Jot Once, Remember Anywhere: The Best Tools For Universal Note-Taking

Your notes to yourself are a precious thing. These tools let you write quick and find ideas later, wherever you are.

Our phones can give us turn-by-turn directions to the highest-rated Ethiopian restaurant in any city on Earth, based on a voice command. Yet to jot down a thought, we all too often send ourselves email. Ubiquitous, simple idea capture and writing spaces aren’t given to us by default, but they’re pretty easy to set up.

The ideal setup involves a tool that you almost always have available, so you can take down your thoughts when you’re standing in line at Shake Shack, or having drinks with your clever friend, or wherever. You should be able to search and index those thoughts and must-do items from any device you’re working with. And there should be almost no friction and delay between your brain and the idea as it gets written--so Microsoft Word and other standard word processors are out.

What works best for you will depend on what kind of gear you have and where you like to work. You might already have a system that works for you, and it might just be a trusty notebook, but you might find a tip here that adds a bit more versatility to your scribblings. Here are the best systems for universal jotting we know of.

Dropbox-based text files

  • Why Dropbox: Because you already stash your important documents and files in Dropbox, and because plain text files can be edited on pretty much any computer on Earth.

  • Where you can write: On your computers with Dropbox installed, on the web with apps like TextDrop, on your smartphone with any number of apps (though Epistle for Android and iA Writer for iPhones and iPads come highly recommended.

  • Works offline?: On computers, or on mobile devices, but only if you’ve opened Dropbox recently.

  • What can go wrong: Writing on out-of-date files can cause sync conflicts, but Dropbox saves multiple versions and deleted files for 90 days, so you’re generally in the clear.

Apple’s iCloud system

  • Why iCloud: Because it requires nothing on your part to keep going. When you have a few Notes files going on your iPhone, or a Pages document on your Mac, it automatically saves itself as you edit, and opens the newest version of each file on your Mac, iPad, or iPhone.

  • Where you can write: Anywhere you can get at your Apple device, which for most people is everywhere, all the time. But there’s no access outside your devices, without some export-and-import moves.

  • Works offline?: Yes, on Apple devices.

  • What can go wrong: iCloud is definitive and generally smart about versions and syncing, and smooth all around. But if you want to jot a longer note, you’ll need your Mac, or at least an iPad with keyboard, on hand at most times.

Evernote

  • Why Evernote: It’s available for every device out there, it has robust tagging and search, and if you want to occasionally attach a picture or your voice notes, go ahead.

  • Where you can write: On any device with Evernote running, or the web, or through email and SMS. You can also snap a picture of something you’ve written by hand for eventual transcription (with varying results).

  • Works offline?: Yes, assuming you’ve recently synced.

  • What can go wrong: Because Evernote is many notes, not just one, and geared toward all kinds of captures, labeling and finding your important notes is on you.

Microsoft OneNote

  • Why OneNote: Because your office is on the Microsoft platform, or because your note-taking style is truly split between handwriting and typing.

  • Where you can write: In OneNote on your desktop, in the browser-based web app, on a Windows Phone, or on your iPhone. You can write by hand, too, and either let OneNote translate into written text, or cleverly manipulate your scratchings in chunks.

  • Works offline?: On the desktop or mobile apps, yes, if you’ve recently synced.

  • What can go wrong: If your computer is hosed and you’re not good about online backups, you’re in a good bit of trouble.

Google’s cloud (mainly Docs)

  • Why Google: It’s reliable, available on any device that has a browser, and you’re logged in whenever you’re logged into Gmail.

  • Where you can write: Anywhere you’ve got an Internet connection, really, but the full web version is definitely superior to its mobile counterparts.

  • Works offline?: Depends. The Android apps sync well enough, and you can take Docs offline in your browser, but it’s only for reading, not writing. There are other syncing apps, but most are meant for desktops.

  • What can go wrong: Not too much, because Docs provides robust version copies. But offline access is far from a certainty.

Handwritten notebooks

  • Why handwritten: Because it’s fast, always available, and doesn’t need a special format or web connection. It empowers your mind to capture ideas, break down big tasks, and remember to-do items. And you can set up your own system for making it productive and easily searchable.

  • Where you can write: Anywhere you have a pen, notebook, and just enough light.

  • Works offline?: Inherently. Note, though, that you can also scan your decent handwriting into systems like Evernote or OneNote for image-to-text conversion.

  • What can go wrong: Losing a notebook, writing on the wrong page, and drink spills. But notebooks are notably less costly than an off-contract smartphone.

[Image: Flickr user MV Jantzen]

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7 Comments

  • Erich Lagasse

    Developing good note-taking skills can also be helpful in any office. We posted a piece that discusses this and provides a few tips. I hope it's useful. - Erich

  • Stephen Bradley

    While I much prefer typing (sorry Siri...), and on a real keyboard (... again...), it doesn't work for the considerable think-time I have while driving. A well integrated way of incorporating speech-to-text into the type of workflow described above would be invaluable.  Vlingo, Dragon, etc. (and I'm sure Siri for that matter...) do a decent job of voice-to-text -- but integrating the generated text seamlessly into a Dropbox, Google, Evernote, etc. solution is still pretty clunky.

  • Michaela Rivers

    Although not a sleek cool gadget, I still prefer the simple pen and paper on a notebook, guess I'm old-fashioned.

  • John Steele

    I've had Evernote installed for a while and use it frequently but for taking notes I've switched to MindMapping in an app called iThoughtsHD on my iPad. 

    I'm just not fast enough keying things into a text editor (pushing 60..) and can keep track of a conversation and how it branches much better with this tool (for me anyway). I seem to be able to remember context much more easily and the visual nature of MindMapping is great stimulus when you come back to the notes.

    My 2 cents, anyway..

  • Bryant Ferguson

    Springpad is infinitely better than Evernote.

    Evernote just seems to have gotten a head start with all those unwilling to look for something better.I got fed up with Evernote when it was just ridiculously slow and I can access the Springpad webapp faster than Evernote's downloadable app.  I called the company to see if they were going to be caching files on the phone anytime soon because it was so slow to load--they said something about premium memberships were likely to get it first, if at all... I call BS--I'm not going to even think about upgrading if your free version is no good.

    Catch is also a viable alternative that offers simplicity--the web interface has a few annoyances (bugs?) but definitely has it's place for jotting notes very quickly.

    Evernote is overcomplicated, slow, and bloated.

  • Johan Smith

    The ability to cache files on evernote has been available for a year? Maybe more. Having said that I actually perfer springpad but I've just too far gone with evernote at this stage. 

  • Johan Smith

    "Works offline?: Yes, assuming you’ve recently synced." - this is a premium feature in evernote and not available to users with a free account. 
    Also in evernote, you can take audio notes and it also intergrates with livescribe, so if you like the idea of writing something down by hand, you can and then it appears in evernote later.