How Do You Keep Track of Your Life?
January 9, 2023 7:46 AM   Subscribe

I need a system! I need ... something! I've got my work and life calendar under control, but I need a place to keep all the little tidbits I notice, ideas, writing, things from books, lists of books I've read and want to read, thoughts on life, etc. Bonus points if it could also accommodate limited sharing of lists with my husband. I've tried Notion but struggled a bit ... but would be willing to give it another try. I've tried Evernote and found it impossible. Is there anything else?

I am also trying to start a practice of writing X words every day and would like to find a repository for that. Maybe I'm engaging in magical thinking to expect that finding the right tool will help me organize my life ... but I feel like it can't hurt! What do you use? Please hit me with recommendations and ideas!

P.S. I'm sure someone's going to recommend just writing everything down in a notebook. I move a lot and am not sure that's the best option for me right now. I do use a notebook for ordinary scheduling and to-do lists, but that's because I don't put anything of permanent or semi-permanent import in there and it wouldn't be a disaster if i lost it.
posted by artisthatithaca to Technology (36 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I use Google Keep for almost everything in my life. Books I've read and want to read. Jokes I've thought of but aren't good enough (yet) to say out loud. Haircuts I might want. Food I might want. If I owe a friend $15 bucks. Reminders that pop when I walk into a particular building. House plans I might want to recreate in the Sims. Shopping lists. Etc.
posted by phunniemee at 7:57 AM on January 9 [8 favorites]

Google Keep checklists for me. Easy to share with family members, and archive when not needed for a while - For instance after every trip I archive my packing list but then briefly look at it again when making my packing list for the next trip.

We also have a master shopping list - pinned to the top of our Google Keep account. We have all possible stores in a single checklist, with the store names in capital letters so they stand out (Grocery, Pharmacy, a Specific Mall that has several shops we need to visit, Hardware Store, etc). That way when anyone is doing an errands run, it’s all in one place to see what else we could stop and grab. Much better to put multiple shops on the same list so it visually jogs your memory… if each shop were on its own list, I would lose it in the shuffle.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:13 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Google Keep here as well. I used to use small notebooks, and as time went by they tended to pile up. Plus finding what you want to refer to in them becomes difficult. Keep is quite searchable, solving that problem.
posted by balconygarden at 8:17 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I'm sure someone's going to recommend just writing everything down in a notebook

OK not exactly, but... hear me out. What about Notepad++? My co-workers make fun of me for this, but I use Notepad++ for almost literally everything, from to-do lists to meeting notes my time log for work to drafting documentation to personal daydreaming. At any given time I have about a dozen tabs open. Some are saved where I've created a structure (e.g. my to-do list, which is broken out by the various projects I have open) and I just add or remove items as necessary. Others are just blank pages that I'll use to write down what's going on at any particular time - I'll generally keep a tab open for running notes throughout the day. Then if I have a meeting or a conversation about a particular project in depth, I'll copy those notes to a separate note and save them with a descriptive title. And I can mix in non-work things like a plan to clean my office or an airfare comparison for a trip I'm planning without any problem.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:25 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't trust stuff I wanted to keep around on Google Keep. This is the same Google that cancels products all the time right? Anyway, I like the free/open source Notational Velocity (now actually nvALT). I've been using it for around a decade. It's lightweight and simple but powerful, and super easy to find everything from old meeting notes to recipes to text scraps from writing projects. It can also sync with many different platforms/apps. Only downside is it's Mac only, but since you didn't give any restrictions I thought I'd mention it.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:27 AM on January 9 [7 favorites]

Maybe Dreamwidth? It's an online journalling website based on the Livejournal code but it's been developed since then and is a bit different from what Livejournal was.

It would be ideal for your "write X words every day" goal. You could post entries and tag them with things like "books to read" and "writing ideas" or whatever you want. Dreamwidth allows you to make entries private (just you), or allow other dreamwidth users to view them, or to allow certain groups of users to see entries about certain things - you have a lot of control over who you share your content with. It's a small and fairly quiet social networking site, but that's part of the appeal for some.

- Cheap - a free account would do everything you want it to
- lots of flexibility in how you set it up using tags
- no ads (even free accounts don't have ads)
- no pesky algorithms trying to push content at you
- can be completely private if you want it to be

- Photo hosting not great
- Interface is a bit clunky
- Not really designed for use on mobile phones
posted by damsel with a dulcimer at 8:28 AM on January 9

I use to keep track of pretty much everything that doesn't fit into a calendar for me.
I've looked at other types of things over the years (since I moved away from paper) but I find that having all the bells and whistles (like evernote or onenote) tends to distract me. Simplenote just a text editor that can sync with devices and has limited sharing.
I can Star certain notes on the sidebar that I always use (like my running to do list) or just need to keep track of for a few weeks (like planning a work trip). Searchable, etc.
posted by niteHawk at 8:30 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I keep most of that type of stuff (esp lists) in Google Docs or Google Spreadsheets. Less functionality, but less likely to be "cancelled" by Google than the more specialized apps. Hopefully.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:43 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I used to use Apple Notes for this, and I am likely to return to it once Apple implements encryption I, not they, control. I'm currently using Standard Notes, which is okay but not great -- UI issues, mostly.
posted by humbug at 8:44 AM on January 9

I use three systems, one to record things I need to remember over the long term, like phone numbers or medical history; one to record things that are going to expire, like appointment times or to do lists; and one to record passwords.

