I don’t like feeling busy; a feeling that doesn’t make me feel great, like I am not in control. I do, however, love to do many things. To mitigate being busy, I believe design, experimentation, and focus can enable you to be effective by having things be productive for you.
Though I continue to explore many digital tools, Notion is one that remains part of my daily workflow. As many of us have been sheltering in, mini-conversations have sparked a lot of interest in how I use Notion and figured I should write something up about it.
This is my second stint with using Notion and it stuck this time for me. The primary reason the first time wasn’t successful is I didn’t use it the right way that worked for me (the key concept is it working for you). My usage of the all-in-one workspace was more of a note-taking app, which it’s not great at.
In a quest for a replacement, I tried different digital products, such as Airtable, Apple Notes, Mindnode, and GitHub (yes, GitHub).
After a conversation with one of my most trusted former designers, she inadvertently convinced me to give Notion a second try; highlighting that watching how other people use it will help. I went to YouTube to learn how other people set it up. The YouTube videos of Ali Abdaal, Marie Poulin, and Thomas Frank inspired me to think differently about how I configured my digital workspace. One of the biggest learning from those studies was for me to use Notion as the hub to enable work to get done instead of trying to do all my work in it.
Before I show you how I use it, you must know why and for what
I need things to be visual and relational The length of the workflow chain is not what’s important to me. What’s important is that it’s the workflows
How I use Notion
My workflow with Notion essential can be boiled down to 5 R’s: resonate, relate, recall, research, and release. Flow and momentum are the most important aspects for me when it comes to my personal effectiveness and productivity. Yes, I’m one of those people who asks you politely not to re-arrange or organize my pile of paper, because though not visually aesthetically pleasing, I know exactly where everything is. Let’s break down each step.
Not everything you consume is worth remembering. There is such a cognitive overload of information. Much of it is not useful. The resonate stage forces me to think about what is worth remembering.
There is no greater person than Ali Abdaal to explain the resonance calendar. It’s so simple that it’s genius. As you capture ideas, take quick notes on why it’s something worth remembering and how you connect with it.
Example: I recently added this article about Figma’s fundraise because the concept of “The decade of design” resonated with me. That’s the important part, not that a16z wrote it.
I’m a very lateral thinker and appreciate relations and association with everything. Notion is great to connect the dots with many concepts and entities.
Example: I have aspirations in the distant future to go into angel investing (not for a while). I am building an opportunity backlog to help me connect to current relevant skills I can build now to make progress.
This is where I do my note-taking and study. Here I have a combination of handwritten notes scanned in and written notes. As you’ll see later in the article, I link items that resonate in research and ideas I work on.
Example: I’ve been re-reading “Play Bigger” and use the Cornell Notes System to help me recall key moments
This is for more jumbo-sized projects. Research projects for me are often an aggregation of other links in Notion and structuring handwritten notes. If it’s any time dimension indicator, I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any research projects in the course of my life.
Example: I am doing research on “The History of Visual Programming” and adding links from my resonance calendar to include in the Sources Cited section.
Ultimately, the goal is to ship and get inspired ideas to become real.
For me personally, I optimize my chain of work by having a clear understanding of what stage things are in as opposed to everything in it.
Example: I have a backlog of ideas that I prioritize after it gets through the previous R’s. this is an example of a blog post I’m working on to that includes links relations to other databases.
Here’s what the entire workflow chain looks like with an example of how I create a blog post:
1. Read every morning before work
2. Add articles to pocket that merit reading
3. If there are thoughts worth retaining in the article, I add it to my resonance calendar
4. As ideas start shaping up, I create an idea in Notion and link it to the resonance links
5. I likely will work on the project outside of Notion, such as Figma, Webflow, Xcode, and Word Processing
6. Once complete, I’ll mark it as complete in the idea
On the surface level, six steps may seem inefficient. However, I have more defined understanding of the value of an idea based on what stage it’s in and helps me prioritize which ideas are worth pursuing.
Enough with the Why and What, let’s dive into the How. The way one views and interact with content is crucial. When I get started with tools, I often like to jump right in instead of using templates. Here are some things I’ve learned that’s helped.
For me, I’ve never been a folder structure person so navigation through a tree of folders never worked well. I’m a very lateral and associative thinker and such thinking cannot be bound in folders!
If it’s any indication from how I organize my iPhone apps, I heavily rely on search.
