- “We will soon sunset the XYZ Widgetizer.”
- “That department has been sunset.”
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.
One feature of Microsoft Outlook has somehow hidden from me and my insatiable quest for increased productivity for my entire life. The feature I’m talking about is the “work offline” mode — and I’m in love with it.
I thought I had all the email productivity tips taken care of. I keep my inbox empty, use a slightly modified version of the trusted trio folder method, changed my default folder away from the inbox, turned off all notifications, automatically marked all incoming messages as “read,” and attempted to limit trips into my inbox to three times per day (or “batching,” per the Four Hour Work Week).
Did you catch the weasel word “attempted” above? I tried to limit trips into my inbox. By turning off notifications, marking incoming messages as read and changing my default folder to “Follow Up,” I assumed I was good to go.
Working offline is the way to go. Here’s why:
No cheat clicks
Even if you change your default folder, it’s really easy to just click your inbox. “Just a peek!” you might say. Now you can click on your inbox all the time and see that it’s still empty.
After a week I learned that my habit wasn’t limited to checking email, it was clicking on the inbox to see what else had arrived. That habit dies pretty quickly when you constantly see “There are no items to show in this view.”
Still send messages
One reason I hadn’t changed my Outlook settings to only send/receive at set parts in a day was my need to send emails quickly. I didn’t need the answers quickly, just the email to go out. The reason for this usually revolves around the molasses that is corporate America’s approval process.
Send emails whenever you want by hitting “send/receive.” Or do it my way and just use the Microsoft keyboard shortcut, which is F9.
Need an email to go a ASAP? F9!
The best part: you won’t fill up your inbox. I don’t know why, but it allows my outbox to empty while my inbox stays empty — even if emails are piled up and waiting to rush in once I work online again.
Work around your workaround systems
It’s not that I ever meant to be an inbox junkie. I even tried to set up processes to keep me far from bottomless pit, remember? Changed default folder, disabled notifications, unread message rules, etc.
But those systems couldn’t keep me out. The inbox was one click away. That’s too easy.
On the other hand, two clicks, a de-illuminated button, a wait as the messages rush in — for some reason, that was better for me. Way better.
Use your calendar and appointments without fearing the inbox
Part of my disdain for the no-inbox rule was my fear I’d jump into it accidentally when trying to see my calendar. There are other ways around this, sure, but now I feel like I’m walking in the dog park wearing disposable rain boots. It can’t touch me so I can’t get dirty.
One of the biggest fallacies about (and frustrations of) communications departments in the corporate world is that they are there to simply blast out what you think you want (a tool, such as a newsletter or email) versus being a valued business partner (a subject matter expert who can coach you through the process). This topic deserves a post to itself, but I’ll say now that more focus is placed on outputs rather than outcomes.
That’s the strategy vs. tactics differentiation.
Strategies (or outcomes) are what you want to accomplish at a high level.
Tactics (or outputs) are how you’re going to accomplish the strategy.
Here are some examples:
- Strategy: Destroy the death star
- Tactic: Fly an X-wing, guarded by many other starships, into the death star’s trench where you’ll fire a proton torpedo into an exhaust hole that’s so poorly designed it will explode the entire moon-sized, planet-destroying space station.
- Strategy: Increase managers’ awareness of important announcements that might get lost in the daily shuffle
- Tactic: Send short email targeted to people managers with brief summaries of important, relevant events with links to more information (preferably on the company’s intranet)
- Tactic: Create a site/portal for managers on the company intranet containing only high-level, important and relevant topics and documents
See the difference?
What happens far too often is the exact opposite:
“I need a logo.”
“Post this article.”
“Help me with a newsletter.”
“Send this email to the entire company.”
“Lend me a rock to throw at the death star.”
Good communicators ask questions. Lots of ’em.
The purpose of the questions isn’t to clarify your instructions for interrupting everyone with a poorly written email that doesn’t pertain to them. The questions are meant to find out what the end goal is.
