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Ask HN: How do you keep your notes organized?
79 points by d-d on Dec 17, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments
I am a serial note taker that is continually logging thoughts, ideas, links, todos and stuff. No matter what tool I use things eventually spiral out of control and become unusable, and deletion ensues. Is there a trick to keeping things more organized and useful long-term?

I've recently started using https://jrnl.sh/ and I'm hooked. It is on the command line, and easy to use. I've been using it more for daily journal entries, but it has a tagging system so you can do @idea and then search for all the entries with the tag @idea. I've been trying to organize my cooking recipes with tags. Also, it's encrypted on disk, so I just sync it to iCloud and a few backups.

Maybe it's just me, but because it's a diary, I don't feel the need to delete things. If anything, not deleting it is the point. Even if it's a disorganized mess, I would suggest keeping things around! It's really fun to look at your old writings and notes!

I've insistently read these note-taking AskHN entries in pursuit of something akin to TaskWarrior[1] and TimeWarrior[2] but for notes/journaling, all command-line, portable, fault-tolerant and time-tested.

At one point I thought about building one in Python, but it seems like jrnl devs were thinking alike and made it happen.

@cbanek thanks for sharing this golden nugget as it will help me dump my disorganized brain somewhere for persistence and search-ability.

[1] https://taskwarrior.org [2] https://timewarrior.net

I have a 15 year old svn-turned-git repo called commonplace-book and keep my notes, plans, quotes and tidbits in there under a terse, relevant filename in a flat directory.

And I have a bash function called 'cheat', that will look for things in there based on the filename, or contents or however I happen to have it written.

As I learn new things I can append an existing file; I run 'cheat git' once per week and 'cheat tmux' every time I forget how to clone a session. Since this all invariable dumps to stdout, I can continue grepping when it suits.

I have another very dirty hack that will get me in trouble eventually - I'll share it because I find I can often improve my code by self shaming - ghetto secrets management:

echo '1,$'|vim --cmd "set key=${password}" ${filename} -es

This is the nugget around a lot of boilerplate, but this invokes vim and makes it decrypt a file and dump to stdout. From here I have my own little grammar and grepper for storing quasi-secure strings or even just secure texts. I'm positive it's going to get me into hot water but it's been extremely portable for me and I trust it on systems that I have the audacity to believe I am alone on.

I know there's a vimdecrypt plugin floating around that is almost definitely superior, but, mine works on stock linux, mac, and git bash.

This. I do exactly the same. I have bunch of python scripts in git repo that manage my notes / flashcards and so one stored in csv files.

There's 2 note taking service that I use: todoist and dropbox paper. Todoist is for quick notes and "to-do list-ish" stuff and dropbox paper is for long term note taking.

Here's the step of how I usually do it.

1. Have a phone with me anywhere I go. Anytime I have an interesting thought/idea, I'll add a new item on my todoist inbox.

2. Every night, I'll process that inbox. Most of it will be to-dos, but sometimes I jot down some ideas there. If the ideas is interesting enough, I'll move it in a writing project (e.g., I think I should write why I love cats.) If an idea is not worth writing about, then I'll just re-articulate the ideas and mark it done.

3. I use dropbox paper to write. There's only two important folders: a rant and completed folder. For each item on my todoist writing project, I will create a document in the rant folder and I write about it. E.g., On todoist, I'll have the entry "I think I should write why I love cats." Later on, on dropbox paper I'll create a document with the title "Why I love cats."

4. Write. I don't finish everything though. I usually just stop writing if it gets boring.

5. If it's finished, then I'll move it in a finished folder. It contains my essays, blog entry and book notes.

I tried Notion, but it's too complicated and it gets overwhelming really fast. Another huge cons of Notion is that you can't jot ideas quickly (I can do it in seconds in todoist). I'm happy with these two services.

Edit: typo

I was in similar shoes as you. I even had my notes scattered all over the place, some on paper, some in different softwares. Now I use only OneNote both personally and professionally and I cannot be happier. It has a lot of features, which helps because I can keep every idea/info/todo in one place. It has apps for everything (except Linux, but the web app works great in that case), so I can access my data anywhere. I even had a client where we all used it and we were easily able to make it work like a wiki for that project. It might seem obvious, but what really helped me with keeping my notes organized (and my browser bookmarks too, because I have a ton of those as well) is revising them periodically, in my case weekly. If you do it frequently enough, then it's really just a couple of minutes of reorganizing each time and you can keep everything nice and tidy.

