I Tried to Use Apple Notes as the Core of My Second Brain: Why I Did So and Why It Did Not Work for Me

Before falling in love with Logseq, I tried Apple Notes as my default note-taking app for my Second Brain. Here are the things that worked and did not work for me.

I Tried to Use Apple Notes as the Core of My Second Brain: Why I Did So and Why It Did Not Work for Me
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

After my mid-term relationship with Evernote, a short romance with Notions, and some flirting with Obsidian, I tried going minimal. I gave Apple Notes a couple of weeks of intensive friendship to know each other. It did not work. We broke up.

The case for a simple note-taking app

Contrary to what many people think, your note-taking app is only a building block of your whole Second Brain system and yet, in my view, probably the centerpiece. Your notes system is where you will make connections and distill ideas. Perhaps also capturing, but not necessarily so.

Tiago Forte has a proposal for a set of features you should look into to choose a note-taking app.

My hypothesis was after the last updates in macOS, Apple Notes could, at this point, perform exceptionally well on most of them. My inclination to Notes came from the fact that I was overwhelmed by the number of options in Notion. My monkey mind ended up playing around more than working, and the too hack-ish feeling I was having with Obsidian.

Apple Notes seemed to me to have a simple design, is hyper intuitive, works across all my devices, is free, and it was almost impossible to get lost in it.

Exchange and idea validation

After giving it a thought for a few days, because I did not want to be moving my system again out of the blue, I searched and sent a couple of tweets to validate that my idea was not that stupid.

First, I asked Tiago Forte, the godfather of note-taking systems. I wanted to know if he had observed anyone using Apple Notes in his Building a Second Brain course. Unfortunately, it was not the case, but he gave me an answer that was enough to give it a try.

Then I found Jenny, who had published a whole thread explaining why she had her system implemented on Apple Notes. I highly recommend you check with her better if you want to give it a try.

A few private exchanges followed all this with great help from the always patient, Guía Carmona.

Yes, I can overthink sometimes.

How I implemented the system and the use I gave it

One of the reasons for me to use Apple Notes was that all the devices I manage daily are Apple devices. I do not have an iPad, but I use an iPhone and macOS laptops for work and my personal computer. That means that I knew I did not need to care at all about the web version or any sync issues, generally speaking.

About the organization, I decided to implement the system I already knew. Again, I took Tiago as a reference because I have been using his PARA method for some time, and it works pretty well for me. I am struggling with it now that I am using Logseq, but that is a story for another time.

Apple Notes can do quick capture in the last versions, which is essential for a successful system. Both from the Control Center in iOS and on the laptop (through hot corners or using a keyboard shortcut). I used quick capture for all my short ideas whenever I needed to dump a couple of sentences.

Both in the iPhone and on the desktop, I moved away from Pocket or any other "read later" apps and directly used the share button in Safari and other apps as a way to capture tweets, links from the web, or anything similar. Today, I am still using this method, although I suspect I will need some adjustments soon.

Something super interesting from the phone is taking pictures or "scanning"  a document directly into a note. Not equally powerful yet, but very similar to how it works in Evernote.

As for meeting minutes and drafting documents and messages, I also stuck to Apple notes for a few days. It is very functional, but here is one of the points where I started not having enough of what I needed.

What is it that it worked pretty well

I still think a few things are a plus one for Apple Notes.

System integration

It is not a surprise how good Apple does on this. Moving from the phone to the desktop app is super frictionless, and I would say, if you keep the format in the phone to the minimum, you have a consistent experience.

Seamless capture experience

The process is swift and smooth whether we refer to the share option or the quick note functionality.

Synchronization

The sync process relies on the iCloud system, so at least in my experience, I never had an issue with it. Plus, as you are already paying for the service, you don't need to add any extra quotas for using the app (unless you have so many that you need more space, of course)

Notes sharing

I enjoyed a lot the option of sharing notes with someone. I use it with my wife for a few things, and it is super easy because you can use your contacts list for it. But here, do not think about a live collaboration document like Google Docs or Dropbox Paper.

What was difficult for me

Most of the things that I struggled with did not come as a surprise. I knew from the very beginning Apple Notes, at least so far, is not designed to work for such a system. So, I can't blame the app for it. But, I still wanted to test it.

Notes linking

The ability to link notes has become a fundamental part of my workflow to connect and reference ideas. It is not impossible to do so in Apple Notes, but the solution is honestly a hack. First, you need to share the note and then take the link it generates, which works via iCloud, so it would only work if you have internet access—too much friction for something that could be super simple.

Lack of enough formatting options

Again not something that you might need in such a simple app, but essential for me. Although there are some formatting options in Apple Notes, I find them too crucial.

There is only one level of subheading, no blockquote, and so on. So, once you start outlining something, you start falling short.

Conclusions

I would still recommend using Apple Notes if you are working with a simple system and looking for a basic implementation if you want something super frictionless or do not care too much about features like note linking. However, I am aware that not everyone loves systems or is trying to build a Zettelkasten.

In my case, the experiment was worth learning how to use the app in a few specific cases. But, as I said before, I still use it to quickly capture links as the "read later" app and dictate notes when I am on the iPhone.