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Back to Bear, Goodbye Notion

This piece turned out a little long than expected because I really want to clarify that this is not a “Why Bear is better than Notion” article. It is a “Why Bear suits my needs right now better than Notion” discussion. So there’s a little more nuance in my explanation. The crux of my point it is this: I am a scatter brained person who develops software, makes dance, and exercises semi-seriously - and I need a digital tool to help me manage my thoughts, writing, documentation, and general projects. I previously used Bear, a beautiful and simple markdown-esque note keeping app, but forgot about it when I moved cities and jobs pretty much all at once. In my new life I started using Notion, a cross-platform feature-rich editor, but I’ve gone back to Bear. I went back to Bear because I like the simplicity - it let me categorise, expand, delete, and move things around in a way which is much closer to how I think about my life and work. Also, as a developer, if I want complexity I’ll roll my own: between Google Docs and serverless providers I can achieve a lot.

A brief love letter to Apps

I live my life in a couple of lanes: I’m a front-end software engineer in a small team at a rapidly growing scale-up, and also a dancer/producer for a small contemporary dance company, and someone who likes to write and journal for their own personal development. I am asking a lot from any app, I want it to collate my thinking of software architecture; document specific practices across a range of projects; and keep track of myriad side projects, restaurants I want to visit, narrative structures and scene ideas; document research material and my evaluation of it; and outline workflows for funding applications. I want to do these things with as little context switching as possible. I want a killer app that doesn’t exist: not only are these a contrived set of requirements, but how I think about each of them, my mental models for them, are different. But I really love the search. I love apps. I love the promise that a new App brings - it’s like buying a new blank notebook, non-blank regular book. It’s the promise of a new you, a new way of thinking, doing, producing - one step closer to the way you work now, and a more productive, happier, wealthier, and skinnier version of yourself. I think this is the feeling which fuelled first decade after the iPhone was released, when everyone wanted to talk, read, write about the killer app for iOs (and now iPadOS) or OSX (and now OSX). It definitely feels now like this conversation has slowed down, the conversation is less around specific apps. However, every now and again, hype rises out of Product Hunt or Hacker News to offer up some crafter, artisanal interfaces. Bear and Notion have been two such apps: I’ve seen them on twitter, in online publications, and other developers mention them.

Bear

Bear is a beautiful note-taking App built for the Apple ecosystem (iOS, iPadOS, MacOS) by Shiny Frog. The premise is simple: you write in a markdown (or markdown-esque) syntax, which gives you access to a limited set of features: body text, headings, lists, links, images, inline code, bold, italics. Notes themselves are organised by any number of tags ( anything starting with ‘#’ ) which can be nested, e.g. post/post versus blog/portfolio. It’s been recognised by Apple number of times for their fantastic visual design. Which makes sense: it does one thing well, feels simple, but can be integrated into very powerful workflows (e.g. exporting to markdown and plain html). This is Apple’s philosophy, surely.

In Praise of Bear

There are a couple of things I really liked about using Bear:

  • Creating notes comes with much lower entry requirements, I just hit ⌘N and I get a new note, it doesn’t need to be anyway, I can just dump whatever I need into it and then organise it later.
  • Both apps are visually beautiful, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t mention it twice: the UI is very nicely designed.
  • It specialises in one kind of content: slightly-enhanced text, and executes on that one idea well.
  • Easy to export: I can get from a note to sanitised HTML, markdown, pdf, docx is two clicks and 5 seconds - which makes it so easy to integrate into any workflow.

My time with Bear (2017-2018)

After graduating my Ph.D. into my first software development job I was looking around for note taking apps, so I could keep track of what was happening in meetings, product development ideas, and my own personal learnings. My first job came with a lot of context switching - I was on a number of different projects, so flexibility was important. I came across Bear, probably from an App Store feature, and loved it. But around 6 months after starting the job, I relocated from Southampton to London, and not soon after I started actively looking for new job opportunities. The job I was in was okay, but not what I imagined it would be, or what I needed at that time in my professional journey. this is important because I was going through a lot of personal change and turbulence - I didn’t have a system in place for anything, and it would have been pointless to develop one because things were changing so rapidly. So I left bear behind accidentally, I simply stopped using it and it never occurred to me to start using it again around the time I moved to London in early 2018.

