discovering notion, or one system to rule them all

I’m always on the look out for better ways to organize my chaotic brain. But because each application or tool is really good at one thing and then medium or bad at everything else, I end up with a vast collection of tools that I barely use while trying to hold all of my workflow stuff in my head.

This works about as well as you would expect.

And though I know exactly how it’s going to end (i.e. poorly), my system consistently devolves into this state. Entropy, man. It’ll get you in the end.

At the beginning of last week, I had once again reached that threshold where this “system” was untenable. I was only paying attention to my day to day agenda without thinking about how each of my tasks impacted my overall trajectory towards long-term goals. Was I moving in the direction that I wanted to go? Was I prioritizing things correctly? Is it possible to know any of those things without writing them down somewhere? Maybe for some people, but definitely not for me.

So I found myself looking at the vast array of tools I already use to track parts of my life—AirTable for submissions, Excel/Sheets for story outlines, Word/Docs for brainstorming, Pocket (prev Evernote) for interesting articles or resources or inspo, Calendar for tracking appointments and life stuff, a bullet journal for day to day agenda items, Trello for workflow, variably Todoist or Keep or Workflowy or scraps of paper for checklists…—and despairing. I mean, the process of listing all of those things out gave me mild palpitations.

The idea of adding something to this list was daunting. The idea of shoving a writing workflow/goals tracker into one of these systems, having it fail because it doesn’t quite fit right, and then winding up back in this exact same position a handful of months down the line… It’s so demoralizing.

You see, I end up at this place because I am very particular. I have an idea of how I want to track things, of what might be useful to my brain, and of how I want to interact with a program. The problem I have is that nothing seems to work quite the way I want it to. It’s a lot to ask for, one organizational system to rule them all.

Enter Notion.so.

Guys. GUYS. I think this might be a game changer. I’m filled a tentative and growing optimism.

Notion is… Well, it’s everything.

It’s a program that provides a highly, highly flexible “workspace.” And that workspace can be a collection of just about anything. You can build databases, documents, productivity boards, checklists, notes, calendars, and on and on. There are so many ways you can arrange things. You can import your stuff from spreadsheets, Evernote, Trello, Asana, and Workflowy, among others. You can even hook it up with Slack.

It’s so modular that I can just about fit all of those aforementioned systems into one master Notion system and collate everything together. Plus, the interface is very clean, minimalist, and pleasant to use. Which, since I’m planning to spend a lot of time with it, is important.

Here’s how I’m using Notion to track my writing goals.

I have a Writing workspace that I created that contains my Master Writing Tracker. This is where I’m going to list out anything I have to do that is writing related. This includes everything from large overarching projects to small granular tasks.

(I blacked out all the working titles for my writing projects. Because they are dumb working titles.)

notion master tracker board - oh look what I'm doing

Notion: Master Writing Tracker, board view. Oh, look what I’m doing right now…

The board view is currently the one where I spend most of my time. It’s set up Kanban board style with columns for:

  • Waiting — Things I need external info for before I can do anything with them. e.g. email responses, dates.
  • Inbox — Things that need to be done
  • Doing — Things that I’m actively working on. Hard limit of five in this category at any given time. Which isn’t something that you can’t set, as far as I can tell, but is a rule I’ve made for myself so that I keep moving cards through.
  • Done! — Things that I’ve completed! My plan is to keep cards here until the end of the week, at which point I can look back at the cards and archive them. This’ll give me an opportunity for reevaluation. (And it’ll help remind me that I’m actually doing things, which my brain can be kind of  mean about.)

Each task is its own page with different properties you can set.

notion task properties and entry.PNG

Notion: Task page view with properties.

Then, because each task is a page, you have space below the properties list to record whatever you want. The example above is my Q4 Writing Goals planning doc, so I have a checklist followed by a long journal entry. You could also collect pictures here. Or links. Or even make a spreadsheet or an entire new database.

Some of the properties I’m using don’t apply to each task. But I have all of those properties because you can create different views for your database and filter or sort based on those properties.

For example, I have a separate board view for tracking just my Works in Progress.

WIP Tracker.jpg

Notion: WIPs board view.

This board, also set up Kanban-ish style, is filtered so that only my WIPs are visible. I did this by filtering by category — one of my categories is “Word Mines,” which you might have noticed in the first screenshot.

Because these are WIPs, I set up a view where I can see what stage of the writing process each piece is in at a glance.

  • Inbox — Pieces that I know are in progress.
  • Active Brainstorming — I’m worldbuilding or collecting inspo or generally thinking about and braindumping.
  • Writing — Actively putting down new words. My plan is to have only one piece at a time with this status.
  • Revisions — Editing.
  • Feedback — Out for feedback from people. Usually in Kanban boards, your work should flow only in one direction, but in this case, once feedback is complete, I would move the card back to Revisions.
  • Ready for Sub — It’s polished!

I also set up a calendar view with due dates and timelines.

notion master calendar.jpg

Notion: Master Writing Tracker calendar view.

Though I haven’t set this up yet, I’m also going to collect some of my writing project braindumps—mood boards, inspo pics, outlines, etc.—in different pages (workspaces?) to see how that functions for me.

Maybe you’re thinking, Holy shit. That’s a lot of things. How do you even find anything in that workspace?

writing workspace.PNG

Notion: Workspace sidebar menu.

There’s a sidebar where you can see all the different views and navigate between them. You can also navigate really easily within the database itself. And then on top of all of that, there is a quick find search you can use.

quick find.PNG

Notion: quick find.

So far, the one thing that’s missing for me is built-in syncing with Google Calendar. For now, that’s fine because I don’t mind keeping my life calendar and my work calendar separate, especially given all the other benefits. But I would love to have this feature in the future. (I think some Notion users have built workarounds for this already, but I’m waiting for something official.)

Will this be the one system to rule them all?

Hopefully. But it’s hard to know without really taking this workflow system out for a spin. I’m using it exclusively for the next couple of months while taking notes about how I’m using it and adjusting my system, and then doing a deep dive reevaluation in January.

Notion is free to try out and use, up to 1000 blocks, which is plenty to play with. After that, the next tier up is about 4$/month, and you’ll get unlimited blocks and unlimited uploads. Here’s my referral link (also scattered throughout this post) — if you use it, you’ll get 10$ in credit, and I’ll get 5$.

Because it’s so flexible and customizable, there’s a bit of a start-up cost. Ideally, you could set aside a few hours to build a workflow for yourself, then try it over the course of a few months, iterating and tweaking as you go. If you’ve got the time and inclination, I highly recommend checking out Notion. It’s an incredibly modular power house and might be exactly what you’re looking for.