Do you Notion? I had been hearing a lot about this new notes/ productivity tool, but I resisted trying it for a long time. I’ve been using Evernote for over a decade to take notes, and I have a task manager that I like (TickTick, though I have also used Todoist for years). Why would I want to spend time setting up yet another tool, and one that requires so much manual effort?
I’ll tell you why: relational databases. I first set up a relational database back in the mid-nineties when I was building a subscription system for a comic book publisher. It was a fun, and nerdy work that I enjoyed, but I have had very few opportunities to build my own databases. I mean, who has time to catalog your CD collection or whatever?
I’ve discovered a new use for databases in my life now, which is why I’ve taken up Notion this year. I’m not giving up my other tools just yet, but I am taking some online Notion courses and experimenting with the functionality to see if I can build systems for managing several aspects of my life.
Life goals and planning
I now have a life goals database. I like this, because it allows me to track my big aspirations in one place without having to think about them until I do my seasonal planning four times per year. I have tagged by time scale, so that goals I intend to complete in the next 1-3 years are at the top, followed by longer-term goals (5 year, 10 year, and lifetime).
My 1-3 year goals are concrete and many are already well underway. My lifetime goals are more aspirational and fall into the “dream big” category, while the middle-distance goals are bridges toward that longer term vision.
Each goal has a column to link to related projects, and a status selector so that I can filter by “not started,” “in progress,” or “done.”
During my seasonal planning session, I take active goals and select no more than three projects to work on in that timeframe in order to move them forward. Projects are tracked in a separate database, with a kanban board to track next actions.
I still have a separate task manager to act as a reminder system and time block planner (currently TickTick), so part of my weekly planning is making sure upcoming next actions are in my task manager for the three projects in flight.
I have had mixed results with sticking to my three project limit. I find myself adding new projects more often than I had expected when I set this limitation, and my winter 2023 plan now somehow has 9 projects on it. I guess that works if I only do 3 per month? But that’s not what I’m doing. My overachiever gene strikes again.
Notion comes preloaded with a handy dandy “journal” database. I have started using this for my daily and weekly reviews and reflections. One of many cool things about Notion databases is the ability to create custom page templates for items in the database.
I’m playing around with doing daily reflections in the evening, but as yet I have not been very consistent about it. My morning journaling practice (with pen and paper) is pretty dialed in at this point, but my brain does not seem to want to produce thoughts in the evening hours. Nonetheless, I have two daily reflection templates to choose from:
- Brainclutter: What’s taking up space in my brain, what do I need to let go of, and where do I want to direct more energy
- Evening reflections: What inspired me today, what happened, what I am grateful for, and my intentions for tomorrow
My weekly review is a practice that I have done at the end or the week (Sunday afternoon or Monday morning) for a few years now. I share it with my online accountability group, and we all read each others’ updates and offer support and encouragement. This template includes wins, challenges, learnings, and intentions for next week. We also use a green, red, and yellow heart coding system for how well we did on the previous week’s intentions. Notion allows me to easily filter for my past weekly reviews when I do my seasonal review.
As one who has delved deep into the practices and tools of project planning and management, Notion is an exciting tool. Its flexibility and simplicity mean that the cognitive cost of onboarding is pretty low. You can just set up a new page as a Kanban board and start mapping out the steps to completion. Each step becomes its own page, where you can add details, links, attachments, etc.
While I am currently using Notion exclusively as a personal planning tool, I can see how I would use it to plan collaborative projects as well. There’s an “assign” feature, so you can attach a person to each task, and the comments feature looks like a great way to communicate within the tool and avoid conversations threads lost in email or Slack.
When I first starting adding my projects to Notion, I just added individual projects as pages with Kanban board views, but then I realized a projects database might be a better way to organize and view project plans, so I now have a big table for all projects associated with my life goals. Crucially, I assign each project to one or more season, so that I can filter down to what I’m working on this season. And I can also easily see when I have overplanned myself into a corner.
I’m experimenting with tracking next actions for my projects in Notion. I have not quite worked out whether I can replace my task manager with Notion and get the functionality I want (time blocking, habit tracking, and views by due date). I think these features can be cobbled together in Notion, but I am hesitant to switch my task management system yet again when I am still adapting to using TickTick.
Nonetheless, I can add next actions to my project database in a relational field that populates a separate task management database. This is handy for project planning, and then I just transfer tasks over to TickTick during my weekly review. Yes, a bit of duplicated effort…but for me the more times I write down a task, the more likely I am to remember to do it. I also use a bullet journal for daily planning, so that’s a third touchpoint, which may be overkill. But I like an analog element after many years of managing my tasks via sticky notes.
Health protocol planning
I have quite a few health protocols that create interesting Venn diagrams of habits, exercise, diet, and supplements. I’m a wannabe biohacker. So my first health-related Notion project is a supplement tracker, which I hope to eventually build out to track how much of each vitamin, mineral, and herb I take across my multiple protocols to identify where I may be overloading or leaving gaps.
My diet has been a keto-leaning/ paleo-ish/ gluten-free/ high protein/ anti-inflammatory puzzle for a few years. Cutting out gluten was the easy part. Now I’m trying to keep my macros balanced within a certain range, keep protein abundant while also eating larger portions and more variety of vegetables. I use Cronometer to track all of this, but I can see using Notion for meal planning and a recipe database.
My next Notion project is to build out a health protocol dashboard to have a view of recent lab work, nutrition factors, exercise regimens, and links to resources. This is an experiment to see if I can make something that is useful and not a chore to maintain.
At its core, Notion is great for gathering information and writing notes. There’s a handy web clipper that you can install in Chrome, so while researching places to go, it is super easy to add links to your trip planner. I am in the early stages of setting up a Notion page for our upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, and this is one use case where I started from a Notion template.
The free Notion templates are great if you want to get started with the tool without too much fiddling and figuring out how to build things. They come preloaded with database views, so you can just start adding your information.
In the case of the travel planning template, it includes a simple table view for a list of destinations, a few pre-populated packing lists to customize, an embedded Google map, and a photo wall to replace with your own travel pics, if desired.
Do your own thing
The best thing about Notion is that you can get creative and use it for pretty much any use case you can think of in the realms of productivity and personal knowledge management. Use it for work and create a database of searchable meeting notes. Use it to plan your marathon training or dinner party. Use it to store your favorite quotes.
In order to be this flexible in its functionality, it is somewhat limited in its visual design. It is nice to be able to add page icons, banner images, and text colors…but don’t expect to be able to design a page like you would in a tool like WordPress. The strength of Notion is in the data management without needing developer skills.
You can use it as a basic notes app, or you can get fancy with relational databases and collaborative projects. You can use the new AI feature to draft anything you want and save your brain the trouble of figuring out what to put in a project brief or cover latter. The fact that this is all free is pretty remarkable.