The long term memory system gets consolidated and purged once every couple of years or so. The short term memory system gets consolidated and purged when it gets unwieldy.

If you use electronics you need to have a back up system for essential information because of how easy it is to lose or destroy a phone or get a corrupt hard drive.

I find it critically helpful to categorize information within your short term memory system. I may use the same system to record a recipe I am trying out "I wonder if this will work..." and my gaming to-do list, and my appointments, and my music practice, and some history trivia, and my house renovation to-do list, but it only works because I don't have to flip through pages of gaming notes or renovation priorities to find the history trivia or the phone number when I want it.

Whatever internal organization structure you use will make or break your system. You have to be able to record your information easily in the first place you will think to look for it without hesitation. If you use spreadsheets you have to use tabs, if you use a memory app it has to have categories. If you use notebooks you'll either need them with dividers and bookmarks, or multiple books with visible different covers, and you also need to have a convenient location for each one which is their away spot.

It doesn't matter whether you use an app or note books, whether you write paragraph text or bullet lists - it has to be set up with an internal organization structure that works for you. Once you have that anything will work.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:13 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Whatsapping yourself. You can either set up a group with you alone/someone else in it, or use the new feature they are rolling out to send messages to yourself. It's easy and searchable later.
posted by mani at 9:34 AM on January 9

I'll second niteHawk's recommendation of Simplenote. Among other features, has an option to "publish" individual notes, which would be a way to share lists with your husband.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:41 AM on January 9

I believe Joplin is the new Evernote but better, it can live on Dropbox and it has a great Firefox extension. But when I mentioned that to a coworker they said they do everything with Keep (but as was pointed out above, teenagers who do a great job mowing your lawn eventually find other interests... snark aimed at Google).

In addition to Evernote, I also use Trello a lot, the free level has limitations but for a person/family they might not be bad.

I also use Simplenote occasionally, which is fine for its use case, I'm not sure it would meet your needs.

You didn't mention Markdown, but I do pretty much everything with Markdown these days. Heck, I even run Bash scripts against my Linux file server to produce Markdown output which goes thru pandoc to create a PDF report. And both Simplenote and Joplin are Markdown based.

For your writing I would think Joplin would be better, for organizational things like Shopping Lists etc. Joplin or Simplenote.

Of course this is all just my opinion, you do you.
posted by forthright at 10:00 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I do love Notion. If you happen to want to give it another try, feel free to DM me and we can chat about what didn't work for you, and I might have ideas about how to make it work better.
posted by librarina at 10:04 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I'm using Obsidian for this, which doesn't do the synced list piece, but does do everything else (with a whole host of plugins that make things easier.) Mobile access has some varying options which I don't use, but using it on multiple computers is easy.
posted by jenettsilver at 10:46 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Google Keep for shared lists with my husband

I use OneNote at work and find it useful in my personal life for the longer term planning type things. I can use it on my PC and Mac laptops, plus my phone and tablets. However, I don't keep lists of books or movies in there because it would get unwieldy and hard to sort. For these I use dedicated websites, IMDB and Goodreads, but there are many alternatives. I do periodically back up these lists so my data is not beholden to them. They double as keeping track of the things I have seen/read and the ones I own but have not yet consumed. I keep a link to these lists and a few other websites where I track things (Just Watch for TV) in one of my OneNote pages.
posted by soelo at 11:02 AM on January 9

I'm also using Obsidian for something like this: lots of little notes up to longer docs on lots of different topics, as well as general life things like todo lists etc. What I really like about it is the hyperlink system, which basically makes it your own personal wiki, and also allows you to link things together into lists pretty easily. I tried Notion and I think it can do a lot of quite similar things but I found it a little bit overwhelming, while Obsidian is just Markdown and feels simpler to use as it's all just plain text getting synced to Dropbox or something like that
posted by okonomichiyaki at 11:14 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I have a somewhat strange suggestion, but it's something I've been doing for a few years now -- the Discord chat app lets you create free "servers" which can have lots of different channels. They're supposed to be for chatting with others, but you can create a server just for yourself, with channels for different categories of things, and post whatever you want in there. You could also create a server and invite your husband for the stuff that you want to share. Since it's a chat app, it syncs all the messages across devices, and it runs on pretty much anything (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, even Linux).
posted by panic at 11:19 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I've come around to using specialist apps for some of this - Goodreads for books, CopyMeThat for recipes, GDrive for writing / document storage, Todoist for lists (although I have a grandfathered account that lets me have way more free lists than are currently offered). Trying to make one thing do everything never worked as well as I wanted and having my data spread around means that I only have to replace one function if a service breaks / stops.

