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Cover image for Leaving Notion to build a second brain in VS Code
Ben Holmes
Ben Holmes

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at

Leaving Notion to build a second brain in VS Code

Okay, I'll be honest: I have a serious problem with notetaking apps. I've whipped through every service imaginable for a few months each... but I've never truly felt "at home."

I think this is my problem above all: I need to write something down, but I don't know what magical folder / page / service / tag to stuff it into. So, I just choose the first note app I find on whatever device I'm using. I swear to myself I'll move it to the right place someday, but the thought of organizing everything is too overwhelming to take action 😬

So, let's talk about:

  1. 🙅‍♂️ Why Notion isn't cutting it for me
  2. 📜 What the second brain / Zettelkasten method is
  3. 🕺 How Foam + VS Code helped me find a groove with personal notetaking


Why not Notion?

Notion has quickly become the go-to recommendation for personal notes and journals. There's definitely a lot to fall in love with from a developer's perspective:

  • Easy to whip up code snippets with syntax highlighting
  • Easy export to markdown
  • Tons of integration options for data tables, if you're into that kind of thing
  • Keyboard shortcuts galore

etc etc etc. But from what I've found, getting into Notion is a lot like getting into Vim. You spend 30% of your time in efficiency heaven, and another 70% setting up the tool itself! As a UI designer and developer myself, I just can't deal with all these knobs and switches. It's so tempting to tweak everything to perfection... and once the dust has settled, I still can't find that code snippet I made a week ago 😔

I also don't see any updates helping me from this perspective. My problem is really the fundamental approach of Notion: let the user build their own UI with as much flexibility as possible. I don't really need all this flexibility if I'm just journaling my thoughts and todos.

Ignoring the bells and whistles doesn't help much either

Yes of course, I can just cast away my temptations and stick to basic note pages. But this still doesn't address other elephants in the room.

First, fuzzy finding notes isn't the easiest. Notion did add a "quick find" option that helps, but dang, the load times are still pretty slow 😢 Just trying to find a page by its name, I've waited a few beats before finding the result I'm looking for (or no results at all). I expect this to improve overtime of course. But since the data is owned by Notion instead of your personal machine, there's always going to be loading spinners.

I also can't shake the niceties of VS Code. Right now, Notion doesn't offer options to globally find using regex, search by "directory" (or parent pages in Notion I suppose), or other useful tools developers take for granted. And let's not forget the shortcuts while you're editing! Find-and-replace, or multi-cursors, quickly bumping lines higher or lower? Truly a text editor's greatest hits.

My dream workflow

With all that aside, let's get to the heart of what I really want:

  1. Go from zero to writing a note with no effort. Ideally, I just whip up a new file without worrying where it goes
  2. Easily find my notes later. Fuzzy find, tags, file names... whatever it takes.
  3. Keep the UI simple! A vast majority of the time, markdown syntax is all I need to get my ideas down.

Turns out, there's an entire notetaking strategy that addresses these concerns!

Enter the second brain 🧠

I'd been hearing about this concept for a while now, but never realized it's an actual strategy to notetaking. As you'd expect, it's all about writing as much as possible so you can, well, have a second brain in note form.

This concept starts with the Zettelkasten Method used back in the pen-and-paper ages. It's built on some pretty basic principles:

  1. Every note is treated as a unique collection of thoughts, tagged by a unique ID of some sort
  2. Notes should form an ever-sprawling tree of connected ideas / thoughts. This is pulled off with "links" between notes (references to those unique IDs), much like hyperlinks on the web!
  3. You may index multiple "trees" of notes with tags or tables of contents, assuming your Zettelkasten grows pretty large

There's countless nuggets of advice on how to do a Zettelkasten right. But overall, it's clear that a physical Zettelkasten maps perfectly to how the web works. So, why not use a bunch of HTML files to create one? Or better yet, markdown files?

Let's get back to basics with VS Code + Foam

If we're gonna simplify our notetaking process, there's nothing simpler than a text editor 😁

I discovered a project called Foam recently that's... not really a stand-alone project; it's a collection of extensions that work well together, with some helpful guides on how to make the most of them.

All you need to do is clone a repository and watch the magic happen! It'll recommend all the extensions you should need to edit, link, and view your notes. But at the end of the day, you're really just writing a bunch of markdown files on your computer. Let's understand how powerful this can really be:

Getting a birds-eye view 🗺

It's worth discussing a crucial part of the Foam style of notetaking: you never need to group notes by directory. We're so used to using file systems to organize everything, but let's be honest, that's not how our brain works!

Foam thrives on connecting notes with links, rather than folder hierarchies. This makes it much easier to define notes that might be referenced in a ton of places. Instead of finding the exact directory where a note lives, you just need to reference the file itself.

Foam will help you find any patterns that naturally emerge from links with a graph visualization extension. It's basically one big map of your head that you can click into and explore!

Connected web of notes on the Rust Lang book

This is the graph generated by my recent challenge to learn Rust lang. Notice how this doesn't quite match up to a parent-child relationship that directory trees demand. For instance, "Intro to structs" on the far left gets referenced by "Enums" and "Rust ownership." But you couldn't have the same file sitting in multiple directories at once! That's the beauty of using free-form links; anything can reference anything else, so it's less of a tree and more of a purposeful, tangled-up birds nest 😁
birds nest with blue eggs in the center

Metaphor for my brain

Solving the "I need to write this ASAP" problem

This beautiful graph solves our organization paralysis from earlier! Now that we've ditched the whole directory paradigm, there's a much lower barrier to entry when writing down something new.

