A Few Improvements to my Evernote Organization

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

 

A few months ago I wrote about how I’m organizing Evernote. Have no fear! I’m still loving my basic set up, but I have made a few additions to keep important information at hand.

I’m not sure which podcast introduced me to Tiago Forte, but in the weeks after learning of him, I spent hours reading into his P.A.R.A. method – a “universal system for organizing digital information.” His idea is simple – The tools you use aren’t important as long as you have a system to organize things. Of course, any mention of systems has my attention.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but P.A.R.A. stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. He has a 4-part series if you’re interested in learning all the details. Unfortunately, the posts are now behind a paywall though, so here’s an interview he did with Evernote that goes over the basics.

I’ve not adopted his system fully, but I did walk away with a few insights.

Take Away 1: Projects vs. Areas of Responsibility

Coming from a GTD mindset, projects and areas of responsibility seem fairly straightforward, but I was surprised to discover I was mixing them up just as Forte mentioned. He describes a project as “a series of tasks linked to a goal with a deadline,” whereas an area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” Projects can be completed. Areas of responsibility are ongoing.

Forte argues that when you mix the two together, it’s difficult to see everything you’ve committed to, and I couldn’t agree more. Clarifying the commitments required by my ongoing areas of responsibility has given me a better understanding of just how feasible taking on that extra project might be.

Take Away 2: Make Most Used Information the Most Accessible

It’s no surprise that information isn’t equal. Some notes are used more than others. Part of Forte’s P.A.R.A. method includes keeping your notes organized hierarchically so that your most used information is easily accessible. More actionable information flows up to the top Project level, whereas lesser-used information flows down to Archives.

Forte suggests moving everything into Archives to start. As you need to use notes, move them to their appropriate level, and they will gradually end up in their respective areas. I actually tried this, but quickly found his distinctions between Resources, Areas, and Archives too arbitrary for my needs.

Instead, I settled on a simplified system. I created two stacks – one for Current Projects and one for everything else, Reference. Like, Forte suggested, I just moved my existing notebooks into a Reference stack. For any projects that require supporting documentation, I create a notebook under Current Projects. Once completed, their content will be archived to their respective area under Reference.

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(Side note: I’ve also made two other changes: Agendas now live in their own notebook for easier access, and I created a separate Reference notebook for book highlights.)

Take Away 3: Review and Improve your Notes as You Use Them

A lot of people seem to treat Evernote as a junk drawer. I’m guilty as well. Forte has a whole system for randomly resurfacing his notes and annotating them. As cool as it is, I simply don’t have time to review and revise notes each day. Moreover, I find his rules for when to highlight versus bold a bit fiddly. Instead, I’m simply trying to make a point to improve my notes each time I use them. As I use a note, I’ll clarify or highlight the portion I used.

With these three takeaways, my notes should become more and more useful over time. I’m sure that the system will evolve, but for now this seems to be a nice blend of simplicity and functionality.

 

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A Simple Solution for Integrating Goals into Omnifocus

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Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

As each year wraps up, I, like many, start thinking about my goals. What did I set out to accomplish for the year? How did I do? Admittedly, I did pretty well, successfully completing 12 of my goals for 2017.

But there were equally as many that I didn’t get to. A handful of them are simply still in progress or wrapping up, but it was clear the others failed because I just wasn’t tracking them.

This makes me laugh because anyone who knows me knows I track just about everything: tv shows, tasks, activity, sleep, habits, how I spend time on my computer, water consumption… the list goes on…

For 2018, I set out with a plan, ensuring each goal had a way to be tracked. How to track progress on some things were a no-brainer. Tracking my weight is done automatically with Fitbit scale provided I remember to stand on it. Meditating regularly is something that Streaks can track automatically as long as the app sends the data to Apple Health.

It was the larger objectives I was having trouble with – my reading goal, financial goals, interpersonal things. They were things I really wanted to work on, but without some sort of accountability, ensuring steady progress on them was easily forgotten during the day to day activities.

