While I'm finding it fairly easy to consolidate all of my 'to do' lists into one system (using the Things app), that only deals with a part of what I was (and still am) using a notebook for.

So on reflection, I've found that the other stuff that I do with notebooks – ie. write down various types of notes – has become an unmanageable mess. (Or at least, a mess that needs to be managed to be effective, and I don't want to be spending time and effort "managing" notes.) So I'm taking a long, hard look at exactly what I want to write notes for – where I'm duplicating efforts, and where there might be some gaps that could be filled.

So, this is the sort of things that I'm scribbling down notes in some form or other for;

  • ideas for blog posts
  • draft blog posts
  • ideas to think about later (eg. things to investigate, things to talk to people about at work, things to do at the weekend etc.)
  • links to read (or re-read) later
  • links to save (ie. reference material)
  • links to share (whether thats blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, emailling or whatever.)
  • documents to save
  • 'to do' reminders (work, personal, delegations.)
  • shopping lists
  • meeting, conference and presentation notes

Some of the tools/techniques that I have used over the last 5 years or so include;

  • Paper-based
    • One notebook for everything
    • Different notebooks for different things (which falls over the moment that I take the wrong one to a meeting.)
    • Post-it notes
  • Notes apps
    • Evernote
    • Simplenote
    • Notational Velocity/nvALT
    • Notability
    • (Apple) Notes
  • Text editors
    • Elements, Nebulous Notes (iOS apps)
    • Desktop Text editors (settling on BBedit, Notepad++)
  • Dropbox
  • Blogging software
    • Blog platforms (including Wordpress, Drupal and Tumblr – and a couple of attempts at my own custom made CMS.)
  • Writing software
    • Scrivener (Mac writing app)
    • MarsEdit (desktop Mac blogging software)
  • Emails (to myself)
  • Web browsers
    • Web browser tabs left open
    • Browser bookmarks
  • Bookmarking apps
    • Delicious
    • Diigo
    • Instapaper
  • Google Reader (starred items)

Now, I think I want to have one centralised 'Notes' collection for all sorts of different types of notes. And I think that I want that to be digital, rather than paper-based. I want to be able to search and sort, to stash things away that I might never want to look at again on the off chance that I might (Not that I don't see a role for paper and pen - but not for everything I want to scribble down…) So I need to figure out the best way of setting that up.

Fortunately, I have extensive experience in playing around with and then abandoning apps and techniques, and access to a number of online articles written by people with ADHD who have put a lot more thought and energy into the best ways of going about doing these sorts of things. This is very helpful…

The Must-Haves

Obviously, this kind of workflow review is always going to be an ongoing project, but so far I've figured out that Dropbox seems like the best solution for the job of actually storing my notes to me. If I can store my notes there in a folder, in a plain text format (which is an obvious plus), then I can access them from any of my devices (or anyone else's devices, come to that).

The drawback there is that it means using different applications (with different functionality) on different computers/platforms – so I need to think about how I want to handle that. (Right now, I'm trying to look at it as a plus; the benefit that I can use the excellent nvALT on my Mac, rather than the negative that I can't find anything as good on my PC.) But the beauty of plain text formats is that there shouldn't really be any problems there – I can switch iPad apps out for a better alternative without disturbing what I'm doing on my Mac or iPad. (In theory, at least…)

On the Mac, I'm settling with nvALT (a fork of Notational Velocity) – it deals with lots of plain text files, with a very quick search function, and is nice and quick (and autosaves, so I don't have problems when I write something, don't save what I've written, and then want to jump into the same document on a different device).

An app that I've started playing with recently and quicky fallen in love with is Drafts. Its a pretty straightforward text editor at first glance, but its killer feature is the ability to write something first, and then decide what to do with it. I particularly like the ability to do things like append a piece of text to a text file in Dropbox – although I haven't quite figured out what sort of system I would use this for (maybe collections of links, or ideas for blog posts.) I think experimentation is going to be the best way to get an idea of what I really want to do with it. But its definitely something that I think I'm going to get a lot of value out of – to the extent that its already sitting in the Dock of both my iPad and iPhone.

On the iPhone and iPad, I'm still playing around with text editor applications – but I now know that two features that will be essential to me are Dropbox integration and (ideally) a URL schema – which means I can send things straight from Drafts. (Currently, I'm playing around with Elements and Nebulous Notes – both of which have their own strengths and weaknesses which I haven't quite got to the bottom of yet.)

The nice to haves

I keep coming back to VoodooPad – a Mac/iOS app that let's you build personal wikis. The way that notes can be interlinked seems like it could be very useful… it's just that I'm not sure I've cracked exactly what for.

Notability (iPad app) is another one that I can't quite let go of. It doesn't sync directly with Dropbox, but it does let me import and export stuff there. The ability to use my finger to scribble (annotate, highlight etc.) all over PDFs is pretty useful for me at work, and the ability to type out notes and quickly add drawings or photos feels very useful. So this is another one that is currently sitting on standby…

Squarespace (my current blog platform)– I can't do anything offline on my Mac (or PC, come to that), and both the web text editor and iPhone/iPad apps are a little fiddly at times, so I'm definitely not moving everything into my blog CMS. (I'm not even sure if I'm really happy with it as a CMS, let alone a notes repository– although its great not having to worry about all the modules and admin stuff that you have to deal with in Wordpress or Drupal, it feels a bit too much like a black box for my liking at the moment. Perhaps that will change if I get involved in the development side of things.) So this is very much a place for 'finished' writings etc. as I see it at the moment. (Or at least the place to put the writing when its finished, but before I've put together any images etc.)

On the scrapheap

Apple Notes is fine for what it does, but very limited. All you can store is plain text, and you can't look at your notes on anything other than your Apple devices (which means things get complicated when I want to use my work PC.) Also, although iCloud syncing is a lot better than it used to be, I don't trust it 100%. (For example, if I were to edit a note on my laptop while offline, then edit the same note on my phone, I'm not sure how well it would deal with the changes.)

Evernote looks pretty good, and it has some nice integration with other apps (like Skitch and Penultimate.) I still have a personal grudge, in that I was using it a few years ago, had a bunch of notes of ideas etc. for a birthday present for my wife, and the service was down for maintenance while I was actually doing my (last minute) shopping. Now, that was a few years ago, and it seems churlish to write it off because of that one incident – but again, I just don't know how much I can trust it. (Also, it seems a bit too 'heavy' for my liking.) It also feels like its full of features that I will probably never use.

MarsEdit is great, but doesn't work with Squarespace any more (which is Squarespace's fault) and doesn't seem to have a way of letting me do anything with anything other than my Mac. (I'm in a similar boat with Scrivener, but might splash out for the Windows version so that I can use projects on both home and work machines.) So draft posts only live within the MarsEdit app on my Mac – meaning if I don't have my Mac with me, I can't do anything with them. Which isn't ideal… I'm pretty sad about this, because I love the app – but until SquareSpace start playing with 3rd party editors and APIs, this isn't going to be one of my 'always open' apps any more.

So… its a starting point; using Dropbox a bit more effectively, cutting out a few things that I don't really have a need for, and putting Drafts at the centre of everything. And paper and pen for things I need to scribble down quickly but can happily either forget about before the end of the day, or type out when I get a moment later on.