Notepad and pen on top of a Macbook keyboard
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Taking notes has come a long way since the loose leaf in my school notebooks were covered with swirly doodles and repeated attempts at a cool signature. Today every thought can be quickly recorded and collated in elaborate color-coded databases, just like our brains could do if they weren’t occupied by trying to remember actors’ names.

Note-taking apps have made the practice of making notes instead of actually getting anything done way more artful. They can combine different types of content like handwritten notes and audio recordings onto one page, allow you to search your notes for key phrases, and can be synced across all devices.

But unless you’re doing a Mission Control check before takeoff, are all these features necessary or just a distraction from actually doing stuff?

Apps as Elaborate as Your Thoughts

When encountering the project and notes management app Notion, one feels like they need another note-taking app just to understand how to use it. But it’s not that difficult. It lets users combine dozens of block types in its text editor, so your notes can take the form of text, images, web pages, tables, and whatever else you want to cram in there. God help anyone who actually needs to take these kinds of notes.

Notes can be shared with friends if you’re covering for anyone skipping the big company work presentation, and you can even publish them online, in case you’re really proud of your notes on President Millard Fillmore and need the world to see them. Feel free to use Notion if you’ve never had a notion. I’ve had whims and schemes and some vague ideas, but no notions.

Stylus for iPad

Maybe an app will be able to read your handwriting.

Evernote has been around for a while and lets users turn their thoughts into multimedia presentations to themselves, filled with scans and audio and web pages, all stored in pages that can be flagged and highlighted and assigned due dates. Still with me?

It can be especially useful for managing large amounts of text, like if you’re a student doing their master’s thesis on Michel Foucault, or the last human being on earth who needs to explain what humanity was to visiting aliens.

Nebo is one of the better handwriting recognition apps out there if you’re tired of “Call Susan after lunch” turning into “Craft Rufus a hutch” or something, and the more technical Obsidian markets itself as a “second brain,” in case your current one is at capacity. Features abound.

Better Note-Taking Apps Won’t Help You Take Better Notes

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Plenty of these apps are obviously well designed, but they’re not necessarily an improvement on Apple Notes or Notepad or whatever simple built-in thing you already have. What many of them do is turn note-taking into an active hobby.

They let you take such elaborate, cool-looking notes that sometimes you may not feel the urge to do anything else and just want everyone to see your awesome notes. All the extra features, while certainly sleek, may add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy to the simple act of putting a thought down. When scrolling through, one may end up feeling like Jennifer Lopez walking around in The Cell (or a more modern, relatable reference).

It may just be me (and it probably is), but I always tended to make extended notes and to-do lists during those times in life when I wasn’t actually doing anything. That doesn’t mean these are useless. It’s simply that our brains often don’t require tons of bells and whistles to write a thought or plan.

These advanced note-taking apps are probably best for those in specific careers. Obsidian could be useful for anyone with a coding background, and Notion for students in graduate school, recipe writers, and those who regularly give elaborate presentations.

The Biggest Advantage Over Pen to Paper

Perhaps the biggest advantage note-taking apps have over taking pen to paper is the search feature. When I think about all the probably amazing ideas I’ve been unable to find or read in endless pages of handwritten notes, I start going into the Rutger Hauer monologue at the end of Blade Runner.

In OneNote, for instance, the search feature lets you search text, images, audio and video recordings, PDFs, and handwritten notes, among other formats.

Of course, the problem with being able to access every hastily put-down thought is that, before searching, we were able to over-romanticize ideas lost to the ether as if they were an unrealized Sistine Chapel. But now we can quickly retrieve them and realize most were actually terrible.

“Robot vacuum slippers”? No one’s going to buy that.

Don’t Let Your Note-Taking App Become All Talk

If you’re religious about taking notes in an organized fashion, by all means, go hog wild with these apps. Over time it may become clear that you don’t actually need anything fancy, you just need that pesky discipline, and no app out there is going to help with that. Believe me I’ve looked.

Still, notes in any form can often help you produce better work. You can probably tell, for instance, that I didn’t take any notes before writing this article.

Profile Photo for Chason Gordon Chason Gordon
Chason Gordon is a staff writer and editor for How-To Geek. His writing has previously appeared in Slate, Vice, Input, and The Globe and Mail, among others. He currently lives in San Antonio, but is on a month-to-month lease.
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