Modern productivity tools have given us the power to leverage our data more efficiently, streamline workflows, and boost our productivity in massive ways.
There’s just one problem.
Most productivity stacks consist of separate apps for scheduling, note-taking, project management, knowledge curation, habit tracking, and more.
While this approach works just fine, it tends to cause vendor lock-in and doesn’t scale well at all. There’s just no easy way to share data across apps without a complex automation workflow.
What if there was a single productivity app that could handle all of these use cases while allowing you to maintain full creative freedom and customization?
Notion is just what you’re looking for.
First, let’s talk about what Notion is not.
Most productivity apps have an out-of-the-box configuration to get you up and running quickly. Notion does not.
There are two prerequisites to get the most out of its powerful features, in this order:
- A solid understanding of how to use the app
- A significant upfront investment to design your system
On the surface, Notion resembles your traditional note-taking app with functionality similar to Evernote. It can even be used like that if you prefer.
But trust me, you would be limiting yourself in huge ways if you went the lazy route and used it as a glorified text editor.
It’s simply so much more than that. It requires a shift in thinking from “file cabinet” style archival to system design.
Where it falls short is managing recurring tasks. For this reason, it may be beneficial to use it in conjunction with a basic task management app like Google Tasks or Todoist.
It’s definitely possible to use it for task management, but it requires significant customization and there are simply better tools out there for that purpose.
You can create two types of notes in Notion: pages and databases.
Pages resemble traditional notes with enhanced features like flexible column arrangement and the ability to embed elements like Tweets.
Databases are reusable tables of structured data with various field types. They function similarly to the database tables you may be familiar with in traditional relational database systems like MySQL.
Each database entry links to another blank page where you can write notes, design a dashboard, or create additional pages and databases. The hierarchical structure allows for unlimited nesting, so the possibilities are endless.
Notion also allows you to create relations between databases. Linking various data points to each other gives you a clearer picture of what you should be working on and how to go about it.
Take for example a database for projects and a separate database for tasks. The relation field in Notion allows you to link all your tasks and projects together for quick, easy access. The same goes for linking goals to projects or any other dataset you can think of.
This enables you to better focus your energy on tasks or projects that fit into your long-term goals.
You can also toggle your database between different view types such as tables, Kanban boards, calendars, lists, or gallery cards, all within the same database. These custom views can be used to filter, sort, and display your data exactly how you see fit.
You can even embed database views within pages to build out user-friendly dashboards and control panels.
What’s that quote again? Every new idea is simply an improvement on an old one. Something like that, but more elegant…
The point is, I’m not the first person on the planet to write about Notion.
I first discovered it after reading a blog post by Nat Eliason describing how to use Notion to set, track and hit your goals. This piqued my curiosity so I dove deep into research mode searching for other resources that described how to get a solid system up and running.
This is when I came across August Bradley’s Youtube Channel and his popular Life Operating System design.
A large chunk of my system borrows ideas from his framework while some of it is customized to my liking. You can save yourself some time and download his task management template by signing up for his Mind & Machine newsletter.
The objective of this post isn’t necessarily to show you step-by-step how to configure everything. I simply want to provide a high-level overview of my system and give you some ideas on how to think about Notion with respect to productivity.
I also won’t get too deep into basic concepts like how to set goals as that’s out of the scope of this article. The Internet is inundated with generic goal-setting posts as is.
What I will do is offer my thoughts on which databases were essential to my system and how you can best utilize them to boost your productivity. Then feel free to head on over to August’s channel to see his system in action if you’re more of a visual person like I am.
The best way to think about Notion as a productivity tool is to first outline exactly what you’ll be using it for. The main aspects of the productivity stack I was trying to replace include the following:
- Task & project management
- Goal-setting & life purpose
- Habit & routine tracking
- Reviews & planning
- Personal knowledge management & content curation
Let’s dive into it, starting with task and project management.
Previously, I used Trello as a task and project management system. I had two boards, personal and professional, with a list corresponding to each stage a task would land on throughout its lifecycle.
Here’s how each list was structured:
- Inbox - intake for new tasks.
- Today - the current day’s planned tasks.
- Tomorrow - the next day’s planned tasks.
- Waiting on - tasks that were on hold due to a person or event out of my control.
- Archive - recently completed tasks.
Each task was represented by its own card.
Then I would simply drag and drop the task cards from list to list as their status changed in real-time.
When I moved to Notion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that August’s task template was modeled after a similar approach with a hybrid table/calendar view instead of a Kanban board.
What’s nice about seeing your tasks in table form is you have all their metadata at your disposal. With Trello, you had to click on each card to view that and frankly, that’s not the most user-friendly experience.
Reminder: try to link each task you create in Notion to a project so you’re not spending your time on tasks that don’t move the needle.
Your entire task management system can then be automated with due dates. As the date changes, all the projects in your tomorrow view will move into today and so on.
Every project you create should be driven by an underlying goal-setting framework. After all, if a project isn’t helping you reach your goals, why work on it in the first place?
This system capitalizes on goal-setting in two ways:
- First, I recommend creating a database that houses all of the overarching facets of your life that are essential to focus on when it comes to hitting your goals. Some examples could include fitness, relationships, lifestyle, or a primary skill that drives your career. I typically characterize lifestyle as the three L’s: location, living space, and luxuries.
