Posted in Analog, Techniques, Tools

Digital note-taking isn’t ready for prime time

There has been a long aspiration in the tech communities to replace paper and pen and go pure digital. “It’s easier to organize.” “It’s faster to access.” “It’s more intuitive.” When it comes down to it tech wants to replace something that has been around for thousands of years and proves time and time again to be a more reliable solution.

Typically you’ll come across posts such as “The top 5 digital note taking devices of 2020” or the like showcasing the latest in handwriting tech and identifying “transformational” new ways to capture your notes and thoughts with a stylus. I’ll admit I’ve been seduced by the talk in the same way going back to the days of Palm Pilots and Windows CE devices only to be let down time and time again.

I’m not saying you may not find the perfect tool for you, but what I am saying is the technology both hardware and software have been found lacking in my book. Whether it’s an uncomfortable stylus (I’m looking at you Samsung) or an exceptional expensive device (hey, Sony) the chance for digital handwriting to replace traditional pen and paper still has a huge way to go.

Now some may say I’m not being fair about this. “People have terrible handwriting,” or “There are so many styles to account for” that it’s too much to ask for perfection. You’re probably right, but that doesn’t change the fact that traditional pen and paper can handle those situations at a fraction of a fraction of the cost.

If you’re looking to move to digital note-taking and don’t want to be tied to a keyboard, just remember what you’re asking to happen. If you’re inclined to tell someone, “oh my handwriting is terrible” how do you expect a computer to make the interpretations of your chicken scratch. I’ve got a crazy idea. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on tech to compensate why not spend some time working on your handwriting and note taking skills so it’s not an issue in the first place.

You can use scanning tools and smart pens such as LiveScribe or Rocketbooks, but neither will fix unintelligible handwriting. This is a skill that pays dividends for the rest of your life no matter what happens with technology. In this period of stay-at-home and social distancing, put some of that time to use to work on that penmanship so the digital translation isn’t the issue it has been.

I’ve included some links below to articles that may help you turn that chicken scratch into something you don’t mind reading and sharing.

How to Improve Penmanship – The Art of Manliness

How to Improve your Handwriting – Bullet Journal

Posted in Tools, Update, Working from Home

Changes to the office

I’ve been struggling a bit lately with the configuration of my home office to make it more functional to work from full time again. There was a time several years ago when I was working from home that the layout and hardware were different and I could function effectively. Now, my office is not only used for my full time job but also podcasting, writing, development, and many other things (not to mention the occasional gaming session.)

One of the main challenges has been running a laptop and a desktop all-in-one machine as my central monitor without having two different keyboards and mice AND sharing one webcam (since that’s a critical thing now.) It took a little planning and an order from Amazon but it has all come together.

The Amazon purchase was for a 10 port powered USB hub with three charging ports built in. The second part was a manual switching USB hub. The way the set up works is: the keyboard, mouse, webcam, boom mike, headset, and phone charging dock all plug into the UBS hub. The hub is plugged into the switching hub which in turn is plugged into the laptop and the all-in-one desktop. (I’ll include non-affiliate links to the two at the bottom.)

This configuration means that by pressing two buttons (one to switch the hub and one to change the all-in-one monitor’s input from internal to external) I can effectively jump between machines without changing a single cable.

When working on configuring your home workspace make sure you are setting it up so it works for you rather than trying to emulate the artificial standards placed on you at work. Finding the configuration that works for you can make all the difference in the world.


Tek Republic TUS-200 USB Sharing Switch – 2 Port Manual Switch One USB Device…

APANAGE Powered USB 3.0 Hub, 11 Ports USB Hub Splitter (7 High Speed Data Tra…

Posted in Notion, Tools

Using Notion for Travel Planning

I’m still on the Notion bandwagon, regardless of some of the issues they’ve been dealing with as of late (slow development, performance, etc.) and no better example of that is my counting on Notion on my recent vacation.

I needed to keep track of maps, travel itineraries, currency exchanges, menus, hotels, airlines, customs, expenses…the list goes on and on. Yes, I know there’s literally dozens of tools out there to do just this type of thing, but I wanted to put Notion through it’s paces and see if it could truly be a “trusted tool”. Here’s five places where Notion shined for me while traveling.