I previously used Evernote and I missed the specific features for recipes and books, it just felt unwieldy and messy and then the free tier got worse.
posted by momus_window at 11:39 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I'm looking to accomplish something similar, so I've been reading about Tiago Forte's building a second brain method. I am not taking his course. I've purchased his book but haven't read it yet. Instead, I've got plenty of info from his blog and YouTube channel about setting up systems to collect all of the various things I find and want to keep.

I have to keep things simple or I'll never use them. So far, so good.

I'm dumping all web articles into Instapaper and reading later. Instapaper and Kindle highlights (and even paper highlights!) get fed into Readwise, which sends me a review email every morning. And I'm using Apple Notes to gather all sorts of other stuff I want to remember. (Google Keep or Evernote would work just fine.)
posted by jdroth at 1:59 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Current favorites:
For Windows - The Journal by David RM Software
For Mac - Craft
posted by yclipse at 2:02 PM on January 9

Another Google Keep user (pretty scared in the back of my mind that it's all going to go away a la reader.) But it's ideal for sharing with other people.
posted by freethefeet at 2:13 PM on January 9

Apple's Notes is now end-to-end encrypted with the latest iOS/iPadOS/MacOS.
posted by lhauser at 5:26 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

After abandoning Evernote, I now use a combination of Google Docs-as-notebooks (one notebook per "project domain" per year, write a date at the top of each new entry and just add bullet points and photos/screenshots as needed) for more intensive planning and logging, the iOS Notes app (and formerly Keep) for short term planning and lists, and just writing stuff in email drafts and saving them for later. Plus the occasional bit of scrap paper.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:04 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

If you have an Android phone, I enthusiastically recommend the Colornote app. You can create either text notes, or checklists (for example, I have a checklist of books to look for at the library). Bonus: if you wish, you can create notes and checklists on a calendar inside the app.

It has local and cloud backup (which they call online sync). It supports 'automatic links' for things like phone numbers, email addresses, and URLs.

The say you can run it on Windows using something called Bluestacks which seems to be some sort of Android emulation program, but I haven't tried that.

I have work acquaintances who swear by OneNote (Microsoft) but I've never really gotten into it so I can't tell you much about it.
posted by TimHare at 9:17 PM on January 9

I manage my life thru a Mac only app called NotePlan. It integrates with my calendar and syncs across devices. I keep my life notes here, shopping lists, book notes, travel lists, to do list, exercise log, etc. I can't imagine functioning on a day to day basis without it.
posted by bezel at 3:22 AM on January 10

Nthing both SimpleNote and Obsidian. I used the former happily for years before switching to the latter recently for a couple of extra features. It's a Bit Much for me, and I miss SimpleNote's simplicity, but I also like the features I moved for.
posted by fabius at 5:27 AM on January 10

I use StandardNotes. This stores everything in the cloud but encrypts everything you type. You'd probably want to go for the paid for version to get the features you need. It syncs really well between computers, phones, tablets etc. The web access is useful for me at work where I don't want to install the app.

You'll need to think about how you organise your notes though.

I have a sticky note labelled "INBOX" where I'll note anything that I can't / don't have time to categorise now. Every week I try to sort this note out and delete or move the contents to more suitable locations. You can link notes but I tend to use search a lot.
posted by chr at 7:21 AM on January 10

I live in Evernote and use it as my second brain, in combination with Google Calendar and Todoist. But if you don't like it, Obsidian is usually recommended as an alternative.

I agree that "second brain" is a useful search term. Maybe you could also find something interesting with "commonplace book".

Another avenue of interest might be TiddlyWiki.
posted by gakiko at 8:36 AM on January 10

There is a text editor called 'emacs'; t is a unique beast, but one worth learning.

It has an extension called 'org-mode', a tool for hyperlinked rich hierarchical text organization. It is rather wonderful.

org is a powerful, general tool, so people have found different patterns and ways in which to use it to implement other personal-organization systems, such as GTD.

A tab I have open – directly next to this one, in fact – is the "PARA Method" from the aforementioned Forte Labs.
posted by jsled at 12:26 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]

I use Craft for this, and although there are things I would change I love the way it works. I use it for my journal, I do all of my writing with it, I save links, notes from books, lists of useful things, my kids' clothes sizes, recipes and all that sort of thing. I wrote about using Craft as my 'second brain' last year.

