The Productivity App That Won the Pandemic

In uncertain times, we all want a sense of control

Image: Notion

In April 2020, as many businesses were shutting down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Notion was booming.

Although the expansive note-taking app had been around since 2013, the company’s founders and investors apparently understood that the way we work would suddenly see a drastic change as the coronavirus spread across the country. Notion founder and CEO Ivan Zhao raised $50 million, pushing the company’s value to $2 billion.

The gamble on the part of Zhao and his investors was a good one. Notion’s user base has more than quadrupled since 2019. In August, Zhao told Protocol that each week was its biggest ever in terms of growth.

In a world that feels truly out of control, millions of people have turned to their Notion accounts to restore some order. Astronomical stress, daily Zoom meetings, and virtual cocktail parties make it feel as if we need more help than ever to keep on track of it all — even if many of us barely leave our homes.

Notion is unique in that it allows users to include a wide variety of online content, from tweets to images to graphs, that many other note-taking apps make difficult or impossible to include in a document. In a way, Notion is almost like a productivity Minecraft: an expansive space to create (almost) whatever you want and need to organize information.

Sarah Holder, a reporter based in San Francisco, says she started 2021 feeling very “discombobulated and unfocused,” so she turned to Notion for help.

When we feel bad, we naturally look for ways to identify and fix the problem.

“I was constantly making to-do lists in notebooks or note apps or many different random programs,” she says. “I decided to try Notion to organize my thoughts, and I love that you can make lots of different kinds of to-do lists and put little emojis on them.” She assigned telephone emojis to indicate scheduled phone calls, for example; finished stories garner whale emojis; and a completed run is marked on her calendar with a runner emoji.

Turning to an external source like Notion to make sense of your world, even if through the limited lens of your schedule, habits, and to-do lists, can induce a feeling of agency.

“In uncertain times like a pandemic, it’s important to increase feelings of control where and when we can,” says Rachel Hershenberg, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University and the author of the book Activating Happiness: A Jump-Start Guide to Overcoming Low Motivation, Depression, or Just Feeling Stuck. “I suspect that Notion fosters some degree of controllability over our goals and plans.”

In a 1993 study, cancer patients who felt they could better control their emotional and physical response to the disease felt less depressed than those who didn’t feel that sense of control, regardless of how their cancer was actually progressing. A 2008 study found that new parents with a higher sense of control experienced less psychological distress than those with a lower sense of control; as parents began to gain feeling in control, their depression and anxiety decreased. A large 2018 study of British women showed a similar result.

I’m one of these anxious, depressed, low-control people, which would help explain why I’m always looking for the next solution for transforming my thoughts from a frantic pile of garbage into something resembling coherence. A 2017 dissertation by Charlotte Massey, then a graduate student in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that when people felt sad, they created more computer folders when organizing their files than those who were in a good mood. According to Massey, research shows that a negative mood can lead people to be more analytical and systematic in their behavior, such as becoming more intently organized and oriented toward problem-solving. Because when we feel bad, we naturally look for ways to identify and fix the problem.

I think this is why productivity apps, in particular Notion, have become so popular in the past year. (Even watching other people use productivity apps has become a popular pastime for some.) A lot of us are not doing great. We are in negative mood states because we are lonely, anxious, and depressed — for obvious reasons. A spreadsheet or a to-do list or a Notion page are not going to solve the pandemic, but if we use them correctly, they can help us feel more in control of our lives.

I’m skeptical about how much depending on a suite of productivity apps can really help, at least when it comes to workplace productivity; using a bunch of different apps can be distracting when what a lot of us need is simply the ability to focus. But one of the greatest advantages of Notion is that it’s an all-in-one — or, most-in-one — answer to what’s known as the “fragmentation problem.”

“A long-standing problem that people have in managing their digital information is that they have information spread across too many tools (e.g. file system, email, texts, DMs, video chats, Drive, OneDrive, Slack),” says Steve Whittaker, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of the book The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff. “Although I am not a Notion user, maybe it succeeds in this, but if so it would be the first tool in 30 years to solve this problem.”

Notion doesn’t bring together every single task you might want to achieve via your smartphone or computer, but it does address a larger variety of them than any other app I’ve used. With Notion, you can create a board of recipes you want to try alongside your to-do lists, various spreadsheets, a travel planner, habit trackers, calendars, résumés, and more. You can embed tweets, create image galleries, and combine different formats — a chart alongside a video alongside a PDF — all in one page. This is helpful for someone like me, whose book project notes are a perfect example of the fragmentation problem.

One of the greatest advantages of Notion is that it’s an all-in-one — or, most-in-one — answer to what’s known as the “fragmentation problem.”

“I think the flexibility of Notion is key. I used Apple’s native notes for a while and some notes I made were just walls of text. I’d look at them and get overwhelmed,” says Jacqueline Mirell, a London-based product designer. “But on Notion, you can structure the information so it’s easier to scan. I turned the walls of text into two columns of call-outs, then a table, and hid a bunch of things in toggles.” She says she relied on Notion to streamline her job search: “I designed a Notion page with call-outs for all the documents I would send recruiters, a kanban board for interview progress, and visual bookmarks for important articles about design hiring tips.”

“I like that it’s a lot more customizable [than Google Docs] — the windows can drag and drop, you can have lists and tables and kanban/Trello boards on the same page, etc.,” says Casey Mendoza, an entertainment reporter in Chicago. “Even in pages that are mainly text-based, you can have drop-down menus and formatting shortcuts that are easier to use than Google Docs.”

Casey Mendoza’s Notion.

The downside to all this flexibility, though, is that Notion is really overwhelming. Its burgeoning popularity during a pandemic, when a lot of people have found their evenings and weekends devoid of their usual activities, could simply be driven by a lot of us suddenly having a lot more time to learn how to configure our endlessly customizable new Notion account. But one of my anxiety triggers, to be quite honest, is feeling stupid, and Notion requires a lot of energy, time, and patience that I wasn’t able to muster. The end result is that I felt like an idiot because I didn’t immediately understand how to create a board of recipes, which is really what I need, and I didn’t want to put in the effort to figure it out. So I gave up.

So, no, Notion isn’t for everyone, though it’s clearly a great solution for a lot of people, especially those whose insecurities aren’t triggered by how quickly they can master a new computer program. There is an entire ecosystem of Notion tutorials on YouTube if you want to spend your evening creating a complex system dedicated to anything from job applications to reading lists. And for those who prefer to stick with old-fashioned solutions — there’s always my personal favorite: spreadsheets.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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