Seeing as I run my life out of Omnifocus, I figured that was the best place to start, but I had a few problems:

  • I didn’t want my goals to get buried amongst my ongoing responsibilities.
  • I didn’t like the added visual clutter of prefixing each project with something like [GOAL]
  • Some of my goals like posting to this blog regularly were just tasks, not full blown projects.
  • I wanted them to live within my existing folder/project/context structure of Omnifocus.

My solution was quite simple. I simply added #goal to the Notes field of each project or task relating to a goal. With that, I created a custom perspective (project-based, grouped by folder, showing any remaining tasks that included the text #goal). The perspective gives me a list of all tasks related to my goals (at least the ones being tracked in Omnifocus) in one list.

I’ve added the perspective to my toolbar, so that whenever I’m in Omnifocus, I can see all my goals in one list. It’s become a valuable part of my daily planning and keeps me focused on ensuring I’m always making progress on my goals.

Trouble with Task Managers

I’ve been using Omnifocus for over 3 years now. It’s effectively become my second brain at this point. But lately, I’ve been running into a few hiccups.

Design

For anyone interested in GTD or task management, I doubt I need to mention how gorgeous Things 3 is. Looking at Omnifocus feels like I’m looking at a complicated spreadsheet now. I’d switch to Things in a heartbeat, but it’s lack of sequential tasks or perspectives are deal breakers. I also find that the sidebar gets quite overwhelming fairly quickly if you use a task manager to the extent that I do. If they’d add the ability to have headers in Areas, I’d be thrilled.

Sharing Lists

Now that I’m sharing tasks with another person, mainly my grocery list, I’ve had to look elsewhere and abandon my wonderfully organized list in Omnifocus. I’m back to using Reminders for now. For a brief time, I explored GoodTask and 2Do which both sync with Reminders, but found GoodTask lacking in features and 2Do just too complicated.

Tags

Testing out Things 3, GoodTask, and 2Do really opened my eyes to how valuable a tagging system could be. While not critical to my workflow, I do think there is value in being able to assign things like energy levels, priorities, or people to certain tasks in addition to just their context. Multiple tags is on the roadmap for Omnifocus 3, but it is yet another thing to be desired in my current set up.

For now, I’ve resigned myself to keep using Omnifocus. Tags are at least on the roadmap, and sharing of lists has at least been hinted at so it seems like my best bet is to keep waiting. Hopefully, the next version will feature a simplified design as well and the wait will be worthwhile. Until then, it seems like I’ll be dealing with a little more friction when it comes to my task management system then I’d like.

The Lazy Man’s Pomodoro Technique

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The Pomodoro Technique has always appealed to me. I had visions of furiously working away in short bursts with a cute little tomato timer sitting on my desk, but the reality is it has never worked out for me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Pomodoro Technique, it’s a time management method where you work in intervals. Traditionally, those intervals, called a Pomodoro, are 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break. After 4 Pomodoros you get a longer 15-30 minute break. Those who like it say it helps stay on task and avoiding distractions.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with what I like to call the “Lazy Man’s Pomodoro Method.”

Instead of the traditional intervals, I work for 35 minutes and then take a 5 minute break to get up and walk around. When I return from my break I have 20 minutes to do whatever I’d like, and then I repeat.

Much to my surprise, it’s actually been working, and I’ve been getting a LOT more done each day.

So why lazy?

  • It’s a lot fewer intervals to worry about. Pomodoros always seemed fussy to me. With this “lazy” interval, provided I start the interval 15 minutes into the hour, the break to get up falls right at my Apple Watch’s reminder to stand up. Once I get back to my desk after my break, I just need to set a 20 minute timer. (I’ve been using Gestimer on my Mac for anyone that’s interested.) Setting one timer vs six is a win for me.
  • I get rewarded for getting up every hour. I know it’s bad to sit down all day, but even with my Apple Watch reminding me to get up, I still have a tendency to stay sitting at my desk for too long. Knowing I get to come back and check my RSS reader for new articles, or read the book I’m currently reading helps to reinforce getting up each hour and hence keeps me from being lazy.
  • Lastly, I don’t feel guilty about procrastinating. Let’s just be honest, we all procrastinate. Having a time limit on my time wasting things on the internet is good, but I also know another one’s coming in an hour, so I don’t worry about when it ends.

