Its been awhile since I posted anything on this blog, as I haven’t gotten much oppurtunity to post anything as of late.
I’ve been postponing this software review for the longest time (7 months) and here it is in all of its glory (most of this information is highly condensed)
What is dynalist.io? a brief intro
This is a really brief introduction of what dynalist is so you, the reader, can gain some insight on what I am talking about
It revolves around one keyword : Lists
Lists are so simple yet so effective, and have been around for the longest time. Use case examples such as these:
- a list to go grocery shopping
- a list to plan out a very large project
- a list of course notes
- a list of URL links / bookmarks
While notetaking applications like onenote and evernote do cater to this, dynalist.io exclusively focuses on just lists
Dynalist.io is different in that it lets you scale lists indefinitely, meaning you can have list inside of lists^infinity
This rabbit hole does bring in pandoras box where you could have a set of notes that are too complicated to keep track of, but dynalist.io has many features outside the box for you to customize it based on your specific needs
But we can keep lists simple:
Here is a very simple list as an example
In this example I have a grocery list, some bookmarks, and some tasks I can assign myself
On my to-do tasks I cross out items I finish throughout the day and I can also print my grocery list when I go shopping for items I need to purchase when making fried rice for instance
I can have clickable bookmarks here so that I can find my favorite sites quickly and easily.
Dynalist also lets you also collapse / uncollpase information as you need, so you can focus on what matters the most. Example:
My lists are much more complex than this though, but this is just a brief introduction of what dynalist is, and some of its capabilities
I will go into much more detail further down as to how exactly how I use dynalist.io
Why I use dynalist
Dynalist isn’t the first application of its type, but its definitely the one I recommend to all my friends and colleagues when they need a new notetaking application
Many other programs like Workflowy (a very close competitor to dynalist), and other notetaking applications like OneNote and Evernote compete within this same realm
So why dynalist.io?
If I had to describe what this program is, compared to other more common notetaking platforms like OneNote or Evernote, I describe it like this:
Dynalist is like notetaking legos, whereas onenote / evernote are prefabricated toys. The former is great for building and scaling things upward, the latter is better to get started
I’ve been a long term user of both evernote and onenote. I dug through all the forums on reddit, on microsoft, on evernote, and followed a ton of productivity guru’s workflows and their youtube channels. I’ve even experimented with my own workflows, tested out many plugin extensions, and explored many other similar notetaking software besides these two well known ones.
In the end, I have been sorely disappointed with everything I’ve found and experimented with. Almost every application I’ve tried had just as many cons as it did pros, for instance:
- Onenote didn’t support markdown format, and got really messy really quickly
- Evernote docs scaled great, but it was really hard to get the full picture of notes at any given time
- Both applications lacked support for custom URL image previews
- Both applications ate up a lot of RAM
- Lack of customization / lackluster plugins
Dynalist.io had a lot of great features off the bat that were useful:
- It could work with all my imgur.com links using a chrome extension (see footnotes later)
- It was very easy to hide / show data that I wanted
- It was very fast to enter and retrieve data
- Worked great for printouts
- Allowed for customizations of embbeded image URL
- Can be used for very simple lists or very complex lists depending on the situation
- Very easy to build outlines for course notes
Those were the main appeals as to why I started using dynalist. Not only that, dynalist scales indefinitely very well, and is significantly much more customizably than any applications I’ve ever used
What I use dynalist for
Whenever I decide what program I should use for what application, I always think of the LEAN term MVP (minimal viable product). A minimal viable product is basically like asking yourself “Why do I use this program over all others?” . For dynalist, its this:
Dynalist’s MVP: It is very versatile and therefore handles and scales well with complex, unstructured notes
That being said, this is what I use dynalist for:
- Coursenotes / Project logs / How-To-Guides
- Some Journaling merged with some ToDo lists
Just two things. So far I have about 200,000 words that I’ve entered into dynalist in the past 7 months, and there all fairly high quality notes (no duplicate or imports from my other notetaking platforms)
Originally my list of things I use dynalist for was much longer, I used it for SOP notes (standard operating procedure), wiki galleries, a dedicated to-do list task manager, among other things
This is kind of a standard procedure for me when I test any software out, as I used to work as a AAA beta game tester at one point. Just throw everything at the program as quickly and iterably as possible then see what sticks / reflect on that
I ended up finding a lot of things not sticking. I reflect back on a quote that I follow from David Allen, the author of GTD:
“Only have as many lists as you can possibly upkeep”
With anything you do in life, there’s always the possibility of opening pandoras box, which is basically getting so much stuff over your head that you get nothing done. Paralysis analysis.
