This post is part of a series on Personal Knowledge Management, or how to save your notes, files, and other important info in a simple-to-use, organized way.
Intro: Setting Up a PKM | Part 1: Google Drive | Part 2: Zotero | Part 3: Taking Notes in Notion
In case you hadn’t guessed already, I’m the person with the color-coded notes that everyone borrows. 🤓 Back in the day, I took handwritten notes. I went from handwriting to typing into (usually unruly) Word docs. Organizationally, I never progressed beyond “find in document.” Until I discovered Notion.
I came upon Notion as a solution when searching for a way to take more effective notes. I was repeating a lot of searches and redoing work I’d already done, because I couldn’t easily record and retrieve it. So goal number one was coming up with a new way to capture notes. I also knew that many of my old grad school notes were not particularly usable or relevant because they were too specific, provisional, scattered, or long. Goal two, then, was finding a better way to organize notes. The solution to both of these goals that I came up with is what I call networked notes. This means taking notes on smaller, discrete subjects and then connecting them to related notes that you can browse like a web (the basic idea behind Zettelkasten, if you’re familiar with that concept).This is exactly what software solutions like Notion are designed to do.
Other options similar to Notion: Evernote, OneNote, Roam, Obsidian, Miro, Craft, Bear (iOS), and these newer apps. If you use Notion with right-to-left languages like Hebrew and Arabic (both of which it otherwise handles fine, except for the text direction), I recommend adding Notion Enhancer (freely available on Github).
Table of Contents
- About Notion (and Similar Apps)
- How I Organize my Notion
- Networked Notes
- Moving from Notes to Tasks
About Notion (and Similar Apps)
Each app works a little differently, but they are all essentially visual databases. Don’t run away if that sounds entirely dull or irrelevant to your non-quantitative work! Basically what it means is that you can create documents that are related to each other. In the case of Notion, you can create rich documents (think formatted text, embeds, hyperlinks, images, and pages slurped off the web) and then define relationships between them using property fields and direct linking. The results can be displayed in multiple styles, from Excel-type spreadsheet to Kanban boards to visual tiles.
Notion comes with a robust set of free features and optional premium features, which include their new AI. (I use the free tier and almost never come up against a paywall. The only time it’s happened is for very large files which I don’t need to store in Notion anyway.) Notion is multiplatform and syncs well. One drawback of Notion is that is currently requires an internet connection to use, with no offline functionality. Another is that, once your database(s) grow, it is not the fastest app in town. I find these minor inconveniences.
Because of the flexibility and complexity of tools like Notion, I’m not going to go into detail about how to set up databases (which can be set up in a multitude of ways). My advice here is to jump in and play around (using some of the premade templates can give you a sense of Notion’s capabilities), then google whatever questions or roadblocks come up.
Here, I’m going to give you a bird’s-eye view of how my Notion is set up and how I use it.
How I Organize my Notion
Some people like to use Notion “kitchen-sink style,” stashing everything in there, from filing-cabinet documents to meal plans to academic references. Many people use it for task management (“buy milk Thursday”), especially when working in teams, and it has many features to help with that. I find it too hands-on to use for task management and use a dedicated task manager for that. (More on that below.)
I predominantly use Notion for research notes. Secondarily, I use it for personal notes like holiday menu plans or future work opportunities. These personal notes are simple notes, not networked notes, meaning, they aren’t interlinked and aren’t contained in my main notes database.
My “life dashboard” includes a writing projects dashboard, which is where I can get a visual overview of current, ongoing, future, and finished projects. I generally write my outlines here and attach things like submission guidelines, then embed the main writing files(s). I do my main writing scheduling in my task manager and my main writing in Google Docs; this is just for notes and ideation.
At the top of my sidebar you can see my pinned (“favorite”) notes. These include current writing and online projects, individual notes that I’m using frequently or otherwise thinking about, and the halacha I’m studying this year in yeshiva.
Below that, you can see my main entry point into my notes, the Research Notes Dashboard, followed by “life stuff.”
This is what (the top of) the dashboard for my main database looks like. It is, essentially, a database where each item has multiple properties by which it can be sorted, including properties that link notes to each other. As the basis of the Research notes database, I used this Notion database template made available by Hiran Venugopalan which I modified to suit my needs and preferences. (Here’s the creator’s guide to using the template.)
The top portion displays my Idea Notes, which is stuff I’m thinking about and questions I have, which can then be developed into written pieces. To the right are unconnected notes, which means notes that are not yet related to other notes in my database. Below them are my Index Cards and then my simple (or atomic) Note Cards. You can see that I have multiple database views I’ve created for my notes. Below they’re arranged Kanban style by note type (concepts, people, works, places, etc.).
