Help with getting my notes/reference/knowledge/writing system squared away

Help with getting my notes/reference/knowledge/writing system squared away


The Problem:

I desperately want to get my notes/reference/knowledge/writing system squared away so I can stop thinking about it.

I think I’m close. But I’m having trouble making some big, final decisions, which apps to use for what, and where the boundaries are.

What I want is a system that is fast. Fast creating, finding, organizing. And I don’t want to be tied to my Mac to use it.

Note Categories:

A place to capture and cook ideas over time. Ideally this isn’t pull quotes, but write-ups in my own words about the pull quotes / topic. This should be geared towards long term sustainability, but also needs to be something I want to use.

Blog Post Writing and Publishing (Wordpress)

Project Notes
Links, notes and other project organization materials. Attachments not necessary, but could be helpful.

Speaker, Book, Article Notes
Places to keep the passages and notes from other people and their publications so that I’ll have it to reference.

Record Keeping and Reference
Notes about work, workout routines, health, family, the house, cars, contractors etc…

Media Consumption Records
Places to capture links and titles of interesting podcasts I’ve listened to and articles that I’ve read.

Running Lists
Shows to watch, gift ideas for people, Someday Maybe lists etc…

Class Management
Assignment ideas, lesson plans, project evaluation writeups, notes on students/groups, etc…

The Tools:
I have Ulysses, Bear, iA Writer, Drafts, The Archive, 1Writer

(I have Apple Notes and Devonthink but I don’t like using them.)

I’d love to keep everything in Ulysses, but sometimes it feels weird to stuff it with notes it up with so much.

Bear is great. I’d love to use it with Ulysses, but I don’t know where to draw the line.

I like The Archive because it uses plain text files, it’s very fast to create or retrieve, and it does some interesting note linking and in-note tagging…but no images…which is a bummer.

Some options:

  1. Everything in Ulysses.
  2. Everything in Bear.
  3. Reference and practical notes in Bear. Writing, thoughts, ideas, zettlekasten in Ulysses.
  4. Everything in Bear except for actual blog/article writing, which goes in Ulysses.
  5. Same as #3, except zettelkasten in The Archive/1Writer/iA Writer.
  6. Eff it - Take my ball and go home. Everything in Plain Text, in one folder, NValt style.

What say you, Productivity Guild?

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I guess you’re thinking of doing it on an iPad or iPhone or wanting to do it on any device whenever the situation occurs?

I don’t know if I have a one-app-that-fits-all that works for me. I’ve decided to silo my apps based on purpose.

  • My meeting notes are placed in the Agenda app. I also use Agenda for meeting minutes and record project history. OmniFocus is where I have tasks and action items. But Agenda is where I record results, history, and hash out ideas for future project work.
  • I use Drafts as an inbox for quick ideas when I need to capture ideas. Then I process these inbox items out to their final destination. I love the dictation which allows me dictate ideas while I’m driving
  • I have DevonThink for cold storage of various blog posts that I captured and I want to read later. I’ll extract the ideas or main points by writing in another app before deleting the saved blog post.
  • My writing is done in Ulysses. I tried to quit Ulysses when it went subscription but it’s found a permanent place in my workflow as the place when I need to get down to writing first and second drafts as well as publishing to the web. I’m OK with the subscription fee because I am entrenched in Ulysses. Maybe one day, I’ll give iA Writer a try again.
  • Day One has been my go-to app for journal entries and quotes.
  • Mariner Paperless is my exclusive place for receipts and invoices that I need to archive. This fulfills the record keeping portion of my life.

I tried to use Evernote and DevonThink to store everything but it just became one big mess. Putting text into different apps became expensive but each tool is specifically geared for a purpose. Sometimes I have to find that one special screwdriver or hammer that fits the work that needs to get done.

I never quite got into Bear as a “writing” app. I’ve always thought of Bear as a notes app more than writing app. But I can see how some users might like to use Bear instead of Ulysses.

I like option 3 but that’s just me. When I feel like writing, I go into Ulysses and I move myself in a different mindset. When I’m checking archives, reference, and practical notes, go to Bear.

I wonder what other Guild folks are doing? :eyes:

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I’m currently using:

  • DayOne as my writing place. I tried to give Agenda a go but I wasn’t happy when I tried to pull content out of it to put online.

