Don't Notion shine when she's gone?

Product Design, Tools

Don’t Notion shine when she’s gone?

Maxime Fabre

Maxime Fabre

I like to think I’m a rather organised person. Not in every aspect of my life and not to the same extent in each, but I try my best to keep my thoughts in line. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that there is such a thing as counterproductive organisation. That is, the moment you’re organised in such a fractured and unreliable way, that it becomes harmful to your end goal.
It doesn’t start like that of course, but with the best of intentions. You naively think to yourself:
I need to be organised, I’ll note down all the things I need to remember somewhere!

And you do. But as life goes on, the amount and variety of information you need to keep track of, starts to outgrow the tools you use. You start to need to duplicate information into multiple apps, or store separately things that were originally about the same topic. It can be as simple as having your shopping list in one place and your recipes in another. Maybe you’re writing an article about something, and you have your reading list in Pocket, your article as a Markdown file on your disk or in an admin, some notes in yet another notes-taking app, and don’t forget the actual reminder to finish the article of course, which goes in the todo app. You see where I’m going with this.

Eventually, you end up with a sort of pipeline of tools that you’ve cobbled together with sticks and ropes. Maybe you’ve even written some of those tools yourself, to serve your needs specifically. But this workflow, just like a codebase, slowly accumulates debt as your life and needs evolve. And when it does, it becomes very hard to refactor it precisely because it’s scattered over such wide ground. Like a codebase split into 10 micro-services, tidying things up means running around from one app to the next, trying to keep it all in sync in your mind.

Becoming emonotionally involved

There’s been a number of attempts at tackling this, some very good ones too, and I’ve tried a few. My issue with them has usually been the same: their solution to merging all those different tools into one… is usually to literally merge all those tools into one. So you end up with chimeras of applications that, while functional and powerful, lost track of what made the individual parts worth using: focus and simplicity.

This is where Notion comes in – it’s a relatively new tool (two years of existence) that tries yet again to blend modern workflows into one. But the reason to me it succeeds at this is because it approaches it differently. Instead of taking all the features they liked from other apps and piling them on in menus and submenus, they’ve sifted down each one to its pure and raw essence: content.

Notion approaches organisation in a very LEGO-y way. Instead of handling documents or files, you handle blocks. Just tiny little blocks, each of them representing one piece of content: a video, an image, a paragraph, a map, a table, etc. Then it’s just a matter of assembling and reassembling your blocks in whichever order you want into pages.

Here lie all the power and simplicity of Notion: there is no need for 200 interfaces, collapsible tabs and complex documentations, because all you really do is move blocks around. Everything is concentrated behind one unified interface, visible (almost) in its entirety from the surface level.

In fact, you can nearly do everything in Notion with only one key, /.

This is a Notion page. As you can see there’s not much to it when you first look at it. You write in it using a Markdown-like syntax (** for bold, # for header, and so on) which should feel familiar to most of you. But let’s try to type /, and suddenly a whole new world opens to us:

This is the list of available blocks, and trust me when I say this is the tip of the iceberg. As said before you can have images, videos, CodePens, TeX equations, files, you can embed webpages, and a lot more I don’t have room to mention.

And every one of those blocks is created, edited and managed the same way: by simply dragging and dropping them around the page, and just typing in them. Notion will purposely not let you get too fancy: you can have side by side things and some colors, but it tries very hard to contain you so you focus on the content before all.

But the most interesting blocks are without a doubt the database blocks. They’re smarter and more powerful blocks that allow you to represent complex collections of data that can each have their own attributes of different types. And more importantly, in Notion data is separated from its presentation. Which means that a table of clients you have in one place, can be represented as a board or calendar somewhere else.

This is the idea that makes Notion so powerful and yet so simple in appearance. By embracing the concept of “blocks” from which to assemble/disassemble pages, they’ve created a system where knowledge can be easily reused and represented in a way that most makes sense depending on its context.

Paging Dr. Notion

I’ve talked a lot about blocks so far, but they’re only one of the two units making up Notion, the other one being pages.

Here again, the application shines in its ability to create a lot of power from very little features. At its core a page is a simple document with different blocks on it, like our Slash page of earlier. You can add an icon, a cover image, change the typeface a bit. But the crux of it is the page’s contents.

I’ve added a little Table block in my page, to lists which songs I’d want to learn on the guitar. But here is where things get real: each of these songs is now also its own Notion page, with its own properties, its own body, and so on. And you can nest pages and blocks like that as much as you want.

This means instead of having a flat but scattered organisation, you have more of a mind-mapping model where you delve into pages within pages, to get from the big picture to the minutiae. But it does so while still allowing you to cascade relevant informations up. Per example if I wanted, I could display all the songs marked as “Easy” in another “Learning Guitar” page which would have interesting bookmarks, videos, etc.

