Lessons from using Apple Notes for three months
Back in September, I committed to using Apple Notes for three months. The goal was to focus on my use cases for writing, rather than fiddling with new apps continuously.
Here’s what I’ve identified so far. Many of the approaches and features that I’m using in these use cases are readily available in other apps and often Notes is not the most efficient choice. Now that I’ve documented these use cases, I’d like to use them to assess alternative apps.
Thanks to Timery, I know that 60% of my working time is spent in meeting. So many meetings!
For each one, I create a note to capture ideas, useful information, and tasks. I’ve automated this with a couple of Shortcuts. The one I use the most is “Start My Next Meeting”. This presents me with a list of upcoming meetings. I choose from the list and it creates a meeting note, starts a Timery timer, and opens the link to start the video call (typically Teams). The meeting note has the name of the meeting as the title, adds tags for #meeting and the Timery project, adds the date and time of the meeting, a list of attendees, and any notes from the calendar event. From this structure, I can then add notes throughout the meeting and extract any tasks into Reminders later.
I used Agenda for these sorts of notes before, which was powerful.
Occasionally, I find myself at the end of a week with no clear sense of what I actually accomplished. To help with this, for the past year I’ve been recording the top three things I’ve done in a day into Day One (the 5 Minute PM template has been great for this).
To augment this, I’ve been using another Shortcut to create a Daily Work Report. This makes a note of the meetings I attended, tasks I completed, and tasks I created. These all get saved to a Daily Notes folder. I then use the day’s work report to pull out the highlights for Day One. There’s some redundancy here, though I find the process of choosing just three things for Day One is helpful.
Overall, I think that Day One is a better app for this use case.
For each of my projects, I create a project note that states the purpose or objective of the project, key stakeholders, and timelines. Then I accumulate relevant notes and documents while making progress on the project. Creating these are also done via a simple Shortcut. I’ve experimented with using checklists for tasks in these notes, but find it isn’t as effective as my approach with MindNode and Reminders.
Once I finish a project, the associated note gets cleaned up and moved to an Archive folder to keep it out of the way.
This is a rather broad category and, unlike the previous use cases, is for both work and personal notes. Much of this is capturing facts, quotes, and sources. If it is project specific, they go to the project note. Some are more generic and are kept as a standalone note. All of them get tags to help provide some structure. This is where Apple Notes ability to accept almost anything from the share sheet is powerful.
The new Quick Notes feature has been interesting for research. The ability to quickly highlight and then resurrect content on websites is great. I find actually working with the quick notes is pretty clumsy though. They have to stay in the Quick Notes folder and choosing which one to send content to can be tricky. I think there’s some great potential here and will keep experimenting.
For any webpages that I want to archive, I use another Shortcut that creates a plain-text note of the webpage along with some metadata and then adds the link to Pinboard. This has been surprisingly useful for recipes, when all I really want are the ingredients and steps, rather than the long history of the recipe’s development.
Other nice features
In addition to these use cases, there are a few nice features of Apple Notes that are worth mentioning.
- As should be apparent from above, creating useful Shortcuts for Apple Notes is straightforward. In some sense, it is the Shortcuts that I’m finding really useful. Apple Notes is just the final destination for the content.
- I’ve set up widgets by focus mode so that the most recent notes are shown on my Home Screen in the right context. These are restricted to a particular folder and sorted by date modified.
- The formatting options are comprehensive, including table support.
- I think I like the feature where checking off tasks moves them to the bottom of the list. Most of the time, this is what I want.
- The iCloud web app is convenient for using notes on my Windows work PC. Unfortunately, I’ve found the syncing to be rather unreliable here, where notes just don’t show up in the web app sometimes.
- I don’t share notes as often as I expected. When I do, it works really well.
- Not really specific to Apple Notes, but I stole an idea from Matthew Cassinelli to aggregate all of these Notes Shortcuts into one super Shortcut that creates a list of Shortcuts to choose from.
There are a few things that don’t work as well as they should:
- Searching is too limited. In particular, you can’t narrow searches to particular folders. Most of the time I either only want to search my meeting notes or not include them. I had to set up a Shortcut that takes a search term as an input and then asks me to specify which folder to search. This should be built into the app’s search field.
