I'm a Christian, a designer, and a gadget fan who lives in Cheltenham, UK.

This is my blog, a creative outlet to mess around and play with as well as a place that logs my thoughts and inspirations.

A tool for thinking

Yes­ter­day as I was sat on my sofa watch­ing the Sunday morn­ing church ser­vice on You­Tube I had my Mac­Book Pro open on my lap to make notes in Obsidi­an. After the ser­vice had fin­ished I spent a few minutes to tidy up some format­ting and make sure the cor­rect bible verses were being ref­er­enced, I real­ised how much I am enjoy­ing using the app. It got me think­ing about why.

Over the course of the day it slowly dawned on me what it is that I like about it. It doesn’t tick all the fea­tures I was hop­ing to find in the my notes app, but it does tick one that I didn’t list before. It is a tool for think­ing, and really that’s what I’ve been look­ing for.

Eph­em­er­al notes still go into Obsidi­an through my daily notes, and where appro­pri­ate they are linked to pro­ject notes, but I’ve found that I’m cre­at­ing notes about sub­jects that I am think­ing about or try­ing to learn more about. Look­ing at my Obsidi­an graph I see some small clusters start­ing to form. There is one about note tak­ing itself as I read around the sub­ject of ever­green and atom­ic notes; there is one around habits and routines; and there is a lar­ger one form­ing related to my work and cur­rent think­ing about the concept of Min­im­al Viable Products (MVP).

As I’ve been look­ing into these dif­fer­ent applic­a­tions and their fea­ture sets, I’ve been exposed to some ideas about note tak­ing that I had nev­er really con­sidered before. The concept that a “notes” app can be more than a scratch­pad used through­out the day but a tool for think­ing has con­nec­ted with me. Really it is not a notes app but some­thing much more use­ful and import­ant. I guess this is why many people refer to these tools that I’ve been explor­ing as Per­son­al Know­ledge Man­age­ment (PKM) or their second brain. I’m not sure either of those terms sit right with me, I think they are more than that. I am not purely gain­ing know­ledge by using this tool and it’s not think­ing for me like a second brain should, but I can use this tool to see con­nec­tions between ideas. It forces me to dis­till con­cepts down to man­age­able chunks so that I can form my own ideas from them. This is why I’ve begun refer­ring to it as a tool for think­ing and why it’s start­ing to become a key part of my cre­at­ive pro­cess. Time will tell if it lasts.

The notes app quest continues

I’ve been con­tinu­ing to seek out a notes app that works for me as well as I would like it too. A couple of weeks ago I pos­ted about what I’m look­ing for and since then I’ve been giv­ing a couple of the con­tenders a try.

When I wrote that post I had been using Craft for around a week or so. It’s a very good app, I like that it is nat­ive on all my devices, has good short­cuts sup­port and is a pleas­ure to write in. It lacked a couple of the fea­tures on my list out of the box, but a quick short­cut was able to fix the lack of a daily note and I was hap­pily on my way giv­ing it a run through it’s paces.

Hav­ing been forced into a week off work thanks to some strong side effects from my Cov­id vac­cine, last week­end I star­ted to play with Obsidi­an to see how it worked. Ini­tially put off by it I found a theme that makes it look and feel a lot more like a nat­ive macOS applic­a­tion. So last week I star­ted giv­ing it a run through it’s paces. It’s lack­ing a first party iOS and iPa­dOS app at the moment, but one is in beta and seems to be devel­op­ing quickly and since there’s nowhere to go at the moment it’s not the end of the world.

I intend to give Obsidi­an a sim­il­ar amount of time to Craft and then I’ll try to make a decision. There are a few things about Craft which star­ted to really annoy me before I decided to give Obsidi­an a try, and I’m sure there will be some things about Obsidi­an that annoy me as well. 

So far Craft feels bet­ter placed for meet­ing notes and cap­tur­ing tasks along the way. It’s abil­ity to eas­ily send some­thing to Things is great. In con­trast Obsidi­an seems to handle ref­er­en­cing and embed­ding blocks more effi­ciently. Craft can do this but I ended up hav­ing some real dif­fi­culties find­ing blocks I wanted to ref­er­ence and once I had figured out the syn­tax that Obsidi­an uses it made a lot more sense. Both apps have their strengths, I have a feel­ing it will be about refin­ing how I take notes and which one will handle that.

