The Focus Course

Initial Thoughts on Some Research and Notes Apps

A few months ago, I shared about my desire to begin organizing the notes and highlights and takeaways from the books I read.

Jeff Goins wrote that “what we call ‘writing’ is actually made up of three distinct activities: coming up with ideas, turning those ideas into drafts, and then editing those drafts into publishable pieces.”

I’ve been writing for a living since 2011 and despite my greatest fears, I’ve never had a shortage of ideas. For nearly a decade all of my ideas and notes have been kept in Simplenote. But for the past year or so I’ve been wanting a system that is just a little bit more complex than what I’m currently using. Perhaps it’s just because I like to have things organized — but I tell myself that the aim is to help increase my ability to turn ideas into drafts.

In short, what I’m looking for is something to store all of the ideas, bits of inspiration, notes, quotes and takeaways from the books I read, and more. Something akin to Ryan Holliday’s notecard system — but digital.

I’m already creating an alternate index of ideas in the back of each book I read. And so, what I’d like to do, is create a digital and universally-searchable version of that index: a single repository to organize, sort, and search all my highlights and notes.

There are a LOT of apps out there that do this. The issue isn’t finding an app that is capable — it’s finding an app that works for me and my workflows.

I want to do more than simply jot down my ideas and notes. I also want to have them compiled and structured (rather than a giant list sorted only by modification date) but not wholly cut off from one another.

And I also want some pretty fancy search capabilities. For instance, I’d love the ability to bring up all the highlights related to “focus” from all books I’ve read. Or, perhaps, to view my notes and highlights related to “time management” but only from those books which are about entrepreneurship. And then compare those same notes and highlights against books that are only about creativity.

That said, here are a few of my initial thoughts on some of the different notes and researching apps out there today.

  • Simplenote: This is the app I’ve been using for idea capture and other miscellaneous note taking since it shipped nearly a decade ago. I love how easy it is to use, how — ahem — simple it is, and how reliable the sync is. But for my current use-case, I’m looking for something that can handle images and has a more robust folder structure beyond just tags.

  • Bear: If you haven’t tried out Bear, you really should (Mac / iOS). It’s spectacular (and may even replace Simplenote for me). You can insert photos into notes in Bear, but otherwise it’s still pretty simple. That’s not a knock against the app — it is simple by design. But that means that, for my needs in this case, it’s too simple to be my go-to research app.

  • Day One: This app is one of my all-time favorites. But, as with the aforementioned apps, Day One is not built for what I need in this scenario.

  • Apple’s Notes App: There is a lot to love about the Notes app (and even more once iOS 11 ships). You can drop all sorts of cool things into a note, and even draw and sketch and more. But the search and sort functionality within Notes is not quite what I’m looking for.

  • Evernote: I love the power of Evernote, and it’s strong emphasis on making idea capture as easy as possible. But I don’t love the way it ruins the formatting of my text and the way all my content is a silo inside the app. There are many, many smart folks who use Evernote, but so far, for me, it still just doesn’t feel right.

  • Together: An alternative to Evernote, Together is a pretty classy app. But, at least so far in my experience, the process of getting information into the app is far too tedious, as is the process for properly tagging that information. I may just need to spend more time learning the app, but if something isn’t easy to use then I know from experience that I won’t use it.

  • Other Apps: Yes, I’m aware of Scrivener, plain text files with nvALT, Papers, DEVONthink, Papers, and probably a few others.

Ulysses — My Pick So Far

I’ve been using Ulysses for quite a long time. It’s a fantastic app and it does a great job at simplifying it’s vast complexity. However, I didn’t initially consider it for my researching needs because I didn’t think it had a robust search engine. But, turns out, I was wrong.

Thanks to a new project we’re working on for The Sweet Setup, I just discovered the Smart Filters in Ulysses, and whoa. These filters are basically smart folders. You can create all sorts of variables for how you want sheets to be filtered, and you can even move the filters around within different groups so as to bring up different results based on the group.

My biggest quibble with Ulysses right now is the way it handles images. If the image is inline with a note, you see an IMG markdown tag. Or, an image can be attached to a note, but otherwise not shown inline. It’d be great to be able to have images displayed inline.

So, all that said, at the moment I’m obviously leaning toward Ulysses (Mac / iOS) as my writing and researching app of choice. My first step will be to begin transcribing all my book notes and highlights into the app.

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