September 8, 2021

Why I use 3 notes apps—and you should too

There's no perfect notes app

by @HarryGuinness

Writes words, takes photos, etc. Bylines at The New York Times, Popular Science, Men’s Fitness, Lifehacker, and more websites than I can count.
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There is no perfect notes app. It’s not Evernote or Roam Research or Bear Notes. Anyone who tells you they’ve found the only one you’ll ever need is lying—either to themselves or to you.

There is a note-taking system, however, that can work: use as many different notes apps as you need. Let me explain.

The myth of the everything bucket

“Everything buckets” have always been a bad idea. Since David Allen wrote Getting Things Done with his physical inbox sitting on his desk, the idea of having one ultimate spot for all your thoughts and to-dos, from gift ideas for your husband to drafts of your professional resignation letter, has been unsustainable for most people.

Unless you diligently sort every note, bookmarked web page, half-read article, shopping list, to-do list, and random thought you hastily wrote down into tagged sub-notebooks at the end of every day—or at least the end of every week—it quickly overflows with unsorted, unnecessary, and outdated scraps of things you kinda-sorta thought might be useful at some point. Even a handful of notes left cluttering things up undermines the whole system.

I just opened Evernote for the first time in a few years. I tried to use it as an “everything bucket” for a while—and completely failed. Some of the unsorted, unnecessary, and outdated notes sitting there uselessly are:

  • A list of supplements and their recommended daily doses.
  • Some notes from my MSc. lectures I never looked at.
  • A move-by-move breakdown of the Sicilian Defence.
  • A possible lighting setup for a photography shoot I did. (I didn’t use the lighting diagram.)

While those notes still broadly track my interests today, they had next to no business all being collected in the same place. It’s telling that I never revisited them.

And I’m far from the first to say this. Back in 2009, Alex Payne called the rise of apps like Yojimbo, Together (now Keep It), and Evernote ” a plague” of apps “that do many things poorly”.

Payne explained:

“They’re poor filesystems, poor text editors, poor databases, poor to-do lists, poor calendars, poor address books, poor bookmark managers, and poor password managers. At their worst, they’re even poor web browsers, poor encryption systems, and poor synchronization schemes.”

And none of that has changed. No, not even with the latest darlings, Notion and Roam Research.

Keeping things in separate spheres

Most of us lead somewhat separated lives. Unless you overcommit to #hustleculture, you should have different priorities and interests at home than you do at work. You don’t invite your boss into your kitchen when you’re making dinner for your family, so why are you using the same notes app for stressful meetings and go-to recipes? At best, you have to scroll through some boring minutes to find how much cumin you’re meant to add to your chili; at worst, you’re going to derail your whole evening with flashbacks to your work day.

There should be a line between work and everything else—and it should extend to your notes apps.

(I say this as a writer, a profession where people notoriously mine their personal lives and relationships for professional inspiration—like this article.)

Good for one thing

As Payne identified over a decade ago, apps that claim to do everything tend to do it all badly. But apps that try and do one thing really well sometimes stick the landing.

Let’s contrast two notes apps I use and love: Ulysses and Paprika.

Ulysses is my favorite short-form writing app (Scrivener just beats it for long-form stuff, for what it’s worth). It makes it incredibly easy to write the twenty-or-so articles I publish each month. The system of nested sheets is intuitive and makes it possible to work on stories out of order or combine different drafts. According to the built-in statistics, I’ve written more than 1.1 million words in the app over the past few years.

Paprika, on the other hand, stores recipes—and it does it really, really well. It can parse popular recipe sites so you can automatically scale up or down measurements, add items to a shopping list, or help you plan a monthly menu. I have more than 100 recipes saved there, with my thoughts, substitutions, and ratings.

Could I write this article in Paprika? Maybe, but it’d be awkward. And could I store recipes in Ulysses? Absolutely, but it’d be exceedingly silly. The tools that make Ulysses so good for writing (and taking notes related to the stuff I’m writing) also make it incredibly mediocre and bloated for recording recipes.

So, instead of forcing my career and love of cooking to coexist in the same digital bucket, they each have their own dedicated notes app. When I think of a fun turn of phrase or an idea for an article, I open Ulysses and write it down. But when I want to make French toast, I go with Paprika.

What I use

I have tried countless notes apps over my career as a tech journalist. Most of them were… fine. The notes (or notes-adjacent) apps that I use on a weekly basis are:

  • Ulysses for professional writing and related note-taking.
  • Bear Notes as a general personal notebook.
  • Things for keeping track of article ideas and pitches (the notes feature on each to-do is super handy).
  • Scrivener for fiction writing and related note-taking.
  • Day One and Five Minute Journal as journals.
  • Paprika for managing recipes.
  • Instapaper (or just leaving a tab open) for articles I want to read.

And plenty of notes never make it to an app. Emails stay in my inbox until I reply or delete them. WhatsApp messages get Starred if there’s a chance I’ll need to look them up again later. My shopping list doesn’t need a full to-do system—I scratch it down on a scrap of paper or, failing that, the back of my hand.

How to make your own system

Over-the-top notes systems are a procrastinator’s fantasy. The time it takes you to sort your overflowing inbox each week would be better spent using the search function when you need it—or hanging out with your friends.

If you want a better-organized notes system, don’t use sub-notebooks and tags; use completely different—and hyper-specific—apps. Find a favorite notes app for work, find another one for your personal life, and find a third for your most obscure hobbies.

But please, for the love of your organization and sanity, stop trying to make inadequate tools do everything.

Photo Credit: Header photo by Keith Pitts via ConvertKit on Unsplash.

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