Taking notes has come a long way since the loose sheets of my school notebooks were covered with swirling scribbles and repeated attempts at a cool signature. Today, every thought can be quickly recorded and collated in elaborate color-coded databases, just as our brains might do if they weren’t busy trying to remember the names of actors.
Note-taking apps have made the practice of taking notes rather than doing something much more resourceful. They can combine different types of content, such as handwritten notes and audio recordings on one page, allow you to search for key phrases in your notes, and can be synced across devices.
But unless you’re doing a mission control check before liftoff, are all of these features necessary or just a distraction from getting things done?
Applications as elaborate as your thoughts
When you come across Notion notes and project management app, you feel like you need another note taking app just to understand how to use it. But it is not that difficult. It allows users to combine dozens of block types in its text editor, so your notes can take the form of text, images, web pages, tables, and anything else you want to put in there. God help anyone who really needs to take these kinds of notes.
Notes can be shared with friends if you’re covering someone who skips the big company job presentation, and you can even post them online, in case you’re really proud of your notes on President Millard Fillmore and need the world see them. Feel free to use Notion if you’ve never had a notion. I’ve had whims and schemes and some vague ideas, but no notions.
Evernote has been around for a while and allows users to turn their thoughts into multimedia presentations for themselves, filled with scans and audio and web pages, all stored on color-coded pages that can be bookmarked and highlighted and assigned two dates. Still with me?
It can be especially useful for managing large amounts of text, such as a student doing their master’s thesis on Michel Foucault, or the last human on earth who needs to explain what humanity was like to visiting aliens.
Nebo is one of the best handwriting recognition apps if you’re tired of “Call Susan after lunch” turning into “Craft Rufus a hutch” or something, and the more technical Obsidian touts itself as a “second brain”, just in case. the current one is at full capacity. Features abound.
Best Note Taking Apps Won’t Help You Take Better Notes
Obviously, many of these apps are well designed, but they’re not necessarily an improvement on Apple Notes or Notepad or whatever simple built-in stuff you already have. What many of them do is turn note taking into an active hobby.
They allow you to take notes that are so elaborate and engaging that sometimes you may not feel the need to do anything else and just want everyone to see your amazing notes. All the extra features, while certainly elegant, can add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy to the simple act of writing down a thought. When commuting, one can end up feeling like Jennifer Lopez walking in The cell (or a more modern and closer reference).
It might just be me (and it probably is), but I’ve always tended to make extensive notes and to-do lists during those times in life when I wasn’t actually doing anything. That doesn’t mean these are useless. It’s just that our brains often don’t require tons of bells and whistles to write down a thought or plan.
These advanced note-taking apps are probably best for those in specific careers. Obsidian could be useful for anyone with a coding background, and Notion for graduate students, recipe writers, and those who regularly give elaborate presentations.
The biggest advantage over pencil and paper
Perhaps the biggest advantage note-taking apps have over pen and paper is the search feature. When I think of all the probably amazing ideas that I haven’t been able to find or read in endless pages of handwritten notes, I start to get into Rutger Hauer’s monologue at the end of Bounty hunter.
In OneNote, for example, the search feature lets you search for text, images, audio and video recordings, PDFs, and handwritten notes, among other formats.
Of course, the problem with being able to access every hastily discarded thought is that, before searching, we were able to romanticize ideas lost in the ether too much as if they were an unrealized Sistine Chapel. But now we can quickly retrieve them and realize that most of them were really terrible.
“Robot vacuum cleaner slippers”? Nobody is going to buy that.
Don’t let your note-taking app become all chatter
If you’re religious about taking notes in an organized way, by all means, go crazy with these apps. Over time, it may become clear that you don’t really need anything fancy, you just need that annoying discipline, and no app will help you with that. Believe me I have looked.
Still, notes in any form can often help you produce better work. You probably know, for example, that I didn’t take any notes before writing this article.