Master Task List

The ability to create a master task list of all the things needing to be done and then segment that list onto various pages focused by topic was a game changer for me. Here’s an example: in my master task list I added entries for everything I needed to pack, all the documents I needed in hand, things I had to do at home before we left, and things we needed to purchase. That’s a lot of things in one list. By adding categories (properties in Notion parlance) and then adding Linked Databases that filtered by the property, I was able to create dedicated pages for each stage of the trip and pull just those tasks that were applicable to those pages. Can’t do that with OneNote.

Embedded maps

Many tools support cutting and pasting maps into pages for easy reference. Notion takes it a step further by allowing you to embed working Google Maps into pages centered around specific locations. I created a Maps section on the home page for my trip and added a map for each city we planned to visit. Quick, easy, and convenient, I could not only see a location but zoom and pan without leaving Notion.

Google Docs links

Many of the materials we had for the trip were PDF files. Now since there were five of us sharing materials it was easier to place copies of the PDFs in Google Drive and share them from there. That wasn’t going to stop me from using Notion for them as well. Notion allows you to embed Google Docs into your pages or create links (including descriptions of the files) in a page for easy access.

Drag and drop reorganization

There’s almost no way to get a page layout in any tool perfectly right the first time. You start adding things to a page and then find there’s too much to keep organized or you want to reshuffle things to make more sense. Notion makes drag and drop reorganization a piece of cake. You can even take an item on a page and turn it into something else, like a bit of text into a page or a list into a table, with just a couple of clicks.

Galleries for organizing links

Pinterest has long been the place to go to collect, organize, and recall links from around the web in a visually appealing way. Notion gives you similar capabilities using their Gallery layouts. As part of my travel planning I wanted to keep track of things we’d seen, places we’d been, and things of interest related to our travels. The Gallery allows me to copy and paste links that immediate render into thumbnail images and live links to the original page. It turned into a great way to keep things organized on the fly.

Bonus: mobility

Notion is one of the best tools I’ve found at adjusting it’s pages and layouts to mobile friendly access. Lists restack, galleries realign, and task lists flow naturally. Unfortunately this is also one of Notion’s stumbling points: it’s lack of true offline access. If they’re able to get offline working in a reliable and consistent manner then this can easily be the go-to tool for my travels now and in the future.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite tool (or tools) for managing your travels?

Posted in Techniques, Tools

A tool without a plan is worse than no tool at all

The plethora of productivity tools in the marketplace, from small single-user solutions up to enterprise wide platforms, creates an environment of confusion when it comes to implementation. Do these sound familiar:

  • What does this tool do?
  • How can I use it?
  • Does it have the features I need?
  • What features DO I need?
  • Who is going to use it?
  • How am I going to learn to use it?
  • Do I have time to learn?

Before you get started with putting a productivity tool to use, you need a plan. There’s three things that need to be part of any plan, regardless of the tools involved: what are your objectives, what are your measures, and how do you change direction?

What are your objectives?

Putting a new tool into use isn’t a productivity objective. It’s a justification for an expenditure. “We paid for it, now we’re going to use it.” Terrible reasoning no matter how high on the corporate ladder you are. Think about it this way: we paid for the bicycle so this is what we’re going to use to cross the English Channel. Doesn’t make a bit of sense does it. If you know from the beginning you’re going to want to cross the English Channel, then deciding on a tool that has the possibility of accomplishing that feat is much more shrewd than just using what’s on hand.

Think about where you want to get to and then go back and look at your tools to see if they can get you there. Yes, I know in many cases you won’t know until you try (hence the future discussion on iterative solutions) but you need to start with an understanding of your objectives. This dovetails with the second part: what are your measures? If you don’t know your objectives you won’t have a clue as what to measure and how to apply those measures.

What are your measures?

Metrics. The favorite plaything of almost every middle manager. “What are the metrics for such and such?” or even worse, “what metrics can you provide me?” Basing decisions on available metrics without determining if they truly influence the chances of success on reaching your objectives means you’re just undermining yourself. For example, let’s take articles on an intranet and the measures of views vs. unique viewers.

In today’s social media powered society views are king. “My Instagram post got 10,000 views!” is grounds for celebration in many circles. But does it really impact the objectives you’ve set. In an intranet, it’s not how many times something is seen but rather how many people see that thing.

Let’s say you wrote a post about an event that just happened within your company. In looking at the metrics, you see your company (of 1,000 people) viewed the post over 700 times. Normally you’d think that wouldn’t be bad until you did a little math. That 700 view count means that at the worst case 300 people never even saw the post. A more realistic estimate is that 50-60% of the people saw the post and unless your metrics tools are smart enough to filter out when someone views a post more than once, even fewer people read what you wrote. Why does this matter when it comes your productivity plan?

