The Low-Friction Productivity App – Why We Switched to Notion

May 20, 2020 ​- 62 Comments

​I've been pursuing the "perfect" producitivty and project management system for over a decade now. Whether I'm working on a solo project or with large or small teams, I'm always looking for the right tech, tools & systems to make work as seamless and productive as possible.

Unfortunately, a problem snuck up on me that took me a long time to detect. I've recently experimented with a move away from "best in class" tools and found that it does indeed make for greater productivity...

More...

​The Best-in-Class Problem

Until recently, I've been using a stack of productivity and project management tools, each of which I consider a best-in-class tool. That includes Trello for personal and small-team project management, Jira for larger scale software development management, Google Drive for storage, file sharing, documents and notes, Slack for remote team communication and several other tools, each with a specialized purpose.

These tools are all excellent and working with this stack has been highly effective for me.

BUT...

There is an efficiency problem that appears in the gaps of any stack of tools. I mean that literally: the problem isn't any specific tool, it's the gaps between the tools. It's the fact that you have to switch between different tools for different jobs and that you have to create a "meta system" that is shared in a team, so that people know what is stored where and how to use each of the different tools.

I'm sure you're no stranger to searching through emails, Slack messages, files, folders etc. trying to find that one specific thing you need right now...

The Notion Experiment

When I started working with a new team this year, I decided to try an experiment. Instead of using the same set of tools I was used to, I started to search for ways in which to reduce this app-switching friction I'd been experiencing.

This is why we started working with Notion.

Notion is an app that's a bit difficult to explain. Technically, it's a database app. You can create databases and customize and display them in almost any way you can think of.

But that doesn't sound very exciting, does it?

So, let me showcase a few ways in which we use Notion:

Take Notes Like in Google Docs or Evernote

Writing and note taking in Notion

Notion lets you create and organize notes and documents in groups, folders, pages and any other way you'd like to. It offers an excellent writing experience (with markdown support) and a global search function so you can find any document from anywhere in the app.

You can also share documents with people on your team or make them public and you can leave comments and feedback directly in a document.

Track Projects Like in Trello or Asana

Kanban board in Notion

​If you're used to tracking projects on a Kanban style board (think: Trello), Notion has you covered. You can easily switch between a list view and a Kanban view of your tasks and you can use tags, priority levels, due dates, assignments and drag-and-drop functionality as you'd expect.

To-Do Lists, Tables, Toggles & More

Checklists, bookmark and table in Notion

​Within a Notion page, you can create a rich layout of text, media, checklists, links and even tables. This is where Notion goes beyond being your typical note-taking app.

Whether you want to track tasks, write SOPs, compile research, manage schedules or pretty much anything else you can think of, in Notion, you can probably do it.

And the key here is: there are no restrictions to how you use these features. You can have a page that contains several kanban-style boards and each "card" in each board can contain any content you wish for, including further kanban boards. You can categorize, group and nest boards within lists, within pages in any configuration you want.

The Aesthetic Factor

I should also mention that Notion is quite pleasing to look at. It's a clean, uncluttered user interface, coupled with good typography. There's also a dark mode, for those who prefer it:

dark mode

​The Notion desktop app in dark mode

​Is it Worth the Switch?

The summary above gives you an idea of the wide range of things that can be done in the Notion app. But is it really worth switching from your familiar tools to this?

Here's my experience with this, so far:

  • Notion is not "the best" at everything. Trello is a better Kanban app than Notion, for example.
  • Notion doesn't replace all our work tools (of course). We still use Loom as an important communication tool, we use Frame.io for video feedback and so on.
  • The increased efficiency from having more stuff in one place and fewer apps to switch between has already paid off. Having a "less than best" tool, but having everything in one place is a productivity win, overall.
  • As a note-taking and writing app, Notion is excellent. I now use it for all my personal as well as business related writing. In the past, I've used Google Docs, Evernote, ​iAwriter and a slew of other apps in the past. Notion beats them all, easily.
  • Notion gives you loads of freedom to design your own worspaces, templates, workflows etc. The flipside of that is a learning curve: it takes longer to get the hang of than a simpler tool like Trello.

