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My Favourite Apps – Feb 2021

My Favourite Apps – Feb 2021

A shiny Macbook, brand new iPad or a powerful PC are nothing without the software you run on them. The apps you use are everything and what follows is a guide to the apps that I’m using right now. Admittedly I have bounced between apps a little more than is necessary and tomorrow’s list may be different but right here, right now, this is what I use on a daily basis.

Note taking

Way back in the day it was Evernote all the way for me. I had a pro account and I’d fund it by buying the Evernote branded Moleskin notebooks that included a few months subscription. (My Moleskin fetish continues to this day by the way!) I kept absolutely everything in there – thoughts, book notes and scanned copies over every physical bit of paper that passed over my desk. Then Apple Notes had its time in the sun for me until my head was turned by the very pretty Bear only for it’s lack of table support to send me back to Apple Notes. 

Then almost over night, a new name started to appear all over social media and YouTube. Something called Notion had landed and make a splash. To label it a “note taking app” sell it sort as it’s so much more but I go into more depth in other articles. Long story short, Notion is the central hub of everything for me, be that a place to store documents, blog articles in progress, notes on books I’ve read or a database of links that interest me.

ToDo lists & Task Management

I’ve tried more than my fair share, doing my usual trick of jumping ship every time I discover something new and shiny. I’ve dabbled with Things but was put off by having to pay multiple times for the iPad and MacOS versions and I spent a year trying to cajole myself into using ToDoist. While both apps are powerful tools for managing projects and tasks I fund them a little too powerful. Keeping my todo list organised within these app was becoming a todo item in its own right. So I went back to basics, not all the way back to a pen & paper list but back to Apple Reminders. Because of the way it’s so tightly integrated into iOS and the Mac the barrier to using it is super low. I’ve not found a better quick capture method than raising my arm and saying “Remind me tomorrow to write a blog post about which I apps I use” in to my Apple watch.

Calendar

In the same vein as task management I’ve gone native and use Apple’s calendar apps across my mobile devices and computers. It’s the integration that makes it work so well for me. I’ve used Google Calendar synced to Apple before but using both didn’t give me anything more.

Creativity

It’s Adobe Creative Cloud all the way for me. I’ve used Lightroom from the beta and I have subscribed to Adobe’s Photographer plan (Lightroom and Photoshop) ever since things moved to the subscription license model. But last year, thanks to my work in education, I can now get the full Creative Cloud suite at about half price. Premier Pro has replaced Final Cut and Illustrator has trumped Affinity Designer although both are still very capable packages.

Web Browsing

Most of the time is Safari. It’s quick, great on privacy and light on battery on the Macbook when I’m on the move. When I need to dig in to the code of a site though, I switch over to Brave. It’s basically Google Chrome with the Google bit removed but all the handy developer tools are there.

Reading

I try and read whenever can grab a few minutes and to make the most of those snippets of time here and there means I need to make it as easy as possible to pick up where I left off. Paper books have never appealed to me in the same way as physical CD’s and DVD have no place in my media library. Just give me the content in a string of ones and zeros that I can consume anywhere I want.

Most of my reading (including all of my fiction reading) happens on my Kindle Paperwhite. There are newer Kindles out there but my trusty Paperwhite works perfectly and my favourite feature is the gentle illumination of the page – I can sit anywhere and read without having to worry about being near a window or turning on a light.

For shorter form things like blog posts it’s Instapaper. I’m still on the look out for a read-it-later app that has better handling of longer term storage of read articles though.

Listening

Audible is my choice for audio books. I must admit I struggle with listing to books as I don’t have a long commute and if I try to listen whilst doing something else, all work on that something else stops.

I’m a little better with podcasts, maybe because the ones I listen to tend to be more bitesized or because I don’t feel like I have to take notes unless there’s some particularly good info.

Pocket Casts has been my player of choice for a few years now after replacing Overcast. It’s better at surfacing other podcasts I might enjoy and the silence trimming, adjustable playback speed and volume levelling takes it a notch about the rest. But having said that, I am currently dabbling with Airr. The ability to tag a clip while listening just by triple clicking my earbuds is something that I think will be very handy.

And finally for tunes you can probably guess from my previous Applecentric choices, it’s Apple Music – just for the way it works so well across all my iOS and Mac devices.

So those are my current apps of choice. If you’ve got a suggestion for something I really have to try, let me know in the comments.

Header photo by Remy_Loz on Unsplash

So just what is Notion?

So just what is Notion?

In a world where productivity geeks bounce from app to app hoping to find The One, instead of actually getting the work itself done, do we really need another distraction?

Notion seems to be everywhere at the moment but it’s not an app you can quickly pigeon hole. Bear is obviously a note taking app and Airtable is great for databases. Monday can help you manage your projects and Trello has Kanban boards nailed. So how does Notion fit into a landscape where there is an app for anything? By being the app for everything!

Notions power lies in its flexibility. It can be whatever you want it to be, allowing you to build a productivity system that works for you instead of forcing you to do things the way the developers think you should. If Lego made a productivity app, it would be like this – a big pile of bricks but with no instructions. Let’s break it down and try and explain why Notion is making such big waves.

Look and Feel

I’m a firm believer that if something is a joy to use, you are going to use it more. For an app like Notion, where the more you use it, the more useful it becomes, it’s important that it looks good and and fortunately it delivers.

Every page you create gets an icon (a simple emoji or you can add your own image for some serious branding and theming opportunities) that gets shown anywhere the page appears. You can add headers too including a dead easy way to chose from the millions of images on Unsplash. The overall look of the app, especially in dark mode is understated and stylish with plenty of options to add your personal stamp.

