Organization Tools

by 3baid

Our lives are filled with all kinds of information; information about ourselves, about other people, about things that we are interested in, and things that we may be concerned about. Our minds however, can only cope with so much, so we tend to forget the less important matters. What did you have for lunch last week? I certainly can’t remember because it doesn’t matter to me anymore.

Moreover, information is dynamic; it may change so frequently that we cannot keep track of it. For example, you may have memorized your friend’s telephone number only to find that they’ve changed their operator a few months later. Or perhaps you’ve purchased a new printer and now can’t recall the new model number to buy ink cartridges while you’re at the supplies store, and so on…

If we are to be able to organize our life effectively, we will need a system that can help us consistently manage this abundant information so that we can take advantage of it rather than feel overwhelmed by it.

Notes to the Rescue!

To put our minds at ease, people have devised notes. When we find ourselves faced with facts that are relevant but difficult to remember, we ought to write them down so that we can retrieve them later as needed. In order for our notes to be reliable, we must ensure that they are with us at all times, therefore in my opinion, the best means of note-taking is our very own mobile phone; it’s with you everywhere you go.

I’ve tried many note-taking applications for iPhone, but found SimpleNote to be one of the best. It’s free, syncs with the web, supports tags, and lets you search offline. The Apple Notes app is good, but syncs one-way to iCloud and Mail. Evernote doesn’t let you search offline unless you pay monthly premium.

Not All Notes are Created Equal

If we note someone’s telephone number or email address it is said to be a  contact. Similarly, if we note a list of items, such as a shopping list, we call it a task list or to-do list. A note that is relevant to a specific point in time or location is called a  reminder. A regular fact can be written as a text note. A note about an event taking place for some duration is a calendar event.

Conceptually, all these types of notes do the same thing: they store a large amount of information so that we don’t have to memorize it all. The difference being is that each type of note lives in a different app:

  • People’s contact and addresses live in the Address Book app
  • Task lists and alerts live in the Reminders app (or iCal)
  • Text notes live in Notes app (or SimpleNote)
  • Time events live in Calendar

But I Already Know All This, So What?

As I mentioned earlier, in order for all your notes to be effective, they must be with you at all times. Now suppose you are working at your desk, and you wanted to send an email. You could use your phone to retrieve your contact’s email address. This is okay if you only had to fetch one or two contacts, but if you had to do it regularly, it would be too cumbersome. (For those of you who use Google Tasks on Gmail or GCal, you’ll find that there are no free native iPhone apps that also work offline).

Therefore, it is not enough to be able to access your notes on one device (in our case, the phone), you need to be able have your information synced with the rest of your work environment (your desktop, iPad, tablet, etc..).

Too Many Things to Check

Except for calendar items, the rest of your notes should be passive; you shouldn’t be constantly checking them, they are there to be fetched when you need them. If you have a to-do list, schedule time to do it. If you want to call someone later, add a reminder to call them. Don’t get into the habit of memorizing things or checking your phone multiple times because it may be unreliable and time consuming.

Your Email Inbox is not for Notes!

A lot of people use their email inbox as a note-taking app (send email to themselves or keep as “draft”) because mail is a standard that works well across all devices, but unlike notes, email cannot be edited once it is sent, it cannot effectively alert you of an event at a specific time or location, or let you retrieve contact information (unless contacts sync via LDAP or similar). Strictly speaking, e-mail should be a communication tool, not a note-taking app for the same reasons why SMS shouldn’t be a note-taking app. Although, information that you gain from emails should be noted separately. This is probably why Apple included the notes feature within Apple Mail.

Example Scenario

To end this post, I’d like to share a example of how I may use my notes. Suppose a friend calls and asks to have lunch:

  1. Use Calendar to find free time and set it
  2. Use text notes to find restaurant information (or do web search)
  3. Use Address Book to note restaurant telephone number and make reservations
  4. Use Reminders to set an alarm for reservation time
  5. Use To-Do list if you need to prepare something before lunch or perhaps after lunch (and set another reminder for that)

I hope you found this all enlightening.