In my journey to improve my overall systems of things and also slim down on some expenditure has taken a lot longer than expected. There could be many reasons for this, the number of services available, my persistent love of switching, or just my lack of motivation – however I needed to get notes right first, so this is where I started.
A surprising amount of my time is spent writing notes. They are used to manage my life, keep my writing ideas and also save anything that I find interesting and don’t want to try to remember. Because of their importance, I have tried to lean on service that I think show the importance of these notes. Services like Roam Research, Bear, Agenda, Obsidian and many more have come and gone. Costing me money and wasting time transferring things backwards and forwards.
As much as I want to be that guy and carry around a notebook and sketch things out. The reality is that I have to make all of these notes digital and searchable. Only one app has remained consistently used in all my time, Apple Notes. There could be many reasons it has remained despite repeated attempts to replace it. Perhaps the inbuilt nature means that it works with more things. Maybe it is simply because it is always there, but despite its shortcomings in a few areas, Apple Notes has proven the most robust and stable thing to use for years.
Of course, this is a bit of a meme at the moment. Other people's reliance on Apple Notes proves to be constant with my experience and usage, but the internet never fails to make fun of things. I find this particularly hilarious because the journey from low IQ to high IQ is precisely what I have been feeling over the last few years. Despite using almost all the apps in this meme, I use Apple notes more than anything else, so it makes sense to just lean on this in my new system.
Don’t confuse this for a gushing review of all the things Apple Notes does better. There are flaws and plenty of them. Apple Notes doesn’t do everything I want it to. Apps like Roam Research and Obsidian appeal to my brain much better than the rigid folder structure of Apple Notes. The linking between items and highlighting relationships features in all other options but Apple's option is more appealing. That is without the reality that Apps like Bear look and work infinitely better than my most used app.
Yet all the others fall down in others area in my systems, and the way I work means that the inbuilt abilities of Notes on my Mac and iPhone trumps nearly all.
The backbone of most of my note-taking is Quick Notes, both the function in Apple Notes and the ability to take notes as quickly as possible. I realise that I am in a privileged position of using iPhone, Mac and iPad, but it doesn’t matter if I click in the bottom right on Mac. Or swipe in on iPad, or tap the icon in control centre — all the notes I take on the fly appear in the Quick Notes folder in Apple Notes.
I use this as an inbox for all the notes I take on the go. If I were to use the system outlined by Tiago Forte in Building A Second Brain, this would be my Capture phase. Everything and anything gets saved as a quick note to be referred to or filed later. I am not crazy on the rigid folder structure of Apple notes. My brain doesn’t work as well in this hierarchy as it would when compared to a daily note approach used in Roam or Obsidian. However, having an inbox makes it easier for me to refer to things and then schedule in times to sort through them to action, file or delete the notes created.
There’s a lot to be frustrated at Siri for, but it works quite well with the stock apps and means notes can be made on the go. This comes in particularly useful when driving, or out walking with AirPods in. The example below is a typical note I would make whilst walking, a book is mentioned in a podcast that sounds interesting, I make a note and act the note later when I have time.
Of course, I could try to remember all of these notes, and some people claim that systems like these make our brains soft. However, I have been making robust notes for a little over 3 years on everything I do, work, family, entertainment and much more. This has made me able to retain more information, improve my productivity and enjoy more time switched off.
It goes without saying that quick notes on the go are only one part of note-taking. There are far more notes containing large pieces of information, meeting notes and important things I need to save, potentially indefinitely. What I have come to realise when speaking to others in similar situations is that much of theirs are done on paper, if at all.
There is a certain level of expectation when watching interesting videos, reading non-fiction books, or just attending a meeting that the information you receive will just stick in your brain. This might just be me, but what I found out fairly early on at University is that taking notes and reading them back later, at least a couple of times, helps me be able to refer to them later on.
This can be by mentally recalling them fully and being able to quote some information, or simply being able to recall “I’m sure I have a note on that somewhere”. A typical one of my longer notes is shown below. Whilst listening to another podcast with Dave Brailsford, he highlighted some information about his CORE method of mentorship. I was able to make a quick note using Siri and then when I had more time I looked into it deeper and made longer notes.
The ability of Apple Notes to seamlessly switch between voice, written text and even handwritten notes, as with my CORE note, is outstanding and something that very few other services do as well. I am not one for dragging in images or links, but Apple Notes does this with ease too.
File & Reference
What’s the point of a note if you can’t find it later on? The information in notes needs to be searchable and easy to navigate. I have not adopted any more of Tiago Forte method of note-taking with storage, but instead adopted for easy to understand folders. Some are projects I am working on, but most are just an area of my life.
I have to say that most notes go in the bin after a small action, or become much longer ones after researching topics. So long-term storage is only those that I really do need. I found some people online talking about almost a decade's worth of notes in Evernote, and I shudder to think of the mess, but the most important thing is being able to search and find what you are looking for.
I could go deeper and use tags and a larger volume of folders; however, I have found there is much less metal stress of deciding where the notes go if there are fewer folders to choose from. Furthermore, I will only create a new folder if there is no suitable folder already.
Deciding what notes to keep is a hard choice, but with quick notes usually being actionable, it is important to me to be ruthless and only keep information for as long as it is useful. Apple Notes Search is on device, meaning that it is always fast and easy to find what I need. The powerful indexing also searched had written text with surprising accuracy, even with my terrible hand writing!
Having toyed with Readwise and all sorts of ways to import reading notes, that just never stick an inbuilt app just makes sense. Without doubt Apple Notes is the app I use the most. Now I have my system in place it is working even better for me and meaning I can write more posts and know where all my stuff is.