11 May Meet Notion, the all-purpose productivity app
Note: This review is unaffiliated with Notion; clicking the link will get us both a free month.
If you had to go surfing on a distant island, what surfboards would you bring? There are many variables to navigate: the conditions, wave sizes, your own skill level and even how much effort you’re willing to bring to the table. Many thousands of dollars later, you’ve got your surf quiver – versatile and ready to grapple with whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
But what about when it’s time to surf the digital tsunami that is everyday life. What is the right “quiver” of tools, apps and services that balances functionality, intuitiveness and joy? In a (literal) sea of tools, how can you carve out and commit to the right mix of task, knowledge and file management? And who’s Notion, this new kid in town?
My productivity “quiver” consists of the following apps and services:
- Omnifocus: My to-do list, the ballast of my quiver. I’ve been using this $100+_ app for over a decade and have taught countless folks how to use it.
- Evernote: A place for my reading notes, web clippings and idea fragments. All of my posts, talks and products originate from seeds planted in this app. I credit Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain for this comprehensive knowledge management system.
- Google Docs: Where I write (and analyze), especially if I need to work with collaborators.
- Dropbox: File systems are becoming less relevant, but you still need a place for those pesky PDFs. While I could save files in Evernote and/or Google Drive, Dropbox’s seamless integration makes it the de facto standard.
This toolkit has been stable for a while, but winter may be coming. I’ve had flings with Trello and Quip (see ya later) and have been flirting with Airtable (powerful, but overkill) and Coda (Hey, I just met ya). But there’s a fresh face in town… and people are going googoo and gaga over it.
Meet Notion, The New Kid on the Block
Notion is a likely candidate to replace Evernote as a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) tool, but its versatility sets it up to do a lot more. And pretty much anyone using it will gush about how the clean design makes it a true joy to use.
But first, some first principles
But before getting caught up with the fling du jour, let’s be clear that adding a new tool into any workflow comes at a steep switching cost (in the form of migration, learning curves, and habit change). Thus, it’s imperative to have an objective criteria to assess the viability of any new candidate. Here’s the criteria I use:
- Capture speed: When a thought or idea strikes, the app better make it easy to capture it.
- Navigation: How easily can ideas be organized and accessed?
- Search: Once the notes scale, how easily can you uncover relevant notes?
- Integrations: Does the app play well in the sandbox with other apps and services.
- Collaboration: Can other folks enter your workflow?
- Creative “juju”: Seemingly amorphous, but simple – Does this app bring out the my most creative self?
What makes Notion special?
Let’s start with an all too common use case: writing up a detailed report for your team. You’d start with a collection of idea fragments, possibly expressed as a list of bullets and some web clippings. Pretty straight forward for a “flat” document.
However, as you start adding structure (i.e. headings) and substance (paragraphs) the document can start to become unwieldy. The creator is confronted with two un-compelling options: a really long document or a bunch smaller ones loosely inter-connected with hyper-links.
This is where both Google Docs and Evernote break down. In Google Docs, it becomes hard to bounce around a ten page document with just scrolling (although the table of contents helps); in Evernote you don’t have connectivity besides tags and notebooks. In my experience, this is where the percolation and unfurling of the creative process comes to a grinding halt.
The Notion “Page”
Below you’ll see this concept in action. Within a simple page, you can preserve navigation with other pages and can easily embed to-dos and files.
And you can see from the Course Outline below, each module began as a series of bullet points before turning into its own page. This is a true gift from the heavens, when you’re trying to organize a large set of ideas.
The ability to add both hierarchy and navigation with a few clicks is a game changer IMO. What are some of the other Rad Notion features?
Ever tried to paste a link into a Google Doc? Yeah, that sad blue hyper-link is a buzzkill to your creative flow. Notion powerfully embeds and unfurls all types of hyperlinks including (but not limited) to PDFs, videos, tweets and other web pages.
When you’re in idea generation mode, it’s super-helpful to bounce between big ideas and details. The toggle list feature allows you to visualize these two modes of thinking:
Command line processing
As an F9-monkey (and former programmer) I relish the rapid ability to insert elements using just key strokes. Notion embraces the command-line more than any app I’ve ever used resulting in shortcut bliss!
Notion is a true joy to use from a UX perspective. The interface is clean and the attention to details and small finishes are magnificent. My favorite is the ability to add a banner image and emoji for every page, giving them the right splash of personality.
Tables and databases
Think Google Sheets on steroids – tables with the ability to tag, insert files, and link amongst other tables – which creates powerful and customized workflows. This currently is a domain ruled by Airtable (and is probably overkill for most of us) and I’ll write more about this at a later date.
So back to our framework
I’m going to use a 1-5 star (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️) framework for each of our criteria:
Capture speed ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The app feels a bit laggy (I suspect because not much is stored locally). A giant “add” button would also increase input speed.
The page system is incredible, especially for idea development and I’ve been using it all the time. Why not 5-stars? It’s hard to move large groups of pages (i.e. you’ll always miss a file-management system).
In addition to be slow, there’s no advanced search capabilities (by sub-page, date, or attachments).
The lack of IFTTT, Zapier, and Email connectivity is a huge drawback. (Note: The company is definitely adding this in the near future.) The web clipper is meh and limited to only links (versus screen shots).
When you share a page, you’re effectively sharing an entire website – clean and easy to navigate. My early foray into the embedded chat and Slack integrations have been pretty smooth.
Creative “juju” ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
While unmeasurable, I (and many other Notion aficionados) feel this in our core. There’s something special here – that brings out some of your most creative instincts and impulses. The team at Notion is super-focused on its users and I’m excited to see where they take this product.
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