I used to imagine I can have a system that would keep concepts together and continuously reorganize them manually as the goal is to both not keep it in the head, but also know what's there. However, as the time passes, the cognitive load of reworking it increases dramatically, and the use and the ability to find stuff in it drops as contexts mutate through that rearrangement. It is very difficult to manage change in that kind of system no matter if it's low-tech or high-tech. After some mismanagement you just lose trust in it and drop for a new one.

About a year and a half ago I started a lowtech weekly diary approach. Documents folder on your computer or a GDrive/Dropbox/whatever. Folder for the year, and then folder for each week of the year. Usually create it on monday and transfer what I expect to need that week. Treat that folder as my desktop for that week and move on the next week. I now have a year and a half of such notes, am confident I can find stuff and when I open such snapshot I'm quickly able to gather all the needed contexts that were relevant then.

I think you would be very interested in Roam Research if you’re ever looking for a high tech solution again. Only recently entered public beta, but it seems to by nature organize notes very easily and fluidly. https://roamresearch.com/

Just signed up yesterday and I've been really impressed with how natural it feels, coming from other outliners. I found this interview useful as an introduction: https://roamresearch.com/#/app/sunk-costs/page/eYPz5-W6n

Regularly organise them. Dump everything in to an inbox as it comes to you throughout the day and then have a set time to edit, curate, and label it properly.

For to-do's which can vary in time sensitivity this might be straight away for some that need to be done that day, that day for some that need to be later that week, or weekly for those you hope to get done just eventually.

For your links, ideas, and thoughts you could probably do it weekly.

The trick is to not let it build up so much that when you get around to looking through it, you're looking at three full days worth of organising work, much of which you can't do anyway because you've long forgotten the context within which your short hand notes made sense.

Specifically for to-do's, Getting Things Done is a very (the most?) popular organisational system with a book by the same name.

Here is a much shorter summary of it:


After years of Evernote and OneNote, discovered “Bear”.

If you’re on iOS and value great design and simplicity, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. And it’s really cheap.

Everything is in markdown and hashtagged.

There's also Notion (notion.so) which is a bit more functional (although not as 'native'). Bear is more for pure writing, Notion - more for tracking, organization etc.

Looks more like trello or basecamp, rather than a note taking system.

The trick is to tree-shake and regroup your notes agressively. If you treat them as read only soon you'll not be able to extract useful info from your data.

I found that over time, it's more advantageous to be disorganized but have good search features than to have a system that required good habits.

I found Google Keep to be good for search features, because it extends beyond text and into images.

I put my snowblower, lawnmower, bandsaw, anything with parts that regularly break, into Google Keep, and now when I am out at Kings, Ames, Sears, Lechmere, Circuit City et al I can quickly pull the model number up and get a replacement part while I am remembering at just the right place.

I also use multiple services to take notes/store info and I like to make an “index of organization”.

Basically, just write down all of the different services/folders/notebooks you use and what you use them for.

For example, in Notion I write that I use: - Notion for boards and knowledge. - Todoist for tasks - Day One for quick notes and journals - OneNote for school.


I find listing where you store different types of information (because different tools are built for different use cases) helps keep it all organized.

NextCloud and GitHub. I use NextCloud for the browser/mobile syncing and more journal/quick todos type of notes. I use GitHub for my technical notes. My big thing is minimizing the time between a thought and getting it down and freeing that space in my mind. Whatever is fastest is what I need because I forget things pretty quickly, or I don't trust my memory. Being able to pull out my phone, open the NextCloud Notes app to make a note, and then being able to access that anywhere in a browser really cuts down on syncing issues and delays. This is an evolution from my earlier years where I wrote in notebooks which I favored that for the longest time until I saw the value in minimizing the delay between thought and writing.

I use markdown for everything and have txt files going back to 2013 that I'm slowly formatting to markdown as they were dumped from a Google Docs exodus I haven't made the time to clean up. My goal is to eventually make a database of my thoughts and look for patterns and insights while learning the tools required to do that in the most modern ways :)

I use a self hosted Bookstack Instance for Notes, Blog Posts and Knowledge Base plus StandardNotes for my daily diary.

Permanently trying out other stuff (basecamp, todoist, notion, etc.) but keep coming back.

I also have a self hosted Nextcloud instance, where I started to put down thoughts which won't fit in the other two (like "lessons learned this week") but eventually will be moved to Bookstack.

I've tried a bunch of different programs, apps and approaches but have (hopefully) finally settled on plain text files in Markdown, stored in a git repo in dropbox. It seems to be working better than anything else I've tried, though OneNote was very close to perfect. I just have too many MS accounts because of contract work, and syncing/keeping it all straight became an issue.