Then you would link these back to your projects and goals as a relation. August likes to call these Pillars. Some other productivity gurus call them Focus Areas.
These aren’t just useful with respect to goal-setting either. You can take advantage of them throughout your whole system in any way you see fit. They provide a top-down approach to the principles that drive your everyday life.
- Next, create a separate database that outlines all your measurable goals. I know it’s cliché to recommend the SMART framework for this, but it’s popular for a reason. If you don’t know what that is, it may be helpful to look up a high-level overview.
You could take this in one of two directions:
- Create two separate databases for your goals, one for more generic ones like “maintain elite fitness” and another with specific targets like “lose 20 lbs by May 20th”.
- Alternatively, take the generic database out of the picture and simply add a text field to your measurable goals database describing the meaning behind each goal.
I personally opted for the former but it can get a lot more complicated that way. If you do create separate tables for both goal types, make sure to link them to each other so that every goal has a meaning and vice versa.
Also, it should go without saying by now, but don’t forget to link all your data together with relations! That’s the whole point of this system. Any plan or activity that drives another should be linked together so you can always see how each piece of the puzzle fits into the bigger picture.
Not every task you complete will be a one-off action tied to a project or goal.
Many of the activities we engage in on a daily basis are just as essential to our success, but they’re more habit or routine-based. Some examples of this could include reading, journaling, or even flossing.
Routines and habits are the little things that add up over time.
For those familiar with habit tracking, you may already see where this is going.
Before adopting this system in Notion, I would use a habit tracking app like Chains or record them manually into a Google Sheets spreadsheet.
My solution now is to use a simple database table in Notion with checkbox fields and a rolling 30-day history. What’s great about this is you can calculate percentages at the bottom of each column which act as a performance metric as you tick off successful habits.
Since habits are arbitrary with respect to how they impact all your other data, I don’t link them to any other tables necessarily. What I did do was embed the table in my daily journal and save it as a template so it’s front and center when I go to review my day.
There are a lot of complex journaling strategies out there. Some tell you to list out your successes and failures for the day, what you’re grateful for, and a bunch of other arbitrary nonsense. This approach is way too robotic for my liking.
Journaling, or writing in general for that matter, is typically more effective as a free-form activity. Anything that’s contemplative should borrow primarily from your stream of consciousness.
This is why I don’t tend to follow a strict set of guidelines for journaling. The structure itself lies in how the system is built, not how the actual writing is done.
My journaling system is a hybrid of daily/weekly journal entries along with monthly/quarterly/annual reviews and planning sessions. They’re all kept in the same database, with a category field and different views for each entry type. To streamline the process, I built a Notion template for each one that automatically tags the entry with its appropriate type designation.
Then I just write whatever’s on my mind. How the day went, my temperament, and what I hope to get done the next day.
You could certainly divide this into multiple databases or record your daily entries in your habit tracking database, but I didn’t find this to be worth it considering how easy it is to create different views and filters.
To give you an idea of how each entry type differs, as a general rule of thumb:
- Daily entries are primarily for reviewing and planning tasks.
- Weekly entries are used to review and plan projects for the upcoming week.
- Monthly and quarterly entries are more geared towards reviewing and tweaking goals.
- Annual entries consist of planning what you hope to achieve over the next year and reflecting on your mission or purpose.
You can also link your quarterly planning to your projects for easy access.
This may sound complex, and it would be without a way to organize it. But it’s really much more simple than it sounds once you get it up and running. There are days when I drop the ball but my journaling is a lot more consistent now because of it.
Personal knowledge management and content curation are what tie everything in my Notion system together.
This was one area where traditional note-taking apps caused a lot of frustration. It just wasn’t easy to create wiki-like structures and tie that knowledge back into what you were working on at any given moment in time. Everything would get lost in hierarchies and become convoluted.
The way I solved this in Notion was by creating a master Knowledge Base database.
In this database, I create an entry for every single topic that I want to record knowledge on over time. I then link this to the Pillars / Focus Areas I talked about earlier as a form of categorization.
Take fitness for example. In my knowledge base, I would have entries for diet, weightlifting, supplementation, and other similar topics. Now I could easily look at my Pillars database and find a direct link to every fitness topic I had gathered knowledge on, ever.
This structure also allows you to get creative with how your knowledge is curated. Let’s say you are really into fitness and you don’t want to manually dig up your weightlifting log or routine every time you go to the gym.
Instead, you could create a page called Health & Fitness and structure it as a dashboard that links back to every fitness topic or note that you reference frequently.
I won’t go into it much, but I also have separate databases for reading lists, content capture, and online courses. This was another tip I picked up from August Bradley. Notion has a web clipper similar to Evernote’s that you can use to capture content from the web for future reference.
There are a lot of other moving parts to my system so this post doesn’t cover everything. I hope it was a helpful high-level overview to give you some inspiration, even if you’re not interested in making the switch to a tool like this just yet.
I’m still very new to this app and will hopefully continue to improve my system over time.
If you have any cool ideas with respect to Notion or productivity systems, feel free to get in touch. I’m always eager to hear how others approach things.