Keeping Track of Meeting Notes with Agenda

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I love finding apps that make my life easier, but somewhere along the way I also developed a habit of trying to consolidate apps. Purpose-built apps were abandoned in favor of apps that could be used for multiple things. In doing that, I ended up with fewer apps that did most things but not all of them did everything all that well.

My desire to eliminate purpose-built apps went away after reading Take Control of Your Productivity by Jeff Porten. In his book, Porten mentions that it’s perfectly acceptable to use multiple purpose-built apps as long as you feel they’re the best tools for the job. After thinking about that point for a bit, I realized I still use plenty of purpose-built apps (OmniFocus for tasks, 1Password for logins, Paprika for recipes, and Pocket for long-form reading, etc), and they’re essential because they serve their purposes incredibly well. The key is not finding that one app that does everything but tying all of your best apps into one cohesive system.

I originally heard about Agenda and its new take on notes on Macstories around the time I was experiencing Note-Fail, so I decided to try it. I tried it a few times actually, but I had a hard time figuring out why I should use it instead of one of my other apps. Then I realized I was thinking about Agenda all wrong.

Agenda isn’t there to replace your everything bucket apps like Evernote or DEVONthink. It’s not there to replace your notes app, your calendar, your task manager, or your email either. Instead, Agenda is there to live on top of all of them as the glue holding your projects together. It compiles the narrative of a project from beginning to end, making sense of all the notes you’ve taken, meetings you’ve endured, tasks you’ve completed, and emails you’ve sent and received. With this shift in thinking, Agenda not only made sense, it became essential to my organizational system.

Browsing Agenda’s forums, it seems I wasn’t alone in my struggle of using the app, so with so many people trying to figure out how to use Agenda, I figured I’d share how I’m using it.

First off, Agenda’s primary function is to store what else other than my agenda notes. There are short dated bulleted lists and action items I take while in meetings. I’d already been keeping them separately within my organizational system for a while so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to move them to a separate app.

Within Agenda, I created 3 categories: Personal, Work: Current Projects for current one-off projects I’m collaborating on, and Work: Ongoing for regularly scheduled meetings pertaining to my roles at work.

Each category holds projects containing a collection of notes. In my old system, I’d either append my meeting notes to a single running document for recurring meetings or create individual notes for project-based meetings. With Agenda, every meeting gets recorded as its own note.

Within each project, I also have a pinned note at the top (a premium feature) titled Resources that holds links to related files and other items such as shared running agendas in Google Drive, corresponding projects within Omnifocus, or groups of resources in DEVONthink. Having the pinned Resources folder really helped me see Agenda as the central hub of my organization system that ties projects together rather than just being another spoke on the wheel of tools.

It’s also worth noting I use linking throughout the meeting notes I take, linking to Google Docs, resources archived in DevonThink, emails within Airmail, and data in any other app that supports linking in that way.

Now know having a project with linked notes isn’t particularly game-changing. I could easily have used Omnifocus’s notes field or a note in DevonThink to link everything together, and to be honest, I do just to make my life easier. but what sets Agenda apart is the ability to tie notes to a calendar event. Not only are my notes chronologically ordered within each project, I can also see my notes chronologically ordered across projects (e.g. view all my meetings on August 3rd). Agenda also supports tags, meaning I can type @NameofPerson to tag someone in a note, and then later find all notes with that person. When you’re working with people across projects, this is incredibly helpful.

Another feature of Agenda is a section called “On the Agenda”. You can set Agenda to add any new note to this section automatically. I use this more like a flag to keep notes on my radar until I’ve had a chance to copy any action items into OmniFocus.

In moving my agendas outside of DEVONthink, the only thing I needed to figure out was what to do with one-off projects once they’re completed. Typically I archived them into a Reference folder within my note-taking app, but Agenda does not have any archiving feature at the moment (although they say they’re working on it). I didn’t want to just delete everything either. Thankfully, Agenda makes it easy to export content. When a project is completed, I simply export the entire project as a single Markdown file (another premium feature) and import it into DEVONthink. Quite nicely, the exported Markdown file preserves all the links and even tags allowing me to open the file in an app like FoldingText maintaining all its functionality.