  • Keep It is for long term storage and one off lists. I store webarchives of newsletters and other online content I want to reference later. I also keep one off lists in here for other areas like my regular reviews and lists for family member, etc…

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I started to use Notion for all of these. Working like a charm. Takes a little while to build the system but it is then YOUR system.

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@KevinR it does sound like you’re pretty close to a decision.

I’ll ask some questions and also share some thoughts of mine if I were in your situation.


  • Is there anything keeping you in or out of one app or another?
  • It seems you have a draw to plaintext. What draws you to that as a possible solution? Any reason you wouldn’t go that direction?
  • If you could narrow to two apps, what would you use? One?


I’ll preface my thoughts with the fact that I’m a little biased toward Bear because I’m making a course on it, but I do really genuinely love the app.

It sounds like most of what you’re looking at doing could easily end up in Bear. The only thing majorly missing at this point is Wordpress publishing, but from what I understand, the Bear team is working on this feature.

Bear is designed to easily export notes to common formats, which is great.

If you do throw everything in Bear, you’ll have to use a diligent organization system I think. I used to put a lot of reference materials in Bear (but don’t anymore because I frankly don’t have much for reference these days). Tagging was super helpful for this because I could use a set of tags for organizing notes into buckets and another set of tags to add metadata such as topic.

I discussed this a bit here:

Ulysses is a great tool for writing. I found it to be a bit cumbersome to handle note-type material though. It’s not really designed for that. I think it works for Shawn Blanc in particular because he takes notes that he’s intentionally going to write about at a later date. I wonder how well it would work for non-writing related notes.

That being said, Ulysses is an amazing writing platform. I’m not currently using it because I’m doing more outline based content (screencasts and podcasts), but when I start writing a book, it’s the first tool I’ll hit.

If you’re looking for something a little different (i.e. the vein of Evernote, but not :D), Keep It might be something to look into. It’s not perfect by any means, but you could do just about everything you want in it as well.

Welcome to the Guild, @arehrlich!

I’m fascinated by folks who are diving into Notion. @francesco hangs around here sometimes, too, and if you follow his YouTube stuff, he’s big into it.

I’d love to see some of your workflow. If that’s something you’re up to do, feel free to create a topic under #digital-tools.

I really want to use Bear, but my life/work doesn’t really need me doing much non-technical writing unless editing a policy that I’m reviewing for another department.

For home “cold storage” I use ScanSnap into DevonThink. I don’t need to like the app since I don’t need to go back to retrieve scanned mail and receipts very often.

For work documents that are active (that policy I need to edit, or the report someone sent me that I may want to review this week, etc) go into Keep It. I feel better about this app because it runs on my iCloud account which is pretty secure (2FA).

I find myself in the middle of an attempt to use the notes section of Things 3 during my review times. This is where I add the thoughts about a project or a snippet from an email that will be handy when working on the project. I don’t bother linking from T3 to Keep It… I just know where to look.


I am interesting in using agenda for my weekly agenda with my boss. It is my only standing meeting. Do you have any suggestions. I am keeping my tasks in Omnifocus (and I am getting ready to ready and apply your Omnifocus/Fantastical Method)

Just any advice you have would be wonderful.


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I’m intrigued by Notion. Perhaps you could share a little of your Notion workflow one day? :hugs:

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I’ll try to come up with a demo without sharing personal meeting notes.


A quick brainstorming session in iThoughts created my mind map for my next blog post… Here’s a sneak peek at my Agenda App mindmap. I’ll have to figure out how to turn it into a blog post. =

I’m looking forward to seeing if anyone else is using the Agenda app…

I’ll try to squeeze this in. It might take 10 - 14 days. I’ve gotta file my 1040 taxes before Uncle Sam starts looking my way… :money_with_wings: :money_with_wings: :money_with_wings:

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This is the problem I’ve been struggling with over the last few weeks. None of my attempts to set up my own workflow have been satisfying, but rather than figuring out what I need, I’ve spent years jumping between apps hoping they would force me to follow a process that works for me. So I’ve been looking into building a reference / note / writing system and the results have been… less than stellar.

