Drew BarontiniProduct Director at Differential

Thinking in Notion

Published

December 29, 2020

Reading Time

3 min.

Productivity systems succeed only when they conform to your mental models for organizing information.

I’ve written extensively about Notion, my all-in-one system for goals, projects, notes, tasks, and a seemingly infinite collection of databases: books I’ve read and want to read, quotes I like, links I collect from around the web, movies and TV shows I’ve watched, and words and phrases I like. While I’ve spent the past few years constantly curating, refining, and evolving my system, I’ve watched a larger swath of people begin to adopt Notion, struggling to find the right setup for their own system.

The blank page can be overwhelming, which is where the Notion journey begins. Some newcomers will often try to adopt a drop-in solution from popular YouTube personalities, through inspiration from the Notion subreddit, or by poring over templates in the Template Gallery.

I think that’s the problem.

Notion excels when it becomes a reflection of your mental model for how you organize information. You can only realize that vision once you learn the fundamentals of "Thinking in Notion" — learning how to leverage Notion’s power and fluidity to transform new insights into effective systems.

Example walkthrough GIF of my Notion setup

When I open my Notion, it's like peering into my own brain. Notion becomes a reflection of my mental models for my own organization system. It’s mine. When I have a new thought, idea, project, or goal, I know where it goes, and I know how it ties to the larger system.

Whenever I help someone with their Notion setup, I show them mine as an example. I explicitly tell them to organize their Notion in a way that makes sense for them. Otherwise, it becomes another forgotten piece of software in our already-cluttered digital spaces.

Through the exploration of advanced Notion user’s setups, you can realize what’s possible in Notion. That, however, is not a replacement for the time it takes to build your own system. To do so effectively, you'll have to start, iterate, and evolve your system by Thinking in Notion.

Here are three rules I follow in regards to the idea of Thinking in Notion:

  1. Everything is in one place.
  2. Everything is a database.
  3. Connections cultivate creation.

Everything is in one place.

Until 2019, I was using Notion for nearly everything. The primary holdout was task management, as I was still using Things for managing to-dos. Eventually I gave in, acknowledging the trade-offs of no recurring to-dos and the lack of a pre-built system for task management. However, I figured out a system for managing recurring to-dos in Notion, built my system for task management, and slowly evolved the system as it made sense.

There's real staying power in having a single source of truth. While there are applications better at task management than Notion, having my tasks in Notion means they're stored alongside my notes, projects, and goals.

Everything is a database.

At its most basic level, Notion is a collection of text-based pages. You can create text notes and format them with the usual WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) suspects like bold, italics, and underline. You can organize your notes into pages and nest them to your heart's content.

But where Notion really shines? Databases. You can think of these much like spreadsheets, equipped with superpowers of opening each record as its own page (and content), and viewing the data in different ways (views).

Types of database views

Here are the views in Notion:

  • Table — A spreadsheet-style database view with rows and columns.
  • Board — A Kanban board view.
  • Timeline — A Gantt chart view.
  • Calendar — A (monthly) calendar view.
  • List — A minimal list view.
  • Gallery — A visual gallery view.

You can visualize the same information in multiple ways. For example, let's say we have a database for our to-dos. We can view those in a Board, grouped by the status of each to-do (Next, In Progress, Complete, etc.). Or we can view them in a Calendar to show the to-dos with their respective due date.

Relations

The next level of power in the form of databases in Notion stems from the ability to relate separate databases together. The seminal example being projects and tasks. Typically you'll have a database for your projects and a database for your tasks, with a relation drawn between each in order to organize them separately — with their own properties and views — but connected to one another seamlessly.

Connections cultivate creation.

With specific views of our data and the ability to relate (or link) them together, connections are then drawn throughout the Notion system. These connections can seamlessly draw connections, achieving the ultimate goal of effortless creation through the cultivation of connection.

While viewing a task you can jump to its project, its goal, and then weave your way through the Notion system like the synapses firing in your brain. Your Notion becomes the neural network by which ideas turn into clear plans, alleviating stress, increasing trust, and driving creation through connection.

Start by Thinking in Notion.