When it comes to note taking apps, there are basically two 800-pound gorillas in the market—Evernote and OneNote. Both of them follow diametrically opposed philosophies. But only one of them will work hand-in-glove with your brain. The other will grind against your brain and make you operate below your potential. So, which one is it?
OneNote tries to mimic the organisation of physical notebooks. Like physical notebooks, OneNote notebooks are organised into multiple sections, which in turn are organised into multiple pages. However, unlike physical notebooks, each page in OneNote can be further indented into sub-pages. Also, you can collate sections into groups, and within a group, you can nest sub-groups. Personally, I started with OneNote. I carefully organised my notes into hierarchies that are implemented by thoughtful planning of sections, pages, sub-pages, groups, nest sub-groups and so on. Over time, as I accumulated more and more information, my hierarchy got more and more complicated. Eventually, any personal efficiency gained from using OneNote collapsed under the weight of extreme complexity of the hierarchies. It took me longer and longer to work out where in the complex web of hierarchies a piece of information belongs to.
That’s the problem with OneNote.
The human brain does not store information in terms of hierarchy. Unfortunately, that is exactly how OneNote is designed to store information. So, if you use OneNote, you’re in effect forcing your brain to work in a way that is incompatible with how it works.
The human brain ‘stores’ information by using mental associations. For example, you may associate an ‘apple’ to both ‘fruit’ and ‘health’. There’s no way a hierarchy can represent mental associations in your brain. In a hierarchical structure, a node cannot exist in multiple places simultaneously in order to approximate the mental associations in your brain. You can write programming code to allow that to happen, but there’s no way you can model that in 2-D on a piece of paper without seeing incomprehensible mess of crisscrossing lines. And your brain definitely cannot store that mess.
And that’s the reason why OneNote is making me more and more inefficient. If there can be multiple mental associations for one single piece of information, where in the hierarchy can you store it? If you have heaps of information, each with multiple mental associations, very soon you will lose track of where they are stored in the hierarchy. Sure, you can do a search, but sometimes, you may still not find what you want.
Evernote, on the other hand, stores information in a much flatter structure. Instead of using hierarchy to organise your notes, it uses “tags” (by the way, OneNote also uses the same word, “tags”, with completely different meaning). Basically, you can think of tags as mental associations. So, if you have a piece of information about apples, you can tag it with the “fruit” and “health” keywords.
So, what keyword should you use for a tag? There are two basic criteria:
- The keyword should be the first thing that comes to your mind as a mental association. If you have to take a while to deliberate on a keyword, it is most likely not the correct one. Remember, you will be using tags to recall information in your notes quickly. If you have to take time to think about the keywords, then this thinking process will slow you down.
- You must be able to associate the keywords with the information consistently. It doesn’t matter if a keyword is a technically correct association as long as you will associate it consistently in the future. For example, a carrot is technically not a vegetable because it a root. But if you always associate carrots with vegetables, and this is always the first thing that comes to your mind whenever you think of carrots, then you should use “vegetable” as the tag’s keyword.
Do not hesitate to use multiple tags for a single piece of information. After all, this is how your brain works.
Do I use Evernote?
Needless to say, I stopped using OneNote. The natural choice will be to switch to Evernote. But I don’t like its subscription pricing model. I don’t like the idea of having to pay regularly to use a piece of software. Not only that, the subscription pricing model makes me vulnerable to future price hikes. That happened in June 2016 when Evernote announced changes to its pricing plan and limit the use of its free-tier service. Many of its users were worried as a result.
Which note-taking software do I use instead?
I’ve searched high and low for an alternative to Evernote that is comparable in features and allows me to use the tagging functionality to create mental associations.
The software that I recommend is Notebooks (iPhone/iPad, macOS). In terms of features, it has most of what Evernote provides. In fact, I see it as a serious Evernote contender with a much preferred pricing model- pay once, use forever. It has a similar tagging facility called “context”. You can organise your information both ways- hierarchy and context. Also, you can choose to sync with DropBox. For those privacy conscious people who don’t want to sync to any third-party cloud services, you can sync with your own WebDAV server or even with your Mac or other iOS devices directly.