And if we happen to write a note that doesn't reference any other notes, no worries! Our graph visualization will help us find those stragglers later on. This helped me consolidate some stray notes on books and podcasts into a table of contents like so:

# The Logs

This is where I'll record everything I consume that _taught me something._ Topic? Doesn't matter. Length of the summary? Could be a couple words. Just need to record everything I possibly can!

## Podcasts
- **11-28-20** [[writing-for-software-developers-with-Philip-Kiely]]

## Blog posts
- **12-20-20** [[Kent-C-Dodds-Avoiding-re-renders]]

## Books
- **11-26-20** [[the-dark-forest-Cixin-Liu]]
- **12-29-20** [[the-case-against-education-bryan-caplan]]

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Side note: If you haven't read the Three Body Problem, do it. It's unlike anything I've seen before.

This fixes a painpoint I found using Notion as well. Though it's great for quickly linking pages from other pages, you can never get a high-level overview of how everything fits together. Now, all your notes can fit together like puzzle pieces 🧩

Other niceties

Foam seems to have a solid community of contributors adding new features. For example, there's an easy way to discover all the pages referencing the current page you're own using backlinks.

VS code extension that lists all pages referencing my current page

This shows all the references for that "Intro to Structs" note I mentioned earlier, right from the VS Code toolbar. It's a nice lay-of-the-land without scanning the entire graph visualization yourself.

There's also a way to add tags to your notes to group common topics. All you need is a little metadata at the top of your note:

tags: [learning-rust]
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And boom! It's globally discoverable in VS Code as well 💪

VS toolbar readout of all notes using a given tag

So is this the silver bullet to notetaking?

To be honest... I don't think so. At least not for all of my notetaking across devices. This is due to some pretty fundamental limitations:

  • There's no practical way to view these notes on a phone, let alone edit them
  • I can't add handwritten notes and drawing from my tablet, unless I want to upload screenshots everytime

Notion had these issues too, so it's definitely not a step back for me (yes I know Notion has a mobile app, but it's full of loading spinners and far too many buttons for my tastes 😬).

Still, I'm seriously impressed with how much I can accomplish with just a text editor and a couple extensions. It's also comforting to actually own my notes instead of using a cloud-based system.

So, I'll definitely be sticking with Foam as I enter 2021 🎉 If you have any tips on getting more out of a "second brain," please leave them in the comments!

Learn a little something?

Awesome. In case you missed it, I launched an my "web wizardry" newsletter to explore more knowledge nuggets like this!

This thing tackles the "first principles" of web development. In other words, what are all the janky browser APIs, bent CSS rules, and semi-accessible HTML that make all our web projects tick? If you're looking to go beyond the framework, this one's for you dear web sorcerer 🔮

Subscribe away right here. I promise to always teach and never spam ❤️

Top comments (7)

cashoefman profile image
Cas Hoefman

This is interesting, I struggle with "the same" problem, today I will take notes in Textmate, tomorrow I'll decide that I really need to put them in a more generally accessible spot and add some to Apple Notes. Than on Wednesday I might think that it is time to use some other note taking app and maybe on Thursday I will just take pictures of stuff I need to remember. There is no rhyme or reason to it, maybe over the weekend I will decide that I really need to go back to using Evernote again.

I said "interesting" because I actually decided today that using VScode might be a solution, but struggle with the limitation you mention, it is not accessible mobile nor do I have a good way to do something with images.

This will be a struggle for a the foreseeable future I am afraid.

ishnoorsingh profile image

about the mobile thing, i am thinking we could just set up a bot in some chatting app that just copies and creates a new doc, since everything here is GitHub synchronized. i have some of the same problems and i am currently working on making vscode my main and only note taking tool. Foam seems interesting tho, thanks for sharing this, really makes me feel better that there's others struggling with the same problem

lepinekong profile image

Yep I've been wandering too for many many years each time I switch to another too I lost a bunch of links, so I decided to build my own META TOOL and system based on Deming PDSA, I chose ...Figma which is normally a design tool not really a Knowledge Base Tool but as said above you can do drawing also, so I combine figma with Obsidian I intend to try foam also ;)

33nano profile image

This is super awesome and i love that honest remark, "You spend 30% of your time in efficiency heaven, and another 70% setting up the tool itself!" I am currently using Obsidian, but i never thought of using VS Code. Definitely learned something new

star-codex profile image

Nice! I'll be trying this next week and I'm very excited. Foam looks to be a game changer for me. Tracking and appropriately organising what I learn is daunting when there's so much abstractly related content I would like to review and build upon over time. Keeping me within VS code as I learn rather than jarring myself with an app switch will help with my flow for sure.

As much as I adore Notion, it is inflexible with its hierarchical nature that makes note taking convoluted and useless for something as complex as development. My current iteration of "coding notes" in Notion makes my eyes bleed and were only used for rote learning in the end (yes, useless) as there was no way to efficiently navigate to what I might need in future; contextless snippets and musings with no high level interaction, and ctrl+f is clunky when you want to follow chains of thought.


Thanks again for introducing me to Foam :D

davidsorge profile image
David Sorge

The mobile side is definitely the pain point. So far the best I've come up with is to put my Foam Notebook inside a dropbox folder, allowing me to modify the plaintext files through Dropbox's txt editor on the go.

rxliuli profile image

I suggest you use Joplin + vscode as a note taking tool, ref: