Thoughts and Use Cases for Three Productivity Apps
Evernote, Notion, and ClickUp
Over the years, the tool(s) I use for productivity have changed with the seasons. Changing productivity apps every time a new one hits your radar is not very, well, productive. So, if you suffer from shiny toy syndrome, or any other disorder best described with an acronym, I wanted to give you my thoughts on the three apps I am primarily using.
Today. Tomorrow? Who knows.
I will get to my use cases in a bit, but first, my history and thoughts with productivity apps.
Since the early ’80s with my paper DayTimer, I have always used some sort of productivity tool. Since I purchased an Apple IIe in 1983, that tool has been computerized. Back then, when most software cost upwards of $100, switching wasn’t as trivial, but I did change several times.
Since 2009, the only constant in all of this has been the elephant in the room, Evernote. It is also the first tool that I tried to use as an all-in-one app. Like the other two programs in this article, and most others I have tried, it is excellent at some things, but not so good at others. But I have tried to make each of these, and a few others, into the all-in-one workspace or the one app to replace them all, as Notion and ClickUp, respectively promise.
From following forums and groups, I know I’m not alone in this desire.
But I have finally realized that this is not practical, and more importantly, isn’t even desirable.
Imagine you are having a house built. You meet with the architect and builder and tell them, “Instead of putting closets and cabinets all over the house, just build one room for storage. I will keep everything in one place.”
Make sense? No, and neither does doing the same thing on the computer.
You can do it, but there isn’t a good reason for doing so and good reasons for not doing so.
Think of each app as a series of holes. Evernote has square holes, ClickUp has round holes, and Notion has triangular holes. You have pegs of all of these shapes. Trying to cram all three into one app is going to be somewhere between tedious and impossible.
First, since it was the oldest, I tried with Evernote. For years it had been my repository of all data and anything that formerly resided on paper. If I could make it do everything else, that would be cool. So, I downloaded calendar templates to make it into a calendar app. I also used the system outlined in The Secret Weapon to implement a GTD based task management system.
But both of these systems were clunky, and worse, almost sacrilegious; they were manual. Manual procedures on a computer? Blasphemy. So, I went back to my trusty Google calendar and an endless parade of task management apps. Look for a review of those soon.
A few years ago, in that search, I discovered ClickUp. I loved everything it could do, but at the time, it was highly organized around the concept of a team. As a team of one, it was hard to wrap my head around. So, after a while, I moved on.
Recently, in a renewed search for the Swiss army knife of tools, I came back to ClickUp. It has evolved quite a bit, and though still team-centric, it is much easier to adapt it to a single user. The constant development and the hands-on of its owners has kept me here.
But again, as an end-all, do all, it’s not quite there. It does so much more than most other task management programs, but it currently can’t hold a candle to Evernote in the document storage and retrieval arena. It’s getting closer all the time and has introduced a docs section, but it is just one big dumping ground with little opportunity for organization. Having said that, I have figured out a way to organize docs efficiently; let me know if you’d like an article on that process.
Finally, there is Notion. I have never seen an app so polarizing, People worship it as the new messiah, or they despise it as a huge time suck.
I’m somewhere in the middle. I love what it does and how it does it. But trying to work around all the things it doesn’t do is just too much work.
It’s database driven and has some time fields, but no real way to manage time. I tried using it for task management, but like Evernote, managing tasks, especially recurring ones, is a somewhat manual process.
The real deal-breaker for me in Notion is it’s almost complete lack of any sort of quick-capture. It has as screen clipper, but no real ‘inbox’ scenario. Worse and unforgivable is the fact that you can’t email something directly into the app. As far as I know, this is the only program in the productivity universe that lacks this basic feature. I have seen a workaround, but it uses two external apps and looks about as simple as college calculus.
And yeah, it is a time suck, but it’s a fun one. If you are a highly visual person, you definitely want to give it a go. And there are a ton of videos out there on how to make it do everything. But you’re still trying to pound round and square pegs into its triangular-shaped holes.
So, all that was a roundabout way of getting to the point of using the best tools for the jobs. You can pound a screw into a piece of wood with a hammer, but it isn’t pretty. Use the right tool for the job. This means owning more than one tool.
Before I get into the specific use cases for these products, I will illustrate my point with a fourth app. One of the uses I have tried to make work in all three of these is a simple shopping list. I don’t need anything complicated, just a quick and easy reminder of things I need when I get to the store.
Either of the three will do this simple task nicely. In Evernote, I created a document for each store and entered things into them, then linked to these from my dashboard page. A dashboard isn’t really native to Evernote, but I built one after coming back from Notion, and getting some good ideas.
I used a similar process in Notion, but stored all the items in a single database with different views created from links on the home page. This configurable view of your databases is the key feature of Notion and one that makes it very attractive for certain types of tasks.
Finally, in ClickUp, I used it’s memo pad feature to create a different list for each store. The memo pad feature should be much better. It’s intended as a quick and easy way to get data in or check on small things like grocery lists. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as easy and fast to get to as it should be.
The problem with all of these is the respective developer’s poor implementation of mobile apps. In today’s world, where the entire sum of all the world’s knowledge is accessible from a small device in your pocket, there is no excuse for a mobile app to be an afterthought.
The development of mobile apps should start out of the gate in parallel and tandem with the desktop app.
Because of that lack in all three programs, it takes anywhere from twenty to forty seconds to get to your grocery list. There was a time when twenty seconds was nothing, but it is inexcusable in today’s world. Nothing takes twenty seconds. And when you are standing in the aisle of the store, staring at the seven Cap’n Crunch varieties, it’s just too long.
So, I went with a grocery list app. I may go into which one in another article. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but speed isn’t one of the shortcomings. The slowest one I tested took five seconds. Right tool for the job.
So now, (finally) how I see these three tools being used in my future. You do you.
Despite promises for almost two years from the current head, Ian Small, Evernote is still somewhat stagnant. He keeps talking about significant changes behind the scenes, but we’re not watching behind the scenes. We’re watching the stage, and nothing is happening. Much of the audience has left the theater because of this.
But, as I wrote in this article, I still think Evernote is the best at two things, and those two things are where I am focusing all my attention.
- Quick Capture
- Storage and Retrieval
Despite the thirty seconds it takes to open the mobile app, Evernote has several small and speedy widgets that make it great to capture quick ideas on the go. I use the memo and camera widgets daily to grab things quickly.
As I outlined in that article, Evernote also has a variety of other ways to get data into the system. I can’t think of any document or data storage system with a method of input that Evernote doesn’t have.
So, for the foreseeable future, if I need to get something captured quickly, even if it may end up in Notion or ClickUp, Evernote will be my go-to.
The other aspect where Evernote shines is simple document storage and retrieval. This was the original purpose, and it still does it exceptionally well. There is a lot of debate between long-term Evernote users about the best form of organization, tags vs. folders. (I know they are called notebooks, I just like to irritate the purists.)
But these are personal preferences. The reality is that either method works, primarily because of the excellent search capabilities in the product. I can search for any word in my 14,000 notes and get almost instant results. No one does this better.
Besides my simple dashboard, I will no longer try to mold Evernote into something it’s not. Quick capture and document retrieval will be the limit of my use of Evernote. Of course, this leaves it vulnerable if further development doesn’t happen soon. Either or both of these uses could be implemented by the competition.
I have written several articles on getting started with Notion and have linked them below. Users of Notion are passionate about it and with good reason. No other app is as configurable and flexible aesthetically. One can spend hours designing home and landing pages to manage all aspects of their lives.
And that is also one of its pitfalls. For instance, in Evernote, I have a simple list of books I have read in the past several years. It’s a simple text list easily searchable. But in Notion, you can build a graphical database with the book’s cover as the image and link to the underlying data. This data, and the image, for that matter, would reside in a database with an infinite number of fields that could be sorted on and displayed in myriad ways.
But is it worth all the time that it would take to build? That’s a personal question that will differ with each user. Many users, thousands of them, say yes. I think not. My simple list is good enough for a quick search. If I want more information, I am using a site called Goodreads for that.
But I still find plenty of uses for Notion for which the time investment is worth it. Anything data-driven, for instance. My background in computing, going back to those Apple IIe days, was mostly in database and data-driven applications, so Notion should be right up my alley.
And though, highly configurable, it is so only within the context of its own framework. For instance, everything is a ‘block.’ If you’ve worked with WordPress, you are familiar with the concept. But one of the things I have used all three apps for is writing these articles. And while an argument could be made for each paragraph to be a block, it can also be counter-intuitive to those of us who have always used some sort of word processor for this task.
A use case I recently attempted is another example of where Notion is more rigid than flexible. I create guitar lessons in Evernote with a combination of text, PDFs, Jpgs, and links to videos. This should be an ideal case for Notion, especially given its ability to display embedded things. YouTube videos are a prime and excellent example.
But the PDFs and images, not so much. The PDfs appear partially displayed in a container that you have to click on to go to the ‘original’ file stored somewhere in the Notion universe. Not horrible, but not as handy as the fully displayed and resizable PDFs in Evernote. The images were difficult to resize and place on the screen properly. Perhaps there is a workaround for that.
However, I am finding data-driven use cases that are perfect for Notion. Metadata for my image library is one. I frequently need reusable captions and keywords. I have been storing them in Evernote, which works fine due to the excellent search capability, but the documents themselves are just huge blocks of text in seemingly random order. Having these data reside in a couple of Notion databases makes much more sense.
I can also see Notion as a master dashboard or launching pad for everything else, using embedded links to drive it to Evernote documents, ClickUp tasks, and other applications.
One major change with Notion that may push many users back in that direction is the new free plan. What used to be called the Personal plan at $4 a month is now free. You do get a 5Mb limit on file size, but ‘blocks’ are unlimited. The $4 now gets you the Pro plan with that and other limitations removed.
How much time I am willing to spend on making things pretty in Notion remains to be seen. And until their quick capture and mobile app improve, it can only get a limited amount of my attention.
Although I first tried ClickUp long before Notion, it has only recently come back to my attention. I had been going through my typical revolving door of task management apps and coming off another failed attempt to go ‘all-in’ with Notion.
I did some searches to find something better than what I was using, and was reminded of ClickUp. I couldn’t remember exactly why it hadn’t worked for me, but after perusing a few videos, I was reminded of its team-centric approach. But after going back in and kicking the tires a bit, I saw that much had changed.
Some of it was pure semantics, changing projects to folders, for instance. But this also showed a change in mindset and made it easier to create a hierarchy that worked for me. The fact that the folder level was also now optional sealed the deal.
In the past, the large but rigid hierarchy was too difficult for me to use. I didn’t need Spaces/Projects/Lists/Tasks for every little thing. So, for this iteration, Spaces became only business and personal. And if that proves too much, there is nothing wrong with having everything in one ‘space.’
And since folders are now optional, many of my tasks are under their respective lists, which is pretty much the same way all task management systems work. But the folders are still there where they make sense.
The best thing about ClickUp is the constant work the team is putting into it. Updates are weekly, something Notion used to be better at, and Evernote needs to be. Many of these new features are useless to me, but seeing them roll out week after week shows me how invested this team is in the app’s future.
One recent addition is the Docs area, where you can store various kinds of documents. These can be created on the fly, such as this article, or uploaded as a file. The downside to the docs is there is currently no organization. Everything is dumped into one big bucket. As I said earlier, if there is an interest, I can write up how I handle this. Hopefully, the ClickUp team will fix this sooner rather than later.
So, ClickUp is handling not only all of my task management items but anything date related. This has been driven by the vast array of views you can create of your data. Except for tables, which is a new view in ClickUp, the variety of views rivals Notion, especially the board view.
I am using various board views to drive my content creation. Having custom fields that can be used as statuses makes this app very powerful and flexible. As you can in Notion, your Kanban boards can be displayed by almost any field, including the very nicely implemented custom fields.
Although there is a lot of conversation on the subject, I didn’t discuss the price of these apps. Coming from an era when a significant application would cost close to $1,000, the current cost of apps is negligible. I also don’t follow many people’s belief that the subscription model is evil, knowing that it has always been the case that you are buying a license to use a product, not the product itself. And finally, the argument I see frequently is that the free version should contain everything I need, but it’s okay to charge for the stuff I don’t need as ludicrous.
There are always new apps on the horizon, Roam Research seems to be rearing its head lately, but for the foreseeable future, I am banking my time and money on these three.