Searching for the perfect notes app

For the last 6 months or so I have been using Roam Research as my notes app. The daily note turned into my home from home allow­ing me to cap­ture things through­out the day. Thoughts, feel­ings, meet­ing notes, tasks, art­icles I read, videos I watched, everything got noted down in the daily note. Using the ser­vice has encour­aged me to read more wisely, mak­ing notes from art­icles that are use­ful and cap­tur­ing high­lights and thoughts as I read books.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed my usage start to drop off. Some of it is related to me hav­ing days off from work, so I’m not in front of my Mac all day, but that’s not the sole reas­on. I’m writ­ing this on my iPad which has become my main per­son­al com­puter. Mac for work, iPad for me. I star­ted to real­ise that this is part of the reas­on I’ve been using Roam less even though I still wanted to cap­ture notes and thoughts. I don’t find the exper­i­ence of Roam on the iPad to be that pleas­ant. There are too many little quirks and bits that don’t quite work prop­erly that mar the exper­i­ence enough to to make me want to stop using it.

So in the last week I star­ted to draw up a short­l­ist of apps to try in an attempt to replace Roam. In order to really under­stand if some­thing can grow in to a replace­ment I need to under­stand how I’ve been using Roam and what I have come to find really use­ful about it.

What are the key features I’m after?

Daily Notes

I’ve come to real­ise the joy and free­dom in hav­ing a Daily Note open on my screen all day. It has become my main place to cap­ture any­thing and everything. Art­icles I read, what’s on my mind, notes from meet­ings I’m in, tasks that come in. Each new item gets a time stamp and then I write down what I need.

References to blocks and pages

This is new func­tion­al­ity to me but one that I’ve quickly under­stood the value of. Being able to ref­er­ence some­thing with a back link is really power­ful. If I’m in my Daily Note and jot some­thing down about a pro­ject, being able to quickly link to that pro­ject page and have what I wrote appear there is invalu­able. It frees up thoughts for think­ing instead of focus­ing on put­ting it in the right place in my system.

Embedding blocks

These are even more power­ful and I think have become really import­ant for me. On a Sunday as I watch church on You­Tube (who knew that would be a thing?) I make notes on the ser­mon. I’ve taken to adding the bible pas­sage broken down verse by verse in a sep­ar­ate note, then when I need to make a note about a verse I embed the block and write a note under it. Hav­ing the text vis­ible is really use­ful and hav­ing the bible pas­sages auto­mat­ic­ally ref­er­ence all the notes I make over time will be really insightful.

Capturing tasks

This is a simple one, but a quick way to cap­ture tasks in a meet­ing without hav­ing to change app focus is great. Even bet­ter is the abil­ity to send those tasks to my ded­ic­ated task man­ager where I can organ­ise them after the meeting.


This final one is a little up in the air at the moment. I used the Daily Note of Roam to help me start journ­al­ing again and since begin­ning this quest to find a more nat­ive exper­i­ence I’ve dus­ted off Day One and star­ted to use that instead. As I reflec­ted on how I had been Journ­al­ing in Roam, I real­ised that I didn’t inten­tion­ally use any of the con­nec­ted thought fea­tures for it. Ques­tion­ing why that was, I real­ised it’s because what I’ve been journ­al­ing about isn’t neces­sar­ily related to what I’ve been think­ing about or work­ing on, instead it’s more about pro­cessing how I feel and am hand­ling situ­ations. So for now I’m going to use Day One for this part of my writ­ing, although it lacks the con­veni­ence of hav­ing one place to write I think the trade off is bet­ter for me.