In the end I had to ask myself what the major benefits of dynalist was for, and what problems I currently have. My biggest challenge was that I had alot of personal and work projects going on, and I could only keep tabs on so many things at a time. What I needed was a:
A digital scratchpad
I always like to reference this XKCD article when I describe why I need a digital scratchpad.
Basically, whenever you work on a difficult project or task, its always incredibly difficult to keep track of everything going on. And even more so if you get interrupted frequently at work and at home, sometimes not being able to get anything done / losing track / retracing back steps in your project
A basic legalpad does the job just fine though in most cases, but we live in the SaaS (software as a service) world today, so it only makes sense to use the best tools at our disposal
This is what dynalist for me is
Many times I have to work on projects (both personal and for work) where I simply have no local mentors with that expertise. Or I might be working on a project where there’s simply no correct answer and I have to figure it out myself. Or I have to document / keep track of forum posts I make on stackoverflow , etc
In any case, dynalist.io serves an important process for me in this digital scratchpad. It helps me do following:
- Break down complex topics I do not understand that well, so I can convince myself I do understand it
- Take condensed notes on external resources (youtube videos) so I can reference it on whatever project I need to
- Keep a daily log of things I do everyday, so I can reflect back later
Back to how I use my notes. I said I organize my notes as the following:
- Coursenotes / Project logs / How-To-Guides
- Some Journaling merged with some ToDo lists
I don’t necessarily distinguish between CourseNotes / Project Logs / How-To-Guides, since a lot of that information is very similar in nature. For reference, I do mostly web development for work / on the side.
Journaling / merged with todolist is just basically where I put unsorted notes, or just things I want to write about that don’t belong anywhere else. I keep my todo-lists limited here since I have a number of other tools that I use, such as kanban boards, etc
Example Course Notes / Project Logs
Here’s what my coursenotes look like: Its a very heavy reference manual of embedded images, previewable images, code snippets, debug logs, computer science terminology, with MLA style citations. Organized by category then by time
It looks very complicated because its supposed to be, as solving a problem for the first time is never straight forward and easy.
Example Daily Notes / Limited to do tasks
Here’s what my journaling / todolist log looks like: Its very simple and short in nature, briefly summarizing what I do everyday in usually about 4 sentences per day. Organized by time then by category
Its very simple by constrast, because its only there to summarize things I do throughout the day.
- This is where I put my maybe-later / doing now tasks here. I use stickynotes for more urgent tasks
- This is a brief summary of things I did throughout the day, similar to a LEAN standup
- I keep all of my other notes hidden using a plugin (more on this later) to keep my notes clean
Every month or so I’ll dig through all my maybe-later / tasks to see which ones I still need to do
How my notes are structured and organized
In dynalist, there’s several ways to connect your notes / get a better understanding of it as a whole. This is
- Parent : child hierarchy of notes
- Strategically Move / Collapse / Rollup Notes
- Links between notes
- Tags @ and #
- Custom CSS
Those are the only 5 ways you can interlace notes with each other.
There’s also the ability to use multiple documents but to keep things simple I only use one document in dynalist
1. Parent:Child hierarchy of notes
Whenever we talk about note scalability, or scaling anything in general, its always important to strategize and think about what problems you might encounter with your notes over time.
- What do you do if your notes belong in two different locations?
- What do you do if you want to add notes elsewhere but your on a different page?
These issues might seem minute in nature, but when you are blazingly adding notes and adding things to your project wikis / course notes as quickly as possible, these little things add up over time
I think its important to always lay out the rules and foundations for anything you do, a framework of sorts, when you take notes.
In any case, this is how I tend to organize my notes : based on actual professions in real life
What do I mean by this exactly?
Say for instance I have notes on the following information:
- Cooking recipes
- Fitness / Workout logs
- How to install windows 7 notes when I upgraded my CPU
- Webdevelopment notes
- Computerscience Notes
- Mechanical Engineering
- Fixing car notes
Now let’s say you have your one blank document.
What’s the best way to organize this and why?
Most people will just give the most generic answers like “It depends on every person” which is always an unacceptable answer in my mind.
A better answer is to use an existing framework that does not change much overtime → this should be best reflect in your Parent-Child relationship of notes
What about top level child bulletpoints? I call those “bulletpoint folders” since they can either be their own document in their own folder if needed.
