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A Beginner’s Guide to Notion

Notion hero

Notion is one of the fastest growing productivity tools in recent memory. Power users have become so enamored with Notion that it’s reached Fight Club meme status:

The first rule of Notion is — tell everyone about Notion

The blank slate nature of Notion means it can be really easy to start using, but it can also mean users struggle to understand the most effective use cases for such a powerful tool.

In this article, I want to share my best tips and templates for getting started with Notion. Together, we will cover the basic elements of Notion and four common use cases for getting the most out of it. Ready? Let’s go!

Curated List of Must-Have Apps

We spend an inordinate amount of time sorting through hundreds of apps to find the very best. Our team here at The Sweet Setup put together a short list of our must-have, most-used apps in 2021.

You will get…

  • The current list of The Sweet Setup’s top 8, must-have apps.
  • A special, pro tip for each app to help you save time and become more of a power user.
  • A hidden feature of each app that you may not have known about.

The Sweet Setup Staff Picks for 2021

These apps work on iPad, iPhone, and Mac. And they range across several different categories but are mostly focused on productivity. They will help you get the most out of your devices and your day.

Get the List »

Building (with) Blocks

The core element of Notion is the block, from which all content springs forth. There are roughly 50 potential blocks as of this writing, and I know the team is adding more. We will cover more technical blocks like databases, boards, equations, and integrations in a bit. For now we’re focusing on the basics.

You will quickly see that you can create any kind of written content with blocks. A little pro tip: Notion will recognize markdown commands automatically, if you’re that kind of writer. It’s easy to write an entire article with any popular media type embedded with a block or even just by pasting the URL, e.g. just by pasting in a YouTube link, you can choose to embed the video.

Now that you understand the essential element of Notion, feel free to play around with blocks a little bit and see what you can do. The next part we’re going to cover is how to organize your Notion account and not lose track of what can become your second brain.

Organizing Notion

When you create a new account, Notion automatically creates a page called Name’s Workspace. It’s a basic first page that you can use to host any type of block or additional page.

Since you have already played with blocks a bit, the next thing to try is creating a new page. You have two options: create a sub-page on your default workspace or create a new page in the Notion menu. To keep Notion more organized, I recommend creating a new workspace sub-page to start.

To do this, type / to bring up the block options and type page. Select the first option Page —> Embed a sub-page. When you do this, you’ll see Notion’s starter template options along with a range of possible page types, including databases.

You’ll do this for two types of pages: an empty page and a board database. Once both are created, use the sidebar menu or back buttons to return to the primary workspace. Now you’ll see both pages as a sub-page of the default workspace Notion created for you.

It’s possible to go as deep as you want with sub-pages, but I wouldn’t recommend that. You can be more organized without overloading on top-level pages. Linking between pages is another thing you can do in Notion that I find helpful, but we’ll cover that later.

Let’s open the blank sub-page again. You already know how to add in written content and media from the previous page, so we’ll create an inline database. To do this, type / to bring up the block options and type table and select inline as the option. As a bright person, you’ll note there is also a full page option, but let’s not do that now.

Creating a Habit Tracker

Now you’ll see a standard database table. It looks familiar, right? We’re going to use this to create our Habit Tracker template. To do this, you’ll create seven columns with a checkbox property type. Now create as many rows as you like for the habits you track during the day or week. Keep in mind that we’re experimenting here, so this isn’t the time to worry about how cool and carpe diem your habits are — just get a few down.

Congratulations — you’ve created your first Notion database! Simply check the boxes for each day you complete the habit loop to track progress. As for what you do at the end of the week, there are two options for you. The first is to wipe it clean and start over in the same table. The other option is to duplicate the table and start a new one for that week, but what do you do with the last one? Archive it!

Quick aside: this is an area where Notion’s power can be a tad overwhelming. There are multiple ways to do things, and this is one of those times.

One way is to create another empty page and name it Archive, then return to the habit tracker page. You’ll see the Archive page above or below the tracker. Rename the now-past-week’s tracker to match those dates, and literally drag it in to the Archive page. It’s gone! Until you click on the Archive page and see it at the top. You can do this for each week’s tracker if you want to store your results.

Moving Pages in Notion

You can keep the Habit Tracker as a sub-page in the main workspace, but just for practice I want you to drag the Habit Tracker page off the top-level page and on to the sidebar menu.

By doing that, you have changed the Habit Tracker to another top-level page in your account. You can now create other sub-pages on it, move it back to the default workspace, or drag it to other top-level pages you create in the future.

Databases & Views

The habit tracker page gave us a simple view of tables and database properties. Next, we’re going to use the board you created earlier as a way of understanding Notion’s flexibility. If you’re familiar with the kanban card view that Trello popularized, Notion’s boards will click instantly.

At first view you’ll see the board is organized by the Select property with options for Not Started, In Progress, and Completed. We will use this as the basis for our upgraded To-Do list template.

If you want a copy of my own to-do template to follow along with, click here.

What I would do first is click + New and start adding tasks you can think of. This could be anything — we’re only experimenting so don’t be shy. Try and think of to-do items for each stage: Not Started, In Progress, and Completed.