Side note: I generally write Hebrew stuff in Hebrew so I don’t have to remember how I transliterated it for search purposes. However, Notion search is pretty powerful and searches in the body text as well. (It does not do nearly as well as Google in understanding natural-language variants.)
Types of Networked Notes
Visualizing each note as a notecard, I came up with three core card types:
- Note card: This is a simple (or “atomic,” meaning stand-alone) rich-text note on a discrete subject, like “Book of Daniel” in the image below.
- Index card: This type of card acts as a subject hub or a table of contents (in PKM jargon, MOC, “map of content”) to a set of individual note cards that make up a subject area, like “Tanach.” Thus, the “Book of Daniel” note card is connected (and backlinked) to the “Tanach” index card, along with all the other individual notes on books of the Tanach.
- Idea card: This is an area of investigation, something that I’m researching (or would like to think more about eventually) and from where I draw writing ideas, which are then pre-seeded with notes I’ve taken along the way; for example, “Daniel and prophecy vs. Divine inspiration.”
Within these basic card types, I have subtypes (Note Type). This is where I categorize things into people, places, names of works, concepts, material objects (like manuscripts), history topics, Torah topics, and more. Each Note Type gets its own emoji, which makes searching visual and quick. The Book of Daniel is a “work” and gets a red book emoji. 📕
Note Properties and Relations
My research notes have many properties, most of which are hidden unless the field is filled in. After Card Type and Note Type (which are dropdown menus populated by preset options I’ve created), I have a Tags field which is a multi-select field. So, for Ritva below, I can select the tags Rishonim, Sefarad, and Gemara.
The next two fields, “Related To” and “Related From,” are relational fields that allow me to select any other page in the database. This is what makes my notes “networked.” At a glance, I can see that Ritva is connected to Rashba and the Rah. If I wanted to see others associated with Rashba’s circles, I could click on Rashba and navigate to more figures associated with him. Or, if I wanted to see what other figures are associated with medieval Zaragoza (Saragossa), I can click over and see who else is linked to that entry. Within the entry on Zaragozza itself, I’ll find notes I’ve taken about medieval Jewish sites in the city, stuff I’ve grabbed off the web on its Jewish history from the Encyclopedia Judaica, maybe maps I’ve embedded, and so on.
Below that are several informational fields, like relevant dates, and a URL if I’ve used information from an online source. Some fields are invisible, such as century, which is a numeric field I use for sorting purposes. (While Ritva’s birthdate displays as c. 1250, his “century” is 13.)
Finally, I have several fields related to my writing. If the given note is relevant for a Twitter thread, website section, article, or book project, I can mark its status in these fields. I also have a field for pub date, although I’m wondering if this needs to get more specific, given that I sometimes have multiple outlets for a single subject.
You can see how I output these into a writing task board here:
To the right, you can see an example of unconnected notes. (I go through these every Friday and connect any that are outstanding at the end of the week.) The first thing I do is go in and assign the note a type by choosing a (standard) emoji for it.
In this case, I have two notes on Chametz that I’ve clipped from online. The one with the link icon is going to get moved to the Idea Note (with the little pink brain) where it will live as an internal link. I’ll also go through and standardize their names, highlight, write down any additional notes, and connect to other places as needed.
The Toldot ha-Ari note needs to get rewritten in Hebrew and connected to the Ari; meanwhile, Black Death goes with Little Ice Age (the bottom note with the graph).
Above, I mentioned using the “Related” fields to jump between notes and explore how they’re connected. In addition to that, Notion allows for automatic backlinking, which means that if I add a shortcut to a page it’ll show up as a backlink on that page. Below is my page on Isur ve-Heter (the laws of kashrut). You can see in the pop-up from the backlink that I’ve linked to Isur ve-Heter in my Idea Note on Halachic Subjects. The pages I’ve made shortcuts to on the current page, like Taarovet, will show up as backlinks on those pages. Linking to another page is super easy with @ and as you can see, you can add page links into drop-down menus and all kinds of other elements.
The resulting note is a mix of my own notes, interlinks, information I’ve gotten online (I like to clearly mark this as such so I know the source), and all the tags and visual indicators in the property fields.
Moving from Notes to Tasks
I mentioned above that I don’t use Notion for task management. When I’m ready to start working actively on one of the projects in my Writing Dashboard that I’ve outlined and taken notes for, I schedule it out in my task manager, Marvin (no relation/affiliation!). This can be accomplished, I imagine, in whatever task manager you use (ToDoist, TickTick, Things, etc.). I have a “Writing” folder with a Website Content ongoing project with subprojects inside. I can assign due dates, “do” dates, and other such specifics to the tasks within the projects. Once a writing project moves into “Current” or “Ongoing,” it gets a dedicated project with specific dates sketched out. I can then move it around as needed along and see it alongside my other tasks and appointments.