I was inspired by all the posts about emacs org-mode, but couldn't go all the way to emacs, because VSCode has become the center of my coding universe. I'm surprised that's not the #1 answer (yet).

It's very liberating to be completely in control of the format and organization, and it's very easy to move things around as needed using familiar tools. I don't have a lot of screenshots or non-text things to remember, so markdown is fine for me.

  ->Customer A
  ----->Project A
etc. etc.

Notion after years of trello. Once you get how it works and how to use it your way it just blows everything else out of the window. I have sql like relations through notes,topics,websites,people and much more. My setup: https://i.imgur.com/Cd22G8x.png

I used Notion for about six months, including paying for the service. I could never get the hang of it. I wrote to the company and said: "Give me an overview explanation of how it all fits together so that I can distinguish pages from templates, etc."

But instead all they could point me to was endless reference pages on one feature or another. So, I was never able to get the hang of it, which as you say, is necessary to put it to best use. After several months, I cancelled my subscription and told them they need better docs: an overview/getting started guide, rather than a series of man pages.

+1 for Notion. It’s the first note taking app that I actually enjoy using. I love the UI/UX and that it has a synced IOS app.

Check out TiddlyWiki http://tiddlywiki.com - it's an open source program that's been around for 15 years. TiddlyWiki wraps up a bunch of web-type resources (text, images, pages, etc.) into a single JavaScript file that works on anything that can run a browser, and can be run straight from a file, or integrated with a variety of web backends. It's actually one of the most interesting pieces of software I've seen in the past 20 years, predating many of the capabilities of iPython/Jupyter notebooks, although aimed at different use cases. That said, although I have some TiddlyWiki notebooks, I find that OneNote is my primary go-to notetaking choice these days, at least partly b/c I have a Surface and taking notes with the pen (both text and sketches) while still having the ability to use pretty good handwriting recognition is really my killer app.

I went old school and asked for a filing cabinet as a gift for the holidays, never been so organized in my life! A tip from me would be dont sort by categories in files but by the periods of time you worked on stuff, like the clusters of work during an entire month for example helps me recall what was happening and find files I need/ an old idea.

I used to be in a similar situation, with multiple notebooks for different things and apps for others - became totally unmanageable. I've gone totally offline with my note-taking now, using a variation of the bullet journal concept. I've found it very useful for keeping track of the day to day notes and tasks, along with longer term ideas and plans (technical or otherwise).

Anecdotally, having a single notebook for everything has made me feel more in organized and in control of my notes as everything is there, indexed into a single notebook.

- https://bulletjournal.com/ - https://simpleprogrammer.com/bullet-journal-productivity-pro...

Software: Vimwiki[1] System: Johnny Decimal[2]

[1]: https://github.com/vimwiki/vimwiki [2]: https://johnnydecimal.com/

Roam Research. Past HN submission here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21440289

It feels effortless, almost fun, to me unlike any other tools I’ve used.

Wondering why you would use that over e.g. Notion? Looks like a mix of notion and tiddlywiki (?), but also really stripped down. Also: can you export the entire Roam notes database into text files? (i.e. do you actually own your data?)

1. Compared to Notion, it encourages emergent organization rather then top-down/up-front organization. One of the key features here is how it handles `backlinking`. As I mention a [[subject]] during research, note-taking, diary writing, or whatever -- the page for [[subject]] gets implicitly filled with content.

2. Yes, it exports to org-mode structured text.

I have written my own app. Is it Zettelkasten + vim + keyboard shortcuts.

I have one main document with general topics like Programming Startups Social science, and inside more general topics.

I don’t think this is the best way to structure it

Joplin on desktop and mobile. End-to-end encrypted, and stored in OneDrive (could use Dropbox, etc). It uses markdown.


I currently use Quiver https://apps.apple.com/us/app/quiver-take-better-notes/id866...

I've had a hard time replacing it so far.

I really want a note taking app that securely stores and syncs my notes between colleagues and does code snippets/attachments well. I haven't found anything I like yet, I've tried Bear/Notion. I love OneNote, but we don't have MS licenses at my current gig.

Do you use the iOS app, too? I’m curious what you might think of it.


I saw it has a 2.2 rating, compared to the 4.3 stars for the macOS app.

No I haven't used the IOS app, so I can't comment. I can imagine the biggest issue is not having an iCloud sync to backup your notes. I just the use the builtin notes app on my phone.

Try Notable with data stored to a synced keybase.io KBFS encrypted cloud folder.

