The API Will Unlock Notion’s True Potential: The End Of Context Switching

Think an all-in-one workspace is useful now? Wait until you can install a digital pneumatic tube.

In 1952, a graduate student and his mentor at Bell Labs were tasked with… well, working on literally anything they wanted as long as it was a decades-long project. (Worst internship ever? Or best internship ever?)

Faced with the prospect of justifying 30 years of innovation in one summer, Marvin Minsky and Claude Shannon went in the opposite direction and built something totally useless: A machine whose sole function was to turn itself off.

They called it the “ultimate machine” but, to no one’s surprise, the name didn’t stick. It’s now known as a “useless box” or “useless machine.” It’s a closed system. A philosophical demonstration of a pointless automation. A toy.

These days, I’m trying to work more in Notion and sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in that box. It’s a beautiful box, to be sure. You can build and share deep, interactive knowledge bases in it that you could never do in Google Docs (or in any traditional file-based format). But it’s all stuck inside the box. It’s a walled garden, an all-in-one workspace where sharing something from a memo or an entry in a database basically means pushing your entire desk over to the other person’s office.

The Notion API can change that. If Notion is an all-in-one digital workspace, the API is the digital pneumatic tube, and with a little thoughtful process design, Notion users will be able to throw off the cognitive burdens of context switching.


Notion’s API is currently in closed beta, but Cristina Cordova, Head of Platform & Partnerships at Notion, shared an update on January 14th. From that update:

(1) What API functionality has Notion already built?

Right now, we're testing a limited version of our API — this'll give us time to fix bugs and ensure the API is stable and solid before adding more users. We'll have more features before the public launch (work in progress!), but here's some use cases our API enables today:

  • Workflow automation: programmatically manipulate Notion databases, triggered by an action in another tool

  • Sync with other tools: build integrations to sync Notion databases to other tools & services you or your team rely on

  • User provisioning: add or remove members from your Notion workspace automatically through our publicly available SCIM API (docs here)

As of this writing, the API allows you to:

  • Retrieve users of a Notion workspace

  • Retrieve records from or query a database

  • Create a page (likely as an entry in a database), retrieve a page, or update a page’s properties (editing page content is not supported, but is on the roadmap)

On the surface, this doesn’t seem revolutionary. Airtable’s API already has these features and I talk about that product All. The. Time.

But you don’t do work IN Airtable. Airtable is where you store the data you collected elsewhere. You have to be extremely thoughtful about how to bring that information (or quick access to that information) into the spaces where we already communicate or work.

Notion, on the other hand, is a place for any kind of knowledge work. But it’s hard to communicate, receive instructions, or delegate effectively inside of it. Unless every single person you work with is on Notion, you’ll inevitably need to bounce between Notion, Asana, Slack, your CRM, email, and who knows what other line of business software you’re using. This might be workable for small, dedicated teams or jobs with significantly more deep work than collaboration or coordination, but the cognitive burden of context switching quickly takes its toll.

The API will change that — and it could change it shockingly fast. Here’s how I see this happening:

  1. Notion users will continue to write and take notes the way they’ve always done while creative managers will start using page properties more systematically to indicate category, history, and status of a project, event, prospect, or record. Use of Notion’s database tools should increase substantially. The checkbox property will start appearing almost everywhere.

  2. Power users and admins will arrange those databases and leverage the API to pull in external data for quick access and to programmatically push updates to stakeholders inside and outside of Notion. They’ll design custom, automation-friendly inbox/outbox processes for their teams or organizations.

  3. Counterintuitively, teams that allow data to move in and out of Notion more easily may be more likely to coalesce around it as a space for everyone. Number crunchers and designers will still use their power tools — and Notion’s ability to embed just about anything will come in handy — but for written communication and records longer than a Tweet, it is more flexible and powerful than Google Docs or Microsoft Word and more manageable than email.

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Last year, I thought it was cool to move a process along in three clicks. With the Notion API, folks might be doing it in two clicks or less — the “start DD” checkbox or “status” property will literally be right there where you’re taking notes and collecting research!

Removing the cognitive burden of rote communication fulfills one of the key requirements of flow — freedom from distractions — and helps turns the many toys already contained in Notion into a real game. How does it do that?

  1. You must know what to do next and how to do it. ← This is the responsibility of you and your company

  2. You must be free from distractions and get clear and immediate feedback. ← THIS IS WHERE THEIR API AND YOUR PROCESS DESIGN MAGIC HAPPENS

  3. You must feel a balance between challenge and skill. ← This is where the flexibility of Notion’s product really shines

Notice something interesting about this? You’re primarily responsible for one side of flow, the tool creator is primarily responsible for the other side of flow… and there’s a magical meeting in the middle where your particular skills and needs meet a product that challenges you and enables you to reach even greater heights.

The API makes this possible. It unlocks the full potential of the product and the user alike. It rewards flexibility and ambition and it promotes a deep state of flow by eliminating context switching.

It fulfills Notion’s promise of a true all-in-one workspace.

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