Everyone takes and uses notes in in their own way. It’s very personal. No one way works for everyone. In fact, readers who only use paper should skip this article altogether. I admire your lifestyle and hope to have it some day, but for now I rely on the efficient recollection of a robust digital system to get my job done.
These are the principles and apps that work for me. I do not expect all of this to apply to you — thus the title. But maybe it can be a little helpful to you if this is a question you ask of yourself.
Before we get into the apps themselves, I need to define some subjective terms.
Your notes are the reference section of your life. It’s not necessarily the project management (or action-taking) part of life for me, though it has that potential. For my purposes, notes are all about reference.
I define reference as any piece of information you are likely to use and want to keep. The word likely is intentionally vague. How you define that word could define the app you use.
For example, if you’re likely to use 90% of what you save as reference, you are likely to save very few notes, and something like Apple Notes or Google Keep will be fine for you.
If you’re a writer like me, the word likely could include notes, blog posts, and book chapters you wrote a decade ago. Even a small percentage chance of future usefulness makes a note valuable. I have a huge amount of reference, so simpler apps usually don’t work out well.
For my purposes, everything I create or research is reference of some kind that could be useful in future work. That includes text, photos, and audio that currently constitute around 4000 “active” notes. A text-only notes app would not work for me.
Some writers separate their notes from their published writing. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Reference is reference whether or not it’s published.
What a Note Taking App Should Do
Note taking apps need to be good at three key things:
Capture. How easy is it to get reference material into the app?
Organization. How easy is it to place the reference material in the app with the correct metadata and tags?
Recovery. How easy is it to find what you’re looking for?
That’s it. Plenty of notes apps are good at other things, but most fail at some or all of those three corner stone functions.
Pros and Cons of Popular Note Taking Apps
It’s in the Apple ecosystem, so it’s very friendly Siri and automation.
It’s well designed for system app, though I wish they’d let go of that paper background.
It’s very easy to use.
It’s file handling is totally within the Apple system without duplication, so photos and attached documents do not add to the size of a note.
There’s no feature bloat.
It has the best Apple Pencil support.
There’s easy import/export options available.
The developers work only on Apple platforms (as opposed to most note apps).
The link capture card is more elegant and useful than any other app.
It always pastes in plain text (as opposed to rich text notes apps).
It defaults to smart quotes, which is nice for a rich text editor.
The future is more iOS-centric and this plays better with iOS than any other note app.
There’s better privacy than in other notes apps.
Apple Notes fits well with a one-thing-well philosophy. Use notes for notes, bookmarks in Safari, contacts in Contacts, etc.
Pogue seems to adore it over Evernote.
MacSparky’s experiments with it looked good.
It doesn’t handle a lot of notes. There were anecdotal reports that after the app’s last big update, sync broke down if you had 2000 small notes or 500 big notes. Pogue says it works with his 1600 notes just fine, though.
Sync has historically been iffy for me.
I use tags. They’re essential. Notes may not ever support them. Average people don’t care about tags and Apple designs for the average person.
Notes isn't well suited to archiving reference articles and other materials for the long term (stuff that doesn't work as files, but does as reference).
You can’t edit dates on notes.
It’s the most automated. It’s the only thing I tested with both simple web automation and system automation. No matter what I write or where I write online, Evernote captures and files it without me needing to see anything. I believe this may be coming to Bear, but for now, Evernote is the gold standard for automatic capture and organization.
It’s the most flexible.
It’s the most reliable. I’ve lost data on every iCloud notes app I tried. In a decade, I’ve never lost a single note on Evernote. A good reference system is about trusting that things are going to be properly in place when needed. The point is to not have it on your mind. Evernote has proven itself trustworthy to me.
It syncs the fastest of these apps.
It captures everything.
It includes URLs automatically in the note’s metadata. Nothing else does this.
It has versioning.
It indexes text within photos and graphics for search.
It’s offers a plain text option for individual notes. If you don’t want plain text, but don’t want a bunch of crazy HTML formatting either, it offers a “simplify formatting” option.
It has bulk tagging and untagging, which no other app tested could do without crashing. This saves immense amounts of time.
When importing/exporting, Evernote was the most robust tool, processing images like it was nothing.
It’s the only app tested that allowed for changing created and modified dates. This is huge if you’re importing old writing/notes and you want them to properly sort.
Shane Snow uses Evernote to write his books so that his collaborations and research can be easy shared and be device agnostic.
YouTuber Carl Pullein says, “You should be using Evernote in 2019.” He re-iterates everything I’ve written for years about notes (except he uses the terms collect, store, and search, instead of my capture, organize, and recover).
Evernote has an Android team and a Windows team. How much will they innovate for MacOS and iOS? At least they disbanded their Backberry team.
It’s not well designed.
My blog posts and newsletters are not always captured well through Evernote automation. They look ugly.
The iOS version has never captured anything well (without Shortcuts).
The newest versions on iOS seem to move away from tags. This is crazy.
