What applications do you use for notes and personal productivity?

For the last few months I have struggled different apps for taking and managing notes. There seem to be a fair number of tools out there but all seem to fall short of being the one “aha” application I can commit to. These days one of my primary use case is to jot down a quick idea and share it with some friends and not that many applications seem to help there.

Traditionally my notes used to be on one off text files that I would save on my desktop when I was writing them and then a week or so later figure out where among my folders I would keep them. This always bothered me as I am not a super organized person as is and would end up having 10-15 text files on my desktop before I would decide to organize them. Moreover many of these documents would contain references to information in other notes (if I could ever find them), so I began my quest for the perfect note taking application.

Here were my high level requirements:

  • Bring all my notes under one application
  • Rich formatting options
  • Be able to group documents
  • Be able to link documents from one to the other
  • Grow a document from a few lines to a comprehensive body of knowledge
  • Allow certain documents to be sharable
  • Web sync for me to access them on different devices
  • Be cross platform (I use a mac at work and a PC at home)

I have been using Evernote for the last few months and its not bad. It allows individual notes that could be tagged, web synchronization, public/private notes and had a good PC and Mac client. Thats what I am using right now. However the document formatting is okay at best and it doesnt help that most of my collaborators arent on Evernote.

For my last collaborative project I started working with shared Google Docs. It had better formatting options than Evernote and almost everyone I know seems to have a Google account these days. And since its on the web, there is no synchronization or cross platform issue. The minus: the workflow for a quick note seems wrong. I dont want to create a Google Doc for a 2 liner note (it feels fairly a formal document) and it definitely feels a more distant application than an installed application that I can launch with a couple of key presses (using QuickSilver on the Mac and Launchy for Windows).

With the announcement of Google Wave, I was pretty excited (yes I am one of the few who finds it pretty useful and wish more people started using it regularly). The format of a wave is less formal than a Google Doc, the in line contextual commenting on shared waves makes it great for documents that are still in the amorphous stage and it has options of embedding raw html and iFrames that let me embed relevant information right in the document. However it does seem to suffer from the same problem of not feeling very “on my machine”. Occasionally I need these notes in places where internet connection is spotty at best.

I have also tried other applications like VoodooPad and personal productivity applications like DevonThink, Together, Yojimbo etc and they all seem to have elements of my perfect app but they aren’t quite there yet. Actually in the last couple of weeks I have reverted to using my trusty Moleskin notebook and that almost works best.

So what do you use to take notes and such? I am curious if people already have a great way of managing information that I am missing.

Author: Arpit Mathur

Arpit Mathur is a Principal Engineer at Comcast Labs where he is currently working on a variety of topics including Machine Learning, Affective Computing, and Blockchain applications. Arpit has also worked extensively on Android and iOS applications, Virtual Reality apps as well as with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML and Ruby on Rails. He also spent a couple of years in the User Experience team as a Creative Technologist.

6 thoughts on “What applications do you use for notes and personal productivity?”

  1. There’s a program that meet a lot of your requirements called PersonalBrain. It’s mind-mapping software, but since everything in the world is based on hierarchy, you can use it for everything. I use it for in depth research, for outlining business strategy that will eventually come to include a fully formed business model, I use it as my “Getting Things Done” command center – where I maintain every aspect of the GTD methodology, project management, and numerous other things.

    There’s a web enterprise version that allows for shared brains to be managed online, but that option is probably a lot more expensive.



  2. After playing around with Ubuntu, I discoved TomBoy: http://projects.gnome.org/tomboy/

    It’s simple note taking, with cross linked notebooks/stickynotes – I found that by saving them to my dropbox account I had access to them from anywhere, and they were always in sync.

    Great for just about everything note related.


  3. I’ve been struggling with the same issue. For over a decade now I’ve been using NoteTabPro – notetab.com – for text editing and it’s pretty good at keeping notes since it has an “Outline” file. Problem was that those files are on one computer. Now I use Google Docs for most everything of this nature. But, that’s not completely satisfying so I’m going to create my own solution with AIR.


  4. I use Buzzword (acrobat) for my “thought gathering” I can share it and such. I generally use Outlook’s notes for my “quick personal thoughts” since it syncs my PC and phone and most of my “ah hahs” happen when I’m not around my computer.

    Important stuff that needs to stick around I have a folder called /important on my personal server that gets backed up every day. Not for sharing, but for personal notes I don’t want to lose.

    Probably not the coolest solution, but it works very well for me.


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