Although I rely on a pen and notebook, there are still a few digital tools that I use in my everyday workflow. In the following blog post, I give insights into which tools they are and how I use them in my daily life.
I've been looking for the "perfect" productivity app for a long time and I'm still not sure if I found it. I was an Evernote power user until 2018. The app accompanied me on all my devices for a good seven years. But over time it seemed to me that the app would not develop any further. At the same time, however, countless note-taking and productivity apps sprang up. After trying a few things, I finally switched completely from Evernote to Notion in 2018. However, I quickly realized that Notion is not meant for writing notes. Rather, it is an incredible tool for organizing, structuring, planning, etc.
Why I love Notion as my productivity powerhouse
Each of my projects starts in Notion. I create a new page and start to structure my thoughts. Since Notion is based on various content blocks, a structured page can be created quite fast. In my case, the page contains some headings, dividers, paragraphs, links, images, and so on. In most cases, I fill a new notion page with all the information I have about a project. As soon as a project is further developed, I also adapt my notion page. If there are specific to do's, I simply create a kanban board within this notion page. I can then adjust the individual boards according to my preferences. Personally, I always create a backlog. There, the To Do's get collected as long as they do not get the "In Progress" status.
When I work on a certain task, it goes one step further, as already mentioned, to the "In Progress" board. After the task is done, I drag it onto the "Done" board and I know that I no longer have to worry about this task. In addition to my Kanban board, I also have the option to insert a calendar, a list or a gallery. On top of that, Notion also works with various integrations. For example, you can integrate an entire InVision Project embedded into a notion page. If you want to see what is possible within Notion, then get yourself some inspiration in the Notion Template Gallery.
Notion is a great alternative to some Google products
For me, Notion was more of a tool that I would compare with Google Docs, Google Sheets and databases in general. So it did a lot better than Evernote in terms of organizing. I recently started writing all my blog posts in Notion. I've only been doing this since I've been a premium user and have unlimited blocks available. Because as a free user, your content blocks are limited (1,000 blocks). If you now write blog posts and make paragraphs, Notion uses a new block for each paragraph. So with a free account, you are somewhat limited if you write a lot of blog posts. However, since I use Notion not only for my blog posts but generally for my entire projects, I didn't have to think long and therefore upgraded to the Personal Plan ($ 4 per month, billed annually).
Quick-notes in Notion? Not that easy
However, I was still missing one of the most important features as part of my workflow. Namely the possibility to write notes quickly and easily. In my eyes, Notion is a productivity powerhouse. However, there are performance issues for both desktop and mobile apps. The loading times of the mobile apps are overwhelming. "Quick notes" is therefore not possible in my eyes. However, the functions of Notion convinced me enough to additionally search for a pure notes app.
What was important to me when searching? Since I use both a Macbook, an Android smartphone, and an iPhone, the app had to be cross-platform. One of the first apps I discovered was Simplenote. As the name may suggest, this is a very simple note-taking app with no frills. In certain situations, however, the app is too simple for me. You only have the option of sorting the individual notes using tags. With many different notes, however, this can become very confusing. The individual tags that were used are listed in a kind of sidebar, but better and clearer solutions exist. Still, I gave Simplenote a chance. I used the app on all platforms for a couple of months. At the same time, I also tested other apps and it quickly turned out that Simplenote was too simple for me.
Testing THE writing app
Next, I tested iA Writer. Knowing well that iA Writer is not described as a classic notes app, but rather as THE writing app. However, since I also write blog posts, this app could be a win-win situation. The iA Writer website features testimonials from The New York Times and The Guardian. If people who write an incredible amount of words every day recommend this app, it must be the only true writing program.
It turned out that iA Writer is more suitable for people who either write professionally or hobby bloggers who want to enjoy an incredibly brilliant app. iA Writer is a markdown editor. Editing text is quick and easy. This does not disturb the flow of writing. Because the main goal of iA Writer is that the user can fully concentrate on his written words. The user can synchronize the texts or blog posts with all devices via clouds. From now on I briefly considered writing my blog posts in iA Writer. However, I would have one more app on my devices. Besides that, I can just as well write my blog posts in Notion.
