Over the years, I think I've tried pretty much every note taking app there is. I've tried using Apple Notes, Evernote, GoodNotes, Notability, Bear, Drafts, Agenda, OneNote, Notion, Nebo, Craft, Obsidian, and many others. They all have one thing in common—they don't stick with me. Putting notes into an app felt like throwing them away. The other day, it hit me why.

The past month or so, I've switched back to taking notes on paper. The other day, I needed to find a note again. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew where I had written it. So I quickly flipped through my papers and found it. That's when I realized what the disconnect between me and digital notes is—space.

I don't know the proper terminology, but my brain works in a very spacial way. I'm not good at memorizing facts and figures, but I'm pretty good at remembering where I read those facts and figures. When I was a kid, my family would play this game where they would start reading a Calvin & Hobbes comic and see how long it take me to know what the rest of the strip was. I usually knew which one they were reading before they finished the first panel. I could do this because I could visualize where the comic was on the page, and then remember the drawings, and then the dialog.

When I write notes by hand, rather than remembering what I wrote, my brain seems to store x, y, z coordinates of the information instead. And this is what breaks for me when using note taking apps. Apps change size, causing information to reflow and change position. And, a big one for me, apps do not have physical depth. A book or notebook has depth to it. When I write something down in a notebook, that note is not going to move on me[1]. I can remember it's position relative to other things pretty well.

Just use search you say. Yeah. I probably should. But most of the time, I just don't know the specifics of what I'm looking for, or my notes are too inconsistent to make search that useful. I just kinda have a hard time searching for specific things. I'm much better at searching by browsing, if that makes any sense. Hard for me to explain, but feels like my brain works more in vague concepts than concrete ones, which makes it hard to know what to search for. But, those vague concepts are connected to those x, y, z coordinates, and that's how I find things. Like I don't know that I'm looking for a note about "ice cream" but am looking for "food that tastes good." Clear as mud?

Anyway, I get more value from having my notes in physical books than having them on my computer's filesystem. For the most part, I'm giving up on note taking apps. I'm done with trying to dump everything into them, linking, backlinking, organizing, and all that. I think these apps still have their place, and now that I think I know what's going on and how my brain works, I'm excited to explore more how these apps can fit into my life. But for the foreseeable future, most of my notes are going into my notebooks.

  1. Yes, you can move sheets of paper around. This also breaks my brain a bit. I prefer notebooks that don't have removable pages.