Here’s what I had going on before:

  • Tasks go in Things
  • Random notes and reference information go in Bear
  • Highlights from Kindle books and Instapaper, ideas, and writing go in Ulysses

But that system had a lot of problems:

  • Things looks good and has a lot of things I like. (The way it handles dates is particularly nice, and I’m constantly baffled that so many task managers treat you like an asshole for not doing something on a specific day by hitting you with a giant red “overdue” marker.). But I can’t really do a brain dump without being overwhelmed by all the lists, some repeating tasks have disappeared, and the lack of notification-based reminders has been frustrating. So it’s hard to trust and doesn’t help me plan.
  • Bear’s tag-based organization didn’t mesh with the way I wanted to lay out reference information. Now I think it would be better suited to a Zettelkasten system, so I’m going to check that out. I also wish the wiki style links worked even if a note’s title changes, but that’s a nitpick, and most of my complaints about Bear feel similarly uncharitable. It’s probably the closest to being what I need as long as I put more thought into the system itself rather than the apps used to enable it.
  • Ulysses has gotten slow to load despite the (relatively) low number of sheets I have saved to it. It’s not a big deal, but compared to other text-based apps, it seems like a failing. For some reason the importer from the Share sheet also cancels out Markdown from Instapaper highlights so I can’t use it to save information from blog posts, articles, etc. without having to devote more time to cleaning up Markdown that was canceled out for no apparent reason. I also don’t use most of the advanced features–though I’d use keywords more often if they were added via hashtags–and have spent far too much time fiddling with themes and fonts and organization when I could have been writing instead.

I tried to solve those problems with different apps. I’ve used Simplenote, Evernote, Google Keep, Drafts, and Agenda for notes; OmniFocus, Todoist, Reminders, Wunderlist, and GoodTask for task management; and Google Docs, Drafts, Byword, Sublime Text, and iA Writer for writing. (Those are just the ones I’ve used for more than a few minutes; I’ve downloaded far more of them.) The problem was that I was trying to use the apps to find a system rather than developing a system and then finding apps to serve it. Now I’m trying to be more intentional with the system first and apps second.

Unfortunately that (along with some other life changes) means I’m looking into some more things:

  • Zettel-style notes
  • Temporary notes
  • Project notes
  • Brainstorming
  • Project planning
  • Journal entries
  • Reference information (which is a broad category applying to various aspects of my life and files)
  • Writing short, medium, and long-form content

I also want to make sure this information is easy to retrieve and, critically, to move along a process that allows me to live my life rather than think about living my life. (See also a blog on the Zettelkasten website about the Collector’s Fallacy that I don’t want to try to find and link while I’m on my iPad.) Combine that with me regularly working from my iPhone and iPad because I spend most of my day caring for my six-month-old son and it’s been even harder to figure out how to manage all of this.

All of which is to say I don’t have the answers, and I’ve been a bit bummed that this thread didn’t offer more, for both our sakes! But I’m going to keep chipping away at it, and I’ll share the process as I go alone. Hopefully you’ll do the same and we can help solve this problem for ourselves and others in our situation. In the meantime, I’m going to spend more time thinking about the way I think :wink:

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That’s why we’re here… To explore and discover.

At first, I’ve also tried to looked for apps that will dictate to me how they do it. But sometimes I outgrow the app and the approach. Then I veer off in a different direction. I’ve read in other blog posts that some are looking for that app that will lay down the steps to follow. But everyone’s life and needs are different. I think that I’m meant to find the different bits and pieces of workflows from a variety of workflows and incorporate it to make it my own.

Actor/Martial Artist Bruce Lee took many different disciplines and creates what was uniquely his own brand of Martial Arts called Jeet Kun Do. I’ve read from various MMA posts that a modern day fighter has to learn a little bit of different disciplines to become well rounded and capable of competing with any kind of fighter.

I’m sure that our lives will change over time and our needs will change. I used to be able to write exclusively in Word and Pages. But as my writing needs have grown, I’ve adopted to Ulysses. Whenever I decide to retire, I might not need Ulysses and can retire back to Apple Notes.

So, yep, I agree with you on this front. Lay the foundation and the system first and then look for an app that will get you at least 80% of the way there. The remaining 20% can be complemented by secondary apps if needed.

I hope you’ll share more of your discoveries of Zettelkasten when you dive deeper into it. :wink:

I haven’t messed around with my Ulysses themes and fonts in a long time. I just settled on a Material Dark theme with the iA Writer quattro fonts installed and haven’t looked back. I’ve been guilty in the beginning of messing with themes for a long time but I’ve since settled on what I have now.

I’m glad that you were able to figure out what you need at this point in time. Defining your needs will help us look for the tool that will serve each need.

:+1: +1 for me!

This is the big challenge. In my experience, no app has ever been able to force me to do anything or work in any certain way.