No interests in Google or Microsoft products
I spent little time with the note-taking apps from giants like Google (Google Keep) or Microsoft (OneNote). For the reason that I was generally not interested in giving my data to these companies. In another blog post, I give insights into my very personal Google alternatives. Since I've been paying more attention to my data security since 2019, the two apps mentioned above were no options for me.
A great open-source product
By chance, I stumbled across an app called Joplin. Joplin is "an open-source note taking and to-do application with synchronization capabilities" as stated on their website. So this app is free. According to their website, the notes are organized in different notebooks. I already liked this. As I write a lot of notes organizing them can become confusing at certain points. A separate structure through notebooks is a very helpful solution for that.
Besides, the notes can be tagged so that they can be found directly using the built-in search. The notes are written in markdown format, which, as we already know, makes it very easy to edit text. Switching from Evernote, for example, is also made easy for the user. Because notes exported by Evernote can be imported directly into Joplin. Using Nextcloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, the notes can be easily synchronized between devices. A big plus from Joplin, the app is available for Windows, Linus, macOS, Android, and iOS.
One factor that plays a major role for me, however, ultimately failed to convince me at Joplin. Because I could not get used to the user interface design of the app, both for Android and macOS. The user interface just didn't feel good while I was using the apps on different devices. The approach of making an open-source notes app and making it available on all operating systems is great. And to my knowledge, the app is also increasingly gaining users. However, for me, it wasn't the right thing. The strict material design seemed a bit outdated to me. But that's just my impression.
Was it a bad idea to leave Evernote behind?
I slowly started thinking about going back to Evernote because the overall product was just right. Notion still convinced me about the structuring of different projects. And finally, the functions of Notion convinced me so much that I agreed to outsource my notes to another app.
God bless the Bullet/Nodes system
In summer 2019 I found an app that looked very promising from the start. This app is called Workflowy. Why the app appealed to me immediately was the bullet system on which the app is based. I have been writing a Bullet Journal every day since the beginning of 2019. A system that has helped me to be more productive. A bullet journal is kept completely analog using a notebook and pen. Notes are written down particularly briefly and concisely in the form of bullet points. Likewise, to do's and events. The focus is on keeping information as compact as possible.
Workflowy acts similarly. The whole app works on bullet points. On the "home" page of Workflowy, you create different instances. Using those instances, you can create further subordinate bullets. This way, notes can be created and managed extremely quickly. Clicking on a bullet takes you to a separate page of that instance. Bullets can be favored so that they appear in the sidebar for quick access. Workflowy is very intuitive and offers many options. The bullet instances are called nodes. They can either be created via the sidebar or simply using a new bullet.
Texts can be formatted with intelligent shortcuts. This way, even longer texts can be written in Workflowy. By using nodes/bullets, these longer texts can also be conveniently structured and organized.
Cross-platform = Win!
Also, Workflowy is available as a cross-platform. For me, who uses both MacBook and Android smartphone, a very important aspect. Because even if I write most of my notes on my MacBook, I still want to be able to access them at any time.
When I started using Workflowy, my use case number one was always quick notes. Thanks to the nodes system, I was able to immediately organize and structure these notes. For an even better overview, the individual nodes can also be tagged, which gives you faster access. I made notes on various projects, which I then took over in more detail in Notion. I also took notes on blog posts, which I then wrote entirely in Notion.
Using Workflowy as a writing app
Over time, however, I started to partially write blog posts entirely in Workflowy. Through the use of bullets and nodes, as well as the ability to edit text, I was fully equipped with all the necessary tools to prepare and structure my blog posts. Workflowy not only offers the possibility to record thoughts extremely quickly, which you would like to return to later. With Workflowy you also have the possibility to use it as a complete notes / writing app.
The great structure and order is a huge plus. The only big downside to Workflowy, however, is the fact that the app doesn't support markdown. Basically, I was always used to writing my blog posts in Markdown. In Notion I have the most important markdown commands available. However, these are completely missing in Workflowy. This restricted me somewhat in my workflow. Since my blog is on WordPress, I have to copy my written blog posts to WordPress. Due to the many nodes that are accumulated in a blog post using Workflowy, the copying only ensures additional editing. Therefore, I remained loyal to Notion.
Another great competitior...
