow, Tips & Tricks

Everybody will use Things slightly differently, and I borrowed a lot of my approach from my sensei Bryan. However, here’s some of what I’ve found works:

Add everything – no matter how small – I literally add everything I need to remember to do as a task into Things. Whether that’s remembering to wash the dishes, or to chop carrots for dinner, I offload everything onto there so that I don’t need to think about it. At first this can seem pretty ridiculous, or like you are outsourcing your faculties to an app, but it frees up your mind to focus on other things that are more important. This also means that you have a mixture of things you enjoy as well as specific obligations – which helps to avoid dreading opening the app in the first place.

Make use of shortcuts – There are a bunch of useful shortcuts, the most important of which lets you very quickly add in To Do list items to your inbox while you are browsing the web, to be categorised later. Learn these, as the less friction you have in adding tasks or managing them, the easier and more natural it becomes – and the more you can focus on what you are doing at the time.

Only add things to your daily pile that you can actually achieve – It took me a while to realise that I would add all sorts of tasks to my daily list that I wanted to do, but which realistically I would never be able to get done. That ended up pretty demoralising, as I saw the same To Do items rolling over day after day, unchecked. Now, I only add things that I either have to get done, or which I have a reasonable shot at completing, and it has been far more effective.

Organise your tasks for the following day – Every night I look over the tasks I have for the next day, and organise them roughly by when I want to complete them, and ask myself what seems reasonable to do in one day. If it seems like there’s too much, I punt it to the following day. This ritual helps me organise my thoughts and get to sleep faster.

Set smaller goals, and be judicious with repeating tasks – It can be tempting to set a goal like ‘I will do one hour of Japanese study every day!’ and to add it in as a repeating task that appears on your list on the stroke of midnight. However, I found that this was actually counter-productive, as I began to just ignore these broad repeating tasks. Instead, I would manually set much more specific, one off tasks, like ‘Do 2 lessons on DuoLingo’ – which made them far easier to complete.

Use tags creatively – There are all sorts of cool ways you can make use of tags. For a practical example… I save lots of news articles to Pocket, but never actually get around to reading them. The same applies to YouTube videos. Now what I do is chuck them into Things, and tag them with the time they will take to complete – ’10m’ for example. Then, whenever I have a spare ten minutes and I’m not sure what to do – I can dip in and quickly find something to fill that time.

Separate out evening tasks – There’s no point having stuff you have to do after dinner wrapped up in the same list as everything else, and Things lets you specifically ring-fence tasks for the evening within a specific day. Make use of this!

Projects are useful! – I didn’t really utilise the Projects feature for ages, relying instead on individual tasks within Areas, but then I realised you could put Projects under Areas. Game changer. Now I use Projects a lot to manage groups of different tasks that add up to a larger goal, which is really useful.

Summary

…and that’s it. At first I didn’t really get what the big deal with Things was, and thought some of the practices were a bit bizarre and redundant, but I genuinely think that organising things in this way has made a huge difference to both my productivity, sense of achievement, and overall zen. It ain’t cheap, and they need to hurry up and just make an Android app already damnit, but I’m not sure what I would do without it at this point.

Things Blog