Recently, The Verge ran an article about a product called Notion, “Notion brings its powerful note-taking app to Android” and the preview image caught my eye. You see:
- I’ve used OneNote since 2004. I love it, but while I appreciate the “notebook” hierarchy, freeform pages, and handwriting, sometimes it can be too unstructured.
- I find Evernote’s simultaneous feature bloat and limitations on content off-putting.
- Google Keep is a great bulletin board, but it isn’t an organizational solution for a large volume of interrelated content.
(Image lifted from Notion.so’s product page; the same one from that The Verge post.)
No note taking app I’d tried felt right for me because I need help organizing and making progress, not just archiving. I’ve used Todoist for years and it mostly fills the gap. I love it and it’s great for tasks, but “projects” are just groups of tasks; there’s no space for reference.
Notion is different
More flexible content than Evernote, more structured than OneNote, more featured than Keep, more reference-oriented than Todoist, and — thanks to a flexible content model it calls “databases” — it can throw pages on a Kanban board, Calendar, or Table!
Pages are built with blocks: plain text, bullet lists, checkbox/to-do lists, headers, images, links with previews, embeds, etc…
Text formatting is flexible enough, but still structured. It’s not a “full WYSIWYG” editor like OneNote. I like that! Giving me the tools to express ideas without turning editing into a free-for-all helps me feel like I’m making progress instead of making a mess. Hotkeys and Markdown-style make it faster.
Pages can have “databases” which can be viewed as a table, Kanban board, or calendar. “Rows” in these databases are themselves pages, but inherit a customizable data model allowing you to add properties to visualize on the table/board/calendar displays.
Content can be put into columns. Notion’s ability to group content with columns helps keep bits of text and reference material logically grouped. (In truth, OneNote does do columns — you can put text frames next to each other — but it can get messy.)
Lightweight interface. Despite all it can do, its interface is sparse and content-focused, reducing distractions.
Android app! A must have. The Android app makes accessing all this delightfully easy, and content is displayed responsively! Unlike OneNote, where pages with more than a single text frame become pinch-to-zoom adventures.
Sharing pages is easy. You can get a public link for any page and its descendants so that guests can read or comment. That’s great for small projects because it means contacts won’t have to create an account.
How I used Notion this week
Planning travel: By creating a “database” page, I can see upcoming trips both in a table and on a calendar. Each trip is both a “row” in the database and also a page on its own with all the details.
Researching: I gathered design research for a theatrical production this fall, then I reviewed it with the director.
Project management: For that same production, I’ll be creating multiple pieces. Using another “database” page, I listed each piece needed. I set up all three view styles for the database:
- a table for an overview of all pieces,
- a Kanban board so my director and I can track progress as I work, and
- a calendar to visualize the review and delivery dates.
Simple writing: I drafted this blog post in Notion. With its easy export to Markdown, I’ll be able to drop it right into my site repo.
(Update: Worked perfectly except that images were not included in the export. Fixed them manually.)
What Notion is Not
A “todo list” application like Todoist. Though Notion may take issue with this stance because it can be used to make to-do lists.
- At their cores, Todoist is a set of dated tasks while Notion is a set of pages (or collection of databases) that you can write dates on. Within a database or on a page, you can make a to-do list, but:
- Notion doesn’t have a way to show you a list of “dated items” across an entire notebook.
- Notion does have a way to set a reminder by adding a date/time inline on a page, but that’s not a replacement for time- or location-based reminders in Todoist offers for specific tasks.
A platform with integrations. Notion offers several importers from other systems, but there isn’t (yet?) a collection of inbound/outbound integrations like ON/EN/TD have. I would love to see a bulk PDF export, a more organized Markdown archive (currently, it’s a flat directory with hash-prefixed names), or maybe an “Email to Notion” importer. Also, the Android app does not receive “Shares” from other apps; i.e. you cannot “Share” to Notion from other apps.
Tag-based. I don’t care about tags, but you might. I’m a very “put stuff in its place and it’ll be there when you get back” person: the notebook and hierarchical, ordered page structure is perfect for me. People who like Evernote’s encouraged system of “use a simpler hierarchy of date-ordered pages and tag ‘em all” may have more trouble.
Stored locally. Evernote/Todoist were always cloud-only; OneNote made that switch in its latest release (to the great disappointment of many). Like the others, Notion is offline-capable, but stored remotely. I miss local storage of user data!
These data are extremely valuable, so durable and usable backups are critically important to me and I don’t see any of these platforms offering a solid safety net here. But since Notion is the youngest, I’m inclined to take a harder look.
Notion has always had a Markdown/CSV export option, but I have discovered that Notion now allows HTML exports (and PDF for Enterprise users) for an entire workspace. And the HTML looks good. With that and Markdown/CSV exports too, Notion now offers the strongest backup tool of these options because the archive is: locally stored, readable without the source application, an open format, and a stable safeguard against “oops my cloud service disappeared.”
I would love it if they could do some kind of automated backup but even in its current iteration as a manual step, this solidifies Notion as a safe place for important data for me.
This is what I’ve been looking for!
I’m incredibly excited about this product. In just over a week, I’ve started using Notion on a lot of projects and it seems to have a good answer to anything I throw at it. It has many features I’ve been looking for in my years-long quest to find “the” notes application for me. And many I didn’t expect to find which now I can’t be without. I’ll absolutely still use Todoist as a counterpart, but in combination I think I finally have a winning pair of applications for productivity and reference.