Note taking apps, second brains and writing

Which is the best note taking app?

I feel that I’ve been running after the perfect note taking tool and I see a lot of them popping up recently. A lot of them are promising features that will help you be more productive, get your ideas out there or whatever you want to do; or in the case of some apps, that you won’t need anything else, bundling calendars, office suits, note taking apps etc into one large tool.

This is what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Trying note taking apps, hoping that the next one will be THE ONE. I used Obsidian for a while – an amazing app, by the way – , I tried Roam, even simpler apps. I was looking especially into apps that would help me take notes about the things I am reading or just journal some random thoughts that I have.

I think I stopped using Obsidian when it became an all in one solution for publishing content online, creating a ‘second brain’ and a PKM app.

I’ve tried apps like Notion and Craft, but I feel that they have too many features and that I would spend too much time tinkering with them instead of actually writing. I’ve been using Agenda, but more for personal project notes and a place to gather info about very specific topics that can be useful in my work. In the meantime, I also found out about Capacities – Your second brain and Tana. All these tools are amazing for teams, so I probably won’t be able to use them at their full potential.

Second brains and external memory

A thing that’s probably common sense, but it took me some time to realise is that everyone has a method to take notes, you just need to find your own. I looked over the recommended apps for building a second brain, all of them seem to be recommending things that work for the author.

It’s good to look at how others organise their work/research/notes etc, but in the end you have to do it in your own way. If it works for you, that’s enough. You want to create some sort of an external memory for you, not for someone else.

Initially I was making a confusion between the note taking app and the concept of “second brain”, which is actually an ecosystem of apps. But still, the most important tool in this ecosystem is the note taking app, which should be the place where you store and distill the information you’re gathering.

My ideal note taking app

If I would try to describe my ideal note taking app, it should be:

  • easy to access from any device and sync notes. I tend to jot down ideas on my phone and get back to them on my laptop.
  • its files should be an open format that can be used on different platforms and with different apps – ideally markdown
  • it should allow me to make connections between my notes fast
  • a small amount of features – text, links, images, video embeds and site embeds
  • offer a preview mode in case it uses markdown
  • allow you to search through your notes without you having to remember the exact taxonomy / tagging system
  • I want my editor to let me focus on what I want to do – without any distracting notifications or features
  • have a way to export notes. It would be great if it could export a note and all the notes that it links to, generating a single pdf/html file. Ideally batch export.

At this point I’m writing this in Bear, but I’ve also been using Ulysses. I feel that Ulysses is much better for writing long-format articles, novels or research papers, which is also its stated goal.

I like apps that don’t have flashy features: they get discovered by the user naturally, at the right time. If you have some features that are useful to the user, make them as unnoticeable as possible.


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