Is Google Keep useful?
Alongside the three productivity tools I mainly use, I sometimes find it useful to have a simple, visual dashboard of what projects I currently have active.
This helps me ensure that I spend a bit of time on each active project every so often. Or if, as sometimes happens, I decide to pause an active project, I put it to bed in a reasonable way in case I want to pick it up later. This avoids future me deciding to pick up an old forgotten project than realising that I have no idea where I was when I stopped six months ago.
Sometimes that takes the form of a piece of paper that I tend to create once a month. But I would really like to use a digital method. So I gave Google Keep a try, and here is what I found.
This article is not a Google Keep how-to guide, it is just a discussion of what the features are, so you can decide if it is worth trying. If you decide to give it a try, it is quite easy to use.
Google Keep is a Google app that runs in your browser similar to Gmail or Google Docs.
It is basically a page where you can add post-it style notes, with many of the features you might expect from such an app. Like other Google apps, it is free and available on most devices.
In some ways, it is quite well-featured. But in a couple of areas, it is quite lacking, as we will see. It very much depends on what you want from it.
Keep has a lot of nice features. First of all, there are the notes themselves. A note can contain text, a to-do list with checkboxes, an image, a freehand drawing (using a pen or mouse), and links. A note can also have a time and date reminder.
Notes can have a background colour and a background image (a bit like using different coloured post-it notes in real life).
Notes can be dragged around the screen to rearrange them, but they will always be forced into a grid pattern so you can't always get them exactly as you want. You can also pin notes, which keeps them at the top of the page.
Notes can be labelled, which provides an extra way to categorise your notes, in addition to colour. For example, you might use a label to indicate which project the note applies to, then use colours to show how urgent it is. You can also filter by label, to show only the notes that have that label.
Notes can be archived. This means that they won't show on the main page but they will still appear if you filter by tag. Archived notes can still be seen on the archive page.
Finally, Keep integrates with other Google apps. For example:
- You can create a Keep note from an email, and the note will automatically contain a link to the email.
- Notes with reminders can be added to Google Calendar.
- Notes can be exported to Google Docs.
In many ways, Keep is quite a fully featured notes app, which makes its limitations all the more perplexing.
The main problem is that there is essentially only one page to contain all your notes. There is no actual limit to how many notes you can place on a page, but if you were to add a hundred notes it could become quite unwieldy. There are workarounds (see next) but fundamentally it remains a serious (and mystifying) limitation.
OneNote (which is probably the most similar competing app) allows you to have multiple notebooks, each with multiple sections, each with multiple pages. Most other note apps allow some kind of hierarchical structure.
Keep allows for labels, but every label is added to the menu sidebar, which is great if you only have a few labels. But if you have more than a handful of labels, again it is not ideal. The sidebar gets very long.
On the subject of labels, you can only filter by one label at a time, and there is no other filtering. So you can filter all the notes for Project A, but you can't look at all the Urgent notes for Project A.
Finally, the sorting is quite clunky. You can drag a note anywhere on the page, but then Keep will automatically rearrange the other notes to fit, which sometimes changes the order of the notes. So for example, if you wanted to drag all your yellow notes to the left and all your red notes to the right, you could almost do it, but there is a good chance that as you move the last few notes into place Keep will randomly move some other notes into the wrong place.
It is possible to work around the limitations of Keep to some extent. For example, if you have several areas (eg projects) and have different priority notes (eg High, Medium, Low) you could do something like this:
- Create a label for each area.
- Create your notes with the correct label.
- Move the Low priority notes to the archive. The main notes page will only contain High and Medium priority.
- Pin the High priority notes so they appear at the top of the main notes page.
That way you can:
- Look at the main notes page to see just the High and Medium priority notes.
- Select a label to see all notes for that area. They will be split into pinned notes, other notes and archived notes (corresponding to High, Medium, and Low priority).
- Use the archive page to see all the Low priority notes for every area.
It is then quite easy to pin or unpin notes, and to move them in or out of the archive, to change the current priority.
This is a bit of a hack because we are using the archive facility to store low-priority notes. That means that when a note becomes out of date we need to delete it (we can't archive it, because we are already using the archive for low-priority notes).
This works provided you don't have too many notes, or too many projects/areas, and if you are happy to delete old notes (you don't wish to keep historical notes).
Keep is free, accessible on most devices, easy to use, and has a couple of useful integrations with other Google apps.
It is a good digital replacement for a physical system based on a corkboard, or post-it notes, or a sheet of paper. If you are only interested in keeping track of a few dozen notes/tasks over a few different areas/projects, and if you are happy to discard old notes when they are no longer required, it might be all you need.
If you need more than that, you might be better off looking at OneNote or Trello.
For my use, it wasn't quite what I needed, and I might give Trello a look next.
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