Slowly Falling In Love With Notion
This post is a long time coming. I’ve been using Notion since 2017, but it’s been a slow journey to get to a point where I can say that our relationship is official. Notion is now an invaluable tool for how I operate my life, and I’m excited to walk through how I use it.
My history of productivity software
I’ve never been much of a paper-and-pencil kind of person (I have nothing against it, it’s just never clicked with my lifestyle), so I’ve relied on software to help manage my to-dos and notes. Here’s my history of personal to-do list software:
And in a similar vein, here’s my history of note taking:
- Google Docs
- IA Writer
- Evernote (for a hot second)
- Email drafts (a bad habit that continues to this day)
Nearly all of the tools I used didn’t provide (or I just didn’t make use of) a lot of the classification/taxonomy/organization I needed. Writing notes in Google Docs in particular felt like writing a message on a piece of parchment, stuffing it into a bottle, and then chucking it into the ocean.
When my friend Jamie Kosoy introduced Notion to me in 2017, I was looking at it as an apples-to-apples comparison with the software I was already using. And indeed, that’s how I initially started using it. But it’s not just a note-taking app. It’s not just a to-do list; Notion is a weird and beautiful monster that unlocks real superpowers.
What I’m currently using Notion for
Before I begin, I know I’m still early on my journey and know there’s a whole mess of things I’m not using (more on that later). But here’s how I’m currently using Notion in life and work.
My to-do list has been the cornerstone of my Notion experience. It’s been an evolution (starting out with just a basic checkbox list similar to my prior to-do list solutions), but it evolved into something really powerful. We had really great success using Trello on a client project, and I wanted to bring that flow to my personal to-do list. I used Trello for a bit, but I was already getting into Notion so decided to give their board view a try.
Here was the trick for success for me: I capture EVERYTHING across all aspects of my life in the to-do list, big and small. Historically, I would focus exclusively on a certain type of task (mainly work-related stuff), and I wouldn’t want to pollute my list with too many things lest it get out of control. But with Notion, a cornerstone feature of the product is the ability to create many views of the same content/data. In the case of my to-do list, I’m simply filtering the same board view to show and hide different stuff, but you can transform the content into tables, galleries, timelines, and so on. For instance, I have a calendar view for date-sensitive tasks.
This has been a change from my prior “quick and dirty” approach. Adding tags, categories, and people is certainly extra work than just jotting down “Get groceries”, but I’ve found that this extra work has unlocked super powers. And if I’m in a big hurry I’ll still just start with “Get groceries” and come back and tag it later. It’s also been super nice to link to other items (e.g. linking to a Notion page for a technical audit I’m doing for a client’s design system right now) and jotting notes/links around a task right within the to-do item.
I can’t express just how impactful this setup has been for me. Even if I’m not actively knocking down tasks (which was very much the case last year), things aren’t slipping between the cracks. I have a single space to capture work tasks, personal stuff, and other miscellany. Shit doesn’t slip between the cracks anymore, and I love it.
Ever since I saw the absolutely amazing-looking Every Day Calendar by Simone Giertz, I’ve wanted to incorporating a streak-like visual system for my habits. But I’m a digital person through and through, so I realize that I can’t just track something in an analog format (although I still very much want to get an Every Day Calendar).
I spent a lot of time over the holidays putting together a pretty comprehensive action plan for 2021, complete with a mission, philosophy, goals, and tactics across many different aspects of my life. Physical and mental health are big areas of focus for me this year, and historically those things drop off when the going gets tough. So I put together this table that gives me a quick way to tick boxes for daily habits I’m trying to preserve or cultivate: stretching in the morning & evening, doing exercises for my TMJ, eating 3 meals a day without snacking, doing a 7-minute workout, and playing music everyday.
The idea is to be able to look at the calendar or table at the end of the month and see a lot of blue checkboxes. It’s early days, but I feel like it’s already been a helpful tool for keeping me on track with the healthy goals I’ve set for myself. And I have similar structures for both weekly (e.g. go for a run) and monthly (e.g. write a blog post) goals.
Could relational databases be the things that finally gets me eating better?
This is a new one for me and my wife, and is one that I’m excited about for a number of reasons. One is that we now have a quick, easy, connected way to plan our healthier meals. The other is that this is my introduction to relational databases in Notion.
I started with this template and hit the ground running. It’s three databases connected together: meals, ingredients, and meal schedule.
The cool thing is that I already had a pretty great shopping list in Notion, and we had a decent start to a recipe database. But the really awesome thing here is that creating a relationship between each type of content helps Notion do some really powerful stuff. I’m really excited to see how this works, and I’m going to add an additional food-tracking layer to this soon to keep track of what I’m eating (I did that with Fitbit’s app for a while with great success).
Despite running a successful for business for 8 years, I’ve historically been terrible at keeping track of clients, potential leads, how much I have on my plate, etc. And when I think about CRM I think about Big Ol’ Enterprise stuff like Salesforce. But Notion’s structure allows me to create a just-enough CRM to help me keep my head screwed on straight, give me a place to keep notes and info about potential client, and give me a window into what things could look like financially.
Similar to keeping track of clients, my project management has always been pretty lousy. Info, notes, links, and resources were always scattered around a bunch of different Google Docs and retrieving info was always a big Easter egg hunt.
While there’s nothing particularly sophisticated going on here, I really enjoy having a hierarchical structure for my projects that keeps all of my notes and info under one roof.
