how when and why to use notes

How, when and why to use notes [PMP #105]

Having worked with hundreds of clients to help optimise their productivity tools, I keep coming across some common mistakes that people tend to make with notes.

The issue I see is that people tend to overuse notes. That’s right. I think people consider notes to be “everything apps” that can handle everything to do with their productivity (read more about why you shouldn’t overlap your productivity tools). However, I find this means you end up using notes more than you should either because you're storing the wrong type of information in notes, or using notes when other types of apps may be better suited for the job. This results in a productivity system that’s less organised or efficient as it could be.

So, here I am to clear things up and explain how, when and why to use note apps.

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First off, when I talk about note apps, I’m referring to apps like Evernote, OneNote, Apple Notes and Bear. There are obviously a lot more than just these four, but these are the common ones I tend to come across most often.

What NOT to put in notes

I’m going to start with what NOT to put in notes because this is where I see a lot of people trip up.

Here it is, plain and simple, do NOT use notes to store documents or tasks. This is what I mean when people try to use notes as an “everything app”. And I get it. It’s an appealing idea to try and use one app to manage all your ideas, documents and tasks in one place. But when you try and use a generalised app for everything, your productivity system lacks the power that multiple, more optimised apps can offer.

Apps like Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive are much better suited for organising files because they can sync directly to the file management system on your computer and phone. This makes document management and the retrieval of files a lot more efficient.

And it’s the same story with tasks.

While most note apps let you create simple checklists, they’re massively underpowered when it comes to proper task and project management. This is where you need a tool like Asana, Todoist, Things or OmniFocus. These apps can display tasks from multiple projects in one place, you can use due dates, create timelines and assign tasks to other people. Just like with documents, task management apps provide the user with a much more efficient and powerful way of managing tasks.

The takeaway here is that if you want to be a real productivity power user, you have to use the right tool for the right job instead of trying to use notes for everything just because it’s easy.

What should you put in notes?

So that’s what NOT to put in Notes. So, if you’re not using it for documents or tasks, what’s left?

I consider note apps to be your digital brain. It’s for storing information related to your projects, work and personal life that isn’t actionable and that’s not a file.

Here are some examples of things I add to notes:

  • Journal entries.
  • Ideas.
  • Class notes.
  • Stuff in your head you just want to remember.
  • Information about projects.
  • Meeting notes.
  • Book summary takeaways.
  • Recipes.
  • Screenshots.
  • Articles.
  • Checklists.
  • Receipts.

Okay, I’m contradicting myself a bit with these last two. Let me explain.

I use notes for things like travel packing checklists. I’d rather keep this checklist in notes where I can use it when I need it. I don’t really view it as a task which is why I don’t want to add it to Asana. It’s more of a casual checklist that I refer to every now and then when I’m packing for a trip.

With the receipts, I view these as throwaway documents that aren’t super important but I still want to keep. I choose to store receipts for smaller purchases in notes so that I don’t have to clutter my document management system with these small files. I also find it quicker using the camera on my phone to quickly capture a receipt into Apple Notes than it is to add it to Dropbox. Chances are I’ll never need these receipts again, which is why I choose not to use more optimised file management system.

Because notes aren’t being used for documents or tasks, I find it’s actually an app I don’t use that much. I open Apple Notes maybe half a dozen teams a week. Compared to Dropbox and Asana which are tools I’m using every single day. So if it feels like notes is a smaller part of your productivity system, that’s fine.

There you have it, that’s my take on notes. I’ve found that when I’ve helped clients to get clear on the purpose and use case for notes they’re able to be more organised as a result.

Let me know what you’re using notes for. Or if you disagree with any ideas above, let me know! Let’s get a debate going in the comments below!