"I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it." --Bill Gates
I'm a fan of finding the minimal amount of effort required to produce the maximum amount of results. Every 6-12 months I try to revisit my note-taking and productivity tools to find areas of improvement. This can range from spreadsheets, to note-taking applications, to the good ol' pen and paper. This article covers my latest iteration of productivity tools and methods, with my latest being Notion in combination with Nebo.
Most of my jobs over the years have required copious amounts of notes. This could range from customer meetings to internal notes to product documentation. It really comes down to two major functions: (1) ingesting the data and (2) organizing the data. If I had to look back, these are the applications and methods that I'd previously used:
- Pen and paper. I still use it quite a bit, but I'll eventually end up with yellow legal pads covered in scrawl. I always tell myself I'll transcribe the notes: instead I end up with cryptic phrases that seem to be written in dead languages. It also doesn't help that my handwriting is horrible and I can't always decipher what I was trying to write.
- Evernote. I used Evernote for years and years. It's still a great tool. However, I started to feel like development had stagnated with OneNote eating into a lot of the business. It also lacked a lot of the flexibility I was looking for: tagging and keywords only go so far. The abundance of integrations was also nice, but the core product started leaving a lot to be desired.
- OneNote. I've tried multiple times to like OneNote. Really, I tried. I've forced myself to use it for months at a time. I've told myself the integration with Outlook was an awesome boost to productivity. The result in the end is always the same: I don't like OneNote. It's too flexible with notes being scattered everywhere, it's not always the most intuitive UI, and it never seems to fit in with the workflow that I'm expecting.
- Trello, Apple Notes, Joplin, SimpleNotes, etc. There's a whole slew that I've tried and quickly moved away from.
Going back to my comment above, I'm looking for ways to improve (1) my data ingest and (2) my data organization.
My handwriting is horrible but I like to write out my notes. My memory retention with typed notes isn't the best: I tend to forget everything since I know it's stored away somewhere else. On the other hand, when I write notes out, part of my brain goes back to high school and college where I know I need to remember the information for later use. The downside is that searching through my scrawl hasn't always been easy. I'll get back to that in a minute.
I'm not a fan of free form note-taking applications. My organized notes are typically a glorified spreadsheet with lots of bullet points and structured data. It's less about form and more about function. The goal is to take all the handwritten data from the ingest phase, convert it to text, and get it organized somewhere.
All of that being said, I've found two applications that meet almost those exact requirements: Notion and Nebo. There is no direct integration between the two, minus text being exported from Nebo and imported into Notion. That's all I really need between the two of them though.
Apple iPad Air
The hardware part of the equation that ties them together is an iPad Air with an Apple Pencil. The iPad is Gen 4 and the Pencil is Gen 2. I can't speak to the previous generations since I'd never owned one, but it really does an outstanding job with the feeling of "natural" handwriting on the iPad versus a pen and paper. The only minor annoyance was the feeling of writing on glass with the iPad. However, that's easy enough to correct with something a paper-feel screen protector. $20 and it makes a huge difference on the "feel" of writing.
There are a few reasons that I ended up with Nebo:
- Simplicity. I don't need my handwriting recognition app to do anything fancy, e.g. heavy-duty note organization, PDF markups, mind maps, etc. I just want to quickly and easily convert my semi-legible scrawl to text.
- Bullet lists. I don't want to use the keyboard when I write. Nebo has a super-easy function to create bullet lists, which I use quite a bit in my notes.
- Easy corrections. Being able to scribble out letters, combine and separate words, have a custom dictionary, etc.
- Reliable handwriting recognition and export. Nebo really excels at this. I'd say it gets close to 99% of my handwriting correct, which is amazing since I can barely read most of what I write.
Write notes in Nebo, convert to text, export to Notion.
Notion is a tough one to describe. Imagine if a wiki, database, spreadsheet, notebook, and organizational app all got together and had a child. It'd normally be a bunch of half-baked solutions. However, Notion seems to have snagged all the best parts from those and combined them into a highly functional and usable platform. Want to share a page like a wiki? No problem. Create a kanban page? Yep. Create an interactive database of all your active engagements? Sure!
There are a ton of tutorials on effectively using Notion, and it's way beyond the scope of this article. We'll stick with the organize part of ingest and organize. Basically, once the notes are exported to Notion, they're placed on a page that I've reserved as my "exporting dumping ground" for lack of a better term. Think of them as raw notes that will get cleaned up into something usable. The font is also funky when you first export them, but that's easy enough to correct with a format remover like Paste Plain Text or PureText. You'll first end up with this:
I'll then copy and paste this into my "organized" section, adding details as needed.
...with everything going into the Notion "database" of organized data.
I'm sure this will change again in 6 months, but for the moment I'm quite happy with the setup. It's the best of both worlds: I've got my handwritten notes that are slightly committed to memory, along with the searchable and organized version. I'd strongly suggest going through the tutorial videos linked above if you've never used Notion. The learning curve is slightly steeper than something like OneNote or Evernote, but you've got a ton of organizational options once it's up and running.