Next, click one of the task cards and add some notes about the task in the blank section of the page below the comments. Finally, and this is optional, add in two additional properties:

  • Due Date
  • Multi-Select (often used for tags)

Next, click a few of your tasks and add a due date plus a tag in the multi-select property. For example, I use tags like Work, Home, Money, Misc. Multi-Select blocks are different than Select blocks because you can choose multiple tags for a page, but only select one option. This is why I like to use the Select block for data like a status filter.

Now that we have multiple properties to work with, we can filter and sort based on the entries. For example, you could sort by a tag like Work or Home to see what needs to be done for each one. You can also sort by due date to see which are coming up soon.

One of the coolest parts of Notion is the ability to create different views for your pages. My favorite is to switch a table or card view to calendar view! This only works if your page or block contains a date property, but is really cool to see.

I do this all the time with my YouTube page. Most of the time I use a card view to sort by status (idea, filming, editing, shipped), but I often switch to calendar view to filter by due date. With Notion, I’m able to combine my video release calendar and ideas cards just by switching views.

One last tip on the calendar view: just like any other database view, click into a date to create a new page. In the calendar, it auto-assigns the date based on the day you click, and then you can fill in the other properties like Multi-Select or Select. For example, I’ll switch to calendar view and start adding video ideas on each Tuesday as a way to get a quick look at the upcoming content.

The other view to highlight is Table. This looks a lot more like the spreadsheets we’re familiar with, and can make it easy to quickly sort, filter, and see the pages based on how you want to organize them. For example, if I want to see all my video ideas based on their release date, it’s easier to sort a table view by date rather than scroll through all the upcoming months in a calendar view. It’s all the same data, but from different perspectives.

To recap this section, you can use Notion views to see your data in a number of different ways. The most popular views are Card, Calendar, and Table. There are more, so click around and experiment! You can also sort and filter your data entries with properties like multi-select, select, dates, formulas, and more.

Project Manager

Now let’s extend the concepts we established with the To-Do list database with a complete project management template that works well for one person or a small team of 4-5 people.

Create a new blank page to act as the project home page. Use whatever blocks you want to establish the project purpose, deliverables, team, timeline, etc. Below this group of blocks, add a database in your initial view of choice. In this example, we’ll start with an inline table with properties (seen as columns in the table) for date, select, multi-select, and person (if you are working with others).

Each entry in the table will act as a task for the main project. Add the due date, add tags in multi-select, set a status in the select property, and assign a person as the task owner. Continue for as many tasks or ideas as you want to begin with.

With those in place, you can use the same variable views discussed earlier to sort, filter, and see the tasks by due date in the table or calendar, tasks by status or owner in board view, etc. The possibilities are (almost) endless.

Two quick tips to emphasize: don’t add a text property to a table. I made this mistake early because I was used to doing so in other database tools. In Notion it’s unnecessary. To add notes to a table entry, click it to bring up the task as a page and add text, images, media, or even another table/page/board/calendar/whatever.

One other thing I started doing in projects is creating a Milestone tag. This helped me see the milestones in the project and stay on track over the weeks it takes to finish. It appeared in the table like any other task page, complete with due date, status, and tag(s). The date was especially useful when looking at the calendar view, as it allowed me to adjust the project scope as needed to hit the milestone due date. I think this would work really well in the Basecamp “Six Week Sprint” framework I know many of us use.

Weekly Planner & Agenda

I want to show you one more use case for using Notion in your workflow, and that is as a weekly planner and agenda. If you’re used to a high-powered calendar or weekly planner app like Todoist, Notion will feel pretty lightweight. Of course you can bulk it up with databases and linked pages (I’ll show you a couple ways), but it won’t be as robust as a dedicated planner app.

One more note: Notion has more database options including gallery and list that we don’t even cover here, nor did we cover relational databases, formulas, rollups, and tons more. Like I said at the beginning, this guide is more about getting started than mastering the tool. Those blocks and databases exist, so check out the resources mentioned at the end to learn more.

To design the weekly planner, create an H2 block and title it Monday. Then, do the same for the other days of the week. I create a combo Sat-Sun weekend block for what it’s worth. Now start dragging days all the way to the right of the screen until you see a little vertical gray line, then drop the Tuesday block. This will create a column on the page. Do the same for the rest of the H2 day blocks until they all follow the same layout as the Tuesday block.

Now let’s add in the daily tasks, meetings, and notes. For tasks, I use a simple to-do list (checkbox) block, a bullet or text block for notes, and the @ symbol to define a time for a meeting. I continue that for the rest of the week, adding in blocks as the week progresses.

The weekly planner template is one of the default templates they suggest when setting up your account, but here is a direct link to the template.

A cool feature that we haven’t discussed much yet is the ability to link and reference databases and pages from other parts of Notion. For example, if I want to track my workouts or writing output in the weekly planner, then I could link directly to it instead of creating another database. This drastically reduces the risk of duplicating entries and makes it easy to navigate different parts of Notion — just use the ink to page or Create linked database block command.

