As more of my work has shifted outside of tasks tracked in Jira, I’ve found that my organization skills need improvement. My notes were scattered across Apple Notes (I know) and Notion. I've found myself in this scattered note taking setup because neither solution really got me what I wanted.
I’ve always used Apple Notes because of its availability on my laptop and phone. It's easy to open up and start typing. The writing process is very frictionless. However, my notes quickly became difficult to find. I randomly chose to start new note entries whenever it felt convenient. The notes were ordered only by the last time they were written to. At a certain point, the Apple Notes became so disorganized that I knew I needed something better.
I installed Notion because I had seen it work really well for others. I knew it had a path to better organization. However, as I tried to force myself to use Notion, I found myself frequently reaching for Apple Notes again when I needed to quickly write something down. Taking notes in Notion was not as frictionless as Apple Notes. Notion required me to find a home for every note within a hierarchy. This made it more difficult to default to since there was some upfront friction and decision making in the writing process.
I had two solutions with their own deficiencies:
- Apple Notes was easy to begin writing notes, but it was difficult for me to search, discover, and read notes.
- Notion was great for finding notes when they were present, but it was difficult for me to just start writing.
My Ideal Solution
After reflecting on how I ended up in such a messy note taking situation, I came up with a list of ordered requirements in my solution.
- My main requirement was for the solution to make it easy for me to both read and write my notes. My organization skills needed to improve in order to stay on top of my work. Ideally, the writing process would be frictionless in a way that allowed me to just start writing like Apple Notes. However, I would want to structure my writing in some way that would allow me to easily query and aggregate data later. For example, I should be able to write down all of the notes related to Project X without worrying where I'm putting the notes. Later, I should be able to easily find all of my notes related to Project X regardless of where I put them.
- Similarly, my solution should have strong support for task management. I want the ability to quickly create tasks for myself wherever I’m writing while also being able to find them all later in one place.
- My solution would also ideally be readily available in some open format that I can take to another tool if I choose to move. I don’t want to change tools frequently, but I value my notes and I want my writing to be available to me forever. Will Evernote be around in 20 years? I don’t know.
- I should note that while I want my raw notes to be available forever, I’m willing to accept that the workflows built around my notes may be specific to a given tool. For example, if I want some kanban board feature then I don’t expect the implementation of that to transfer. However, I do expect my raw list of tasks to transfer just fine.
- My notes should be available on my phone. This isn’t something I need frequently, but if it’s not available when I need it then it will be fairly annoying.
- My last consideration is price. To be completely honest, I’m willing to pay for the right tool if it solves my organization problems. However, if two reasonably similar options meet all of the above requirements then I will go for the cheaper.
As mentioned previously, I’ve seen Notion work really well for others. I started by looking into organizing myself here and giving it another shot.
As I began trying to relocate my notes from Apple Notes, I was hitting the same issues. I really struggle to place my notes in a file hierarchy in a way that I like. There are strategies like the P.A.R.A. method to help address this issue with organizing files, but I didn’t find it very helpful. I still found myself conflicted on where to place some notes.
I was also unable to query and aggregate fragments of notes across several pages in the way that I wanted.
I also didn’t find a way to create my tasks in the middle of my notes. Notion has some really nice views for managing tasks, but the tasks have to be defined there on that page in a database. I want to streamline my note taking process in a way that doesn’t require me to swap pages based on if I’m writing down what someone said vs taking an action item. Ideally, these two contexts would be located together, allowing me to see the surrounding context of why I created a task for myself.
Notion allows you to export your notes to take with you. This might have been sufficient, but isn’t my ideal situation. I came to realize that I don't just want my notes to be available via an export. I would strongly prefer to be always editing files that exist on my local machine. This allows me to back them up in git regularly.
After realizing that Notion wasn’t a good fit for the workflow I want, I looked into Obsidian. It uses regular markdown files which was also immediately appealing to me.
