August 12, 2022

Notion & the Digital Shelf

The Shelf, Real & Digital

  • Fifteen years ago, in 2007, most of my media was physical. I read printed books, played DVDs, inserted cartridges and discs into video game consoles. I listened to music digitally, but I still owned a good number of CDs. I didn’t own any vinyl.
  • There wasn’t a ton of use in keeping a digital library of your stuff, because you could see most of it at a glance. But if you wanted to, there were some solutions.
  • The one I remember most fondly was Delicious Library. It was one of the first third-party Mac apps I bought. I thought it was cool. It gave you a little digital shelf, and you could put your DVDs there. Or at least, images of your dvds. It was a digital recreation of your physical library of personal media. If you like this sort of thing, it worked. It’s still around.
  • In the meantime, my stuff became more digital. I read books on a Kobo. I stream 100% of my tv shows and movies. The majority of my video games are downloaded (and some are streamed). I listen to streamed music, and I don’t own any CDs. Probably due to some nascent hipster virus, I do own some vinyl.
  • It’s also much less my stuff” rather than I have access to this stuff so long as I keep paying for a subscription.” But my experiences with this stuff, that’s mine.
  • When your stuff is physical, there’s usually a shelf. There’s a scene of physical space that helps you understand what you have, and sometimes, how often you use that stuff. You can tell if a book has been read more than once. You know where your favourite DVDs are.
  • This is a harder problem to solve when everything is in the cloud. I don’t control where things live, and those that do keep rearranging the shelf.
  • It might be worth suggesting that I’m trying to solve the wrong problem. Maybe I should have just kept all those physical things. Maybe! There are still people who only buy physical video games and vinyl. But there aren’t people who only buy DVDs of TV shows, because most shows aren’t released physically anymore. Netflix released the first two seasons of Stranger Things as a physical object, but not season 3 (and likely won’t with season 4). The Simpsons released collectible season DVDs, but stopped in 2015. Even if I wanted to own everything I consumed in a non-stream format (and could afford it, and had the space for it…) this is just how the world is right now.
  • I’d argue that keeping a library” of your life could have a lot of value. You could also argue that it does not. Your experience with media isn’t important, because all you’re doing is consuming. But I’m not doing this passively. I’m choosing to watch these shows, listen to this music, and play these games. I’m an active participant in what I consume. And I think there’s value in knowing how I spend my time. I think there’s value in a digital shelf of your experiences. Maybe I’m wasting my time, but this is my time to waste.

Notes on Notion

  • Notion is the today version of Bento. At least, that’s how I look at it. It sort of can be anything, but I’m choosing to use it as a library of stuff.
  • Notion is really good at being a library of stuff.
  • How it communicates the stuff back to you is displaying spreadsheet/database style data in useful human pretty views that are time-consumingly customizable.
  • I started Notion because of influencers on Youtube. There’s a deep productivity racket happening there. Best used in short spurts of trying how to do stuff. You can really find yourself underwater.
  • I was already using an app called Airtable to do a few spreadsheet/databsse style things. I’d begun a video game tracking sheet and a pro wrestling match tracker. Airtable was doing this job pretty well.
  • Airtable has a cool feature where you can display the same information in several ways: like a grid, a list, or a set of icons. It could look a little bit like Delicious Library.
  • I liked Airtable enough, but Notion just takes the concept a few steps further in a way my brain enjoys.

Privacy in Notion

  • Notion is not encrypted. It’s unlikely, but there’s a chance someone at Notion could see everything. There’s also a chance my password will get stolen somehow and someone could get in. It’s a website, so it’s naive to think that it will always remain 100% private. It’s important to keep that in mind.
  • I think about the lost diary in Animal Crossing.
  • I’m not putting anything in Notion I wouldn’t want someone to possibly see. But there’s lots in my life that’s only semi-private. So if it gets lost, and someone picks it up, they might enjoy it. Who knows.
  • So like, the names of people I know might be in there. But their personal information or my private information isn’t. Nothing is here that couldn’t also be found by crawling my social media or my netflix history.

What Notion is Not For (for me anyway)

A to-do system

I tried using it as such, but it didn’t take. Lots of people use Notion for task management, so it probably is just me.

Free-form Thinking, Notes, or Work

I’m a really good OneNote user, in that I use it as a canvas for all sorts of stuff like handwriting, loose notes, mind-mapping, screenshots, and links. I also keep more private things in OneNote, because that’s just a file on my own computer. OneNote isn’t structured at all, and Notion is so structured. That’s why, to me, it works best as a shelf and not a notebook.

It also isn’t where I’d put notes for my work, because, uh, the privacy thing.

Notion Databases I’ve Created

Pro Wrestling

I built a database of pro wrestling matches I’ve watched. I update it whenever I watch a new show. This was a real stress-test, since I had thousands of entries in that spreadsheet and were easy to import. It also allowed me to experiment with related” databases, because I wanted two: one for matches, and one for the actual performers. Eventually, I was able to show a rating on a wrestler’s page that averaged out all the ratings I’d given their match performances.

an image of a Notion database with side peek, containing pro wrestling statsan image of a Notion database with side peek, containing pro wrestling stats

It’s also the only Notion page I have set to public. Feel free to poke around.

