I’ve been using Evernote for about a year and a half now. I have shared at the Virtual Brown Bag how I’m currently using it. Since I got great feedback from that, I’ve incorporated it into my “productivity” session, and I figured I should write a post to document it. I’ve been changing the way I use it over time, as I try out different things, so I’ll post updates in case I make changes that I feel work best for me.
What the heck is Evernote?!
I like the succinct explanation on their site:
- Capture anything
- Access anywhere
- Find things fast
Very simple concept: I can capture anything (text notes, audio notes, photos, emails, web clips, etc.) using a variety of clients (Windows/Mac, browser-based interface, iPhone, iPad, Android…), access it anywhere (in any of those devices), and find things really fast.
I’ve always been terrible at taking notes and finding them later. Pencil and paper have never worked for me. Electronically, I have tried from the old-fashioned (but still effective) text file sitting on my desktop, to Microsoft OneNote. I’ve used OneNote for awhile, but the fact I could only used it on my computer sort of ruined things for me, as I wanted to be able to use it also on my PocketPC at the time. I’ve also tried to use MS Outlook for some time, loosely following the recommendations from Take Your Life Back (which in turn describes how to use MS Outlook to implement Getting Things Done).
When Evernote first came out as a beta, I looked into it and thought it was going to be an awesome thing. Once they’ve stabilized the platform, I started using it with a free account, and it didn’t take long for me to switch to a premium account.
How often do we “keep things at the back of our minds”? I know I used to do a lot of that, and invariably, things get lost. I’ve been dumping pretty much everything into Evernote: quick ideas, things I’d like to try, articles I should read, notes about books I’ve read, meeting notes, pictures of whiteboards, links, audio notes of all sorts, etc. I then organize my notes daily, so I can review them and maybe enhance them after having sat on the idea for a few hours, and also so that I can organize them by applying “tags” and moving them into “notebooks”; that way, I have great chances to find my notes later as fast as possible.
I will walk you through some of the things I’ve been capturing…
Capturing Interesting Things Found on Twitter
Whenever I’m in some place waiting for something (maybe waiting in line at the grocery store, or waiting for somebody somewhere…), I pick up my iPhone, run my twitter client (I use Echofon), and do some speed reading through the twitter stream. If I…
- find something that seems interesting
- I “retweet” it…
- …as a direct message to my Evernote alias (D myen)
- which sends that tweet straight to my Evernote account
That has been a great source for me to have things to share at the Virtual Brown Bag: as I revisit the tweet later and gather more information about it, I apply a “brown bag” tag to it. When we’re about to start a Virtual Brown Bag, I filter my notes by that tag, so I always have a pool of things I could share at the meeting.
Of course, I capture those tweets in any of the twitter clients I use, since always it’s necessary is to send a direct message to myen (D myen). Just for completeness sake, I use Echofon on the iPhone, Twitter client on the iPad, and TweetDeck on the PC.
Capturing Interesting Blog Posts
Similarly to tweets, I capture blog posts for later reading (and/or sharing at the Virtual Brown Bag). On the iPhone, I use Reeder as my blog reader. Whenever I…
- Find an interesting post
- I mail the article…
- …to my Evernote special email alias (when you sign up for Evernote, you’re given a special email alias; any email sent to that alias is automatically put into your Evernote account)
I use Google Reader on my PC to follow blogs, and there I follow the same process: if I find an interesting post, I email it to my Evernote account right from there:
Capturing Emails in MS Outlook
The Evernote Windows client adds an “Add to Evernote” button to MS Outlook, so one can send things from Outlook straight into Evernote.
Capturing Webclips or Entire Pages
I used to use a free program called Onfolio to capture either web clips or entire pages a couple of years ago. That was a great tool to save that content and take it with me offline. Also, if the page or website ever went away, I’d still have that content with me. However, at some point Microsoft acquired Onfolio, and I *think* they’ve buried it under one of their “Live” initiatives, and I haven’t heard much about it ever since.
I’ve experienced a little bit with Instapaper for a few months, but I just didn’t feel like paying 5 bucks for their iPad app, when I already have an awesome Evernote app that gives me pretty much the same functionality and more.
Evernote has integration with all the major web browsers out there. It adds an “Add to Evernote” button to the browser; when you push it, it either sends the selected clip on the page to Evernote, or it sends the entire page if you want.