Based on this, I hope you can assess whether Notion is an app you want to try out or not. The good news is that the app is free for personal use, so you can give it a risk-free spin if you fancy.

​If you're interested in learning more about how to use Notion to increase your personal productivty and work more effectively with teams, let me know by leaving a comment!

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.


​Related Articles

  • Hi Shane,

    thanks for the great article about Notion and simplified productivity. I really appreciate it.

    I totally agree with everything you said about Notion and the more focused and frictionless productivity experience.

    We’ve tested it as a team, and we love it!

    There´s one thing that is holding us back to make the switch: the missing/ weak export functionality of your entire content/ databases etc. when Notion goes bust or you want to move to another tool.

    Yes, you can export your texts, mood boards, databases etc. as HTML/ XML files… When you have a lot of content in Notion, it’s not very helpful to have a ton of XML files with all your interlinkage gone for good.

    Aren’t you actually making a bet on how long Notion will be around? And the more time, effort you invest and tools you consolidate in building your Notion workplace, the more you’re depending on the well being of Notion as a company/service?

    Google, Trello and the other tools you’ve mentioned, are household names that are very likely to offer their SasS 10/20 years from now. But will Notion be around in 10/20 years…mhmm…

    What’s your opinion about that?

    • That’s a concern I’ve also had on my mind. It’s definitely a risk to take.
      Here’s why I’m okay with it: the most important and long term valuable stuff I have stored in Notion is my writing. That’s mostly just text, so it can easily be exported and transferred to something else.

      Everything else I have in Notion is also important, but not in the long term. Project management stuff is always temporary. The value there lies in how we can manage this week’s and this month’s work, not in having an archive of what we did 5 years ago.

      That’s how I see it for the way I work, anyway.

  • Yes, I’d love to know more about using Notion to be more personally productive as a solopreneur, content producer and potential coach.

  • I’ve frequently tried “one-tool-to-rule-them-all” productivity systems, but my main problem is the one you highlighted about Notion not being “the best” at anything. Note takers are less than ideal project managers, and vice versa.

    For me, implementing the same simple structure across all my tools using Tiago Forte’s PARA has made the pain of gaps between tools less than the pain of dealing with the shortcomings of the one chosen tool, at least for now, until the “next big thing” with bi-directional linking becomes mainstream.

    • I’m using PARA inside Notion and it’s the best productivity system I’ve ever had. I’m consistently seeing how I can use this setup for almost everything that relevant in my life.

  • Notion seems to be interesting, but I’ll still continue using Evernote, it’s simple and good enough for my needs. I’ve decided to not always switch my tools but to master the ones that I’m already using. :)

    • That is a wise choice. Being stuck in a tool that doesn’t serve you well is a mistake, but so is constatly switching to new stuff, just for the sake of it. :)

  • Needed a little Huel in that Shake Abhi

    Woo! Can’t wait to hear how the Thrive team uses Notion…. and hopefully we can get those API’s opened up soon

    Loved the fun spin on the video!

    • Thanks for your comment, Gun!
      I hope the Notion team keep up their pace of development. It’s an amazing tool, but there are also areas where I can’t help but think that it’s good, but could be great with a few more tweaks and additions.

  • I’ve been seeing Notion pop up everywhere the last week or two! As I always say, “If Shane is doing it, I should be doing it!” (I don’t always say that actually, but your opinion *does* carry some weight.)

    • It seems to be gaining popularity for sure. And for good reason. It’s a really well made app!

  • Have to admit, Shane, that I was frozen with fear for a moment there as I contemplated changing over from my beloved Trello to yet a newer (better?) platform > Notion. From this (very entertaining!) demo, Notion does look like a superb all-in-one (ish) productivity solution. So I’ve opened my mind to learning more. And yes, would love another Notion video from you and your team. Thanks always for the wisdom gems!!!

    • Thanks for your comment!
      I still love Trello and I miss some things about Trello in the new Notion work environment. I wouldn’t say that switching is the right choice for everyone. But beacuse of the advantages mentioned, I’d say Notion is at least worth considering for most people.

  • Shane,

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with this new tool.

    I started back in 2017 with Trello and ASANA for product management, mostly for personal matters and for planning my classes at the university.