The mobile app is decent for searching. I don’t use the mobile apps very much; only for reference. Currently the mobile apps have very poor performance and difficult for me to use. I have the utmost confidence that the team at Notion are well-aware of this and working hard on it.
Start with a scratchpad or inbox
Create an inbox or a scratchpad where your unstructured links and notes can go. You can use this to triage and organize where things need to go.
Leverage databases from the start
If you have content that seems to be taking up shape as a structure, create a database. Do not be intimated by a database. It’s fancy talk for “a place to put your stuff.”
A quick tip for people getting started with Notion. There are five types of databases (Table, Board, List, Calendar, Gallery) and they are actually different views of one type of database. If you choose a table, you can make it a board or list later.
I try to create everything in Notion with the following categorizations
People: Humans I’ve encountered, would like to meet, and notable ones I’ll likely never meet.
Places: I classify these as physical locations, though I’ve considered digital places. We’ll see how this scales!
Things: This one is a bit more sophisticated than people and places as there are many subclasses of this. In “Things” I’ll include elements from books, concepts, to physical objects
Actions: I created this fourth one so I could use it as a global status that applies to the first three
I honestly considered a fifth element (!!!) and ultimately opted not to do it, which was a Tags database where I could roll up every tag into it. The beauty is I could always back and do it. I kind of wish there was a way to use an object (like multi-select) and inject data into that property type. Right now, tags for three essential categories should work right now (I hope).
Relations to databases are your friend
Based on the four essential databases mentioned in the previous section, I use relations and links to thread my relations together. This allows me to connect all people, places, and things in my life.
Here’s an example of how I connected The Northstar Playbook (a thing) and John Cutler (person who write it) that easily allows me to reference either the thing or person.
Link everything relevant
Not everything is going to roll up into a database, and that’s where links are very helpful. I am a firm believer that the hyperlink is one of the greatest inventions in the world.
It’s key to link information that’s most relevant for me. For example, I’m not going to try to replicate what’s on Wikipedia about the Czech Republic. Instead, I’ll add relational information that is most relevant to me: who I know there, memorizes from there, notable aspects of the country that is most important to me. Otherwise, I’d simply use Wikipedia.
Whether they are internal or external, copy links and connect them to other areas in the app
Here’s an example of how I filter my Actions database on a page about my San Francisco life to include only relevant tasks.
As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a way to create a filter template so you have to do this manually on every page.
Distinguish structure vs. unstructured
One of the beauties of Notion is you can be as structured or unstructured as you’d like. My advice to people getting started is you want to be clear what areas are intended to be loose in structure and where you’d like some rigor.
What I do not use Notion for
You can almost do everything in Notion. However, for me, it’s not necessary. Here’s where I don’t use it to later convey what I do use it for.:
Personal calendar (I use Google Calendar): I have nearly a half-a-dozen calendars and keeping it in a different place makes it much easier to maintain for me
- Portfolio or Website (I use Webflow): I’ve seen people use Notion essentially as a website. Though you can and it’s very practical, I like the feel of a personal website (note: I work at Webflow)
- Sketching and Notetaking (I use Notability): Notability before Notion.
- Writing (I use iA Writer): I find the blocks a bit constraining when it comes to more freeform writing.
- Project management (I use what others are using): I’m a firm believer that the best project management tool is the one people are actually using. I’ll use GitHub projects or an equivalent and try not to bring people into my workflow unless the project calls for it
More quick tips
Here are some other quick tips and tricks I learned along that way that made it more joyful to use.
Bookmarks: I really love using the bookmark features to make links more visual and it doesn’t take as much room as embedding
Favorites: If you are a folder structure person, the favorites feature is nice to not be overwhelmed by the expansiveness of notion.
Where to go from here
A quick recap of some of the concepts in this article:
- There is no wrong way to use Notion. Optimize how you approach thinking and doing
- Put what you need in there and allow extensibility to let itself in
- Use the power of Notion to keep things freeform and structured, though have a good sense of how it’s organized.
I’m not sure if this article will inspire or intimidate you. Though you may feel like it, you don’t have to start over if you don’t structure Notion! If you have any questions or other ideas to add, I’d love to hear from you.
P.S. Special thanks to Bonnie Kate Wolf, Greyson McAlpine, Effy Zhang, Ryan Morrison, and Parker Henderson for doing a live walk-through of my workspace.