Since I’ve modified the Pomodoro Technique to fit my lazy personality, my to do list in Omnifocus has shrunken considerably, and I feel a lot more productive each day because I’m not wasting my time on things that I shouldn’t be doing. Maybe it might just help you out too.

 

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How I Organize Evernote

Photo by Lauren Mancke

Over the past couple years, I think I must have tried every sort of “everything bucket” personal knowledge base app available for Mac. I’ve spent hours setting up the “perfect” system only to realize it didn’t work a day later. I read about and watched countless setups posted by people who had working systems they swore by. They all seemed to be suggesting the same things:

I read about and watched countless setups posted by people who had working systems they swore by. They all seemed to be suggesting the same things:

  • an inbox for incoming notes
  • a reference notebook
  • a small number of notebooks for active projects, if at all
  • and use tags extensively

But for some reason, I kept hitting a wall. No matter which app I used, the “tried and true” system just wasn’t working for me.

And then it hit me.

Isn’t everything I’m putting into my knowledge base reference material?

Everything I’m saving in Evernote is getting saved because I want to refer back to it.

So I scrapped the big Reference notebook and went with a simple plan. I’d keep the inbox, and create notebooks for each Area of Focus (area of my life, if you’re not a GTD person).

Suddenly everything clicked. There wasn’t any friction when deciding where something should go. Everything I store in Evernote falls neatly into one of the distinct areas of my life and, therefore, fits within one notebook.

Admittedly I’m still working out tagging, but thus far, the search function is working so well, maybe I don’t need to worry about complicating things more.

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An Update on Notetaking with iOS and MacOS

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Image Courtesy of  Dose Media

Now that classes are back in session, I’ve had a few weeks to fully test out my notetaking set up. While a number of things worked well, others needed definitely needed work. I realized quite quickly that the multi-app notetaking lifestyle did not work for me.

Evernote

2048x2048bbEvernote has become the backbone of my personal knowledge management system.

I’m really not a fan of Evernote device limits, so I’ve tried incredibly hard to avoid using it over the years, but I recently caved and bought a premium subscription (thanks to an educational discount). The ability to easily add and tag any type of information is something other apps, like DevonThink or Bear, haven’t been able to match.

Anything I think I might need to recall later like important emails, meeting notes, interesting articles, screenshots of error messages, and common troubleshooting steps all end up in Evernote. I also keep any annotated PDFs and notes from classes or quotes from books I’ve read here.

Noteshelf

2048x2048bbEvernote falls incredibly short when it comes to taking notes with the Apple Pencil. Writing or annotating within the app is laggy and requires more mode switching than I’m willing to put up with.

I’ve ditched GoodNotes, Notability, and MyScript Nebo all in favor of Noteshelf due to its ability to sync directly with Evernote. Its organizational structure is very similar to GoodNotes and offers a writing experience similar to what I enjoyed in Notability. It also offers the ability to draw perfectly geometrical shapes which was one of my main reasons for using Nebo. I found Nebo’s handwriting to text conversion more of a really cool gimmick than actually useful in practice.

My one gripe with Noteshelf is its lack of support for iCloud Drive, which is my primary cloud storage for any active projects. For now, this means an added step of needing to use the share sheet within the Files app to add any PDFs rather than using the built-in import feature. Hopefully, they’ll add it in the future.

Annotating PDFs and Taking Notes in Class

For class, I’m using Noteshelf in conjunction with Evernote.

Before class, I import the PDF copy of the assigned article and annotate as I read. During class, I use split screen to continue marking up the article we’re discussing on one side of the screen in Noteshelf while taking any text notes in Evernote. After class, I add the annotated article (synced to Evernote) to the text note created in Evernote so that everything’s stored in one place.

Interviewing Employees

I’m also using Noteshelf for employee interviews. Like GoodNotes, Noteshelf allows me to have a single notebook for a round of hiring. The system my university is using for on-campus jobs allows me to receive a single PDF booklet of resumes for every round of hiring. Prior to the interview, I insert a template page for taking notes behind the resume. Once the round of hiring has finished, I export the entire notebook containing resumes and interview notes to Box for archival purposes.