    Lately, however, I have been working a lot with Airtable, which was a little difficult to define at first glance. Nevertheless, after working with it for a couple of days and looking into all the different templates they use for all sorts of projects, plus the customization level allowed, I was sold on it.

    Now, after watching your video, I am definitely going to try Notion. Just as you mention, the fact of being able to manage everything in one place, is priceless.

    Best regards.

    • Airtable is a really interesting solution as well. I will say that tables in Notion are a lot weaker than what you get in Google Sheets or Excel. It’s one of the weak points in Notion, IMO. To be fair, it’s great that there is a table functionality at all, but I can’t switch all of my spreadsheet related stuff to Notion, which would be even better.

      • Hello, Shane.

        After further reviewing other productivity tools that advertise themselves as “all in one solutions”, I found what seems to be a very promising and powerful app. Its name is Clickup and I would suggest taking a look into it, if you haven’t already.

        Regards.

  • Very interesting thanks! Cool to see the Lisbon project in action.

  • Garrett Takach says:

    Shane, this is fantastic!!! Absolutely, I’d love to learn more how you guys use Notion. My head is spinning after watching your all’s video!

    • Most likely, yes. It won’t happen immediately, though. I have only been using it for a few months and I want to upgrade my expertise and refine my systems before I switch over my recommendations in the course.

  • I have installed Notion and am just getting to know how to use it, but I am already thinking that it would have come in handy throughout my life! Thanks for this video and I hope you will record lots more!

  • Nice write-up Shane. We’re currently running a system of Google Drive, Asana and Slack. It is a very small team, but I can see how there would be advantages of an ‘all-in-one’ solution. That tagline reminds me of how Basecamp positions their product. Have you ever tried it?

    • I did consider Basecamp when making the switch, yes. The main reason I decided against it was a lack of kanban style project management. I find that to be a very effective way to manage even highly complex projects and I didn’t want to miss out on it.

  • I LOVE it!!! Thank you all! I would love too see more videos about using notion!

  • Hi Shane!

    Thank for your video. Just one question. Have you tried the Click-up? And what is your oppinion about is?

    Thanks, Attila

    • I only tried it briefly, when it launched. But several people have mentioned it lately, so I’ll probably have another stab at it.

  • Wow. I discovered AG (and TT) just a month ago, and it’s the best thing happened to me. Since I started following and applying your advice in Craft Course I though about this “issue” and I was wondering “when Shane will find something to solve it” and here you are with Notion.
    Once again, thank you Shane for helping us to be more efficient and productive

    • Thank you for your comment! I’m happy to hear that it’s been useful for you to follow our content. :)

  • Richard Cabrera says:

    Yes I am interested and I do want to hear more of notion. Thank you Shane!

    • Thanks for your comment, Richard! We’ll make some more tutorials as we learn ways to use Notion even more effectively!

  • Amazing video, guys.

    Definitely will try out Notion

    Side note 1: Michael Ellsworth’s book made it immediately to my Amazon wish list
    Side note 2: love the smoothie (!) progress

  • Thank you for this very informative video blog. I’m definitely going to check out Notion, since I haven’t found my way in productivity tools yet. I am dabbling a bit in Trello, using Google docs, Instagantt and Evernote. I am very interested in merging them all into one tool and learning how to use it to optimise my workflow.

    So yes please, more on Notion! :-)

  • ClickUp is even better than Notion. IMO.

      • It’s the same idea. Everything is in one place: ” One app to replace them all.”. Here you can find what they replace. Have a look at product-tour in menu. Everything works perfectly: tasks, projects, docs, spreadsheets, talk, calendar, etc..

      • However, Notion is also awesome!

    • Catherine says:

      Many thanks for the recommendation, Alex. I’ve made a note (in Notion) to try ClickUp tomorrow.

      • Share your opinion about ClickUp, Catherine.

      • I can’t help but notice that ClickUp has a very generous free plan. It’s probably more than enough for solopreneur.

      • Karen M McCamy says:

        Yes, those were my thoughts as well, Alex. I think there FREE plan is extremely generous! (And, they’ve “upgraded” me overnight to their PRO version on a trial ;-) LoL! None of which I need or want!) [Their on-boarding process is quite impressive (aggressive ?) as well!]

