Working in Notion | Part 1

How I use Notion for journaling and knowledge management

Stowe Boyd
Dec 15, 2020 · 7 min read

I’ve written about using Typora — a markdown editor platform — for journaling, but I have recently defected to Notion for that purpose.

Actually, the earlier post was entitled Building A Zettelkasten In Typora, because I aspired to a ‘note box’ (or zettelcasten, in German) approach to journaling. In fact, though, I never really went through all the gyrations of zettelcastening, in part because it involves too much manual labor if you use basic markdown a la Typora. In reality, I fell back into a simpler, less involved sort of journaling.

In this initial post, I won’t be exploring all the features of Notion, such as tables, and relations. I will explore more of the Notion platform in later posts, where I will also explain how I am now using Notion as a work management tool, tracking projects, tasks, and associated project information.

Journaling in Typora

Here’s how I was journaling with markdown and Typora:

1 | I created a daily file in my journal folder, named like YYYY-MM-DD journal (which sorts in the appropriate way). During each day I would collect links, snippets, quotes, and capture passing ideas. I would tag entries, and also create markdown tasks. Here’s an image of one such journal file:

Note the checkbox with ‘wf’ which I use to indicate the item could be included in a post on Work Futures.

2 | I would create files for meetings and calls in a similar dated format (like 2020–11–18 dropbox analysts day), and occasionally I would create a note file (like 2020–11–14 peter turchin’s bad news).

One of the reasons I am moving to Notion from Typora is problems with cross file linking. Typora operates on markdown files on my Mac hard drive, and while it allows me to get a link to local files and to link from one to another, they are not URLs, so I can’t use them in the many other ways I would like. For example, I can’t use such a link in a task management tool like Todoist.

What I had hoped is that Typora’s developer would build a web version, and I could jump that major hurdle. But that never materialized.

Enter Notion

I am researching spreadbases (spreadsheet-like database applications) like Airtable, Coda, and Notion for a report on the market and its vendors. I decided to experiment with spreadbase journaling and chose Notion since I already had an account and had fooled around in it a bit, and it is highly praised.

Critically, Notion supports import of markdown files. My importing led to a few glitches with complex files — ones with complicated markdown, or hundreds of links, for example — but was about 90% effective when I attempted to import less than 25 files at a time. (Note: I still have to go through the import of my 2019 journal with its hundreds of files.)

I retained my naming scheme, since it sorts well in Notion just like it did in Typora.

Notion is basically an infinity of pages, and all have unique links. Each Notion page is made up of blocks, all of which can be linked to, as well. Pages also have properties of various types, which can be used in a variety of ways, such as filters in views. I opted to view my journal as a list of pages, much like the built-in model of Typora:

I have started to take advantage of some of Notion’s best features for journaling:

Search: Typora has very good search capabilities, so I worried that Notion might be a step back. But, no, it is not. Notion’s search is excellent. Here’s a search for the term platform capitalism, for example:

(Note: the use of ‘+’ and ‘-’ in some of the search results is a result of a form of tag I was using in Typora, but I will be migrating away from, now on Notion.)

Templates, Views, and Filters: All notion pages share common features, but page templates can be created with additional properties. For example, I have created a journal page template with a type property, so I can distinguish between various flavors of journal pages:

Note: the default type is blank, which I use for the daily journal pages. Other types are indicated explicitly.

I have created views with associated filters to show subsets of my journal pages, such as notes, as shown below.

Linking pages: Notion makes it easy to link from one page to another, by typing a ‘@’ and the name of a Notion page, you can create a link in the page to the other:

Here I am creating a link to the page work futures update — a project page in my work management set-up — from a journal page. After creating that link, here’s the journal page:

Clicking on that link takes me to the work futures update page. But first, I copy the link to that journal entry block using the copy link menu item:

Then, once I click on the link to work futures update that I created, I see a list of journal entries that I plan to include in the next issue of the work futures update newsletter. I then create a new task in the list, give it a name and add a link back to the specific block link in that journal page. That means I can click to find that snippet and add to the work futures update when I get around to creating the next newsletter issue:

Note that Notion already has captured the backlinks to the various journal pages that reference the work futures update page, but I am choosing to retain the block links since a single day’s journal page can have multiple entries saved in the work futures update list.

If I click on the 2020–12–09 link, it only highlights the topmost reference to the work futures update page, while there are in fact two on that page. (The work futures update page lives in a different corner of my Notion, where I do work management, an endeavor I will leave for a different post.)

I also create note pages with captured information. Here’s an example:

Note the two page links at the bottom to pages that act as nodes in a knowledge graph that I will be building, one note at a time. So, if I create a note or add an item to a journal page on coronavirus I can create a similar reference to the epidemiology page, which will contain backlinks to all the pages referring to epidemiology.

The ease of use with Notion’s page links and backlinks is so high that I find I am transitioning away from text tags, and creating topic pages instead, and linking to them, in a zettelcasten fashion, as in the screenshot above. I can make the knowledge graph more dense by linking across topics, like referencing the epidemiology topic page in the coronavirus topic page.

These topic pages could become zettelcasten-style index pages at some point, where I could distill key findings about a topic, like coronavirus or platform capitalism. I haven’t got there yet.

Conclusions

I’ve been using the Notion approach outlined in this post for just over a week, and I have made various tweaks along the way. It is working much better than what I had been doing in Typora, on a structural basis.

As I said, in this post I have not touched on much of the richness of Notion, such as tables, views, relations, and formulas. Nor have I explored embedded media, sub-pages, or the many integrations with other applications. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Still ahead on my journaling: I will need to clean up the imported pages, because the formatting of various text elements in Typora did not come over perfectly in the import. (For example, markdown quotes lost their line breaks between paragraphs, so as I return to use those pages I will have to tidy them up. A minor pain.)

But the integration with the Notion work management system I have contrived is a big step up from trying to use Typora’s minimal support for checklists, or the recent effort I had been involved in to use Todoist and Typora in a kind of Frankenstein work management approach. A description of my Notion work management set-up is coming in Working in Notion, Part 2.

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Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

GigaOm

GigaOm

GigaOm is the leading global voice on emerging technologies. We help transform enterprises with insight and guidance in an AI-enriched, data-driven world.

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

GigaOm

GigaOm

GigaOm is the leading global voice on emerging technologies. We help transform enterprises with insight and guidance in an AI-enriched, data-driven world.

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