Thoughts About Notes

Have you been wondering where the rest of my note-taking series is? Well, my journey through using all the note-taking apps has made me realize I might be searching for the wrong thing.

Inspired by Matt Mullenweg’s prompt to blog, I’m going to talk about note-taking.

As I’ve been trying out every note-taking app there is to try for my review series, I’ve recognized a pattern in me: none of the apps out there are scratching the “itch” I have. Instead, many apps seem to have the same basic idea, just executed differently.

Obsidian and Bear have wholly different philosophies, but at the end of the day, all these apps do is make it easy to access and search many files at once.

What I’ve found is that none of these apps, or their different philosophies, don’t actually help me. Instead, I’ve found that I serve them instead of them serving me; “if I just use enough tags, I’ll have the information I want.” “If I use the PARA method, I can find everything easily!” “Let me try this way of organizing, it will help me later! …after I update all my old notes.”

And as I switch between Apple Notes, Craft, Bear, Obsidian – you name it – all I’ve learned is that my information is still difficult to find. Not only that, but now it’s scattered across multiple apps.

As I move between all the apps and further fracture my stored knowledge, I’ve come to wonder… do I know what I want?

Figuring Out What I Want

This is the main crux of the issue. What I’ve been searching and pining for is a note-taking solution that helps me store and surface knowledge easily. The idea being, given the right context, information that I need appears when I need it.

This can take a few forms: context can be a calendar event, a date, a project, people I’m talking to, etc.

Most note-taking apps seem to be good at only storing your information. They’re not good at fast input (with exception), they’re not good at surfacing the right content when you need it, they’re not good at organizing your information. These tools simply store knowledge and put the onus on you to organize it.

For people who understand this, Obsidian seems to be the “best” app. This tool has everything you need to organize your information. There are folders. You can backlink. Forward link. Tag. Add properties. Data view. Spaces. Plugins! The whole nine yards. And as someone who thoroughly enjoys metadata, this is heaven! But what I’ve found over the course of my use of Obsidian is that the “flexibility” becomes overwhelming and burdensome. As I “plan for the future,” I need to make sure I’m adding the right tags to your notes, putting things in the right folder, linking to the appropriate document… whew! I’m no longer focused on capturing ideas or information.

On the flip side, Apple Notes has folders and tags. That’s about it! Notes float past you in a reverse chronological feed, all in a single list. Almost the complete opposite of Obsidian’s monolithic set of methods available for organization. But, Apple Notes has a significant lack of formatting options. Formatting is a great way to organize thoughts and information inside the note. For me, as a programmer, I need things like inline code snippets, callouts, and basically more options than the body, list, header, quote, monostyle, and block quote styles available. Obsidian really shines here.

But okay. Notion has all of those things too, and its file hierarchy is closer to Apple Notes; you have folders and databases. Oh, and you can automate stuff! And there are rich templates, powerful integrations… well, but every so often the blocks Notion provides can be too simple and too complex at the same time. Notion has no opinion on how you should structure your content, so it does nothing and everything very poorly.

I could go on. I might! Importantly, though, do you see the pattern above? I’m so focused on finding ways to organize my thoughts that I don’t actually save or store anything. And the things I do save are now all fragmented across different apps.

This is the important conclusion I came to: in the year 2024, where we can generate life-like images with MidJourney v6 and GPT is spamming – er, writing – tons of articles for Google… why am I spending so much time organizing my notes? No, really? These are computers. At a simple level, computers are great at detecting patterns. Why do I need to tag or store my notes in specific folders? Why do I only have a certain set of formatting tools available? Why can’t I use any type of date format (2024-10-22 v 10/22/24) and have the computer still know what I’m talking about?

This led me to finally understand what I had been searching for all these years: a place to just dump stuff that then shows up right when I need it later.

The moment of realization came when I saw the demo for New Computer’s Dot announcement. In case you missed it, Dot looks to be a system that can take in any information, transform it to what you require, then proactively surface it based on your interactions with the app.

Seeing the whole demo (and you should really check it out) really put words to what I was looking for. Just dump information in and let the computer figure it out. Later in the demo, the user is seen talking to Dot about a quiz and expresses that they are stressed. Dot recalled a recipe the user put in earlier and suggested the user try making it to bring her comfort.

Now, people who are far less pedantic than I am, like my wife, have already experienced a far less complex version of this system: make a note in Apple notes, don’t even bother titling it or throwing it in a folder, and then just search for it. And, you know what? Search in Apple Notes is actually quite good. Excellent, in fact. Search in many apps is pretty good, but I think Apple Notes does it the best.

