Note-Taking with Google Keep

Google Keep in action (web interface)

I had a complex relationship with Evernote. I used it for quite a while but recently began to have trouble finding stuff in it. It had gradually become a junk drawer where I stuck things I wasn’t sure what to do with. The problem was when I would return to Evernote, I couldn’t effectively see what I had saved. It was essentially a giant pile of notes and while there was an order, reviewing what I had was still tough.

The Evernote interface had also come to feel clunky to me. For example, the web client would return me to the top of my list of saved items whenever I deleted or moved something, which was annoying in notebooks with long lists. The mobile client took a while to open, so it wasn’t great for capturing stuff on the fly. The only things I loved were the Chrome Web Clipper, which I used to screenshot maps and directions into my phone and the ability to email notes into my account. Other than those two features, using Evernote felt like a chore.

It was time to find another note-taking tool.

The Bakeoff

I ran through the usual suspects for online note-taking. I found Thinkery and loved it but it’s no longer supported and the plans for it seemed amorphous at best. I opted into a Dropbox Papers trial, but it was really more of a word processor than a note-taking tool. It didn’t support tags and there wasn’t a mobile client. OneNote also didn’t have a simple tagging concept and also felt like overkill. It’s a great tool, but way more than I needed for my basic notes to myself. I also took another look at SimpleNote, but the web interface felt uncomfortably slow to me. As with Remember the Milk, I saw recommendations for Emacs and org-mode and as with Remember the Milk, it seemed like a lot more work than I was willing to commit to. I was aware of Google Keep, but stayed away from it because of Google’s awful track record with services. If Google hadn’t kept Notebook going, would they really hang on to Keep?

I also looked into the various tools available via Sandstorm, but nothing looked very good to me in terms of interfaces. I wanted to choose an open source tool, but not at the expense of usability. It’s the same reason I rejected a text file solution—it seemed tough to deal with on mobile.

Unfortunately, I never found anything that worked for me, so I gave Google Keep a try, emboldened by the fact that you could easily save notes into Drive. I figured when Google killed Keep, it would be easy to get my notes out. Keep turned out to be a good interim solution; so far it’s working for me.

The Winner

Google Keep has a nice, simple interface. There’s no way to format text and you can upload images, but not other file formats. You can change the color of your note, you can add checkboxes, and you can add labels, but that’s about it. All of these limitations make Keep incredibly fast. You’re limited to 50 labels, which feels arbitrary to me, but other than that, it does what I need it to.

What’s been more helpful than Keep is the process of going through my old Evernote notes, while moving to Keep.

Reviewing those notes and seeing what I had used and not used informed my approach to Keep.

For instance, I had a lot of disparate links to bars and restaurants that were pretty much impossible to find. So in transitioning to Keep, I put them all in a single note, organized by borough. I had gift ideas spread across different notes, so I consolidated them. Some of my issues with Evernote weren’t Evernote issues, but my own. Note-taking software isn’t a junk drawer. You need to organize your ideas. You can’t just cram everything into a tool and expect the tool to make sense of things for you.

So one of the things I did with Keep was create a *to file tag, which I use when I add something new. This is a label I can revisit weekly for the purpose of properly organizing things I’m adding. If I see a cool bar I want to try, I’ll add it to Keep as *to file (the asterisk forces the label to the top of the label list), and then when I do my weekly review, I can put it someplace more meaningful, like on a list of Queens bars and restaurants or even on my Remember the Milk to-do list as a place to visit at a specific time.

I could use this same process with any note-taking tool. But moving all of my notes from Evernote to Keep clarified the workflow for me.

Keep has a Reminder feature I don’t use, but I imagine it could work as a to-do list, also. I haven’t used this, although the quick-and-easy way to automatically add checkboxes to text is fantastic for my weekly shopping list.

The mobile interface is also great. It opens quickly and makes it easy to jot down ideas. It’s so easy, I don’t miss emailing notes into my account, which I did a lot with Evernote. But that was partially because the Evernote interface was so tough to deal with; I was just trying to avoid it.

Google Keep mobile)
Google Keep has a fast, sparse mobile interface.

Evernote does everything, which is great, but for me, it became this black hole where I put everything, and that created a problem. When you have everything, you have nothing. So the narrower scope of Google Keep is a feature. Learning that a lot of the things I used Evernote for don’t require an online tool was also helpful. For example, I saved all of my electronic manuals in Evernote. But because Keep doesn’t support PDFs, I just have the files on my computer, which makes more sense.

I’m sort of zen about Google Keep. If it lives on, my notes are fine, and if Google bails on it, it’s simple enough to export my data into readable files. But I feel like I have a good handle on what’s in Keep, so if/when Google abandons it, moving to something else won’t be catastrophic.

Google Keep
What works: Great, fast interface
What doesn’t work: Google’s track record with non-search products
Who should work with it: Anyone looking for a very simple way to take text-based notes across devices.