When someone recommends a book, movie, show, or artist, I make a point to check it out, and remember who made the recommendation. I now have a pretty big backlog of books and movies, and have a similar to-do workflow in place to manage it all.
It’s especially great for movies and TV because on our rare off nights we can pull up the list and see if there’s anything that stands out to us.
This is one that definitely needs a lot of love, but I’m using Notion Web Clipper to capture links that get thrown into a database. I’ve tried and failed many many times with many, many different tools (Delicious, Pinboard, Evernote, Pocket, Feedly, etc, etc) to get a great system in place for capturing and organizing links. So while I technically have this going in Notion, I’m going to need to spend some time tweaking the system in order to make this truly useful.
There are recurring to-do lists for specific situations like packing for a trip that really come in handy in the moment. Keeping track of those items, including additions for certain types of trip (beach, international travel, etc), and even things like Christmas gift shopping list management.
My Notion contains plenty of other notes and documents, generally organized into personal and work areas.
WHEW! So that’s a lot of stuff. And what’s wild is that I still very much feel like I’m at the beginning with all of this. I’m excited to go further down the rabbit hole and learn more.
What I love about Notion
- Flexible structure – Notion provides certain constructs and tools, but isn’t super opinionated. To me its the right blend of structure and flexibility that unlocks all manner of possibilities. In a way, it kind of feels like…web development. It obviously takes some time to set up a database or board or whatever, but once it’s in place you can focus on entering and managing the content.
- Minimalist design – It’s a powerful tool, but I commend the creators for wrapping it up in a clean design. It gets to the meat and potatoes and the interface largely stays out of your way. I’ve never been a big fan of emoji (I know I know), but I really love how they’ve made it a really practical part of the interface. I don’t typically mess around with cover images and other layout stuff (yet), but there’s an opportunity to do some cool stuff with the structure they provide.
- The ability to share and quickly duplicate templates. It’s fantastic that people are able to publish pages and templates for others to use. Despite Notion technically being a walled garden, this feels very webby and I love it a lot. Especially considering the tool itself is pretty unopinionated, it’s great that there’s a vehicle for sharing specific applications. Hopefully I’ll find some time to share some of my own templates in the future.
- Parity between mobile and desktop experience – As someone who’s spent the last decade of my life creating multi-device digital experiences, I pay a lot of attention to feature parity across devices. The Notion mobile experience is on par with the desktop experience, and I feel there a lot of elegant design patterns in place that work equally well for different form factors.
- Room to level up – While Notion provides a ton of tools and features, it’s totally possible to start small and go from there. My wife still isn’t all-in on Notion, but regularly uses our shopping list no problem. I appreciate how a balance is struck between offering powerful features and making things feel accessible and simple.
What I don’t love
- Performance, performance, performance – this is easily the most noticeable and shared frustration with Notion. It’s slow as shit. It’s definitely gotten better since I’ve been using it, but it was close to unusable for a long while. My wife still rolls her eyes about entering something into Notion because for the longest time the app just simply wouldn’t load on her phone. The visual design is clean and minimal, and the slow performance sits starkly at odds with that aesthetic. The good news is they are aware of the issues and jump into my Twitter threads to reassure people performance is something they’re working on. Fingers crossed they continue making good progress in this area.
- Weird formatting – the nature of selecting things is very strange and takes some real getting used to. Text nodes aren’t just text nodes because of all the powerful things Notion can do. But in my opinion it ends up making for a sub-optimal word processing experience compared to writing a simple markdown document in IA Writer or even authoring something in Google Docs.
- Not as great for code-specific notes and writing – Although I prefer to write in Notion, code-heavy documents (which is a lot of my job) are still best served by writing pure markdown.
- Client-side rendered JS – I love the idea of being able to publish Notion pages as web pages, but unfortunately everything is client-side rendered, which leads to a slower, more inaccessible experience. I get that there are a lot of moving parts involved in the authoring experience, but it would be cool for the view mode to be a nice, fast, server-side rendered webpage.
What I want to check out
I know I’m only scratching the surface of what Notion offers, and there’s plenty to dive into. Here are some of the things that are on my radar:
- Template buttons – for creating structures and saving a lot of time in the process
- Managing links – I mentioned that I capture links, but I really want to spend some time to get a system in place that I’m excited about using.
- Dashboards – I don’t have a “homepage” and haven’t done much of anything about embedding content or creating compositions.
- Integrations – There are integrations into other tools like Slack and Google Calendar that I’m keen on checking out.
- The nascent API – I’m very excited for Notion for release their API as I think it’s going to unlock a lot of cool new opportunities. I can see feeding lots of things into Notion (Spotify, Github, whatever) and feeding a lot of things out of Notion (links and posts to my website?)
- Calculation and formulas – I just bought a formula to create a visual progress bar in Notion, and I think there’s a lot of powerful stuff you can do with math and calculations. I’d love to explore ways to have things wired up and spit out some useful numbers and data for me.
I’m sure there are more things to get into, and these resources are giving all sorts of good ideas:
So that’s that! I’ve been super happy with Notion and really feel like it has provided some real structure for me on both a personal and professional level. It’s one of the few pieces of software I’ve actually been excited about in a long time, and I’m looking forward to learning more. And of course I’m always down to hear advice and recommendations, so hit me up!