“It’s so hot. The woman next to me reading poetry, barking into the phone: Pick up pick up pickup.”
This isn’t a snippet of some experimental poem; this is the first entry in my Notes app. Although I remember literally nothing of the moment that inspired me to record this vignette on July 24, 2016, the app’s following 203 entries include many similar documentations of life that struck me as especially beautiful or terrible. Then, too, there are the grocery lists, drafts of texts and Instagram captions, to-do lists and reminders, article and book ideas, scans of boarding passes, recipes, and nonsense that I jotted down in order to look busy while waiting for a friend to show up for dinner. It’s chaos, but it’s my chaos.
While some people undoubtedly use Notes in a more methodical manner than I do, most everyone I’ve talked to about the app relies on it, at least partially, as a sort of digital Post-It. Or, more accurately, as the back of a receipt — something that’s grabbed more for convenience than function to jot down something urgent and fleeting. Kayley Hamilton (346 notes), for instance, says that the entries in her app “encapsulate all of the random, meaningful, and meaningless thoughts in my head.” Dolores Renee (447 notes) admits that “the Notes app is where my entire life exists.” Lexi Cederholm (four notes; she’s a regular deleter) simply says that she can’t imagine her life without it: It’s her grocery list, her to-do list, a quasi-calendar, the place where she jots down random one-time-use login codes, where she stores links she wants to return to later, where she types up emails or texts that she needs to send multiple times for easier copy-pasting.
By simply listing the uses for the Notes app, I know I risk making it sound commonplace, even boring. But it is the extreme ordinariness of all these little entries that creates something special: what can sometimes feel like the weirdest and most intimate place on your phone.
“People have always found ways to store important bits of their awareness. I know many people who jot things down on any scrap nearby, an envelope or a receipt for example,” says Beth Jacobs, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in therapeutic writing and journaling (12 notes). “This new way to do it is part of our general cultural shift towards recording experience electronically and not by pen and paper.”
The move from the physical to the digital always comes with unforeseen consequences, not unlike how removing one invasive plant or destructive animal from an environment can unexpectedly put another species in danger. In the case of the Notes app, what was lost was impermanence. Envelopes and receipts are disposable. You write your note, then shove the scrap into your purse or pocket or the back of a drawer. Even if you unearth it later, it’s just one random note, easy to (figuratively and literally) crumple up and discard. Unless you, like Cederholm, intentionally delete entries, the Notes app stores all those random snapshots of your brain on hand indefinitely. Scrolling through so many internal thoughts all at once always makes me feel somewhat bemused. Am I really this strange creature who once typed, “Using pellets of bread as eraser to create highlights”? It’s a similar feeling to confronting your Spotify Wrapped results each year: a little embarrassing, sometimes hilarious, often disorienting.
Maybe this is why so many of us feel intensely private about the contents of our Notes app, even though we seem to love talking, abstractly, about how we use it. We can’t remember what exactly is in there, and are half-afraid of what a friend or stranger would find while pawing around our subconscious. Dr. Jacobs agrees, and contrasts the Notes app to social media or even your phone’s photo albums: When you post to Instagram and, often, when you take a picture, you’re recording something you want to expose to the world. “The Notes app functions more internally and draws the private material,” she says. And as such, it can be incredibly beneficial — even if you’re just jotting down little nonsense thoughts.
In fact, I spoke to a handful of therapists who mentioned recommending the Notes app to their patients. “I recommend patients use the Notes app to track ‘hot’ moments throughout the day. These can be situations in which you felt caught off-guard, intensely uncomfortable, or those in which you did really well and impressed yourself,” explains Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City (five notes). Tracking difficult moments can help you learn from them, and tracking successes can help offset some people’s tendency to remember only negative moments from their days, she says.
Hamilton describes using her Notes app in a quasi-therapeutic way as well. Among the to-do lists, coffee shop bucket-lists, and email drafts, she keeps what she calls a Laugh List. “Every time something or someone makes me laugh so hard it brings tears to my eyes, I will remember to write it down and add it to my Laugh List. I love to go back and reread this list as it instantly takes me back to that moment of pure joy. That note in particular is definitely a ‘you had to be there’ type of note and would not make sense to anybody else, but I treasure those memories,” she says. Similarly, several of the entries in my app recorded times that I felt awash with gratitude, which always makes me smile when I see them again, even if I don’t remember the moment that spurred it.
When I ask Dr. Jacobs if even the chaotic sort of record-keeping that goes on in the Notes app could confer some of the same known benefits of journaling, her answer is an emphatic yes (although, she adds, it’s not a replacement for longer-form journaling). “I do believe there are benefits to converting thoughts and feelings, insights and lists, to a physical object of any sort,” she says. “It forces the thoughts to a more articulated level and it gets the feelings moving and out of the body. Then when we can see what was in our mind before us, even if it’s on a phone, we have one more step of distance and perspective on our internal process. Even on a little or electronic scale, it is an act of creativity. It always helps to crunch through and digest experience, because life is complicated and fast-paced and we miss a lot of richness and direction if we don’t sometimes review our process.”
Could Apple have foretold the cultural and personal significance Notes would hold when they first released the app in the early 2000s? I doubt it, and sometimes, it seems like the tech company is still kinda... missing the point. The iOS 15 update coming this fall, for instance, will include a significant overhaul to this wild and weird app, including turning shared notes into something that, to me, sounds more like a Google Doc, with the ability to tag people to get their attention and see what changes people made since the last time you reviewed the entry. Users will also be able to add tags to notes with a simple hashtag, which is meant to make it easier to categorize and organize your entries.
Such features will be useful to people who use the Notes app as a kind of planner. But for many of us, the app is more “scrapbook” than “datebook,” and as Dr. Jacobs says, “the mix is part of the fun. My journals are an incredible hodgepodge of stuff, as well as my Notes app. I enjoy the headings I view on my Notes app, information about pizza places in between grand poetic gestures,” she says. “That’s part of the creative freedom. You can just throw anything down and not worry about coherence or syntax. Sometimes the chaotic placements reveal interesting information about what concerns fit together or what is happening over time in your own development.”
One of the main ways I use the Notes app is as an ideas journal for my writing. I’m always worried that the seemingly profound thought crossing my mind is about to slip away from me forever, and I’ll have lost what could have been the spark of genius that would later become my life’s opus. Despite using the app as a way to add permanence to fleeting thoughts, I only return to it every so often, when I’m tapped out of article ideas and desperate for inspiration. Typically, I’ve already pitched or rejected every formal idea I’ve written down, and instead I’ll find myself scrolling back, revisiting old grocery lists and the thoughts that felt significant to me weeks or months or years ago.
Whereas looking through old social media feeds tends to make me feel outside of myself, reviewing old notes makes me feel closer to myself, even when I’m just reading a painstaking description I recorded of the teal socks, decorated with beer steins, worn by the man sitting across from me on the train one day. I may not remember seeing this man and his socks later on, and I may laugh at the past version of myself who felt compelled to make note of them — and even question her stability — but still, I deeply understand where that compulsion came from.
Of course, thinking about the Notes app too hard is sure to ruin it. The only reason the notes can feel like an inside joke with myself is because I rarely had any real intention behind writing them, and, like all art, they don’t later serve much purpose, other than their intrinsic, if chaotic, beauty. As Dr. Jacobs says, “Journaling just for yourself is incredibly important. I sometimes say it’s the only real rule in journaling. When there is no audience, no set purpose, there is an incredible freedom and in that freedom, true feelings can arise and a real release is felt.”