You should always use as few bulletpoint structures to get the point across. Less is more. When you first start writing your notes, they should be very simple in nature, and evolve over time. Now let’s say you start adding more notes. For instance, let’s just say you are going to school and learn more about IT, you should start seperating these two items out overtime into their own bulletpoints, by how they are seperated by actual paying jobs in real life (Sysadmin, webdeveloper)
The two highlighted items are a folders content that split as you learn more about a subject
The best practice is this:
- As your depth of knowledge expands over time, you should be going deeper into the rabbithole (more nested bulletpoints)
- As your breath of knowledge expands over time, you should have more top level “bulletpoint folders”
So far I’ve only discussed Parent-child hierarchy of notes
2. Strategically Move / Collapse / Rollup Notes
Dynalist.io has a system where every node has a unique link. You can grab that link and reference it to other parts of your document. As I mentioned previously, its important to define your dynalist with rigid rules that do not change much overtime. Links give you more flexibility in your notes for things that technically could belong in two places at a time
The best use of links is best summarized by this philosophy I wrote 4 years ago
This is just a basic diagram emphasizing that you need a framework to build ontop of another framework, and that these things take time to build and nurture. The same is true for taking notes in dynalist. You should always start with an existing framework (in my case – notes based on professions in real life) and work from there. As your skillsets in a specific topic starts getting too large to contain → branch it off in its own “bulletpoint folder” or even subbulletpoint folder
You can move around notes two different ways:
- Either using the shortcut key
CTRL+ ↑ and CTRL+↓to move notes as needed
Collapsing and Rollingup
For items that you don’t need to view all the time, consider collapsing that information and potentially rolling up that information of notes into one bulletpoint. This is especially true for notes that you aren’t exactly sure of → e.g. problem solving notes, debugging unforseen problems in your projects, etc
Say for instance, I am taking a set of course notes from a youtube series or lynda.com tutorials. Whenever you try to understand a concept, its always important to break everything down in your own words. But this isn’t always possible at first, especially when your taking notes on something you don’t quite fully grasp or understand
As you take notes on these courses, you generally undergo something like this:
- Capture the information
- Process it → ask questions & seek external resources if needed
- Rewrite it into your own words
This is a sample of course notes I have when they are “rolled up”
I put the summary of all the child bulletpoints underneath in the parent’s note (
3. Link between notes
In dynalist, you can right click a node and get a link off of it
Strategically moving / collapsing / rolling up notes is a great option to do assuming your notes are right next to each other.
However, many times I am taking notes in one area (say my fitness area) but I get a DIY project idea and start hashing it out right away within the same area. I have a dilleama now. Do these notes belong in my “Fitness” folder or my “DIY project” folder area? Whenever you have a set of notes that can belong to two potential locations, ask yourself this:
“If I come back to these set of notes 1 week from today, where is the first place I would look into?”
Sometimes we just need to take a break, and come back with a clear state of mind.
Its like watching TV. Say you want to watch the newest episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones but are struggling in that you can’t find your TV remote. You search the coffee table, the dining table, the counter, only to find it buried underneath the sofa. In this instance, you should make a habit of placing your TV remote at the coffee table, since this is the first place you checked
The same is true for dynalist. Place / move your notes where you THINK you would reference those notes later. In this intance, I would place my project idea in “DIY project”
However, you start bastardizing your notes this way. Now there is no reference that you generated those thought processes inside the “Fitness folder”. You want to know that the idea came from this area, so what do you do?
Create a link in the fitness folder referencing the “DIY project” folder area.
Notes that belong in two locations, but was first created at the non-final destination area
This is where links come in handy and when they should be used
4. Tags @ and
We tag things all the time in real life. In photos on facebook, tagging priorities of things in life and in project, putting names to faces, etc. Tagging helps bring clarity of things / items that are really spread apart and need to be related to each other by keywords
Dynalist supports two different types of tags. @ and # . But, which tag should you use for which application?
The best recommended practice is to use one tag @ liberally and one tag # conservatively
Personally, I prefer to use the @ very liberally as needed, and # tags to define my “bulletpoint folders”.
Tags do compete with links. So the better question is: When should you use tags VS links?
There’s really no right answer to this, but this is my personal opinion of what the best practices are for using tags VS links:
- If an item from the get-go is known to only exist in two locations at most, use a link
- If items are created randomly over time and need to be interlinked with each other, use @ tags
5. Custom CSS / extensions
Customizing your document will help make sense of your document as a whole. This is especially true as your document continues to grow over time
In catalog and UX design, its always important to use colors to complement each other and differentiate one set of notes from the other.
You can read more about it over here, on my blog topic “Supercharge your dynalist.io” where I cover 3rd party programs and extensions I use in conjunction with dynalist
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