Get back to the strategy/outcome first.
Maybe we send the email, post the article. Maybe we do send a squadron of X-wings to shoot a missile through an exhaust vent. But there’s no way of knowing if that’s what’s necessary until your desired outcome is clear.
Create a clearly defined, measurable outcome before putting tactics to work.
Although what I do in my day job and practice most is professional or corporate communications (Wikipedia), I like the unadulterated definition best:
Communication is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behavior.
Communication requires a sender, a message, and a recipient, although the receiver need not be present or aware of the sender’s intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast distances in time and space. Communication requires that the communicating parties share an area of communicative commonality. The communication process is complete once the receiver has understood the message of the sender.
From that definition (thanks again, Wikipedia), the different types of communication are just tailoring it to your specific purpose or audience. The basics don’t change.
Emails, tweets, graphic design, speeches, extended middle fingers: these are all just methods of getting your point across.
Communication is about optimizing two important branches:
- Knowing what your point is and who it’s for
- Getting it across in the best way possible
Those who are a fan of using their middle finger have all the pieces of communication figured out:
- they know their message
- they know their audience
- they know the timing of the message
- the know the owner of the message
- they’ve chosen a delivery method appropriate for their aforementioned message and audience
From now on, when you hear the abstract concept of “communication,” you’ll know exactly what it is.
Communication is a middle finger.
Happy birthday to this new blog—which is launching on my birthday! Go ahead, mark your calendar. It’s the same day every year.
I started tinkering on the blog about a week ago, but this is the “grand opening.” Up until this point it was still incubating in the WordPress womb, waiting to poke into the world.
I’ve published a post about what this blog is about at a high level. More specifically, I’ll be writing in depth on topics I’ve been learning about such as these:
- strategy and concepts behind communication (relates to all types: internal, web, social media, etc.)
- media communication
- getting started freelancing to make extra $$$ on the side
- productivity as it applies to communicating
I’ll include some important/helpful tools of the trade too:
- Outlook (remember the “productivity” part of this blog’s name?)
I’m sure the topics and writing style will evolve as I figure out what’s working and what readers like.
I’d love to know what you think. So…
As a birthday present (had to slip it in there), please leave a comment letting me know any communications questions you have, what you’d like to learn about, general suggestions or just a pat on my virtual back.
It’s comment time. Go!
This site isn’t for everyone. Besides being a resource for myself as a way to categorize and document the comms information I find most helpful, there are a couple other groups who will get the most from this information:
- professional communicators
- people who want to “sell” an idea or improve the way they get their point across.
Those in corporate communication and marketing (marcom) will find this site to be great resource for additional ideas and tips as well as a helpful refresh of key ideas. This is what I do as my day job, and it’s the type of material that fills my RSS feeds and podcast playlists. Adding my perspective seemed like a natural progression.
People who want to get their ideas across
Everyone sells. We all have a viewpoint to express, a program to promote, a friend who needs directions. Although language is natural, clear expression is not. (“Why did you tell me to go north for three miles instead of taking a left when I see the giant banana stand?”) This site can help people learn to pick the lint off their message so people can taste the meaning and not the fuzz. It’s not complicated; you just have to know what you’re doing.
I still have a lot to learn (again, main reason for this site), but hopefully others can learn with me.
Most of it will be related to creating productive communications in the workplace. Still, the lessons spill over into other areas.
Why focus on the business world?
In my time in corporate America, I’ve come to realize a few truths:
- most people are terrible writers
- most people are horrible communicators
- most people enjoy doing neither of the above
For the few curious individuals who want to improve—whether it’s a quick tip for a specific activity or a desire to learn more about clearly expressing your thoughts—that’s who this site is for.
It’s not about using the correct there/their/they’re, perfecting grammar or learning the AP Stylebook.
The blog is meant to help you untangle your jumbled messages, shoot them straight to your intended audience, and produce the exact response envisioned.
And now my thoughts about this site are organized. See? It’s already doing its job.