To the left of the window your have a sidebar with a hierarchical view of all your data and the rest of the screen is the editor itself. Dragging and dropping top level items around lets you conveniently reorder them whilst dragging individual pages actually moves them allowing for some quick restructuring.

There are versions for Mac and Windows, mobile apps, and a web browser version, all following the same look and feel.

Pages

So how does it work? Notion boils down to two elements; pages and tables. Pages are exactly what they sound like – a simple document made up of text and images, just like Apple Notes, Evernote or Bear. There’s even a web clipper to get info from the web into Notion with a couple of clicks just like more typical note taking apps.

The editor itself is a bit different than most but powerful and quick to pick up. Of course you can just create a new page and start typing but there is more going on back stage. Everything you do in Notion is a “block” – a paragraph, a heading, an image, a bulleted list, a to-do item, a bookmark and lots more. Need to move a paragraph further up the page? Click the six-dot-icon next to it and drag away, no cut and paste required. Want to create another column? Just drag the block to where you want it.

Need to turn that sentence into a heading or numbered list into a todo list? Click the six dots again and chose Turn Into. One of my personal favourites is the ability to turn anything into a page. If you find you’ve churned out a big block of meeting notes on a project page that’s just getting in the way, highlight those blocks and use Turn Into to make them a page of their own linked to from the page they were on.

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Unfortunately Notion’s editor doesn’t fully support Markdown yet for formatting (however if you paste in some Markdown it does a pretty good job) but it does have its own shortcuts to speed you along. Typing a slash brings up a long list of things you can insert and typing /h1 gives you a heading or /q lets you highlight a quote for example.

Databases

So pages then are pretty much what you’d expect. The real sauce comes in the form of tables. In Apple Notes tables are in a nice way of formatting data, in Bear tables are still just a wish list item but in Notion tables are fully fledged relational databases. This is where things get good!

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At their most basic a table is just that, a table. For instance a simple habit tracker could be just habits across the columns and dates down the side as rows.

The data in tables can be all the things you’d expect like text, numbers and dates with some nice extras like check boxes and combo lists. You can add URLs, files and even pages to a table.

For example, I’ve got a table that acts as my reading list with the title, author, whether it’s fiction or not and links to the books page on Amazon. Another table is full of pages, each page being a work in progress post for this blog with due dates, categories and tags.

You can also link databases to cross reference data. There is post explaining how to set up a simple example here. At its most basic you can have a table of tasks and a table of projects with ever task related to a project. You can then create as many views of that data as you want so each project could have a page of its own with just the relevant tasks listed or you could have a main dashboard with all the most pressing tasks, ordered by due date displayed.

Once you have populated a table, it’s not stuck as a simple table. Let’s say you have a list of sales leads. You can flick over into Calendar view to see when they were last contacted. Or move over to the Board view to see your data laid out as a Kanban board showing their progress through the sales funnel.

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Support

There is a huge, and I mean huge amount of info online for Notion. Anyone who anyone in the productivity or study world has released at least one video on it with many share their set up and the thinking and methods behind it. Then there’s Notion.VIP and r/notionso on Redit where people share their setups and tips.

Over on YouTube you’ll find Francesco on Keep Productive has several playlists on Notion. Marie Polin has a lot of her own Notion videos and she hosts Notion Office Hours on the office Notion channel.

So if you have a problem, or just need some inspiration, it’s out there. I m putting together a bigger list of Notion resources so say tuned for that.

Summary

If you have been struggling to get a good productivity system off the ground because you just could’t find a program that worked the way your brain does, Notion might just be for you. It’s powerful and flexible enough to do pretty much anything you want, with new features being added regularly. One downside of that power is that it comes with a bit of a learning curve but you can start with the basics and hone your system as you learn more about its feature. With the wealth of information and help out there, learning is easy and as of May 2020, the personal version of Notion is now free with no limitations so why not give it a try?

Setting up your first relationship in Notion

Setting up your first relationship in Notion

The trouble with really powerful things is they can be quite hard to use, just ask Tony Stark! While Notion’s database features may not be quite on the scale of the Infinity Gauntlet, they can be a bit a tricky to get your head around. This guide will you get you up and running in a snap.

As I have already mentioned Mr Stark, let’s use the Marvel movies for our example. We’re going to make a system which connects the Infinity Stones with the MCU films they appear in. First we’ll need two databases; one for the Movies, one for the Infinity Stones.

A table (Notion’s term for a database) can be full page or inline. The inline option means the table sits on a page that you can add other things to, the full page method creates a page that contains just the database. For our example, we are going inline so we can have both our tables on the same page.

Let’s create our two tables. First up, we’ll create one called Marvel Movies with the columns; a text field for Movie Title, a couple of number fields for the year in the movie and the year of release, the one more for the IMDb rating.

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Next up we need a table of the Infinity Stones. Just the names as a text field here for now.

Now, we simply need to connect the two by creating a Relation field in the Marvel Movies table.

Once you add one side of the link between the tables, the other side sets itself up automatically. By default the column will be called “Related to <Database>” but you can rename its to something snappier.

Now all the setup is done, it now a case of using the connection between the tables. You can do this from either side of the relationship, either my add Stones to Movies or Movies to Stones. In this case either would work so we’ll opt for adding a list of Stones to each movie.

Once everything is linked in the Marvel Movies table, take a look in the Infinity Stones and you’ll see the links we just made are automatically reflected there too.

And that’s it – your first link between two tables in Notion. While this isn’t the most practical example I hope you can see the possibilities. Replace the Infinity Stones with monthly bills and MCU movies with categories like House, Car and Food and you’ve got a simple way of categorising expenditure. Or a list of tasks and what project they relate to. The possibilities really are endless.

If you have any questions, or even tips of your own, please add them down in the comments.