On Note-Taking Apps

Google Keep. Microsoft OneNote. Roam. Obsidian. Notion. Readwise.

There are other apps with whom I’ve had, so to speak, even shorter relationships, but the ones above are the ones that I have really and truly tried to use on an extensive basis. Google Keep, as with so many other things Google, is excellent in some ways, but utterly hopeless in others. You’ll never guess what their latest enhancement is, for example. OneNote was very promising, but Microsoft went through a bit of a phase where they had a OneNote app for Windows, and a separate one for Office365, and it just got too confusing for words. Roam was too expensive at 15USD per month, and Obsidian had too steep a learning curve for me. And if you want to talk about steep learning curves, you should try out Notion. Gah.

The latest one that I’m trying out is Readwise, and well, it’s going… ok, I guess. And we all know what that really means, don’t we?

Long story short, none of these have really worked out for me. And that, I suspect, is the case for most of you reading this. There will be some who are true converts and zealots of any one of these, and I envy you. I really do, good for you, really! But whichever one of these you’re selling, I’m not really on the market. And no, that other new new one ain’t for me either, whichever one it is.

And that’s why this article in The Verge really resonated with me:

Note-taking, after all, does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place on your computer, next to email, and Slack, and Discord, and iMessage, and the text-based social network of your choosing. In the era of alt-tabbing between these and other apps, our ability to build knowledge and draw connections is permanently challenged by what might be our ultimately futile efforts to multitask.


As always, do go through the whole thing. It is full of fascinating snippets, including the somewhat surprising, somewhat entirely predictable finding that the average time we spend on a single screen before shifting our attention elsewhere was 2.5 minutes. If that seems too long for you, you’re right. That was in 2004. Today’s stats? 47 seconds.

The author of the article goes on to hope (as do some of us, while others are repulsed by the thought) that AI will help us make sense of all of these links that we have been squirrelling away for years. I’m on Team Maybe about this myself. But I really do agree with this bit:

In short: it is probably a mistake, in the end, to ask software to improve our thinking. Even if you can rescue your attention from the acid bath of the internet; even if you can gather the most interesting data and observations into the app of your choosing; even if you revisit that data from time to time — this will not be enough. It might not even be worth trying.
The reason, sadly, is that thinking takes place in your brain. And thinking is an active pursuit — one that often happens when you are spending long stretches of time staring into space, then writing a bit, and then staring into space a bit more. It’s here here that the connections are made and the insights are formed. And it is a process that stubbornly resists automation.


And that is, in a way, comforting and reassuring. I haven’t failed all these awesome note-taking apps, and they haven’t failed me either. In each of these cases, it just wasn’t meant to be.

The article refers to the works of Andy Matuschak (Google him if you don’t know who he is), who says that the ultimate goal is to think effectively (amen!), and that all of us should really be thinking about two questions.

  1. What practices can help me reliably develop insights over time?
  2. How can I shepherd my attention effectively?

Don’t look to me for the answer to the second of these questions, I have no idea. If you know the answer, help a guy out, will ya? But I do have my own personal answer regarding the first of these questions.

I read a lot. Not as much as some others that I know, and I wish I read more, but I do think I read more than the average person. Some of what I read I find interesting enough to talk about with some people whose opinions I truly value. Some of these conversations end up being friendly arguments, where they challenge my view, and I challenge theirs. Then I have a cup of coffee and think about some of these arguments.

Then I write about it. And after I write about it, I send a draft of what I’ve written to them. Then, if I’m really lucky, we have another argument about the draft I’ve sent them. I think more about this second argument, and refine the draft.

How I would like to tell you that this is how every single post on EFE gets written.

The reality is that all of what I’ve described above happens for maybe one post every month. Those posts, and those arguments stay with me then for a very long time. But the vast majority of the posts you read over here are me reading something, finding it interesting enough to write about it, and well, I write it and you read it.

When the whole process described above works the way it should – that is utopia.

But between living in utopia and not writing about it at all lies a happy medium. Happy not because it is perfect, but because it is attainable. It involves at least one of all those things happening – me reading about something and then writing about it.

So my favorite note-taking app?

It happens to be a blog called EFE. The posts over here are me taking notes on something I’ve read – and that, more than anything else, helps me remember stuff better.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again.


Write and put it out in the public domain for all to read. Best way to remember something, anything and most everything.

And if you can figure out a way for me to do achieve my utopian process for all the posts that I write, please do tell!