Apple Notes

2048x2048bbWhile Evernote is my primary location for storing any sort of reference material, I’m still using Apple Notes for things I need to quickly access such as carryout menus, wishlists, and other lists I’ve shared with friends and family.

In all honesty, if Apple adds tagging and a more robust organizational system, I’ll have a hard time sticking with Evernote, but for now, this is the combination that seems to work best for all my needs.

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Learning from Everyday Activities with Exist

I’ve been wearing a fitness tracker regularly for the last several years. Every single tracker I’ve worn (Fitbits, Jawbones, and now my Apple Watch) has had one problem – they just track numbers. Eventually, you reach a point where the numbers become predictable. You know how many steps you usually take and how much sleep you get. Yet we keep wearing them, so what’s next?

Meet Exist. Exist lets you connect a number of web services together, not to track numbers but to help you find trends.

Right now, Exist is pulling in data from my Apple Watch, my weight and body fat from my Fitbit scale, events from Google Calendar, how I’m using my computer from RescueTime, emails from Gmail, weather from Dark Sky, my Spotify listening history from Last.fm, and posts from Instagram and Twitter.

Once you’ve had everything connected for a few weeks, that’s when things get interesting. Even for someone like me who’s used fitness trackers for years, you start to see new and surprising patterns emerge. It might let you know you’re walking less 20% this month, and maybe that’s because you spent more time sending emails. Sending more emails is also correlated to your weight going up. While those may seem fairly obvious, what about knowing your weight tends to be higher when you listen to certain music? Exist can let you know. (If I have any hope of reaching my goal weight, I should listen to less Lana Del Rey and Florida Georgia Line.)

Here are a few other correlation’s Exist has found. Apparently, Tweetbot and Instagram aren’t as detrimental as I thought.

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One of the areas I’ve been paying considerable attention to is Exist’s mood tracker and the recently added custom tracking. Each day, Exist’s iOS app can prompt you to rate your day on a scale of 1-5. Within that same prompt, you’re given an opportunity to write a quick recap of the day and add any custom tags for further tracking.

While it’s still too early to see any correlations for custom tracking, I’m excited to see if any new trends emerge. Does meditation actually lead to any noticeable changes in my mood or productivity? How does that afternoon Venti Iced Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks affect my sleep? Being able to track anything, the possibilities are endless – although right now, tracking is limited to binary yes/no options.

Thanks to Exist, I finally feel like I’m getting something out of all of these areas of my life I’ve been tracking. Exist is free for 30 days and $6/mo or $57/year after that. You can get an additional free month by using my referral link.

Creating Keyboard Shortcuts for Websites with Keyboard Maestro

I’m a huge fan of keyboard shortcuts. If you’ve never taken the time to explore the keyboard shortcuts in your most used apps, I can’t recommend doing so enough. The amount of time you’ll save yourself is more than you’d think.

{Tip: If you’re looking for an easy way to discover keyboard shortcuts in a Mac application, check out CheatSheet. Once it’s installed, just hold ⌘ for a second or two and you’ll get a list of all the keyboard shortcuts in the app you’re using.}

As amazing as keyboard shortcuts are though, many of the things I do on my computer regularly don’t have shortcuts. The Request Tracker (RT) ticketing system I use at work, for example, has some shortcuts, but they don’t actually work once you get inside a ticket where I actually do most of my work.

 

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RT’s limited selection of keyboard shortcuts

 

Thankfully, there’s the ever useful Keyboard Maestro. With Keyboard Maestro, you can easily set up a keyboard shortcut (or hotkey) to trigger just about any action on a website.I reply to, comment on, and transfer tickets hundreds of times a day, so having keyboard shortcuts for these tasks is incredibly helpful. Below is an example of my shortcut to reply to a ticket. I could have easily just had the shortcut open up the reply screen, but why stop there? Adding an action to select a Safari field also puts the cursor in the correct place for me, so all I need to do is start typing my reply. It may seem trivial to set this up just to save a few clicks, but when you perform the same action over and over, those clicks add up.

Below is an example of my shortcut to reply to a ticket. I could have easily just had the shortcut open up the reply screen, but why stop there? Adding an action to select a Safari field can also put the cursor in the correct place for me so can immediately start typing the reply.