Meeting notes are another way I use the weekly planner. If there are meeting notes I need to take, there are two different ways I might do this. First is by creating a toggle block (one of my favorites) and titling it with the meeting date and topic. Then I take regular notes, but the toggle block allows me to collapse and expand the content as needed so I don’t clutter the page. If this is an ongoing meeting, I may create a list database where I can quickly reference and organize meeting notes (or any other content).

At the end of the week, I delete or archive the week’s content and start fresh. If you’re on the free plan I recommend deleting to save blocks. “Archiving” isn’t a true function in Notion, and I get around that by using a sub-page on the main planner named Archive. I simply drag and drop all the past week’s tasks and meetings in to that page to “archive” them. If you want to archive another level down, you could create toggle blocks in the archive page for each week so you know what happened in which week.

Bonus: creating a digital “Bullet Journal” in Notion

I created a variation on the weekly planner to mimic the bullet journal method thousands of people use in notebooks every day. If you’re interested in watching, I have a complete video for you right here, along with Notion’s most popular bullet journal template to copy.

Tips, Tricks, and Drawbacks

We’ve covered some of the more common basic tasks you can find in Notion, but here are a few more quick-fire tips and tricks. If you have any questions about general Notion use, ping me on Twitter @mattragland. I’ve also added a few other people at the end that you can follow and learn from.

  • If you’re on the 1,000 block free plan, know that every time you press the Enter key is a new block. You can prevent this by holding Shift + Enter to create a massive block of text and save all those blocks.
  • Table formulas are a little tricky and not a complete Excel/GSheets/Airtable replacement if you’re a spreadsheet power user, but everyone else will be fine.
  • I love using the Toggle block to hide chunks of text or other blocks on a page. For example when I write in Notion I’ll often hide media in a Toggle block until it’s time to do final edits. But it’s also great for keeping a page view tight with an option to unfurl.
  • You can turn blocks into other types by clicking the :: menu on the side of the block and selecting the Turn Into option.
  • It doesn’t have the PDF or image text recognition Evernote does. That’s really the only thing I miss in Evernote.
  • Formatting can get a little tricky if you’re exporting written content out for a blog post or email newsletter. I still write most of my one-off emails in Bear, but anything that needs to be organized goes in Notion.
  • You can add page covers, and there’s also a great integration with Unsplash! You can share a page publicly, almost like a blog post. You’d have to build your own index, but it’s doable for a few pieces of content. I beta-tested interest for a YouTube startup guide using this Notion page.
  • Try to @ a page to reference it from any other page. You can also copy and paste the page link and it will automatically create a Notion page link.
  • Have fun with the emojis! Notion certainly does.
  • Notion has an extremely in-depth template library powered by their community of users. If you have a use case in mind for Notion, there’s a good chance there’s already a template to try out.

Notion hero image

Is Notion the all-in-one app it claims to be?

It is for me. I use Notion instead of Trello, Evernote, Google Docs, and all but a few higher-level database functions in Airtable. Their team ships new features at an incredible rate, the price is fair for a personal plan, and the flexibility is unparalleled. I even find myself creating one-off pages for public use instead of on my blog — like this one about vlogging tips.

There is so much to uncover in Notion that I still feel like I have a ton to explore and improve. The downside to the power and flexibility is the risk of unorganized information because it’s buried in another page. It’s important to realize that each database entry is actually creating a new page, just embedded in said database. On one hand, it’s really cool to open up a task and add notes or media directly to the entry. You then realize it’s possible to add another database or page directly in the entry ? and it goes on from there.

Sometimes using Notion is like looking in one of those mirrors where you see the reflection going back without end. That possibility exists! Every page can hold another page or database to infinity and beyond.

I recommend Notion to everyone who asks about productivity apps. I love the power and flexibility to make it exactly what I want and fit my productivity style. Even beyond work and productivity, I also use it to plan our vacations, family meals with my wife, and track workouts.

If you’ve read this far, Notion is more than worth checking out. Take it for a test run and create a bunch of blocks, pages, and databases to see how it could fit your style and workflow. Like any new app, there will be a learning curve, but hopefully this article helps reduce the information onslaught that’s sure to come.

Have any questions for me about Notion? Ask me on Twitter! I love talking about Notion and helping people get up to speed. Thanks so much to Shawn, Josh, and the rest of The Sweet Setup team for inviting me to post on the site. It’s an honor!

Additional Resources

Curated List of Must-Have Apps

We spend an inordinate amount of time sorting through hundreds of apps to find the very best. Our team here at The Sweet Setup put together a short list of our must-have, most-used apps in 2021.

You will get…

  • The current list of The Sweet Setup’s top 8, must-have apps.
  • A special, pro tip for each app to help you save time and become more of a power user.
  • A hidden feature of each app that you may not have known about.

The Sweet Setup Staff Picks for 2021

These apps work on iPad, iPhone, and Mac. And they range across several different categories but are mostly focused on productivity. They will help you get the most out of your devices and your day.

Get the List »