Thanks for the suggestion. I'm going to try it out. Shame it was open sourced then closed again though :(.

I've kept extensive notes for years and always find I never use them, so now I'm transitioning towards only taking notes in actionable format, as GitHub issues, task list items, etc.

I've used https://simplenote.com/ for ~5 years because it's clean, fast, cross-platform, supports Markdown, has decent search and tagging features, and it's free & open source.

Every day I open a new note named #[YYMMDD] Scratch, and use it as my daily scratchpad. That makes it easy to search for notes by year, month, and day.

In my experience, simpler is better.

After more than 1 year of tinkering with various apps, I've finally settled for Todoist for todos and Standard Notes for notes. Extremely satisfied.

I use Trilium notes. Their search and linking function is very useful for finding notes again.

I started using Google Keep until I was up to around 200 project ideas. I then moved it all to Trello, fleshed out each idea, prioritised, and labelled every idea. Ever since I've just been adding ideas directly to the Trello board via the app.

I'm vacillating between using Drafts and nvAlt. I like nvAlt because it's plaintext, but it's not as readily available as Drafts - I haven't found a mobile client that I like for working with plaintext yet.

Way back was an iPhone app called notesy which worked pretty much the same way as nvAlt. Elements is my app of choice right now for searching/editing my nvAlt folder on the phone. (Sync backend I use is Dropbox)

Trello is my favorite. Hooked on the kanban style.

You might want to check out bullet journal, as an organizational system that can help you out irrespective of tool choice.

I am trying out the pen and paper version of it. Writing stuff down with pen on paper has some therapeutic effect, at least on me. It slows my thinking down so it is coherent and in an meaningful manner. But I hate that I can't see the find my own notes or thoughts easily.

Finally, a topic on HN where I can be somewhat of an old-timer.

For my first 7-8 years as a professional, I used notebooks. I was taught in mechanical engineering school to use notebooks with bindings and write notes about everything to cover my ass in case of a legal issue. I developed a simple system:

- front front to back, write notes from meetings, brainstorms or anything

- from back to front, write todo lists.

- Actions from meetings are noted in the “front” notes with an arrow in the left hand margin but copied to the “back”. Normally I never refer to the front unless I forget why I made an action

- For actions: checkmark completed, cross out cancelled and crossout with an arrow “moved” actions

- when my actions page fills up, I simply cross the page out and “move” unfinished actions to the next page (from back to front)

- when the notebook is full I “move” actions to a new notebook and start over.

- the act of physically rewriting actions is a great tool to understand what you’ve been procrastinating on and what you can drop without much consequence

When I moved to a new industry that doesn’t put people at risk, therefore no need to cover my ass legally, I switched to the equivalent system using markdown notes and Todoist. I thought it would be great to be able to search previous notes and see statistics. After another 7-8 years I realized I never ever searched my previous notes and missed being able to thumb through notebooks. I got advice from a mentor that taking notes in a book is more professional/ less distracting in a professional setting. I also missed the exercise of manually copying/ consolidating/culling actions. I found myself mindlessly postponing Todoist actions to tomorrow or next week. However, I work in a larger team now and need to delegate actions.

So I developed a hybrid system which has worked well:

- notes in a notebook, written from front of the notebook to back

- actions have an arrow in the margin

- each day I add all actions to the most recent page of actions. This is no longer from back to front but “inline” with the rest of the notes, so I get a chronological sense of when the page is filled and actions moved to a new page. Actually, I move to a new page whenever I feel the urge to prioritize something, which goes to the top of a new page. If I have a tough day ahead of me, the first thing I do is start a new actions page and follow the order without reconsidering it. If I have a really tough day I will add “check email” as an action and put it far from the top.

- at the end of each workday, for any case where other stakeholders are involved, I type meeting minutes and duplicate actions as tickets in our system

- whenever I move actions to a new page I close tickets corresponding to my actions and follow up on others actions

- if I don’t have my notebook on me, I use notes on my phone temporarily

I don’t actually manage to keep things consistent daily but whenever I make a new action page I tend to update everything. And I find it much less mental load to update tickets based on written notes (I trust a written check mark and tend to remember why I made the check mark) than to update tickets based on emails or comments or whatever (they are usually a rabbit hole)

Google Keep for todos & shopping list, Evernote for everything else.

I use a paper notebook with an index with page number in the front.

GoodNotes 5 on iPad is the best way I have found :)

I'm digging Notable on a cloud synced and encrypted KBFS folder these days. Simple markdown note taker.

todo.txt in my dropbox

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