My Personal Notes System

Is there something better than Evernote where I can jot down notes & ideas really quickly that works on mobile + desktop? Must be lightweight & allow me organize the notes into groups of some sort.

It’s time to move on…

@suhail on Twitter.

The personal notes problem has received plenty of attention but still remains unsolved.

People’s requirements are some or all of

– frictionless adding of notes; for some, automation via scriptability

– frictionless search and retrieval across a large number of notes

– organisable – tags, grouping, both

– editable – not just add and search

– inline formatting – bold/italics, bullets, links, tables

– multimedia – should be able to store text, inline photos; for some, even files like PDFs

– portable/open format

– the ability to encrypt specific notes/folders

– synced across devices; for some, self-hosted

– ability to index/reference data stored elsewhere, like say in email

– desktop and mobile, for some a web interface

– collaborative

– version controlled

The landscape is vast and I’m not even going to begin describing it – it spans sophisticated paper-based organisation systems and DEVONthink. Some people I know have fun just evaluating such apps and systems.

But it’s difficult to design and build something that works well for all of these. So most end up optimising for a few of them, often what the developer’s own itch is.

My own priorities are:

– open formats for longetivity. This is very important to me. I have notes going back over ten years, and I’d like that to continue

– frictionless, scriptable addition of notes

– fast full-text search

– synced across at least iOS and mac OS

– I’m ok with not being able to encrypt specific notes as long as the storage itself is secure

– editable with inline formatting. Markdown serves me well, so all I need is a markdown-aware editor

– elementary support for organisation. Inline tags work well enough for me, so I need is for the front-ends to support search as I described above

– support for in-line images would be good to have but it’s not a deal-breaker

My system is plain-text files in a set of folders in iCloud Drive. This used to be Dropbox before the company restricted the number of devices on the free plan.

– I have a number of iOS Shortcuts that run periodically via Launch Center Pro that log readings to files, others that save web pages in markdown. I have other Shortcuts that are home-screen icons that pop up text input boxes to save thought snippets in just a couple of seconds while, say, having a conversation. I invoke still others from share sheets to log to other text files. Shortcuts has of course great support for saving to iCloud Drive. And they’re all synced across devices.

– Files have a simple naming scheme where yymmdd is prepended to file names for easy sorting. Tags are in the file body, the tag name prepended with “@@” for easy searching. All files are spread across a handful of folders.

– There’s great support for markdown-aware plaintext editors on iOS that support online iCloud Drive editing. I use the excellent blockquote app on iPhone and iPad. On Mac OS, I use good old nvalt. The Files app on iOS has good, fast search. Nvalt search is unbeatable.

– While the plaintext files are themselves not encrypted, my iOS devices are protected By FaceID and a long password string, my Mac has a complicated password and FileVault full-disk encryption. On the web, my iCloud account is also protected by 2-factor auth, tied to a non-Gmail email account that is also itself protected by 2-factor auth.

It’s a homegrown solution but works very well for my needs. It doesn’t have collaboration. It doesn’t have a web-based front-end. It’s not version controlled. But it has scriptability and is open-format, and I’m ok making that tradeoff, especially in a world that has Shortcuts, IFTTT and Launch Center Pro. It’s not even tied to iCloud Drive.

PS: I miss the ability to embed inline images. I can do that on Mac OS by referencing an image in markdown, but that path breaks on iOS. So I just avoid it and save images separately in the same folder with descriptive file names.

PPS: 17th Dec 2019 discussion on Hacker News on How do you keep your notes organized?

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