- Linking among notes isn’t really supported. You can sort of do this with url searches for note titles. Pretty clunky though.
- Given how much I use Shortcuts for Apple Notes, it is frustrating how little you can do when creating a note. In particular, you can’t style text or add tags. Every time I use Shortcuts to create a note, the first thing I have to do is apply title and heading styles and convert any words prefixed with a # into an actual tag.
Other use cases
I’ve found a few use cases that don’t yet fit in with Apple Notes. I’m using Drafts for all of these:
- Blog posts
- Drafting long emails
- Capturing and processing transitory texts, which Drafts is really optimized for
Restricting myself to Apple Notes was a helpful trick for crystallizing my use cases. Now that I’m three months in, I think I’ll stick with Apple Notes for a while longer. I’ve built up a good ecosystem of Shortcuts for working with the app and, of course, now have lots of content in the app.
Reading Shortcut for the iPad 👓⚙️
I haven’t yet adopted the minimalist style of my iPhone for my iPad. Rather, I’ve found that setting up “task oriented” Shortcuts on my home screen is a good alternative to arranging lots of app icons.
The one I use the most is a “Reading” Shortcut, since this is my dominant use of the iPad. Nothing particularly fancy. Just a list of potential reading sources and each one starts up a Timery timer, since I like to track how much time I’m reading.
Here’s a screenshot of the first few actions:
I like the bit of whimsy from using emoticons:
- 📚 for Apple Books
- 💵 for The Economist
- 📰 for NetNewsWire
- 👓 for Safari Reading List
A nice feature of using a Shortcut for this is that I can add other actions, such as turning on Do Not Disturb or starting a specific playlist. I can also add and subtract reading sources over time, depending on my current habits. For example, the first one was Libby for a while, since I was reading lots of library books.
This is another example of how relatively simple Shortcuts can really help optimize how you use your iOS devices.
Simple brew tea shortcut
Since I’m mostly stuck inside these days, I find I’m drinking more tea than usual. So, as a modification of my brew coffee shortcut, I’ve created a brew tea shortcut.
This one is slightly more complicated, since I want to do different things depending on if the tea is caffeinated or not.
We start by making this choice:
Then, if we choose caffeine, we log this to the Health app:
Uncaffeinated tea counts as water (at least for me):
And, then, regardless of the type of tea, we set a timer for 7 minutes:
Running this one requires more interactions with Siri, since she’ll ask which type we want. We can either reply by voice or by pressing the option we want on the screen.
A simple Shortcut for tracking workout time
I’ve been tracking my time at work for a while now, with the help of Toggl and Timery. Now that I’m working from home, work and home life are blending together, making it even more useful to track what I’m doing.
Physical exercise is essential to my sanity. So, I wanted to integrate my Apple Watch workouts into my time tracking. I thought I’d be able to leverage integration with the Health app through Shortcuts to add in workout times. Turns out you can’t access this kind of information and I had to take a more indirect route using the Automation features in Shortcuts.
I’ve setup two automations: one for when I start an Apple Watch workout and the other for when I stop the workout:
The starting automation just starts an entry in Timery:
The stopping automation, unsurprisingly, stops the running entry:
As with most of my Shortcuts, this is a simple one. Developing a portfolio of these simple automations is really helpful for optimizing my processes and freeing up time for my priorities.
Brew coffee shortcut
Shorcuts in iOS is a great tool. Automating tasks significantly boosts productivity and some really impressive shortcuts have been created.
That said, it is often the smaller automations that add up over time to make a big difference. My most used one is also the simplest in my Shortcuts Library. I use it every morning when I make my coffee. All the shortcut does is set a timer for 60 seconds (my chosen brew time for the Aeropress) and logs 90mg of caffeine into the Health app.
All I need to do is groggily say “Hey Siri, brew coffee” and then patiently wait for a minute. Well, that plus boil the water and grind the beans.
Simple, right? But that’s the point. Even simple tasks can be automated and yield consistencies and productivity gains.