Obsidian encourages users to leverage a daily journal while making things discoverable through back links and tags. This was also very appealing to me. It made the writing process incredibly frictionless. I did not need to decide where my day to day notes would go before writing. I would just start writing in my journal and link things a long the way. In addition to the back links, Obsidian exposes a query language for gathering notes. This seemed very useful for what I wanted. However, I hit some snags with it as I was playing around.
I wasn't able to edit the notes resulting from a query the aggregate view. I had to click into the result and edit the note from its original location. The results didn't allow me to easily view the surrounding context. Again, I found myself clicking into the results to view the note in its original location. I was beginning to realize that I had an additional requirement that I was looking for. I wanted my search queries to transclude results in a way that allowed for editing and viewing of the surrounding context.
Obsidian still exposes a tree hierarchy for notes that are not part of your daily journal, but I didn't really want it. At this point, I was beginning to consider just throwing all of my files in a single folder and relying on the linking, favorites, and search to navigate. This was an approach that I had seen a few note taking
nerds enthusiasts on YouTube take.
When it came to task management, Obsidian got close to what I wanted, but it wasn’t totally there. Obsidian allowed me to define all of my tasks in my notes and query them to aggregate them to one place. However, I found myself unable to edit the tasks in this aggregate view like I wanted. This was the same issue as above.
I was able to mark tasks as complete in the aggregate view, but I was unable to modify the tags or text of the task without clicking into the tasks original location. This sounds minor, but became a great annoyance as I tried to incorporate Obsidian into my daily workflow. I tried out two different kanban plugins, but they didn’t really help much. I found myself choosing between ease of creating tasks vs ease of updating tasks.
Overall, I was impressed with Obsidian. It touched on everything that I had asked for originally, but my new complaints bothered me. I wondered if I should continue looking or if I should change how I was thinking of taking notes.
As I was trying to lean into Obsidian, I found a lot of people mentioning Roam Research online. I looked into it and it seemed to advertise itself as a graph-first approach to note taking. It seemed interesting, but it required me to pull out my wallet to even try. While I’m okay with paying for a good solution here, I was going to look into free alternatives before entering my card information anywhere. After searching for free versions of Roam, a few results came up which I will cover next.
Foam is a collection of VSCode extensions meant to provide a Roam-like note taking experience. This option appeared to be popular on GitHub, but I didn’t see this transferring well to mobile.
Admittedly, I never installed this one. I saw that Logseq has 17k stars on GitHub compared to Athen’s 6k stars. So I went to Logseq first. I’ve included Athens here for completeness as something that did appear on my radar and may be worth revisiting in the future.
Finally, I tried Logseq. I landed on a chart outlining what influenced Logseq which seemed promising.
After trying Logseq, the first thing that stood out to me is that it is an outliner. This means that everything is written as a nested bulleted list. This was different, but I actually ended up liking it.
When comparing Logseq to Obsidian, all of my complaints seemed to be answered. Logseq doesn't expose a tree structure. The option to think about where a file goes is never even exposed to the user. Logseq transcludes query results in a way that makes them editable in the context of the query. I am also able to see the surrounding context (parent and child bullets) within my query result. All of the transclude support extends to tasks
- I now do all of my writing in Logseq.
- I start my day by opening my empty daily journal page and initializing a template. This template just provides some basic consistent structure for my daily notes.
- During meetings or random conversations throughout the day, I create tasks for myself in the middle of my notes.
- Each recurring meeting gets a consistent name and link. This allows me view an automatically generated page for that meeting which shows an aggregate of all of my notes for that recurring meeting.
- I have a page for tasks. This is where I aggregate all of my outstanding tasks from across many daily journal entries. Prioritizing, editing, and viewing context of these tasks is all possible from this one page.
- Logseq has allowed me to streamline both the reading and writing process in my notes and ditch my old setup with Apple Notes and Notion.
- I am finding that I enjoy writing again. I am interested to try out Logseq for long form writing in addition to short form note taking. This post is my first attempt at that.