(I keep track of word count with a spreadsheet; Craft supports basic spreadsheets but I can't make the graph I like of the little word count line going up and up and up. I hope they eventually will!)

My husband and I have a shared space in Craft which we use to write notes to each other and store some information.
posted by shirobara at 1:00 PM on January 10

You are not the first productivity hacks persons requestor. Firstly choose a text dump place you have access to on your phone and browser - i like simplenote but others love apple notes, google keep, etc. More complicated ones like Evernote, Obsidian, Notion, Onenote, etc exist. Most people want to use teh more complicated ones but end up using the simpler ones. They all do the same things so just use them all them stick with one. I like Simplenote.

CGP Grey and Cortex are the canonical people who have thought through this and keeps thinking about it. Listen to this episode

I don't follow the Cortex podcast anymore but i do listen to their yearly themes

My best piece of advice is to also track your time, per hour, every few weeks. It was very useful to me using Timery app (part of Toggl) and realising its just me being lazy. Not me being too busy. If you prioritise 5 hours of social media a day then yes you are busy.

Lastly i also really liked:

Apple calendar - calendaring
Apple Notes - sharing lists
Bitwarden self hosted - bit geeky but i share my passwords with my wife on this and it feels secure.
Timery - time tracking. Brilliant easy to use app
Todoist - what i use for long projects
Due - very useful if you have to do something today, now. Good at breaking through.

Good luck
posted by Vroom_Vroom_Vroom at 1:26 AM on January 11

Scrivener is made for large-scale writing projects, but I like the layout so much that I've been using it off-label for gathering up my sundry job tasks and scattered thoughts as well.
posted by umbú at 10:39 AM on January 11

Used to be great fan of Keep, but I kept worrying that it would be Killed by Google. While looking for a replacement, preferably something offline for my Android phone, Orgzly appeared.

It's a weird analogy, but I think of it like using Window File Manager in list view, and the folders can have really long names, names like the tasks you have to do (go to store after work, go to dairy aisle milk for breakfast, go to bakery for cake for party, go to gas station to fill gas tank today after work). The power comes from chunking the same kind of folders inside a bigger folder. I can move folders (either empty, or containing other folders or trees of folders) up and down the tree. Folders can have alarms. Folders can have optional states like TODO,NEXT,PENDING,DONE. They can be optionally scheduled, or have optional deadlines. Of course trees can be either expanded or collapsed.

I've got a folder tree that functions as a schedule, another as an outline for a piece I am writing, another as sort of my own offline trailer trash Trello.
posted by ApplAuD at 9:05 PM on January 11

It wasn't until halfway into grad school that I really bothered with organization. The good news is that I have many recommendations. The bad news is that its not just one recommendation! I have a variety of apps for various bits of my life.

For finances, I use GNUCash. It's a double entry accounting system, which really just means all transactions must balance. The killer feature, IMO, is recording transactions in advance. I have about fifty transactions created 90 days in advance, which really helps me plan out expenses, gifts, investing etc. From there GNUCash has a "Future Minimum Balance" column that will highlight any account dipping negative. It also has a budget tool but I just use an annual spreadsheet, and clone the sheet into a new tab for a new year. Partnered with all this is a series of automated payments for pretty much everything, including rent. As a result, I mostly interact with this on a monthly basis, importing & reconciling transactions, updating share prices, and maybe a bit of forward planning.

The other big app, one I use daily is Trello. I've used Trello in the past to manage teams and it works okay as a personal todo list tracker (but where it shines is custom project workflows). I have about 10 categories of cards all mixed into a fairly generic set of card columns:
- Dumb Ideas: silly low priority ideas go here, so I can stop thinking about them, and where I sometimes put "Not To be Done" items so I can annotate why and find it later)
- Backlog of Doom: the main todo list, a combined reading list, idle project list, and financial optimization idea list.
- Not Yet: a set of cards with due dates more than 1 week out.
- Weekly recurring: a small set of tasks that need to happen every week. When i complete one, I move it to the bottom of the list, rather than bother with creating & destroying them
- Doing: any task Im working on this week
- Review: sometimes I did a task but I need to do some additional tracking or paperwork (like adding or updating a GNUCash transaction, or adding Anki flashcards)
- It Is Done: when im actually done with a task, once and for all. an automation sweeps these out once a week.

Also rans:
Shopping: I used to use cinnamon for grocery shopping but their app got delisted. Anylist is my replacement.
Notes: I use gnote, but i havent been a heavy user lately. Comparable to Apple Notes really.
Flashcards: An important part of reading is remembering and I use Anki to help remember things. Added this to the rotation two years ago, and I still can't remember dad's birthday.
posted by pwnguin at 9:39 AM on January 13

I use Discourse as a commonplace book and it's great.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:29 PM on January 13

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