Workouts

I have an apple watch, but if you’re not actively seeking out the activity” or health” apps on your phone, it’s really easy to forget your workout history. So I started tracking my workouts here, if only so I’d spend a minute thinking about the workout itself. This is also about looking at my own workouts as a method of motivation. So the database has things like minutes” and active cals” and how do you feel”, fairly typical workout journal stuff. And because there’s a date attached, I can easily see how much I’ve done in a month. It’s replaced the workout posts I used to do on this blog.

an image of a Notion calendar with workout dataan image of a Notion calendar with workout data

TV

I like to track the TV I watch. There are two popular services for this: TV Trakt, and JustWatch. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. JustWatch is the easier one, and it actually integrates with TVs. You can set it up as an app on your TV and launch every show from it (no more wondering, which streaming service is this show on again?). TV Trakt is excellent for more detail, playlists/recommendations from others, and organizing. But neither did the thing I actually wanted: let me rate stuff, and have those ratings do something. So I built a TV Tracker in Notion that did that. Using the same method I used with my wrestling averages, I build a relational pairing of shows” and episodes” that averaged out my ratings.

an image of a Notion calendar with TV shows and personal ratingsan image of a Notion calendar with TV shows and personal ratings

Video Games

I thought about doing a similar relational thing here with consoles” and games,” but found I never really used it (this is a big lesson with Notion: building for more than your actual use case!). So this one is actually pretty simple, as it’s just a collection of games I own. It’s become my base for working on my backlog. My main view into it is which games have I played some of but not enough to rate” and I go play those until I’m done.

an image of a Notion spreadsheet containing my Nintendo 3DS backlogan image of a Notion spreadsheet containing my Nintendo 3DS backlog

Books

It’s a similar setup to the video game list.

an image of a Notion spreadsheet containing recommended booksan image of a Notion spreadsheet containing recommended books

Music

Music is my least fleshed-out database. It only has my vinyl (and a few mp3 albums) in it. I set it up to track how often I’m listening to any record. It’s mostly taught me that I don’t play my records as much as I thought.

Clothes

This is my newest database. I’ve set it up to act a bit more like a lookbook (so I can see images of my clothes as I browse it), and it has a daily tracker, so I can see what clothes I am and am not wearing over time. There’s also a relational link to the store where I bought the item, and that lives in Places.”

an image of a Notion database showing a list of clothesan image of a Notion database showing a list of clothes

Places

It’s a list of places I’ve gone, when I’ve visited, and in the case of a place with food, what I’ve eaten there. It’s my newest one and has the least amount of stuff in it.

an image of a Notion database showing a list of placesan image of a Notion database showing a list of places

Food

This one is complicated. This is a three-part relational database, one with recipes” and one with ingredients. I’ve done a lot with this, and it acts as a food tracker (recipes I’ve eaten in a day), a recipe blog (imported and created recipes), and a place to put food I’ve eaten out (this is tied to the”places” databse). I’ve also built it so the ingredients list can also become a grocery list. How that works is, I have a checkbox in recipes” called on the menu.” If it’s clicked, it checks if the ingredients are in stock (a checkbox in the ingredients” database). So if on the menu” is checked, and enough is stock” is not checked, the ingredient item gets added to the grocery list.

an image of a Notion database showing a variety of recipesan image of a Notion database showing a variety of recipes

Bringing it all together in one Calendar

Every one of my databases contains something I might do on a given day. When I do that thing (eat food, watch a tv show, wear an item of clothing), I add a date to it. That date is actually a post in a calendar database I’ve called Omni Calendar” (not affiliated with the Mac app).

Where this helps me is with my own daily journaling, as it gives me a nice list of things I’ve added to Notion on any given day.

an image of a Notion database showing everything I've logged in a dayan image of a Notion database showing everything I've logged in a day

Sharing these Notion Templates

Maybe someday? I’d say they’re all in beta (and I’m the only person using them, so…). Maybe if I find other people who might want to try them, sure, but I’m not ready to release any of these for general use.

I tend to tweak all of them as I go anyway, so anything I’d release now would probably not look right six months from now. I’m not sure how people who release Notion templates factor this.

Having said that, if you’re trying to replicate any of this, get in touch with me, and I’ll try to help out.

Conclusion

This is a report on an app I began using around the beginning of the pandemic. It may have been a result of a little bit of hobbit behaviour on my part, but I’m mostly happy with how many things in my life fit into Notion’s structure. It seems like it would take forever to log this stuff, but it really doesn’t. I do most of it on my phone, and each thing just takes as long as it takes to type. Much like how owning a desktop computer comes with storage advantages, using something like Notion as a digital shelf is freeing. It can hold pretty much everything. Toss it all in there.


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