Anyway. I found myself spending so much time organizing and worrying about which structure is best, which structure is the most flexible, transferable, and will last the test of time; which structure would be the easiest to maintain. Being concerned about all of that made me realize I wasn’t getting anywhere. My ideal personal knowledge management system? One I don’t have to fiddle with.

The right tool for the job

Here’s another folly I found in my search: I wanted my note-taking app (or was it my personal knowledge management system?) to contain everything I found. And this makes sense, right? If it’s supposed to be my second brain, my PKM should contain everything my brain has.

There’s just one thing wrong with that: I found myself trying to shoehorn a text-input system into a database of links, images, videos, articles, highlights– you name it. You know, the Notion effect. Why have more app when one app plenty? And uh, as great as Notion is, as powerful as Obsidian is: they are great at text, and not much else.

For example: I made a database in Notion to store links I was interested in, based on Casey Newton’s idea. I even made an Apple Shortcut that I could share links to and let it populate the database. Just for funsies, I even connected it to my Daily Notes database so I could see, every day, what links I saved. Hold your applause, you can just crown me the productivity king!

This wasn’t the easiest setup. I created a custom database in Notion, a few automations in Notion, and even made an Apple Shortcut that connected to Notion so I could share a link to that Shortcut and the Shortcut would take a screenshot too and…

The reality is that I spent so much time building and managing this system with tools that weren’t built for this specific use case. I found that I, once again, spent so much time managing things and not enough time appreciating it. You know what was built for something like this? Raindrop. And uh, it’s really good. The workflow? I share a link to Raindrop and call it a day.

This got me thinking about all the other things I’ve tried to shoehorn into note-taking apps or productivity solutions. Sketches. Task management. Blog posts. This article? I wrote it in Ulysses (It started in Pages but that made me cry). On an iPad. And uh, wow. Having all the correct formatting options available to me, for blogging, is great. It’s a document I won’t go back to edit, so why should it be in my always accessible notes app? (Thanks to Paul Thurrott for inspiring me to keep it simple and use regular documents for blog posts.)

Using the right tool for the job is important. I’ve found that I go back to Notion when I need to combine a project’s tasks and the need to time track in a specific way. Using Ulysses for writing has been… oh man. Absolutely incredible. YNAB for our budgeting makes more sense than a confusing Google Sheet. instead of Google Drive for sharing videos. The list goes on.

Thinking like this lifts the burden of what I expect in a note app: so what if it can’t hold a database? So what if it doesn’t have all the formatting I want? Notes are meant to be text. Maybe some media. They’re meant to be messy. Let the other apps and services take care of the more structured and formatted data.

AI to the rescue

Since I started drafting this document, Notion came out with their Q&A feature. It’s quite amazing– at least, from the looks of it. I don’t know as I don’t have access to it. But, at least conceptually, this is the correct path that starts us on the journey of chucking crap into a system and letting the computer figure it out. Which is good, in Notion’s case, because I get lost in the hierarchy and I can’t find stuff anyway.

But this also shows what AI is capable of. I’ve actually been working on some GPT-powered Shortcuts that have been helping me organize my thoughts. I’ll share those soon.

Don’t worry about the tool

Anyway, all that rambling above, just to say this: I spend too much time worrying about the tools. About data portability. About the future of an app. About new features coming down the road. In reality, how much of this matters? How much of what I save will I really need? How much of the “future proofing” I do is actually necessary?

Allow me to envy my wife really quick: she just sticks stuff in Apple Notes. In Reminders. In her email. It’s certainly chaotic to someone like me who wants the 747 when all she wants is a Prius. But you know what? She gets from A to B. While I’m still on the runway figuring out the control panel, she’s driving down the highway (and doing it very efficiently, too!) She doesn’t pour over every little feature she might need. She doesn’t even use all the features that are available in those simple apps. While she’s making our budget in Notes and the calculator app, I’m sitting over here thinking of how I’d build the same thing in Notion or Sheets. This isn’t a knock on my wife. Far from it: she doesn’t care. And she shouldn’t! Normal people shouldn’t. I have a problem.

So, all this to say, I know better what I want from my tools. I know better what I require. And I’m becoming okay with letting things be messy. After all, thoughts and ideas are messy. Computers certainly help make things more efficient, but if you’re not careful, they can suck all your time away from what matters. We are someday soon approaching our AI utopia where computers can help us like they do in Star Trek. That day isn’t here yet– but man, is it ever close! For now, just use what “feels” right and gets the job done. And it’s okay if it’s in more than one app.

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