NotePlan review (iOS)

I’m a calendar junkie. I love finding new ways to potentially organize myself, because I need all the help I can get. For a few years I’ve been using paper organizers (for the planner girls out there, my latest setup was an A5 Gillio Appunto with disc-bound system that had 3/4” Levenger aluminum discs and a bunch of inserts I designed myself. It. Was. Pretty.) because I couldn’t quite get the digital ones to work, meaning I’d forget stuff and tasks would somehow just fall off my horizon. And they worked pretty well, and I liked doodling in the margins and using stickers and washi tape. (I did. Don’t judge me.)

Why digital again, before I start on NotePlan? It’s relevant to why this app works for me. Mainly because my paper system was getting too complicated. It had too many charts, cross-outs, write-ins, and cross-references for the stuff I have to keep track of. I spent a lot of time rewriting tasks and redoing lists because my life is a moving target.

One system that worked well for me for a while was bullet journaling (see the creator’s site here). The idea is to have a trusted brain-dump system that can quickly be processed and gotten through. Few people are bullet journal purists because it doesn’t easily allow for forward planning, so for a few million ideas on how to do that check Pinterest. That’s what got me. If I have a dentist appointment in 6 months, it does me no good to write it on my daily bullet journal page. I will lose it.

So like most people, I developed hybrid systems where I drew out the months in regular grids and then bullet-journaled on a daily basis but still had my year to refer to. This is more or less the system I used for a few years in my paper books. I’d have monthly layouts, weekly layouts, a separate section to collect all my to-do’s, and then a daily page where I brought everything together to focus on that day. And it worked great. I didn’t lose or forget stuff. It just got fairly labor intensive to copy things from daily page to daily page that I hadn’t gotten done; it stopped being fun and became a major drag.

I also, as a side note, have a ton of stuff to keep track of for work, because in addition to being a nurse, I also have to actually case-manage. That stuff, it turns out, is much more easily corralled in a Numbers file. Therefore, I found myself hauling around an iPad AND an A5 notebook and felt a little overwhelmed.

I transferred all my appointments to iCal calendars in Fantastical and bought Things 3 for both my Mac and iOS, and that system worked OK. Things 3 does combine calendar events and to-do’s in a Today bin. So does Fantastical, for that matter, if you want to use Reminders. I won’t review Things 3 because a lot of people have already done that: just Google it.

Then I saw a brief mention of NotePlan and read Brett Terpstra’s review, and after deliberating for a day or so I downloaded the iOS version (it has a Mac version as well, but given that I open my laptop about twice a month at best, I haven’t sprung for it).

It’s pretty polished for a new app. It probably has a niche audience: you have to like or at least tolerate Markdown. Which likely means you are a geek. If you ever used and liked TaskPaper, you are in this group. I also think that a bullet journaling background helps.

NotePlan is how I integrate all my electronic Things into daily pages like I had in my Gillio, only I can easily add and move and reschedule stuff. It has a calendar section and a notes section, and everything uses plain text, so you can use whatever tagging system you want (@tag, #tag, etc.).

You can use Markdown links to link to notes or tasks, which leads to fabulousness for me like making a to-do item in my calendar that links to my “monthly tasks” note, which in itself contains a list of tasks. I reschedule that one (linked) task from day to day and not the entire list until everything is checked off.

NotePlan-1.png

There’s a monthly calendar view which isn’t very helpful because it uses a system of colored dots to show you what’s on each day; I still refer to another calendar app regularly to see my events listed out. But it’s handy for jumping around from daily page to daily page. Tap on a day and the magic starts happening.

You get a list of your calendar events at the top and then a blank page at the bottom for whatever your little heart desires. You can dash off Markdown lists which are really tasks that can be completed, cancelled, or rescheduled just by tapping buttons (you don’t have to actually type in much Markdown at all unless you want to). In between you can write notes or whatever you want.

There are shortcuts to archive processed tasks and to deal with any remaining open tasks, so you can quickly clean up the detritus of your day and start anew the following day.

I LOVE THIS. It’s got all the advantages of bullet journaling but does all the copying and scheduling for you.

As I mentioned before, there is a notes section which can be linked back and forth to the calendar. It’s all plain text, which can either be a pro or a con (I wish the system Notes app would allow plain text!). I mainly like using the notes to create task lists that I don’t want to appear every single day. They’re easy to link to the relevant day.

NotePlan allows repeating tasks, although the implementation is a bit dodgy and basic. If you want something to repeat every 2 weeks, for example, you’re out of luck. It’s NOT a full-featured task manager. Then again, that isn’t the purpose of it. Those already exist.

Of course, there are drawbacks, although there are surprisingly few for a new app. The developer must rock.

My main quibble is that search doesn’t work across notes and calendar. This severely restricts tagging utility, because if I have @work tasks in my calendar and in notes, they don’t all show up together. You also can’t do ninja searches like you can in TaskPaper and other plain text systems for, eg, tasks tagged @work that are @done. A related weirdness is that you’re supposed to use hash tags to tag your notes, and using hash tags to tag stuff that already has Markdown in it looks yucky to me. If it worked across calendars and notes, I’d do it, though.

The other thing on my wish list is to be able to interact with calendar events somehow. They’re read-only right now. I’m not suggesting that NotePlan become a plain-text Fantastical, but it would be nice to be able to tap on an event and be bounced over to the calendar app of my choice.