I am trying to find a nice way to keep thoughts, ideas and notes outside my head for a few months now. I worked my way through many applications, trying to use the system they promote as the basis for my own. Along the journey, I got a better sense of what was important to me in such an application. I’ll walk through the various applications I’ve tried, along with the criteria I’ve developed by the end

Evernote

First stop, big one. I already had misgivings about it being from a large corporation. I still paid for it, and tested it out for a few months.

  • No markdown support. This immediately became a problem - I had no idea how much I’ve come to expect markdown wherever I type. They have been asked for markdown support many times, but I don’t think this is ever going to happen. I realized that markdown support is a minimum requirement for me
  • Conflict resolution when I edited the same note in multiple places was really terrible. Completely unusable. I’ve 3 devices I use regularly - an iPad Pro, a Macbook and my Android Phone. Through this experience I discovered that proper cross-device syncing is very important for me as well.
  • I paid Evernote so I could work offline. I already have a lot of anxiety about not having internet access (a topic for another post), and didn’t want to not have access to these if I don’t have internet access. This wasn’t very good thanks to the shitty conflict resolution, but the process made me realize that I cared a lot about full offline availability
  • I also hated the UI. It was clunky, had way too many options, and none of the options I really wanted.
  • There was no way to link notes together I found. I realized that my time at wikimedia had made me very accustomed to hyperlinking as a way of writing. Evernote had no clear affordances for doing this. So hyperlinking became important to me. I could also smile at the big impact Wikimedia has had on the way I think :D This was the beginning of me recognizing that a purely hierarchical setup might not work for me…

I noticed I was using Evernote less and less, and wandered the desert for a while.

OneNote

I had been using OneNote on and off for a while. It has some of the same problems Evernote has. But the absolute no-go for me was how it handled text notes on my laptop.

one note being terrible

This feature killed it. It was too much mental load, and I hated the extra UI it brought. It had most of the problems evernote did, and worse.

List applications

At this point, I read some parts of Getting Things Done again, trying to control my sprawling, anxiety-filled work life. It was useful, as always, but mostly to remind me to not use my brain to store data.

I then spent a bunch of time bouncing between different todo list apps, as a way to get stuff out of my brain and into a list. Learning about kinder todo lists was very helpful.

I tried a lot of these apps - Google Keep, Nirvana, Evernote / OneNote, TickTick. Nothing really clicked, but eventually I ended up on Todoist. The app was great, sync worked fine, and my flatmate also used it. Boom!

I was still looking for a note-taking app, which I considered quite distinct from the todo list apps. I was also finding the fixed format of todoist a bit limiting. I wanted each of my Projects to have a criteria of ‘this is now done’, but there wasn’t an easy way to do that in Todoist. The importance given to due dates was also nagging, and gave me anxiety.

Inkdrop

Looking for cross-device markdown note taking apps led me to Inkdrop. Built by a single indie dev, has lots of plugins, and looked quite nice. I started using it and quite liked it in the beginning. It has a vim plugin which is an absolute requirement for me if I’m going to be writing a lot of text (or so I thought) However, I found I wasn’t using it as much. It had all the features I thought I wanted, but somehow it wasn’t quite fitting the mental model I had.

Outliners

At this point, I heard about Roam Research. It looked really neat, and was quite different from the other note taking apps. I had always dismissed org-mode for its emacs-centrism, but this made me reconsider that. However, it was in closed beta, so I let it be. I’ll definitely re-visit it, especially if it has a good offline story.

I looked around for alternatives, and discovered workflowey. I’ll admit the list of endorsements on their home page was a big draw for me. However, when I tried to sign up, I got

one note being terrible

My usual password length is 63, and it totally failed that test. I also discovered they don’t support markdown so that rules them out

Dynalist

I discovered Dynalist as a Workflowey alternative. It has all the things I want, and I’ve been using it for a few days now. It’s been extremely awesome! The syncing is flakey, and I have some anxiety about losing data - but otherwise, the format itself has been great for me!

So what I’ve realized is that I don’t want a note taking app, I wanted an outliner. Outliners seem to match how my brain works much better than purely hierarchical note taking apps. I can take notes without having to worry about organizing them first, and then organize them afterwards as I see fit. Very low mental overhad between what is in my brain and what’s on the screen. I like it.

I hope I can replace todoist with Dynalist too. I’ll experiment with it later. But for now, <3 dynalist. This blog post was written in dynalist, then edited in typora. Not bad.

Evaluation criteria

In the end, looks like I have these needs when it comes to outliners / note taking apps.

  • Markdown support, ideally with something like KaTeX or MathJax support

  • Cross-device sync across platforms (Mac, iPad, Android)

  • Full offline support, with sync that doesn’t lose data

  • Ability to hyperlink different parts of the system

I’ll look at Roam research later, but for now, I’m enjoying having a note taking system that matches how my brain seems to think.

Credits

Lots of good conversations about this in various places with Steve Deobald, Pratul Kalia, Robla, Prateek, Ankur Sethi and many others who I am clearly forgetting.

Would love to hear about what you use, via Email or Twitter.