One tool that I rely on heavily is Evernote. If you haven’t heard of it yet, don’t worry. I’m here to pluck off that rock you’ve been living under.
The fine folks at Evernote call it your “external brain,” and rightly so. It does a great job of holding and finding all of your thoughts, and it’s accessible wherever you go. In addition to the web version, there are multiple browser extensions, desktop versions for Mac and PC, and apps for iOS, Android, Windows and Blackberry. And yes, it all synchronizes. Glorious.
You can apply tags to sort to your heart’s content. PDFs and text within images are searchable. You can annotate images. Draw. Save voice recordings or use a voice-to-text option. Take pictures. Link within notes or share links externally. Share notebooks externally and collaborate. Identify notebooks to save notes for offline to access when you don’t have a data connection or Wi-Fi available. And on and on and on.
This is one program that my everyday life significantly relies on. If Evernote disappeared, I would have some major overhauling to do to my systems for productivity, collaboration, information consumption and creation, and idea capturing.
So here are the basics for how I use Evernote. Hopefully you’ll get some takeaways you can apply to your systems. Just give it a try. It took me a while to lean so heavily on it, but I learned Evernote can easily support the weight. :)
Before going into the systems, it might help you to think of Evernote as your own secure, personal website that’s totally optimized for quickly finding the information you feed it. It’s like Google for your brain. Just supply the information. Don’t be shy; the more you feed it, the more you’ll get out of it.
Saving / Finding / Retrieving
Evernote makes an amazing tool for keeping up with your GTD system and monitoring your to-do list. See my post about my Evernote GTD setup to see a system that works well for me.
Evernote makes it easy to save Internet articles for reading later. One of the side effects of this is fewer open tabs on my browser. Sometimes it’s the small things. Here’s an example of how saving items for later generally pans out:
On a lunch break at work, I’ll peruse flipboard on my phone to see what’s going on. Internet connectivity usually suffers in the breakroom, so if an article doesn’t load, I’ll just share it to Evernote, where the link will soon sync across all the devices. When I go back to my computer, the article link will be waiting for me. I click on it, opening the article, then I’ll either clip the full article and save it to a notebook for offline reading, or use Evernote Clearly to read the article free from distractions.
Now back to the lunch break where I couldn’t load new articles. I just open up Evernote and navigate to the articles I’ve saved for offline viewing. Now I’m catching up on news or just reading guilty pleasures.
Other times this comes in handy: traveling (plane or car passenger, areas without a data connection), waiting in lines (think Walmart), public restrooms. Just kidding on that last one. But really—it’s doable.
Shopping — reward cards
The above idea of saving notes for offline use has a lot of uses. Take a picture of the barcode on your reward cards, tag with them a context like “@card” and save them offline so you don’t have to worry about waiting for, say, your Petsmart card to load while you have a 50 pound bag of dog food under your arm. I have a Great Dane, so this is a big one for me.
Credit Card Information
Want to buy something online, but don’t want to go hunting for your wallet to then try to accurately enter 16 digits, plus a security and expiration date? Save them in Evernote so you can just copy-paste. Be sure to use the handy encryption option, though.
My password database has saved me lots of frustration. It’s more than just which password goes to which website—it’s complete with links to the sites so it’s a directory as well. If I want to check out a digital library book, (LINK TO COMMUTING) pay my water bill, or check out my Best Buy reward Zone Points, the password and link are in the same place (albeit with their own separate passwords and 256-bit encryption).
To a smaller extent, you can use Evernote for file sharing. File limits are 100MB for premium users and 25MB for free users. It’s no YouSendIt.com, but it comes in handy. Usually I use it to share files with myself.
For instance, if I want to make an email to facilities extra impactful, I’ll use Evernote to take a picture of the gigantic cockroach in the restroom. The picture synchronizes immediately to my work computer where I can then add the image to an email. (That’s an actual use case.) Little things like this pop up all the time.
Or say you have a picture on phone that you want to edit on your desktop computer. Or a statement of work on your work computer that you want to access from your home computer. Or a 50 MB Photoshop file you can’t email. Evernote saves the day.
Grab Ideas Anytime, Anywhere
Note whatever is on your mind anywhere, access it everywhere. Random to-do items, a first sentence for a fiction short story, an idea for your spouse on the next anniversary.
I do a fair amount of freelance work, and keeping track of it is easy with Evernote. All my notes, emails, pictures and drafts are in the same place. It’s a great way to write, especially if it’s a work in progress or you’re in multiple places. Also, thanks to a handy “templates” tag, I can always easily find my templates for statements of work, swipe files, interviews, etc.
Miscellaneous Information Collecting
If you have any idea you might want something later, add to Evernote. The final push for me to start this blog was realizing how many notes I had related to communication saved in Evernote. I take notes on books I read, podcasts I listen to, blogs I read, techniques I learn. The (upcoming) post on how to compose an elevator pitch: written from notes I’d saved in Evernote. Communication plan: Evernote. Strategy vs. tactical communications. Evernote.
