How I Found Notion, i.e. The Endless Road to the Perfect PIM
In the Beginning
My dad was a programmer and as a result an early adopter of a lot of technology, from the first Mac and IBM/Tandy computers, to early public Internet access. When I was growing up he used a Personal Information Manager (PIM, a term that seems to have fallen out of favor somewhat) called AskSam to keep track of most of the important information in his life. So as I moved through my early years of adulthood I found myself wanting a similar central repository for all my info. Somehow it was only recently that I realized where this desire may have come from.
At first I simply used various basic text and MS Office files in a normal folder hierarchy, but the limits of that quickly proved themselves. I never tried AskSam, it was discontinued shortly before I really started investing in this kind of system, but I also grew up with the Internet available through most of my life due to my dad’s early adoption, and I found the desktop-bound nature of most advanced PIMs to be limiting for my needs. There are still a surprising number of Windows-centric traditional PIMs actually (and a few prettier but still desk-bound Mac options).
The first tool I really used for full PIM functionality, accessible anywhere, was Redmine, an open source project management and issue tracking system that also happened to have good wiki functionality, and a wide variety of other capabilities. I tried to use the Issue Tracker to manage to-dos, but mostly ended up just using the wiki to create huge amounts of documentation about areas of my life, from food, to entertainment, to finances, and so on. Redmine had a certain charm in its flexibility and integration of multiple types of tools, but it ran on Ruby, which has some specific hosting requirements, and is generally less easy to administer than equivalent PHP systems in my experience. And while development of Redmine itself continues to this day, the UI has not been seriously improved for near a decade now, while many other tools have come about with modern UIs, more sophisticated functionality, and – increasingly important to me – mobile apps. In fact it was the lack of a really usable mobile view that finally made me leave Redmine behind.
My search for a new tool began and I found a wide variety of disparate options that met some – but usually not all – of my needs. After testing Evernote and a range of wiki tools, I found Quip in mid-2017 and was immediately impressed by its flexibility, document linking functionality, and how much was integrated into this single tool. I remember the feeling of excitement, almost elation, that I had found a more integrated and flexible tool, one with a more approachable design and interface, modern conveniences, and even better functionality than I’d had to date. I felt amazed that someone had actually managed to integrate all of these things, from rich text, to spreadsheets, to-dos and reminders, and much more, all of which could be flexibly intermingled. I very shortly decided to migrate over from Redmine, which was ultimately a largely manual process, but proved worth it. I now had a central repository of data that I didn’t need to host myself, and that was available anywhere, including through reasonably decent mobile apps. I thought I had found my nirvana.
But as I used Quip more I began to see its limitations and feel its rough edges. The UI, while far more modern than Redmine, is also a bit clunky in some ways, particularly around text formatting widgets, tagging, highlighting, etc. I also realized that, while the mobile app seemed decent, actually using it to edit text was often a frustrating experience. And one feature in particular, in-page search, which I rely on heavily on desktop, wasn’t available at all. I began to assemble my feedback and feature requests into a dedicated document that I shared with the Quip team, but they’ve made no clear indication of addressing any of it, although they seemed to appreciate the feedback in general.
Currently I still use Quip, and for the most part I find it adequate for my needs. But as you can see in the document linked above, there are a lot of things I’d really like to see improved. The limitations of the mobile app are probably my biggest challenge at the moment, but even the little things, such as how the formatting toolbar blocks any highlighted text so you have to type under it, can be serious productivity drains over hours of editing and across 100s of documents. Quip in some ways forces me to work in a particular sequence to avoid certain hassles and slowdowns, which requires mental attention and energy. And these issues seem to me largely solvable, so it’s especially frustrating that they remain unaddressed for so long.
At the same time I am still in awe of how much Quip can do: spreadsheets and rich text, sure, but also Kanban boards, calendars, and much more. As frustrating as the limits are when I run into them, I still get a lot of value out of it. And one of the best parts is that it’s a tool designed for teams, so as an individual, solo user, with only my personal data, I pay nothing to use it. I’d happily pay $5/mo or maybe more if they’d address some of the issues I outlined, but they neither have a paid plan that fits my needs, nor seem to be putting serious attention into those problems. So I accepted these issues because Quip seems to be almost absurdly ambitious and I figured perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect more when they have so much to work on and maintain…
Recently, while researching a fairly different domain of tools – time management and day planning (that’s another blog post) – I ran across Notion, and my mind was sort of blown again. Here was a system very much like Quip, only with a seemingly better, even more modern UI, conveniences like drag-and-drop of text blocks and collapsible sections, and at the same time little or none of the same issues and limitations I run into consistently with Quip. It has a lot more in common with Quip than not, it just seems like a much better implementation of the same ideas and level of ambition. And the reason why my mind was blown, even though the functionality is largely the same, is because at the same time I found out not only that Quip is owned by Salesforce – which with its massive budget really ought to be able to improve Quip at a faster pace – but also that Quip has been around years longer than Notion (which is only a couple years old at this point, having started in 2016). So much for the benefit of experience. I was actually struck by just how similar they are, but as far as I can see Notion beats Quip in almost every way, and adds conveniences like custom templates, start and end dates for reminders, and surprisingly sophisticated database and table management + presentation tools.
But… I haven’t switched yet. The biggest barrier is that there is no global export from Quip to Notion. I’ll have to export each of my documents individually and re-establish my hierarchy, document interlinking, etc. I’ve done this before so I can do it again, but I’d rather not. This is partly a limitation in Quip, which only allows export on a per-document basis. But Quip does have an API and I suspect it could be used to facilitate a more full migration over to Notion. Given how similar these systems are I think the Notion developers ought to consider investing time into that, and I’ll be suggesting that to them shortly, but even if they were to do so it wouldn’t be available any time soon I imagine. So here I am then trying to decide whether the admittedly somewhat incremental improvements of better UI, aesthetics, and functionality I may not use are worth the time investment to migrate. Yes, these are seemingly small things, but at the same time they compound over days, months and years. And even aesthetics can have an impact on our cognitive load, our very experience while working. So it may well be worth it. I’ll decide whether to make that leap soon enough.