Photo by Thomas Martinsen on Unsplash

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Notes – My New Version of Planner Fail

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When I first started this blog years ago, I wrote mainly about paper planners. I was a bit obsessive about my Filofax(es) and switched up my “system” just about every week. For anyone in that community, planner fail isn’t uncommon. In fact, Filofaxes almost encourage the behavior, but when I went digital, I thought my days of planner fail were behind me.

Then, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how thrilled I was to abandon Evernote and consolidate all my notes into Apple Notes. Well, it took me about 2 weeks to realize that probably wasn’t the smartest move after all. As much as I thought I’d like having my notes all in one place, in practice, it actually frustrated me.

Now I will say, none of this was a fault of Apple Notes. Apple Notes is surprisingly powerful and handled everything I threw at it. My frustration was due more to how my brain works than software limitations.

Apple Notes originally won me over with its simplicity, but once you add a few hundred notes, it turns out Apple Notes or any system for that matter stops being so simple. Having everything in Apple Notes forced me to accept that I actually prefer having some sort of distinction between my active notes and reference notes.

And this is where planner-fail returns… but as notes fail.

I didn’t go running back to Evernote. I’ve actually enjoyed my time without the green elephant and even turned off my subscription. I also didn’t abandon Apple Notes – at least not entirely. Apple Notes continues to be the home for “active” notes that I access regularly – my heavily-used collection of carryout menus, jotting down quick notes, and things like the list of things to do that I share with my boyfriend.

The rest of my notes, the reference and project-based notes, all now live in…

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DEVONthink Pro Office!

As a self-proclaimed Mac Power User, the move to DEVONthink has been a long time coming. I’d just been avoiding the learning curve and let’s be honest the price (although the education discount helped!).

While I still don’t care for the dated interface (which I hear may be getting a facelift in the future), there are a number of things I do enjoy.

  1. I get to pick where my data is stored – and it doesn’t belong to Evernote. I have 3 separate databases. My personal database is synced via iCloud. My other two databases, Work and School, are synced via my university’s Box cloud storage.
  2. Getting data into DEVONthink is about as easy as it was with Evernote (and much easier than Apple Notes). DEVONthink’s browser extension does what I need it to for archiving websites, and I can archive emails from Airmail directly to DEVONthink as well (although they’re plain text – Airmail team, if you’re listening, you could do better!). Airmail had no integration with Apple Notes
  3. I can search my notes with Alfred. Alfred couldn’t search Apple Notes which forced me to use Spotlight.
  4. I get to use my favorite apps. Plenty of apps integrate with Evernote and Apple Notes as far as saving things into them, but once something is saved, you’re limited to editing a note within the Evernote or Apple Notes apps. With DEVONthink, I can use the Open with Feature and edit saved files within my favorite apps. (I’m writing this post in FoldingText, but it’s actually stored in DEVONthink.)
  5. Artificial Intelligence – This is a feature I didn’t really think much of when I bought it. It sounded cool, but I figured it’d be a gimmick like Evernote’s, context feature. My main motivation for having a central place to store notes was to hopefully be able to find connections between things I’m storing, and DEVONthink’s AI feature does this automatically! Looking at my book notes for Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, I also get suggestions for notes I’ve taken on his other book, Homo Deus. It even makes suggestions for books I would have never even made connections to like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. This is a game changer (and it may be enough of a game changer to sway me into continuing on for my Ph.D.).

DEVONthink isn’t perfect. I’ve had to make a few changes to adapt to its interface and storage methods, but I’m pretty confident that DEVONthink is here to stay as part of my tool bag of pro apps.

Lastly, if you’re on the fence about DevonThink or were like me and downloaded the trial a handful of times only to delete the app out of overwhelm, I highly recommend reading Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2.

Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash

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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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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