If you’re measuring success based on the number of things done, does it include that they’re right things to be done? If you’re measuring success based on the items accomplished, are you getting enough done to keep things flowing? Do your metrics give you enough time and information to react when you’re missing the mark and make adjustments? Knowing what you’re measuring, why you’re measuring it, and what you’re going to do with that information is where the value comes from metrics.

How do you change direction?

Change is the only constant in life.


No matter how carefully you plan, you will at some point need to make adjustments. Whether it’s for good reasons (things are going more smoothly than anticipated) or for bad (things have gone off the rails again) the flexibility to change is what makes a successful plan. When evaluating a tool or a system, does it give you the ability to change when needed or are you locked into a rigid structure with no chance to adapt?

In discussing this with a colleague she raised the example, “A hammer is a hammer. You can’t change it. You can only change how you use it.” A valid point indeed and all the more reason to make sure you should be using a hammer in the first place. Taking time as part of your plan to determine what you need your tools to do, how you know if they’re doing those things well, and can those tools be used in other ways when your needs change is time well spent.

Planning ahead

I love it when a plan comes together.

John “Hannibal” Smith, the A-Team

Here’s five tips for putting a plan in place to be more productive:

  1. If you have a favorite tool, take time to know what it can and what it can’t do in advance.
  2. Write down your “success measures.” How will you know when you’re being successful and when you aren’t?
  3. If you understand your need, you may not need a special feature to meet it. If you’re keeping track of lists you may not need a fancy data part if a simple table will do.
  4. Don’t waste time jumping from tool to tool.
  5. If you want to try a new tool, try it with something that worked in the old tool rather than something that didn’t. This is the only way to know what will work without blaming the tool for something you can’t do anyway.

Posted in Notion, Tools

The biggest knocks on Notion

If you do any research into the tool Notion online you’ll find some common complaints coming from users. These include: slow loading times on mobile, no real offline mode, and no native application for mobile use. Now I’m a fan of the tool, don’t get me wrong. It’s the closest thing to a Swiss army knife I’ve found when it comes to taking notes, organizing data, and handling images all in one place.

This could just be a case of feature frenzy but I think there is something more here. Notion is a small shop of dedicated people, but it is just that, a small shop. Making the changes needed to maintain their momentum in the marketplace is key if they want to continue growing and succeeding. Rumors have it they are working hard on coming updates to address issues such as performance and offline modes. If that’s the case, great. However perhaps dedicating a little more time to the community side of the platform, for example the “Notion Pros” program they had talked about starting, could be the best thing to buy them additional time and good will as they continue their development efforts.

I want to see Notion succeed, really I do. I just hope they remember that this type of tool is as much about the people using it as the features of the tool itself.

Posted in Tools

OneNote 2016 is back from the dead

Microsoft has finally come to realize the Windows 10 version of OneNote, no matter how much work they put in, is not a suitable replacement for the desktop version. With that in mind, they’re adding dark mode, installing it by default again, and extending support through 2025 for OneNote 2016.

Sometimes running things on the desktop instead of the web is better after all.

Posted in Notion, Techniques, Tools

Making my task list part of my notes in Notion

I’ve been focused on using Notion for the past couple of weeks and have found a specific feature has crept into my daily workflow without me even thinking about it. This feature has turned what was an organizational challenge into the proverbial “piece of cake.”

Linked Databases

Notion supports the idea of taking a database (or in their case, a list) and linking it (embedding) to another page in Notion. By doing this you can create custom views for each page while maintaining the integrity of the main database.

I’ve put this to use by creating a master task list (something you can find a number of excellent YouTube videos about) and then linking to that list on other related pages with filters that focus on the page topic. For example, I’m planning a trip in a couple of weeks and have added a tag to my Master Task list for the trip. As I think of things I need to do for the trip I add them to the task list, but at the same time I can add things that aren’t related to the trip such as household chores.

Everything on one page

Where the power comes in is on the page I created for the trip that includes destination maps, travel itinerary, and general notes for traveling. On that page I link to the Master Task database and then create a view that filters to only those tasks tagged with the travel tag. Now when I’m focused on my travel planning I know everything I need is in one place and I don’t have to do double work to keep lists up to date.

One of many features

This is just one of many, many features on this platform and combined with the smooth user experience and multiplatform support I’d have to say it’s something that will be part of my productivity arsenal for a long time coming.