 

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My macro for replying to a support ticket via a keyboard shortcut

 

It may seem trivial to set this up just to save a few clicks, but when you perform the same action over and over, those clicks add up. Plus, once you have one set up, setting up macros for other actions is pretty much the same.

I also set up a few keyboard shortcuts to take me to frequently visited locations in the ticketing system like my own support queue or the ticket creation screen. For example, “^N” opens the page to create a new ticket. These are even simpler to set up because they only require the Click Link action.

 

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My macro to take me to my ticketing system’s home page

 

As an added bonus, I created a simple workflow for Alfred, my app launcher of choice so that I can get to these common destinations even when I’m not using Safari. Typing “rt new” into Alfred also brings me to the page to create a new ticket.

 

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Simple Alfred workflow to launch a URL via a keyword

 

Right now, I’m still breaking my muscle memory of using the mouse, but already I can tell these improvements will save me a considerable amount of time each day. If nothing else, they’ll save my wrists from the impending carpal tunnel.

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One Month with the 10.5″ iPad Pro

Today marks officially 1 month with my 10.5″ iPad Pro, and unlike my previous iPad, this one is actually still being used. It hasn’t evoked any magical feelings like my Airpods did and still continue to do, but it’s certainly a device I know I don’t want to live without.

Accessories

I quickly realized that in order to make the most of the iPad Pro, it needed accessories – lots of them. I can’t even imagine using the iPad Pro without the Smart Keyboard or Apple Pencil. Keyboard shortcuts alone immediately made the iPad more usable for me, and the Apple Pencil has converted almost all of my note taking (and coloring) from paper to digital.

Not wanting to ruin the gorgeous edges of the iPad, I picked up a MoKo Translucent Slim Hard Plastic Bumper Protector. I’d prefer to have something with more color, but the options that work with the Smart Keyboard thus far are slim. I also picked up a magnetic sleeve for the pencil which allows me to stick it to the Smart Keyboard. Looking for a bit more protection for when the Pencil is thrown in my bag, I bought a Belkin Carrying Case and Stand. Unfortunately, the Pencil doesn’t fit into the case with the magnetic sleeve though. For now, the case lives on my desk at work, providing a nice place to rest my Pencil as I work, as well as, storage for the extra tip and adaptor.

Use Cases

One of the most surprising things about getting the iPad Pro is how quickly and seamlessly it replaced other devices in my workflows. I find it much less of an inconvenience to work from my iPad Pro than my Chromebook or Dell laptop when installing updates on my Macbook Pro. All of my favorite apps are available and ready.

Additionally, my iPad Pro has become my go to devices for nearly all meetings unless there’s no table for me to type at. I bring up the meeting agenda in Google Docs on the left half of the screen and use Evernote for my own personal notes on the other half of the screen. I’ve not missed my laptop once in these cases, but if the need were to arise, I could access it using Screens.

The iPad Pro has also become my go to “couch-surfing device”. Not only is it an incredible smart remote, thanks to the Harmony app. I can use apps like TV Cast to stream video to my TV or just use it to play games like Mini Metro in my spare time.

I even find myself using it to read Kindle books. I still prefer reading on the Kindle, but the iPad’s in my hands more often, therefore it gets used more often.

Where It Falls Short

I love this device, but I simply can’t use it as a primary device yet. The Smart Keyboard just doesn’t work well for typing on anything but a solid surface. Therefore, I find myself still resorting to my laptop in cases where I need to do work and don’t have a stable surface available.

Another limitation is with automation. As a heavy Keyboard Maestro user, I rely on automation to perform many day to day tasks on my Mac. With no Keyboard Maestro for iOS, it’d take significant effort on my part, which I’ve yet to invest, to configure these in an app like Workflow. That being said, a big portion of my Keyboard Maestro use is text expansion. Working in customer support, text expansion is essential to my workflow, so much so, I even considered switching back to TextExpander. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t allow third party keyboards to use the Smart Keyboard, so for now, I’m stuck doing a good portion of my work on my Mac.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, the iPad Pro is AMAZING as a general use computer. As far as using it for anything more, it’s getting there, but it’s not quite there yet.