The constant reversals/upheavals at Evernote bother me. From the ever-changing, whacky UI to the not knowing what crazy business model will come next, I’m left in a state of perpetual confusion about the future of my notes.
It’s unlikely they’ll roll back what they already have done in the way of feature creep. Why lose even more business?
Privacy: Apple Notes are encrypted by default and no one can see them. Anyone at Evernote or in law enforcement can see your Evernote notes unless you individually encrypt each one.
Evernote has had sync issues recently, although I haven't experienced them personally.
Sometimes I think I save too much to Evernote because it’s too easy. There may not be enough constraint here.
It works the way I think.
Importing and exporting is super fast.
It’s the best at tag handling. It actually makes tagging fun.
Organization happens in the note. This means exports will include that data no matter where you take them.
It’s relatively inexpensive.
The company seems stable, helpful, and fun.
The design is the best of the apps tested.
It exports to everything, including JPEG for social sharing.
It’s so easy to clip from the web and the clipper is even better than Evernote’s (both on Mac and iOS).
It’s great as a writing tool (not the best, but great). No other app tested does the combo of notes and writing as well as Bear.
Check out The Verge's article on replacing Evernote with Bear.
It does not import all images from other apps. Each note needs inspecting.
There’s no web automation like Evernote: no email forwarding, no email address, no automatic archiving blog posts or newsletters (no IFTTT without extra work and no pictures if setting up workflows through dropbox). This could be fixed with their future web version. Until then, it’s all manual.
It does not have versioning.
You can’t edit dates on notes.
There’s no inbox in Bear (but you can search by “untagged” to find notes that have not been processed).
Exports from Bear did not include all the metadata needed.
You cannot bulk tag or untag like in Evernote.
I’m much more likely to write on iOS if I use this app.
It treats writing as different from reference and concentrates on being the best at writing, while have secondary note taking capabilities. This forces creation over consumption.
It has versioning.
It has an inbox.
It has “goals” which are very useful when writing to reach a certain number of words.
I can finally incorporate my books into my reference a meaningful way.
It can combine notes (I refuse to call them sheets) like Scrivener.
It can be used for very basic journaling.
Lots of nerds love it, which means lots of Shortcuts and resources are available for it.
Ulysses also offers the ability to separate and filter types of notes in a search by all kinds of detailed criteria.
It’s trusted by Ben Brooks, Shawn Blanc and so many others who are known for considering the tiniest details of design in software.
You can even take notes about your notes.
You can post to Wordpress and Medium, if that’s your thing (it’s not mine).
It is not really a notes app, and doesn’t handle automated reference well.
It’s iOS swiping doesn’t do what I want it to do. Swiping to delete isn’t a thing. It’s frustrating.
It’s terrible at capture compared to the rest.
It’s the only app that couldn’t handle importing notes without spinning up the fans like crazy on MacOS and straight up crashing over and over on iOS.
Syncing can be iffy, and take days at first.
Every time I open it in iOS it takes a while to load and populate the inbox. It doesn’t inspire confidence.
Apple Notes and Evernote just got out of my way and let me capture in any way I want. Ulysses is picky and requires more of my time to capture anything.
It doesn’t seem to be able to handle large amounts of notes well.
You can’t change the dates on a note, even though it’s one of the few ways you can sort your notes.
It’s not fun to use.
It’s not easy to use.
I don’t like using it for anything but writing.
When importing/exporting, Ulysses was the worst tested. Its bulk export is barely present. Note-by-note individual exporting is needed if images are in a note.
It cannot collect the text of web pages on its own.
It’s slow. It takes forever to process changes.
It cannot bulk edit notes (or tags). They’re aware of this, and it’s on their wishlist for future updates, but how far in the future is anyone’s guess.
Notes, chapters, newsletters, and blog posts are not “sheets.” It may seem nitpicky, but this bothers me.
Rules for Switching Apps
For years I’ve been collecting my experiences with these apps. The one I’m using changes about every six months. Why? As you’ve seen above, every app has major cons. These cons force me to get fed up enough to do something different every once in a while.
This leads me to a notes app switching principle: Fix your roof when it’s sunny. Switching apps is often a sign that your overwhelmed by something. Fix that something before you fix your apps.
Another useful rule: When you switch, do it all at once. I didn’t, which led me to find flaws in both Bear and Ulysses, but it made switching back extremely difficult. First, realize that importing to any app will have huge flaws, but do it all at once and keep the original app as reference for what broke.
What Am I Using Right Now?
I’ve switched back to Evernote for now. The flaws in Evernote are mostly design-based, which beats the functional flaws in other apps. I do have high hopes for Bear, though. When they get their web app up and running, it’ll be hard to argue against them.
I love that Ulysses has a bias for creation, but the hoops required to jump through for capture and its problems with tagging make it really hard to use for me. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to get the app to work with my writing, which kills its primary benefit: focusing on creation.
And as much as I love using system apps, Apple Notes just can’t handle the amount of notes I take. I hope this changes, but I’m not holding my breath.