To give a more concrete example, as a developer, I have pet projects which I organise in Notion as a Kanban board. But each project is then also its own page with its own board and then each todo can also be its own page where I can add informations, link to other pages in Notion, link to another todo, and so on.

It’s that combination of powerful horizontal editing, with a simple infinitely nested hierarchy, that gives Notion so much firepower in so little interface. There’s even a wide range of keyboard shortcuts as well as slash commands (eg. /video). And the best part? Every block is indexed, which means I can per example search for a word in the lyrics of the guitar tab that is in Slash’s song page, and it will find it:

This allows you to never have to worry about how to organise your pages between themselves because everything will always be one shortcut away, no matter where it is.

Here is what my current Notion workspace looks like. This may seem overwhelming but once you get the ball rolling, putting things into your workspace becomes second nature with how easy it is. Also called the “Did you put it in Notion?” effect.

As you can see you can organise your pages however you want, as well as centralise information between them.

Per example there’s multiple “Stuff to do” pages, but they’re all just projecting a central todo list, simply filtering by certain tags depending on the page it’s in. There’s a smart filter/sort builder, which allows you to let every page show only the thin slice of information that it needs.

So “Summary” would show all the todos that are due today and urgent, “Life” would show all the home/health todos as a board, the “madewithlove” one shows the next work tasks due as a calendar, etc.

You can even create custom pages templates with predefined content, that you can then add repeatedly with a button, for meeting notes per example.

Where seas become a Notion

Because Notion is not just for individuals, it also caters to the workplace. It’s already easy to see why, with its blend of Jira/Confluence-like ideas into a sort of Evernote context. It already has most of the things a team usually needs to store and manage their collective knowledge.

But it goes one step beyond by allowing you to share Notion workspaces, pages and even individual blocks with other members and the general public.

You can at any time share something, with various levels of permissions (and soon even more). People can then comment inline in the pages, you can @ other members of your team into pages, or assign them to issues.

When you share a private page with the world, everything from other private pages will be omitted so you can’t leak data away.

You have an Updates section where you can see recent changes throughout pages, or for only select pages, which allows you to stay up to date with changes from other members.

There’s also integrations, such as Slack.

But more importantly, Notion is fully cross-platform. You can start work on a page in the web-app, and finish it on your phone. There’s also desktop apps for Mac and Windows.

Everything is synced at all times, everything is available and workable offline, everything is searchable. All on the go. And because the interface is so streamlined, the editing experience remains decent on mobile compared to other more massive applications.

Parting words

I like to think I’m a rather organised person. And maybe I’m not, I’ve made my peace with that. In the meantime Notion is the closest I’ve been to actually being in control of all the loose threads of informations, constantly dancing about all day long.

If you’re still not sure whether Notion is for you then fret not! First of all there’s an amazing free plan which offers 1000 blocks, which is a lot. Even more considering things imported into Notion don’t count toward it, to more quickly get setup. I mean I’m still on it and have you seen my workspace? You can invite unlimited members (your wife, your cat, your pet plant) and upload as many files as you want (as long as they’re not bigger than 5Mb). This allows you to collaborate on small pages with close friends or family, for things of everyday life.

Then there’s also a live demo on the homepage, which you can tinker with at will. Check a bit all the predefined templates shown there, as they do a good job demonstrating the potential behind the tools Notion offers.

It greatly simplified the constant juggling that day to day can be. I organise my work in it, I organise my life in it. Hell, I even wrote this whole blogpost within a card on my Blogposts board.

What’s on the roadmap now Sean?

Of course it is still a young product, and there’s lots of things that could be made better (faster search per example). If you push it too hard it will show its limits like any app. But the team is very reactive, and iterates pretty fast over the suggestions you give them. They have a public roadmap and changelog which lists some pretty interesting upcoming features (like Dark Mode <3).

They also list APIs which I truly hope means they plan to open a public API. If it had the ability to read/update/delete the database blocks, it would make way for a number of possibilities.

You could per example create a blog platform using Notion as your CRM, or create a project manager linked to your Notion project pages. It’s already powerful as it stands, and the team behind it seems dedicated to taking it even further, with care and forethought.

I hope you’ll give it a shot; for you, for your team or for both, and maybe it’ll help you get your stuff together it helped me. To finish here are some interesting examples and articles found here and there:

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Maxime Fabre

Maxime Fabre

Maxime is madewithlove’s ‘French Connection’. He’s our (only) software engineer that speaks French fluently, thanks to being born and raised in the land of berets and baguettes. What else makes Maxime unique? His highly developed sense of how code should look and feel… which makes him a much appreciated colleague and ditto member of the Laravel/PHP community. As for his penchant for chocolate biscuits with soya sauce and mayonnaise, there’s no accounting for personal taste.

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