How to find the right note app?
Tiago Forte recently presented a series of 4 videos on his YouTube channel that revolve around the topic of
- how to find the right note app
- for your personal needs
- your personal goals and interests
- your personal preferences and
- your individual note-taking style
The first of the four videos is linked at the beginning. The three following episodes are linked below.
Coincidentally Tiago Forte has published his latest book at the same time, which is already a bestseller:
Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organise Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential (Serpent’s Tail Classics) Paperback – June 14, 2022.
Before you order the book, in the bookstore you trust, you might be interested in my comments about it, also about my personal experience with the subject.
Who needs a second brain?
Anyone who builds websites and counts themselves among the content creators has always had some kind of system. Is more or less good at it
- writing down everything important
- sorting the jumble somehow and
- to find exactly the right “note “ again when needed
What else can you do without notes?
- offline, online
- on slips of paper, in notebooks, books, stacks, folders
- in software apps
- on all kinds of devices
- at the desk (Windows, Mac, Linux)
- or mobile (Android, IOS)
Of course, notes are extremely important for all those who are constantly writing anyway, when note-taking is an essential part of their job:
Every day, everyone bathes in a flood of information that rises and rises and rises exponentially.
How do you react, how do you deal with it?
In 3 steps to your app
Tiago Forte has at least 10 years of experience with the topic, has already published x books on it, held lectures and workshops. There are dozens of videos on YouTube alone.
In the four beginner videos quoted here, he condenses the topic to an atomic nucleus.
He describes 4 types of note-takers. For each type there is a group of apps that is particularly suitable.
If you know your type, says Tiago, it takes only 4 steps:
- You figure out what goals you want to achieve with your notes, what kind of notes you mainly deal with, and what your needs are for software and app support.
- You look around the market to see what apps and services are on offer that fit your needs and your style (preliminarily: there are quite a few and getting more and more)
- You should also get a picture of the vendors, the companies behind the products, the company cultures, its developers and the communities around the products.
- Finally, you should focus on the features that are the most important for you to achieve your defined goals.
Then you are ready to build your 2nd brain.
A personal system to organize your life and unlock your creative potential.
I see where this can go, and that it’s going in the right direction. But: let’s not fool ourselves. You need the mindset for it. And you’d better get ready for a marathon.
What is your note-style?
The four bold categories of note-types and -styles are, in alphabetical order, without rating:
- Gardeners and
Architects place the greatest value on clarity: systematics, structure, arrangement and order.
They want to systematize as much as possible every aspect of their lives, plan, organize and track the results achieved.
The user group that Tiago metaphorically refers to as gardeners is structured quite differently.
This group places the greatest value on spontaneity, innovation and dynamism.
Gardeners think less in hierarchy (like architects), much more in networking. They do not want to discover, develop and cultivate the old, but rather the new in their notes.
Librarians are also constantly researching.
However, they are specialized in certain areas of knowledge and driven by a deep need to gather all available information on that area and document the most useful and valuable of it.
Less for their own needs, but mainly to share the carefully prepared knowledge with others, often project-oriented.
The fourth type is basically the precursor to one of the types or styles already described.
By students, Tiago Forte means all kinds of learners, whether at school, at work, or at university. What they have in common is that they do not yet have a strategic determination as far as their note-taking system is concerned.
They are pragmatic and primarily want to short-term meet their current needs. Unlike the other groups, they are also rather not willing to invest heavily in their note-taking system. They know only too well that everything will remain in flux for quite a while.
Note apps for students should
- easy to use
- be easily accessible
without incurring large additional liabilities for it.
Which note apps are particularly popular?
Tiago asked the participants of his BASB course (Build A Second Brain) a total of 4 times, which note apps they currently use (all details in his video, see above)
- The most popular note apps by far, in the entire period, August 2020 to March 2022 are: Evernote, followed by Notion and Roam.
- In the last survey of March 2022, Notion was even more popular than Evernote for the first time, pushing it from #1 to #2.
- An app that didn’t even exist in 2020 made it to 4th place just 9 months later. Another 10 months later at #3: Obsidian.
- Roam slipped from 3rd place with 18% of respondents to 6th place in the aforementioned period. Most recently, only 5% of respondents said Roam Research was their preferred note-taking app.
Surveys are surveys. The details can be discussed endlessly.
I find interesting:
- no one has to dig through 68 apps individually to get a good feel for it.
- what these apps do and
- how they feel
(in fact, in the next video, Tiago flies through 68 note apps at 30 second intervals, you could probably add a few more)
- whether it turned out that way, or the other way around: these 4 currently most popular note apps according to Tiago Forte correspond quite well to the usage types / usage styles described above.
My tip: You definitely need to take a closer look at these 3 apps:
- Evernote practically invented the market for note apps, several years ago already (and is also getting on in years, but my own experience on that later).