Let me make a note of that

Ever since I got my first iOS device, a 2nd gen­er­a­tion iPod Touch, I’ve been on a quest to work out the best way to take notes. I’ve tried a shed load of dif­fer­ent apps, Sim­ple­n­ote, Ever­note, Notesy, the built in notes app, NVAlt… in fact if you can name it I’ve prob­ably tried it. I’ve always read with interest art­icles on note tak­ing setups, how people use them, how their go to app on their iPhone works so well for them, and I’ve always struggled to fig­ure out how or why that is.
You see I’ve tried so many times to get into the habit of using an app, or a suite of apps, to make my notes in. But for whatever reas­on I’ve nev­er been able to stick with one. I’ll go through a spell of for­cing myself to use them, to form a habit so that my first thought is to use my phone or the Mac app, but they nev­er stick. I can nev­er get to the point where I can declare, so and so is my goto note writ­ing app.
Except, now that I think about it, I can.
My goto for notes sits right beside me on my desk. In fact for the whole of my work­ing life it’s sat right next to me on my desk, or in my back pock­et. What’s it called?
Well it’s called paper, or a note­book, and I make my notes on it with a pen. Try as I might I can not break the habit of using a phys­ic­al note­book to make my notes.
The habit stretches back to my school days. I always had a note­book, or the back of my exer­cise books, which I would doodle and scribble in. Then when I was 16 I star­ted a Sat­urday job in a fam­ily run hard­ware store which fur­ther ingrained the habit. I always needed a piece of paper and a pen in my pock­et, to make a note of meas­ure­ments, stock num­bers, phone num­bers, deliv­ery addresses, you name it and it was on my note paper.
Then when I star­ted uni the habit con­tin­ued, my sketch book was always with me. I’d use it to make note of ideas for pro­jects, to record com­ments from crit ses­sions with my tutors and when I got the odd freel­ance job, to make notes from cli­ent meet­ings. The way I use my note­books has barely changed since then. When I meet a cli­ent I take my note­book and my iPad, but it nev­er feels nat­ur­al to pull out my iPad to make notes (I use it to show work). It does how­ever feel nat­ur­al to pull out a pen and jot down some comments.
There’s some­thing about the con­veni­ence of a note­book and pen that an app and my iPhone just can’t break. The tech­no­logy, which on the sur­face presents a far more super­i­or exper­i­ence doens’t seem to be able to break the hold a nice note­book and pen has over me. With my iPhone I can make a note, I can tag it, it’s auto­mat­ic­ally dated and I can search to eas­ily find what I need. It should be the best way of mak­ing notes. Except it isn’t.
Tap­ping out a note on my iPhone, just doesn’t give me the men­tal con­nec­tion that I need when mak­ing a note of some­thing. It may be less effi­cient, in the sense that it might take me a little longer to find a note because I can’t search for it, but I do (gen­er­ally) remem­ber where on the page I wrote it and over time I’ve developed little quirks to help make things stand out. Tasks get a little box to the left of them, if I think it’s import­ant when I write it, it’ll either get a star or often a box drawn around it. Inform­a­tion gets segreg­ated on the page by lines, but more often than not, the simple act of writ­ing it down is enough to com­mit it to my memory. It’s some­thing which, in this digit­al world we now live, I fear we will lose. Pro­cessing some­thing in an ana­logue man­ner can have a far more last­ing effect than doing some­thing digitally.
There’s also some­thing rather nos­tal­gic about using a note­book and pen. I have every single note­book from my pro­fes­sion­al life as a design­er on a shelf. I can pick them up and look back to a cer­tain moment in time and have an instant con­nec­tion. I can remem­ber where I was, who I was with and what was going on in my life at the time. Some of them are all neat and look like they’ve barely been used from the out­side. Most of them are nicely worn, weathered with age they bulge in the middle. But I think most import­antly, they present a phys­ic­al instance of the work I’ve done in my life. The vast major­ity of it is cre­ated on my Mac, sure some of it’s prin­ted, but the ideas and begin­nings of it all are in my note­books. You don’t get that with a list of files on a com­puter screen, you don’t get little sketches or doodles that seemed like noth­ing at the time but which turned into a sub­stan­tial piece of brand­ing. The throw away moments that are so com­monly cre­ated in a note­book don’t even get con­sidered in a notes app. Those are the very moments I can’t give up, the very moments I won’t give up. They’re the very moments that bring the best out of me and my pen and note­book are the most power­ful tools I own.