Notion

Describing Notion is much less simple than Bear, they describe themselves as an ‘all-in-one workspace’. It offers an astonishing amount of functionality: Kanban boards, structured tables with filters, embedded web pages, todo lists… honestly I do a disservice in trying to list them all. I started using Notion in early 2018 after moving cities and jobs - two big changes which broke a lot of my old habits and tools. I think I first saw it in a coding livestream by MPJ on his YouTube channel funfunfunction , and then finding this profile by invision on Ivan Zhao, the co-founder and CEO. He seems like a cool guy, really product focused, and making something productive and beautiful. So I started using Notion personally, and at work. I used it to help me organise my first ever cycle tour across France in 2019 (I got half way through and then rained off - 3/10, would not recommend), to track my route and AirBNBs. I used it to write documentation for projects at work. I kept a track of my personal and seasonal goals (shoutout to Cortex for introducing me to the idea of yearly and seasonal themes.)

In praise of notion

I initially got on really well with Notion, it had a number of really nice features:

  • It is beautifully designed by people who care deeply about visual and software design.It is very obviously a well-considered piece of software.
  • It’s cross platform, and even has a fully functional web-app, meaning I could access it from anywhere, at any time.
  • The number of ways it lets you store and present data, statically and dynamically, make it a very versatile tool. I used it to write long-form opinion pieces, plan cycle tours, and document software projects.
  • It provides an opinionated way to store information: systems for categorising are very personal and it’s very easy to over-architect or make inconsistent. By enforcing a hierarchical structure, it’s harder to let things sprawl
  • The structured content, and collaborative team sharing features built in, make it very obviously an excellent tool for organisations - so it’s a nice future-proofing tool.

Moving away from Notion

After 4-5 months, I started to notice some noteworthy drawbacks to using Notion in practice:

  • Sporadic offline support. I would get semi-randomly logged out of my machine, and I the data would often not be available locally. To get deep work done, I like to take myself to wifi free areas and focus, and a number of times, Notion put a spanner in that plan.
  • I rarely reached for the vast array of functionality available to me. I largely stuck with headings, web page embedding, and some tables, sometimes.
  • When I write, I like to be hyper-focused (I am writing this on a plane, in full screen mode, with noise cancelling headphones) - my brain will get distracted by anything I can tweak (colours, spacing, organisation). Notion gave me a lot of options to get distracted by.
  • Poor iPad smart keyboard support. Even something as simple as pressing the down arrow to go to the new paragraph wasn’t supported. This is my one feature-related complaint. Underneath all of these was a really nebulous feeling that reaching for Notion felt like work. I had a couple of more systemic, underlying problems with using it which are harder to look past than UI or features. Fundamentally, I felt a growing gap between how I thought of myself and my work, and how Notion made me present it. Notion organises each file as if it were a page on a website - in a tree-structure, with siblings, parents, children. This meant that everything had to belong somewhere, which is fine for fully formed ideas, organisations, or processes - but I found it didn’t support the growth or development of concepts so well. Sometimes this is fine, because you know the content will mature - e.g. when you are documenting the architecture of software: you know the moving parts, their function, and their relationships. It becomes easy to add new parts and modify existing ones. Sometimes, however, I found this limiting, and I had to force my ideas or notes to fit a structure that I hadn’t defined and didn’t want to define. I had a number of pages in Notion which were essentially lists of half-formed ideas, or were links to pages for half-formed ideas. This structural organisation felt so final, and high-cost. Like changing anything would require a lot of boilerplate and formulated thinking, when for me the note making and moving is the thinking. When does something move to its own page versus sitting in bullet list of other whacky ideas? Where does this new page live? In my mind, it belongs with other half-formed ideas, because it’s in progress, but it also belongs with its thematic brethren: if it’s a software idea it doesn’t belong next to a meal plan, cycle route database, or fitness training regime. This is at the route of my move away from Notion: I learn best through experimenting and demonstrating to myself - and for this to be accessible, I need to have no investment in the results of experimentation. If I need to set up five different routes on Strava before I find the right one, I will happily just discard the old ones - it’s 2019 and data has never been cheaper. I could not learn a language, framework, or library by reading the docs or a blog post. Notion is about creating a product., a well formed artefact. My process is about creating a lot of mess at very low cost. I felt guilty about deleting things or moving them within Notion, which is strictly a personal feeling, and not a design intention by the team behind the product (it might be, but I really don’t think it is.) f1

Returning To Bear

Since moving back to Bear, I’ve found writing a lot more pleasant and less intimidating. I actually managed to start and then finish this piece, for example. Migrating all of my information from one to the other has been a little bit of a pain, but it’s now so easy for me to get started creating something, without worrying about where it belongs or how I should categorise it at the moment of creation. I have my beautiful, overflowing dumping ground, and in six months I look forward to coming back to Notion begging for their opinionated organisational structure. Until then, vive l’ors.

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