- Tiago Forte himself has apparently been quite happy with Evernote for 10 years. He classifies himself and Evernote as Librarian type / style.
- Notion is the toughest Evernote competitor in terms of distribution and popularity. Tiago assigns this app to the type / style Architects.
- Obsidian is the shooting star among note apps. It displaces Roam Research and ascends the throne of type / style Gardeners.
And I confess: I’m excited about Obsidian, the developer team behind it and the community around it. Not least because this app is really flexible to adapt to your note type / note style, with an almost endless choice of plugins.
But don’t let that impress you.
Obsidian also has a number of clear drawbacks, is really not suitable for everyone. You simply can’t avoid making up your own mind.
68 apps in a quick run-through: Which ones appeal to you?
Honestly, I’m only quoting this 3rd video for the sake of completeness. Tiago Forte introduces dozens of apps here in 30 second intervals. Of these – at least for me – almost nothing stuck, except:
- For Architects he recommends Notion or Obsidian (it’s the plugins!)
- Gardeners should focus on Roam Research or Obsidian (again, plugins 🙂)
- And a Librarian’s favorite is probably Evernote or Microsoft OneNote
While Students, indecisive people and other pragmatists 🙂 might get into
- Apple Notes
- Google Keep
- Notability or
Sure. If you are a Windows / Android user, Apple Notes is out of the question. But if you just want to take notes easily, quickly and everywhere, you have a huge choice of desktop and mobile apps.
If you use not only Windows, but also Office from Microsoft, in the version 2016, 2019 or 365, then OneNote is definitely an option for you and only a few clicks away.
The full version has an enthusiastic fan community, which has helped Microsoft massively to develop the software reasonably again in the future after years of standstill / aberrations.
So if Word, Excel, PowerPoint is your daily toolbox anyway: a better integration of your note system you will find otherwise only again in Google Office.
For the sake of completeness: also for Linux users, a lot is possible and feasible, but as usual: special. If you are interested, I will be happy to discuss this separately.
The first 30 days with your digital notebook
Now we come to the most important video of the small series:
What do you do with the app of your choice in the first 30 days?
What is especially important?
- Better to really work with some app for 30 days on how to get the most benefit from it, than to try it all over again every day with a different app.
- Look closely at what are your most important inputs, e.g. email, books, videos, phone calls, … and how do you best get the most important ones noted? You’ll take care of all the others later.
- It’s not the worst idea of all, if you first just pay attention to where you feel the most resonance with your current needs. For more objectivity and completeness you will have all the time in the world later.
- And – last but not least – pay special attention to it, from day one, always and constantly: You want to bring new habits and routines into your daily routine. What comes easily? What doesn’t? What is the best workaround to keep friction loss as tiny as possible?
In the video, Tiago only briefly touches on how you can best get your first, new notes sorted. As a first approximation, you can follow the concepts he explains in his book:
- CODE: Capture, Organize, Distill, Express are the phases of your note system, your workflow.
- PARA: Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives could be the top folders for all your new notes (and probably a lot of old notes, flying around :))
But I won’t open those barrels any further here. You can google, youtube or whatever yourself. Maybe you find yourself considering, if you should buy Tiago’s book.
Conclusion (for today)
I was an avid user of Evernote for several years, and recommended it often and happily. Then, at some point, I got the impression that my Evernote had become a sort of black hole: Everything goes in. Nothing comes out.
Sure. I am not a librarian. But not really the architect or the gardener either.
My reasons for canceling the Evernote subscription were very tangible:
- I found Evernote lame and cumbersome to use, including the day-to-day syncing and constant updates, restarts, etc.
- Evernote’s Web Clipper, initially my main benefit, tempts me to store web pages without end, as I used to do with bookmarks, without having any plan what to do with them later, except to sort them all neatly into more and more folders and subfolders, by hand, like when I was a little boy with my stamp collection.
- And the possible folder structure of Evernote is still far too categorical, limited, inflexible and flat for me.
- The export of Evernote notes was horrible for me. Okay, that usually only becomes relevant when switching to another system. But then all the more painful. Evernote has its own file format. You can choose to “print” PDF of it or export it as HTML. I found both options so great that I ended up copying the texts and the links by hand. And I was shocked to find out: many, many clips and notes were long outdated, no longer worth exporting anyway, see above, keyword “black hole“.
I think Evernote has made a lot of efforts lately to keep the crumbling market share and put the app on completely new feet. I can’t judge how far they’ve come.
A few months ago I stumbled upon Obsidian by accident – sorry, Tiago. And: WOW!
I have used a lot of software applications and apps. Very rarely has one fascinated me from the beginning and excited me in a lasting way, like Obsidian.
One thing is for sure: there is still a lot to blog about it!
With Obsidian I might really get a second brain – finally.
More about that soon.