Damn you Evernote. Why can’t I quit you! (h/t Cortex)
Shane Parrish is collecting a list on Twitter of sources of personal competitive advantage. Readers soon joined in and now it’s a long thread that received the following response from business author Kevin Kruse:
“If he doesn’t turn this into a book, I will.”
Here’s what the list started with (I bolded my favorite — I could probably write an entire book just on this one point):
Network (who you know)
Unique skills or combinations
Ability to suffer
Ability to change your mind
Ability to learn/adapt
Ability to persuade others
Ability to look stupid
Advanced Pattern recognition
Ability to say no
A look inside a notebook, on experiments from 1899-1902, still radioactive today (and will be 1500 years from today). This reminds me that paper notebooks are still the best format for archiving notes, and handwriting adds humanity to everything — including data collection. (via The Nobel Prize and NinjaEconomics)
The goal of my newsletter is to connect with my readers. It’s a simple, clear goal, but it’s not easy to maintain. Higher open rates on fewer emails are worth vastly more to me than lower open rates on many emails.
Because of this, I periodically unsubscribe large numbers of readers from my newsletter who haven’t opened an issue in a long time. This time it was around 400 people.
This is something businesses almost never do. If there’s even a microscopic chance someone will open an email and buy something, that person stays subscribed.
Here’s why I do what most businesses don’t:
I’m not a business, I’m a person. My goal is connecting with other real people. Most good things in my life have come about because of connections I’ve made online. No joke — even my family.
It costs more to maintain a large list. Each non-reader, or not-interested reader, is a cost incurred with nothing to show for it.
Gmail hates it. Unfortunately, Gmail is what most of my readers use for email (please consider something like Fastmail or Hover — don’t let an ad company host your email). Google knows your open rate. If they deem your emails lower quality because of a lower open rate, your emails can end up in the promotions tab or spam folder. You become invisible. You’d be shocked how many big name newsletters I find in the spam folder of my old Gmail account.
I give these subscribers a chance to stay subscribed if they want. I send out an email with a button or link they can click to stay. If there’s no response, they’re unsubscribed from the list.
Austin Kleon and I tend to write about very similar subjects, but to completely different audiences. I follow his blog and read his books. More than once I’ve deleted drafts of posts, because he just posted the same thing.
So, I look forward to reading new books from Austin. His latest, Keep Going, did not disappoint. If you follow him, the book is a distilled and clarified version of the best concepts he’s written about over the past few years. If you don’t follow him, this book is the the last book in a trilogy about living a life filled with creativity, and it leaves you on a high note.
My favorite chapters involve being creative while also being a parent. His experiences learning from his children’s creativity mirror my own.
His evangelization of bliss stations, furthered in the book, prodded me to make one of my own.
While the first book encouraged you to create by taking from your influences, and the second book encouraged you to share things worthy of taking, the third book encourages you to maintain and enrich that symbiosis throughout the rest of your life.
I’ll save any spoilers for the countless interviews Austin will be doing on podcasts in the next few months. Until then, go pre-order the book (or books). You’re going to love it. And if you see Austin, be sure to ask him, “What’s next?”
I receive the most criticism when I post about positive things happening in the world. I find that fascinating.
It could be because a lot of people rely on negative outlooks to fuel their jobs, hobbies, or identities.
Steven Pinker experienced this himself on a grand scale when he published Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress one year ago. He has since been called every name in the book, even though his work is based on science and math, and should be considered a rather sober account of the progress of humanity.
Yesterday he published a long article examining the strange reaction to book.
“The question of whether progress has occurred is matter not of “optimism” but of what Hans Rosling calls “factfulness”: calibrating our understanding of the world to empirical reality. If measures of well-being, such as health, prosperity, knowledge, and safety, have increased over time, that would be progress. In fact, they have.
Since progress does not mean that the world is perfect, only that it is better, acknowledging progress does not mean being indifferent to the very real suffering of people today, nor to the very real threats that humanity continues to face.”
It’s a long, thoughtful look at why you publish about progress at your own peril, and why you should do it anyway.
Craig Mod, prognosticator of publishing, recently tweeted about newsletters:
“There's a tendency to over-design newsletters as of late. I think this misses the point, the *power* of a newsletter is from its intimacy. You can design intimacy out of an experience by scrubbing voice, grit.
The best newsletters feel like nice letters from smart friends.
My favorites newsletter either:
1) have a super strong voice, and therefore I don't care how long they are, will joyfully follow them to the end of the world
2) are mega concise, and serve to highlight just a handful (3? 4?) of gems”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about under-designing a newsletter. Tobias van Schneider has also talked about this with his super-successful newsletter about design (which he refuses to call a “newsletter”):
“To be honest, I sometimes think it’s a bit too nice. I like to keep it simple; I want it to look less like a newsletter and more like a personal email.”
Tinyletter makes this kind of personal style easy, but if you’re looking to do this with a more fully-featured service, good luck. It can often be harder to make a newsletter look under-designed than over-designed.