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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?

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