You’ll learn Notion most effectively through practical application, experimentation and problem-solving. For years, that’s how I’ve grown my expertise while collaborating with teams, consulting users and using Notion for my own work and life. Along the way, I’ve established a few fundamental principles that novice users invariably find useful as they embark on their own Notion journeys.
Principles of a Mindful Notioneer
Centralize and contextualize.
In nearly every Notion VIP resource, you’ll find my foremost recommendation for any Notion workspace:
- centralize information within related master databases; then
- create filtered views of that information within contextual dashboards.
Nearly every page in your workspace should be part of a database rather than a standalone
Page block. Among the myriad benefits of this approach:
- you leverage the full force of Notion’s relational data model;
- your information remains accurate, consistent, manageable and easy to migrate as your workspace evolves;
- you reduce redundant work and vulnerability to human error; and
- you can automated contextual filtering.
Understanding those automated contextual filters will empower you to architect the most powerful workspaces. You’ll view master databases within one another, displaying only the related items. For example:
- a project can automatically display its related tasks;
- a month can display its related expenses; and
- an organization can display its related people (employees).
In each “parent” database, you can create a template containing Linked Databases for the “children.” You can filter each Linked Database to display only the items related to the template (self-referencing). When a new item is created with the template, the inner Linked Databases will be filtered to display only the items related to that item.
Heed the hierarchy.
As with many digital tools and organizational systems, Notion is a hierarchy. As you construct and navigate your workspaces, always keep aware of your hierarchical position.
- Workspace — At the top of the hierarchy, you have workspaces. Typically, workspaces are entirely independent. You may have one for work, one for your personal life, and another for a collaborative side project or philanthropic endeavor.
- Page — Within workspaces are pages, which form their own hierarchy. Top-level pages live in your sidebar and contain inner pages, or “child” pages, which have their own inner pages. This is how you construct your own hierarchy.
- Block — Within pages are blocks, such as the various forms of text, multimedia and databases. Technically, each block is its own page, which is why you can create “global” blocks. A database’s items are its child pages.
In his widely referenced PARA post, Tiago Forte explains that four is the limit to numerous cognitive processes. Therefore, try not to exceed four levels when architecting the navigation of your workspace. Here’s an example four-level hierarchy within The Bulletproof Workspace:
- Top-Level Page: “Vault” stores master databases.
- Bucket: “Marketing & Branding” from the master Buckets database. (Like an “Area” from PARA.)
- Project: “New Website” from the master Projects database.
(Related to Buckets and Tasks.)
- Task: “Design Services page” from the master Tasks database.
Make Notion yours.
Part of Notion’s immense power is its flexibility. Unlike the many tools it replaces, Notion can serve limitless purposes, with no fixed framework. In a sense, Notion allows you to build a custom app without code.
Without an informed approach, that flexibility can also be a hazard. Templates, productivity systems and implementation methodologies, including The Bulletproof Workspace, can guide your workspace development, but they should always be adapted for your unique needs and never treated as hard rules. There are no PARA police.
Your workspace is never “done.” It evolves continuously with expanding needs, new users, novel implementation strategies, and updates to Notion itself. Just when you think it’s perfect, you’ll encounter a new challenge and want to make another tweak. Find joy and utility in this continuous evolution of your workspace.
Your information will remain stable and easy to migrate if you uphold my foremost principle: centralize within master databases.
Be aware of what you share.
As a robust collaboration tool, Notion offers a variety of sharing options, and users often find themselves sharing more or less than intended. Here are a few points to keep in mind when sharing content:
- Sharing a page shares all of it’s sub-pages (“children”).
- Those sub-pages inherit the access level of their “parent” page. The access level can be increased but not decreased.
- If a shared page contains a Linked Database, the original database must also be shared. Otherwise, the Linked Database will not display.
- You cannot limit database sharing to a specific filtered view. To share a database view, including Linked Databases, technically you must grant access to the full original database.
Taking the time to add page icons can transform the aesthetic of your workspace. Not only do icons look nice at the top of pages; they also look great in links to those pages within other pages, your sidebar, and various database views.
In The NBA in Notion, each team’s logo serves as its icon:
When choosing your icons, utilize a single library for consistency. For a sophisticated, professional look, use a minimalist, monochromatic collection. Notion Icons makes that easy.
Databases are not spreadsheets.
When displayed in the Table format, Notion databases look much like spreadsheets. For this reason, many Excel savants approach them as spreadsheets. While they can serve many of the same functions, databases are not spreadsheets. Here are a few key distinctions:
- A database is a collection of items, or records, that share a set of properties. For example, a database of cars might include the properties Make, Model, Year and Color.
- Each database record is a row; each property is a column. Therefore, a property defines the value type—and often the possible values—for all cells in the column. Each cell of that column corresponds with its respective item (row). A Color value, fore example, will refer to the same car as the Make, Model and other properties in the same row.
- Spreadsheets can be structured in the same way, but they’re much more flexible. You can apply any value type to any cell, and any cell can reference any other cell.
- When you write a formula for a database, you write it once, and it executes for each record. When that formula references other properties, each iteration uses the values found in the same row. For example, an Age property might calculate a car’s age from its Year property. You write the formula once, referencing Year, and each car’s Year value is used in its iteration of the formula.
Value the value type.
A considerable portion of database problems, especially formula issues, pertain to value type. Each property accepts a particular type of data, such as a
bolean (true/false, checked/unchecked, yes/no) or
date. This is especially important when working with formulas, as functions accept particular data types as arguments.
Consider that numerical characters entered into a Text property form a
text string, not a
number, as indicated by its left-alignment. A function attempting to perform a calculation with the value will return a “type error.”
For more information about value types, see Meet Notion’s Formula Property.
Without sorting rules, you’ll find Notion databases to behave in unpredicted ways. This can be particularly problematic when pasting information from other databases or Google Sheets. Therefore, be sure to define a sorting rule for all databases. When pasting, be sure the original database or Sheet is sorted the same way.