1% Better Makes a Big Difference
How I got rid of 6 apps and 20+ spreadsheets in my productivity toolbox
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about the British cycling team, who won more races after making small, incremental changes to every aspect of its training regimen. Rather than aim for lofty performance goals, the cycling coach found ways to make 1% improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. Clear highlights that people often fail to improve not because they lack motivation, but because their environment is not designed for success.
Now, I know this cycling team has faced doping controversy since Atomic Habits was published, but the idea of making every tiny thing just 1% better has stuck.
That’s why I recently spent some time learning how to use Notion, a productivity tool that has gained a lot of buzz in recent years, in an attempt to improve every tiny thing by 1%.
First, some background:
I found myself using a ton of different digital tools to capture, review or get things done every day.
- Multiple Trello boards for tasks
- Apple notes, Safari’s “reading list” and Pinboard.in for random ideas and links
- Slack, Trello and Google docs for notes and references
- Google Sheets to track work estimates, subscriptions, comparison shopping and home projects, etc.
These tools are great on their own, but they don’t talk to each other. To compensate, I just grew accustomed to the switching back and forth because I had established a system for organizing and pruning over the years.
But, and here’s where my cycling comparison comes in, what if a single tool could do all these things mentioned above? What if I could connect the dots between my goals, projects, tasks, ideas, links and notes? I think that would make everything I do at least 1% better, and over time it would add up to something meaningful.
What is Notion?
What is Notion really? Imagine if a wiki app, a spreadsheet app and a task management app had a baby. Notion is not one thing, it’s many things, all-in-one. I was skeptical at first, because I believed apps trying to be “many things” were usually mediocre.
I was wrong. While Notion is not perfect (nothing is perfect), it has replaced six apps and over 20 spreadsheets in my productivity toolbox. It won me over not by its price or features, but by its thoughtful and delightful design. I really feel the care and craftsmanship that goes into making Notion.
Creating & Editing
The “blank slate” of a new Notion page reminds me of writing on Medium. It feels effortless and focused.
Bringing links, images, files and other assets into Notion is also a breeze. I use its Chrome web clipper to save links with one click both on desktop and on mobile, and I like that a “preview” gets automatically generated.
Could I cut and paste links to my Trello board or leave it in Pinboard? Sure. But the preview function elevates the act of web clipping 1%, if not more.
Viewing & Organizing
Notion is like LEGO blocks. You can design the “structure” any way you want, and it is very fluid and forgiving.
Collecting ideas or “brain dumping” is a messy process, and I think Notion strikes a good balance between flexibility, discoverability and organization.
Collaboration and Control
Sharing is intuitive and flexible. Unlike Trello, sharing is not “all or nothing” in Notion. I have full control over who can view, comment or edit.
I think Notion’s “Share to web” makes collaboration not 1%, but 10% better — it takes away any barrier on the recipient’s end. They don’t need to create an account, login, access another app … all they need is a browser.
The other day I did some research about spring camps for my daughter and shared that Notion page via web link with another parent. People even use this method to share resumes or turn their Notion pages into a website.
Yes, I could do weblink sharing with Google Docs/Sheets, but as I said, I can’t connect the dots between pieces of information that way.
Power of Relational Databases
Without this feature, Notion would just be another Evernote. With all my data in different databases, I can relate anything to anything in Notion.
Here are the relationships I setup across personal, home and work databases:
OKRs <> Projects <> Tasks <> People <> Ideas/Notes/Links <> Tags
Say I see a “Change water filter” task due next week. I open up that task and all related information I need is already there — who should I contact, their contact details, when was the filter changed last, what product did I buy last time and how much I paid for it. In the past, I would have squeezed all this into a Trello card or created another Google Sheet, but now, for example, the price of the water filter can be linked back to another database I have for budget.
Notion is like my “second brain” — I capture ideas, organize learnings and manage tasks in one place. The clarity makes me feel more creative and be more productive.
I really like how it gives me the 10,000 ft. view all the way down to what’s on the ground today. Sometimes I get lost in the day-to-day, but being able to see how daily tasks translate into progress against bigger goals is very motivating.
Do I sound like I got paid by Notion to write all this? I wish. I hope at least I get a “Like” from them when I share this post. Seriously though, I think James Clear is right — motivation is overrated, environment often matters more. A new tool is a new environment. It can give us new, productive cues for better habits. Even 1% better can result in significant improvement.