Some Thoughts on Notetaking on the iPad Pro

Update: An Update on Notetaking with iOS and MacOS

Despite being an Apple fangirl of sorts, I haven’t owned an iPad since the iPad 3 (also known as the “new iPad”, the first iPad with Retina, or as I remember it, the dreadfully underpowered iPad). I was never a huge fan of it, found trouble justifying its use, and ended up selling it when I moved.

A few weeks ago, I became the proud owner of a 10.5 inch iPad Pro courtesy of my job (Space Grey, 256GB, Wi-fi, if you’re curious). I suppose running the tech demo space on campus has its perks. Much to my surprise, I’m loving it. In fact, when running to meetings, I’m finding myself reaching for the iPad Pro and leaving my Macbook Pro in my office.

One of the first workflows the iPad Pro challenged me to reevaluate was notetaking. The Apple Pencil gave me a way to take handwritten notes digitally, and as someone who makes every effort to go paperless, I jumped at the chance. I tend to prefer handwritten notes in a number of circumstances throughout my day:

  • Planning out my day
  • Meetings
  • Interviewing new employees
  • In Class
  • General notes and doodles

After trying a number of apps, hoping to stumble upon the perfect one, I’ve come to the conclusion that one app may not be the way to go in cases like these.

Day Planning

For planning my day, I prefer Notability. While the majority of my planning is done through Google Calendar and Omnifocus, I still do appreciate having a detailed list of everything I need to do in a day to check off as I go. Only important things are in Omnifocus, and until manual sorting is added, the list is often out of order from when I actually plan to do it. Notability provides the best format for writing out my day, Bullet Journal style, and I prefer the Subject/Divider with individual notes organization.

Meetings

I actually gave up handwritten notes in meetings. I think part of me prefers the privacy of typing on a propped up screen as opposed to scribbling on my screen laying flat on a table for everyone to see. For this, I’m using a split screen set up with the shared meeting agenda in Google Docs on the right and my personal meeting notes stored in Evernote on the right. (You read that right, I’m using Evernote. More on that in a later post).

Interviewing Employees

This was the scenario that drew me to the iPad Pro. Several times a year, I have to hire a number of students to work in my office. Such is life when your employee pool is based on a group that leaves every 4 years. My prior workflow involved printing out resumes which I’d review and annotate. Candidates that made the cut are invited to an interview. Before each interview, I’d print out a checklist that I’d take notes on as the interview progressed.

For this workflow, Goodnotes was perfect. Unlike Notability, notes are organized into Notebooks with actual pages. Goodnotes allows me to have a single notebook for a round of hiring. Another feature that makes Goodnotes the winner is that I can set the page template to be the interview checklist. Instead of printing a new checklist for every candidate, I just swipe to a new page now.

In Class

While I’m not in a class at the moment, I can see Goodnotes being my pick for taking notes in my classes too. The ability to annotate articles and store handwritten notes side seems best suited to this app. Classes also lend themselves to Goodnotes’ notebook format nicely as well.

General Notes and Doodles

For simple notes, I’m finding myself using Apple Notes. Apple Notes doesn’t offer as many ways to customize the writing style, it does offer a nice feature of being available from the lock screen. In iOS 11, a simple tap to the lockscreen with the Apple Pencil opens up a new note. This is perfect for jotting down something quick.

(Tip: In Settings > Notes, you can tell Apple Notes to display lines or grids when writing handwritten notes instead of just a blank canvas.)

Honorable mention:

There’s one app that I don’t use all that often, but it’s so darn cool I’ve not managed to remove it from my iPad just yet, and that’s Nebo. In terms of organizing notes, Nebo’s structure is a lot like Notability, but it has a few tricks up it’s sleeve. Scratching through something you’ve written erases it (like crossing it out on paper, but better) Drawing lines between letters or words separates or joins them.

And then there’s there are the features that are just magical. Double-tapping on handwritten text with your finger converts it to text. This also works with diagrams and mathematical equations. In the past, I’ve spent hours on my Mac crafting professional looking diagrams and flow charts to explain workflows to my colleagues. With Nebo, the process takes minutes.

Do you have any tips or tricks for notetaking on your iPad Pro? Another app mention? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’re using.

Update: An Update on Notetaking with iOS and MacOS