That’ll definitely change things! I have a three year old and a one year old at home. SO much changes in that first year especially that I realized I needed not to make a bunch of changes to my system in that time because everything else was in flux.

What are you looking for in regards to answers? I’d think it would be pretty cool if you updated us on your journey along the way! There’s a category for that: #personal-updates. So if you like, create a topic over there and we’ll come along on the journey with you!

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I’ve had the opposite experience, but that’s because I’m foolish enough to be starting my own business while also being his primary caregiver. The systems I had in place aren’t nearly enough to facilitate those projects. (Especially because of some issues with my ADHD medications, or rather the way my primary care provider has mishandled them, but that’s a discussion for another topic.) If I’m only going to be able to get a little bit of time here or there, with none of it guaranteed, I’d rather have systems in place that can maximize what I can get done in that time and how I feel doing it.

What are you looking for in regards to answers? I’d think it would be pretty cool if you updated us on your journey along the way! There’s a category for that: #personal-updates. So if you like, create a topic over there and we’ll come along on the journey with you!

Honestly it was more of a voyeuristic curiosity, if that makes sense, and I don’t know that it would’ve been fulfilled by any particular answer :stuck_out_tongue: I just like getting a better understanding of how people establish their workflows and what tools they use to enable them; I don’t think there’s necessarily an upper limit on how many of those types of post I’d read. That’s why I’m here!

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That’s a big responsibility, but it’s good to have something to pour into that can recharge yourself. Kids are such a blessing, but they take a lot of energy, that’s for sure!

The longer I have kids, the more I see the need for systems. See comment above regarding energy. If I can save energy by systemizing something, I have more to actually invest where I want to. (Note: I don’t have this figured out at all yet).


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I’ve given notion a go but not sure if I’d use enough to justify $4 per month. It looks quite complex to start with!

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Think of it like a photo editor such as Photoshop, Affinity Photos, or Pixelmator Pro. Just use the features that you need. Master those features first. Then expand into other areas.

For now, I’m using mostly cropping, annotating, and a few basic features in my photo editor. When I need to learn how to do layers and masks, I’ll hit a YouTube video and learn that new workflow. I add it to my toolbox slowly. Later, I might learn about other more advanced features as I need them.

Just use the basic features of Notion first. You can always cancel after one month. Then you’ll slowly unlock the other features of Notion as you need them.

I know I don’t even use 10% of Affinity Photos. But I do hit a new YouTube tutorial just to see what I can do.

Curiosity is an important part of any new workflow. Do I want to push a little further and slowly unlock the new features? I’m not going to master Notion in one month. I know it’ll take me more than one month to unlock half of the features. But I’m willing to learn and unlock it as I go along.


Hi Kevin, sorry for stepping in and not really helping your question, but this is what comes to my mind after reading your post.

I do read things, print them, analyze them, physically highlight them so (I hope) they get into my brain. Then I just throw them away and confide whatever is worth it I will have it in my thinking and be able to pull it when the time comes.

Trying to store all of them in the hope of being able to retrieve them exactly when they would be useful, I think it is an impractical (self defeating?) goal, and creates workload and anxiety for me.

I have a natural tendency to store everything, like a digital Dyogenes syndrome. I fight it and I think it’s not worth it:

I have more documents, music, pictures and videos stored in digital media (and backups) that I will ever be able to enjoy in my lifetime:

I guess it comes from the time I had not enough money to buy them, and I had more time than money. Today is the opposite for me: I 'm older and digital distribution has done away with scarcity of media, both physically and economically. Any music or video or press article or book is a few clicks and a few dollars (if any) away. And it will get easier as time goes by.

So just let ‘the cloud’ hold the externally available info for you (after you’re done using it).

Things I created myself, that’s a bit different: I do think there is a use and purpose for saving the outcomes of project’s I’ve done, articles I wrote, pictures (1% of them) I took. But I keep only the end results, not all 'work in process material, not external references I read or comment while working on them. That is not difficult to store. No need for special tools or routines. I know my life.

Scarcity gives value to things . If there’s infinite availability, they loose their value. Just let go.

I will start a thread to get suggestions on a record purging policy, routine, methodology. What should I store, for how long?

I feel the main task we have ahead is not how to store things, but how to delete them so we can still have a manageable amount of information.


That’s a golden quote there. All information becomes meaningless when you have all of it. But the important stuff when captured has value.

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