        I spent some time yesterday exploring and trying things out in ClickUp, but am still disappointed in the writing portion of things… Their help system mentioned their Notepad Chrome extension (for using on mobile) and there is a desktop version, but it was buried in the UI… Took me forever to find it! Once I did, I wasn’t overly thrilled, as it seems less useful than the text editing I have in Evernote…which I also find wanting in several areas… But, at least I don’t have to deal with the dreaded “markdown” (ClickUp actually supports both ‘rich text formatting’ & ‘markdown’! ;-) Guess I’m not the only one who hates the latter! LoL!)

        I realize they support “docs” integration, but that’s still *another* app to start from…

        ClickUp (& others like it) are probably more suited to teams who need collaboration…

        FWIW…My overall impression is that ClickUp is quite a mature “app” based on their support, onboarding, and video tutorials. Still, I find some critical features seemingly “buried” in non-intuitive (to me) locations…

        Unless I’m missing something, I’ll stick with my ‘Evernote + Trello + Informant’ productivity stack. Instead, I’ll try to keep improving my workflow within these established tools, especially since I have almost 3,000 notes in Evernote, and countless tags & notebooks…

        It would be a HUGE project just to move current projects & related resource information out of my current system…

        [Another significant downside for me personally is the terrible aggregate rating of their mobile app…mostly centered around “buggy” complaints & “trying to add new features instead of getting existing ones to work as intended.”

        This is another “deal-breaker” for me, as I regularly use my iPad Pro (large screen) even while at home, as it is often much more convenient than getting on my PC & attendant mouse… (yes, being “hybrid” with iOS & Windows has it’s challenges! ;-) LoL!)]

        As others here have commented, I think it’s VERY difficult for any single app to successfully replace single-purpose, dedicated apps…further complicated by the necessity of data migration into a new system. If any company CAN accomplish this, they’d probably have a gold mine niche! ;-)

      • Thank you, Karen, for your decent review of ClickUp. It’s brilliant! I think many people save a lot of time by NOT switching to ClickUp thanks to your review. ))

      • Thanks, Alex!

        It was not my intent to dissuade anyone from trying it or at least checking it out! I hope it’s not construed that way… I merely intended to offer my own experiences with it… Hopefully it will help others!

        I do think everyone should vet these solutions for themselves… You never know until you do your own evaluations!

        And, I think going into those evaluations, it’s important to look at the entire collection of these type of “everything in one place” apps with a cautious and realistic perspective…for all the reasons I stated in my lengthy comment above!

        In principle it sounds great, but will it ever be truly achievable without giving up those things that Shane & others have already mentioned?… :-o

        Thanks for reading and weighing in! <3

      • I love your review, Karen.

      • Thanks, Alex! <3

  • Catherine says:

    Thank you, Abhi and Shane, for another great video! I’ve made some tentative steps with Notion over the last few weeks. Although I agree with Shane that it reduces friction between apps, I’m getting frustrated with the compromises in terms of functionality.

    I’m a big user of Trello and have created automations with Butler – it seems impossible to recreate those in Notion. Also, the lack of API means I can’t integrate it with the other apps that it doesn’t replace.

    I could probably bend it to my will, but I worry that time will be wasted if Notion doesn’t survive long term. I know it’s easy to export text files, but any customised templates would be hard to replicate elsewhere.

    Mind you, Shane always give sound advice, so I’ll probably persevere anyway! I hope there will be more videos (and an API) soon.

    Still, I’m now using Notion for all my journalling and idea generation. It definitely beats Evernote for this purpose. As Abhi showed in the video, it’s easy to make everything more stimulating with images and visual bookmarks.

  • Gordon Buschle says:

    Hi Shane
    a few days ago I purchased your course Focus&Action and just finished setting up big Trello projects last weekend, as you requested in the homework. Honestly, now I feel a bit like an idiot.
    I wish I would have learned this new tool in your course, since it is great. Actually I have no idea how to set this tool up so I can follow your productivity system taught in your course.
    Do you update these lessons in your course soon?

    • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. :D
      The system I teach with Trello is one I used for many years. It’s the system I used to build multiple companies, manage hundreds of projects, organize hundreds of articles, videos and webinars and it generally made me hugely productive. Trello didn’t suddenly get worse because I’m trying out a new system.

