Friday, April 7, 2017

Death, taxes and note taking

Few things in life are certain, taxes and death arrive without any help on your side, but being successful in business requires active attention. The most important asset I have in business is data organization.

Over the years I have developed a system for note taking, it involves a stack of moleskine notebooks, a few pens and routine evening and weekend organizational habits. I tend to fill one notebook every 2-3 weeks while often needing to recall 6-8 months of data, meaning I have a dozen notebooks on my desk at any given point in time.

How I take notes. 

Like most professionals I have a system and I stick to it like a religious ceremony.
- The first two pages are kept blank for use as an index.
- Every page I number the top corner, date, and title the page.
- First line is people who attended/involved
- Action items I need to act on get a square - I cross it out one I have completed or I have moved it into a task tracking tool.
- Action items from others get a triangle - I cross it out when they have completed it or I have opened an email item with a timer to remind/bump the requirement.
- Critical thoughts I want to table or narrow in on (either in meeting when I have a chance or after the fact) get marked with a +

It is a pretty basic system and has served me quite well for the last decade.

Unfortunately unless it is in my current notebook, a challenge has always been recalling data, usually involving digging through my notebooks' indexes late at night.

Most people know I have been a pretty big fan of Evernote over the years, I can business cards into it, I have email forwarders automatically send emails and attachments to it. I have IFTTT wired up to automatically snip things I have saved/liked on social media sites. It has become the dusty filing cabinet for my brain.

I have tried many times to maintain the rigor of scanning all of my notes into evernote for easy search and recall, but it never sticks. Something about the process just feels to after the fact and pointless. I have even resorted to testing out evernote's own custom moleskine notebooks which help with OCR.

I even have dabbled time and time again with using smart pens, stylus and ipads, etc.. nothing ever came close to replacing the pen. The pen is mightier - long live the pen. 


4:15 PM - the sun's assault on this other wise perfect Sand Hill conference room made my hands sweat. My co-founder and I began settled into our chairs for the next hour. A refreshing blast of AC filled the room as the firm's partner entered the room. We began talking about how we were going to change the world, how he was witnessing history in the making, I paused.

He was taking his notes on an iPad Pro with an Apple pencil... and his notes looked phenomenal.

I continued, occasionally glancing over at the over sized iPad as it continued to scroll and fill up with pages of notes as he effortly treated it just like a sheet of paper. Maybe it was just a new toy, maybe he was trying to be cool, keep to the message.

After the end of our presentation when we were casually chatting I looked more carefully at his iPad, it was beat to shit. It was no new toy, it was no desk queen, that iPad had lived a full and hard life, could that mean he actually has found a system that works?

I had to form my own opinion, after our meeting I popped by the Apple shop and played with an iPad Pro and pencil. Wow. It actually works, wait no, it works perfectly.

Without much internal dialog, the "need" to replace my old iPad mini seemed pretty obvious (blah).

New work flows

Historically all roads lead to Evernote, having used the product for nearly a decade I have a few thousand items in it - business cards, notes, receipts, recipes, random PDF files, and the occasional photo. Evernote has built in sketch writing and owns Penultimate - this should be easy to augment my work flow. It wasn't, I suddenly found myself needing a new hammer.

Evernote - Great at storing, searching and tagging data. Internal handwriting smoothing algorithm makes my handwriting worse, a lot worse. Inserting an image to annotate is annoying, insertion is easy, annotating is painfully awkward with a writing tool. All notes are OCR'd and searchable. Final hassle with Evernote is it does not have a auto or manually scrollable internal page system. This means once you get halfway down the page your hand starts to hang off the surface of the iPad.

Penultimate - Good writing interface, infinite scrolling paper, no features for importing an image / PDF and marking it up. It automatically syncs written notes into a special notebook inside of Evernote, but the notes sync in via Read-Only mode, making extra meta work damn near impossible. These notes are OCR'd via the cloud and easily searchable.

Notability - Fantastic writing recognition, easy to import files and annotate. A clean and powerful interface, probably the best writing experience on an iPad pro. No ability to search handwritten notes with OCR is a major problem. Lacks robust integration with other workflow tools. Can export PDF to Evernote however Evernote only OCRs handwriting in the form of an image not PDF, would require all notes go through PDF 2 JPG conversation, no automatic way of achieving this. $9.99

GoodNotes - Very similar to Notability - fantastic writing, great interface, has an internal OCR tool that works very well, lacks integration with other tools I use for enhanced workflow and archive. $6.99 - UPDATE - It appears GoodNotes has an image export function that also supports external app EverNote. We may have ourselves a winner.

OneNote - Microsoft is making it very clear, they want to win the cloud game. OneNote has been around for over a decade, I remember having used it back in 2005 and it was decent back then. Well OneNote is even better now, it is leaner, faster and turns out fantastic to write on. The infinite scrolling makes it a dream to notepad on. OneNote is integrated into Microsoft's cloud very nicely so all your notes are everywhere-all the time. MS has a very low price for cloud access, $99/yr for 5TB of data and access to ALL MS Office suite. Pretty awesome. The bad - OneNote no longer has a way to easily export data, new thinner version lacks the ability to search for todo tags. If you want to exist 100% inside of OneNote and are happy with it's workflow, this can work, unfortunately I am not.


At this time I will continue to experiment with gluing multiple tools together in an effort to get to the final perfect solution.  Suggestions?

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