I recently stumbled across another tool that also looks very interesting. This tool is called Standard Notes. The fact that Standard Notes is open source and fully encrypted makes the app particularly interesting. The app is also available for all operating systems. Nothing stands in the way of synchronization between multiple devices. The saved notes are also completely encrypted. The app can be used free of charge. However, if you want features like markdown, automated backups, 2FA authentication, and access to numerous extensions, you have to switch to a subscription model. The following subscriptions are currently available.
The 1-month plan for $ 9.99, the 1-year plan for $ 4.17 per month (billed annually), and the 5-year plan for $ 2.48 per month (billed annually). So with the free version, you only have a fairly limited notes app. Still, I like Standard Notes' privacy approach. I am increasingly trying to pay attention to my privacy and data protection on the Internet. Therefore, I recently separated from all Google services. I only stick to my Gmail address. In a separate one, I wrote about how I stepped out of the Google Ecosystem step by step.
... but no alternative for Notion.
Standard Notes does not represent an alternative to Notion for me. The functional scope of Notion compared to Standard Notes is significantly larger. However, Standard Notes could be a replacement for Workflowy. Because in my eyes both apps are designed to write notes quickly. However, if you need a little more of the range of functions, you need to buy a subscription. Some offered extensions take the app to a new level. This way you can structure and organize projects within Standard Notes. There is now even a Spreadsheet Editor (but still in beta), which is a very good alternative to Google. Standard Notes is, therefore, an excellent product that is sure to find its place in many workflows of different users.
As you may know from one of my blog posts, the way I handle email is sometimes the absolute productivity killer. Thanks to an email app called Superhuman, this has changed significantly. Superhuman is the fastest email experience. With intuitive shortcuts, the user moves through his inbox super quickly. In this way, all of the unread emails can be easily sorted, structured and processed. I was looking for the best email app for a long time and finally found it with Superhuman. Therefore, Superhuman shouldn't be missing in my workflow and productivity stack.
Update 22.02.2020: Lately, I've been torn about superhuman. The app saves me a lot of time, so I'm willing to pay $ 30 a month for it. However, I do not agree to pay this amount every month if the company makes mistakes regarding the data security and privacy of its users. The past months have shown me, again and again, that life without Google and with increased data security on the Internet is still possible. Now using a tool that more or less forces me to use a Google product (Gmail) makes it a clear spanner in the works. So I decided to cancel my subscription, which makes me no longer a Superhuman user. For me, the product and the company simply no longer fit into my concept of paying more attention to data security and privacy. Here is a good read why Superhuman is still spying on you.
The personal project management tool
I have been using another tool with my girlfriend for a short time. After Basecamp introduced a personal plan in 2019, we decided to use Basecamp for To Do's, File & Documents, and messages that affect our apartment and shared living situation. So if any documents affect our rental agreement, we take the document directly into Basecamp and always have access there. We also record shopping lists and appointments directly in Basecamp. So we can do without another Google service in our life. Basecamp also attaches great importance to privacy. Besides, Basecamp recently announced that they no longer use trackers on Basecamp.com.
I currently love to have four tools that I can always rely on. They also help me increase my productivity and structure of my work and projects. For quick and, above all, easy notes when I'm on the go, Workflowy is always at my hand. With the Bullet/Nodes system, I can also organize my quickly written notes practically. If I wrote down some ideas for a blog post and am ready to start writing, I switch to Notion. All my projects come together in Notion. I also write my blog posts directly in Notion.
Writing blog posts in Notion
For this, I have created a Kanban Board, which is divided into "Backlog", "In Progress" and "Published". The individual entries on this board are the actual blog posts, which I can open as a separate page. If a blog post is ready, I can use Notion to export the blog post as a markdown. Which in turn is very practical if you want to export what you have written to WordPress. If I am working on a longer blog post that I would like to edit in advance using Markdown, I still have iA Writer ready. Still, Notion is my entire digital workspace tool. The personal plan that comes to $ 48 a year is perfect for my needs. The price is also absolutely okay, considering which tools Notion replaces for me.
Since I like to separate work and private life, Basecamp's personal plan came in handy. Basecamp is also an incredibly successful tool. My girlfriend and I are thrilled with our shared digital information hub. All our ToDo's, important documents, notes, appointments now land in Basecamp. A big plus is that we both can now always access everything.
Although I have found my favorite tools for quite some time now, I am always interested in new productivity tools and am therefore on the lookout for new apps and tools that I can test.