  • Hi Shane
    I like Notion a lot, but I switched from Notion to Clickup
    Before I used Asana a long time.
    I would really like to hear your comparsion between Notion and ClickUp. For me ClickUp has more in it regarding task management. Also the possibility to embed a google doc directly on the workspace and to write complete documents from the scratch are two main benefits for me.
    Looking forward to your conclusion.
    Greetings Bettina

  • Looks very promising, thanks Shane! I‘ll try it out as soon as it integrates with Zapier. I‘ve read that it’s on their roadmap. Too many of my current Trello boards are synched with other tools (e.g. CRM) via Zapier so I would have to say no to a lot of time-saving automations.

    • Lack of integration with other apps is definitely a current weakness in Notion. I’m hoping that will change in the near future. :)

  • I had a similar presentation made to me of Workflowy earlier this year. But I don’t really have any need to coordinate with team members so I shall stay with Trello.

    For my writing and research stuff, I keep it all in Scrivener. But I wouldn’t pretend that Scriv is a team project management software.

  • Karen M McCamy says:

    Hi Shane,

    Like others commenting here, I’ve also seen numerous references to Notion recently…which did make me wonder about an aggressive ‘product launch…’ :-o

    Also — like others — I value your opinion & recommendations highly, especially when it comes to productivity and related processes & apps. :-)

    I love Evernote, although I know all too well there is no perfect system for anything! “Perfect” is a pipe-dream; it is completely subjective to the individual… and in reality doesn’t exist! ;-p

    However, I did give Notion a look… Their message sounds great…having “everything in one place…” My initial thoughts about it are that it’s like the proverbial “Swiss Army Knife” of productivity apps… I also feel it might be better suited to collaboration and teams…

    As a solo, I don’t need the collaboration factor… I was especially interested in the writing capability, but was extremely disappointed when actually using it… The interface seems cumbersome and just not intuitive for me…personally.

    Of course, everyone **works** differently so this underscores just WHY it is so difficult for app developers to make a successful app that integrates so many features…

    From a personal standpoint, I will stick with Evernote! I have been using it for YEARS and have everything tagged. Their search functionality has been one weak point — IMO — along with limited outlining capabilities. In recent iterations, their search has improved somewhat, but their text editing is still fairly rudimentary… (Have to use ‘work-arounds’ to integrate numbered & bulleted lists, for example. This is something I do frequently, so I’ve devised my own ways to “make it work!” :- LoL!)

    Another reason that I’ll stick with what I know — Evernote + Trello + my own iOS calendaring app of choice (Informant, if anyone here is curious) — is that I’m still struggling to keep up with Trello use & integration as you teach in Focus & Action! [And I took the course last year when you first released it!] I like Trello, but have difficulties not falling down the rabbit hole of “over-organizing” & “over-documenting!”

    That’s another reason Notion seemed like the ideal solution for me, but not at this time… I just don’t find their note-taking/writing user interface friendly for the way I work… And, don’t even get me started on “markdown!” (Which I’m forced to use in Trello!) :-o I want a word-processor formatting toolbar, which I do have in Evernote! ;-) LoL!

    Still, I’m interested to hear how your team trial with Notion continues to evolve…and based on the comments here, I am also curious about both PARA & ClickUp… I hope you’ll be able to find the time to take a look at those and do some sort of vetting for us! Multiple eyeballs & use cases are always better for thorough testing! ;-)

    I also enjoyed your subtle film production integrations — like the evolving smoothie! Very clever! :D

    Always great to hear from you and your teams!

    Thank you! <3

    • Thanks for your comment, Karen!
      There’s definitely a big subjective factor with all this. Features aside, you may find that you just like or dislike one app or the other, for reasons you can’t put your finger on. And it definitely makes sense to work with an app that you like.
      Personally, I prefer markdown over toolbars and a nice looking and feeling writing experience is important to me, since I spend so much time writing. But that’s also largely subjective, of course.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    ​Develop the Ultimate Entrepreneurial Superpower: Productivity!

    ​Countless "wantrepreneurs" fail to achieve their business goals - not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of a lack of productive, effective implementation. Don't be one of them.

    >