Here are some other categories I have that might get you thinking (as a bonus, check out my current Evernote tag/notebook structure):
- Crossfit: use it as a workout journal and save WODs (Fran, anyone?) and personal records.
- A “collections” parent tag houses lots of assorted items:
- photos – tagged as stock, texture, etc
- inspirational designs
- code snippets
- notes from books, podcasts, sermons, webinars, etc.
The great pieces of Evernote as your own personal website become even more valuable if you choose to use the collaboration options it offers.
You can create shared notebooks that are accessible only to certain people you invite or the world. You can also share individual notes.
I use the shared notebooks mostly with my wife. The uses are endless. I’ll share some of mine just to get your juices flowing.
My wife loves the idea of capturing a to-do item anytime, anywhere. She even prioritizes it for me. How sweet.
Instead of relying only on a service like Mint.com for budgeting, we do better with a more hands-on approach. We have a few categories we track and like to list them manually. We used to have a sheet taped to a cabinet in the bathroom so we’d always see it and dump our expenses on there. Now we can just capture it in Evernote. No more worrying about keeping up with receipts and remembering how much you spent on what
I no longer have the excuse that I don’t know how to correctly clean the carpet when our one-year-old smooshes Playdough or ravioli into the floor. Evernote has basically become a process document repository. Instead of calling my wife to ask what miracle spray we use to get stains out, I can just refer to our shared notebook.
Birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, and random thoughtful gifts are easy with the help of Evernote. Share lists via a shared notebook and upload your own. As I see something I like, I take a note of it. If my wife mentions/hints she wants something, boom, note. If my dad mentions something is cool, I’m saving that too. When the next gift-giving holiday rolls around, you already have a base of ideas for other people as well as a list of your own that you don’t have to whip up last minute. Including links is also extremely helpful. Final hint: might as well make use of affiliate links to get a gift along with your gift. Hey, every penny counts.
Your imagination is the limit. I’ve used Evernote as an email tool before. At one company I worked for, they went overboard with information security and forbade personal emails, social media sites, file sharing websites, and on and on. With an infant at home who was born 12 weeks premature, I needed a certain amount of communication with my wife. A shared notebook in Evernote provided the key. The activity icon notified me when my wife added a communication. This information lockdown is what spurred a lot of my Evernote use case discoveries. Certain programs and activities I needed to do my day-to-day job were also locked down—so much so that I had to use my personal computer to get work done. Without the ability to email files to myself (the thumb drives and SD slots were turned off as well), I used Evernote to retrieve the information.
There are a ton of ways to use Evernote. You can organize it as much or as little as you want.
After spending a lot of time experimenting with organization, I do have a piece of advice concerning the subject: organize as much as you have to, but as little as you need to.
Here are some guidelines I’ve found that help me:
Use fewer notebooks, more tags
The way I differentiate the two is by thinking of tags as inclusive and notebooks as exclusive. I’ll explain that in a minute.
Notebooks are basically regular folders. Tags are similar to folders, but instead of pigeonholing an item into a single folder, it can be in several folders at once. Lots of tags (inclusive), one notebook (exclusive).
Tags are easier for searching
You can set up your tag structure like a folder structure by “nesting” tags. And then you don’t have to worry about which notebook you stuck something in: you can search across everything.
Tags also accept more boolean descriptors. You can search within tags, combine tags or exclude tags. For example, find all the items tagged with “car,” “GM” and “Saturn,” but exclude items tagged as “Ion 2.” When searching, you can’t combine or exclude certain notebooks.
Benefits of using notebooks
Normally when trying to find something, you want to pull in as much information as possible or to exclude certain values, which is why tags are great. But sometimes you need to have something exclusive.
Use notebooks when you want to limit the information shared—either for finding certain items/info or for reserving notes to share or view offline.
You probably don’t want to share all of your notes. For those that you want to share, designate a notebook that you share. Everything in that notebook is then shareable, but not anything outside of that notebook. Exclusive (Note: you can’t use tags to share or privatize notes.)
For offline viewing, you also probably don’t want to download all of your notes. There’s no reason to try to store every single note and attachment on your phone, tablet or iPod. But there are some items you need to view and don’t want to risk not having an Internet connection for. Think passport information when out of the country. So set up a designated notebook that you’ll use to view offline. Everything in that notebook is then downloaded, but not anything outside of that notebook. Again, exclusive.
Think about cases where you need to limit information shared: collaborating on a project, work notebooks at your job, frequently accessed notes that should be saved offline. Notebooks work great for these areas.
Think about cases where you need to find information and have additional options available: searching for broad items, narrowing topics to a granular level, basic folder structure. Tag, baby, tag.
Again I’ll remind you that you can go crazy with structuring and organizing in Evernote, but it’s often easiest and fastest to limit the organization to the amount you need. You’ll be surprised at how much you can find when you search all, especially if you use some boolean descriptors.
So here’s my current notebook and tag structure. I encourage you to try out Evernote or tell me know how you use it if you already do.