I use the awesome Readability bookmarklet to clean up the page I’m looking at, and then I send it to Evernote to either read later or store it for future reference.
I always walk to my whiteboard to write notes, ideas, draw diagrams to put some things out of my head, and stuff like that. As soon as I’m done doing so, I pick up my iPhone, take a snapshot of the whiteboard, and send it straight to Evernote.
Capturing Ideas for Gifts
I’ve been terrible at trying to remember what would make good gifts for friends and family. Now, for instance, if I’m somewhere with a friend or relative, and he or she seems to really like something around (a bottle of wine, a sunglass, a perfume… whatever), I capture a snapshot of the thing, and tag it as “gift ideas” in Evernote. I started doing this just recently, but it’s been working out really well.
Capturing Information About Location of Places
Sometimes I drive by a place and think “dang, that place is cool… I should come here when I get a chance”. Of course, later I either forget about it, or forget where the place was. Guess what? Now I just take a snapshot of the place. Creating a note in Evernote on a mobile device adds geolocation coordinates to the note, so later I can pull the note up, show it on the map, and get directions to it.
I’m starting to do that with different places I’m driving by, such as skateparks, RC tracks (or any place that’d be cool to take my RC car to), restaurants, etc.
Capturing Audio Notes
I’ve been using my Evernote on my iPhone to capture a couple types of audio notes:
- When I’m driving around and can’t stop to take notes, but really need to remember something later, I just hit the new audio note button in Evernote and record the thing; later, I process my notes and take appropriate action;
- When I’m at band practice and new song ideas, arrangements, etc, come up, I create an audio note, and tag it accordingly (“riff”, “arrangement”, “lyrics”, “melody”, etc.);
Capturing Personal Documents
Before going on vacation to Brazil last year, I’ve decided to scan all of my personal documents (credit cards, bank cards, insurance information such as cards, policies, photos of insured stuff, passports, drivers license, etc.) and put it on Evernote.
The idea is: when you’re on vacation with family and kids, there’s lots of distractions that make it easy for you to lose your documents. At that moment, it’s very hard to remember important information contained in your personal documents. I also want to have that information handy because I usually need to look them up for a variety of reasons.
Capturing License Keys
Anytime I receive an email with license keys for whatever software, I send the whole email into Evernote, and tag it with “license key”. No more hassle looking those suckers up!
Capturing Daily Log
I’ve always had problems of this sort:
- “…have I called that company to tell about that problem…?”, or
- “…I remember I called them, but don’t remember when…”, or
- “…I know I called them last week, but I don’t remember who I talked to, or any important details of the conversation”, or
- “…I feel like I got a lot done last week, but I really can’t remember what the heck I did…”
Somebody once said, “It didn’t happen if you didn’t write it down!”. For the last 6 months or so I’ve been keeping a brief daily log. Every day I create a new text note titled “YYYY-MM-DD”, and tag it “daily log”. In such a note, I enter things like:
- “Called person X. Was told to call whoever else at this number: 999-999-9999”
- “Implemented this”
- “Found this bug on”
Next morning, I review that note to see if there’s any actionable item I need to take care of, or maybe I need to create separate notes to provide more information about something. And then I start a new note for the new day.
Capturing Session Notes
In the past, every time I was about to do a presentation, I’d review my session material, and jot down some notes on a piece of paper. Or, maybe I’d create a temporary text or doc file with my notes, which I’d print out. I’d then do my presentation, use my notes, and throw it away. Then comes a time I need to do the same presentation again, guess what? Yeah, I’d create my notes all over again. I know, very stupid.
Of course now I’m putting my all my session notes into Evernote, tagged as “presentation”. I put text notes, snapshots, steps I want to make sure I follow, etc. It’s very easy to lose the train of thought in the middle of a presentation when you get interruptions, things that don’t go right, etc. That’s why I like having a note with my general workflow for the session.
Capturing Song Lyrics, Tabs, Chords…
I usually remember how to play the songs I write pretty well, but have a time remembering anything else. When I pick up my acoustic guitar to just play some cover tunes for fun, I always have to look up lyrics, tabs, chords, etc. I’m now adding that all to Evernote.
I understand there are iPhone/iPad apps out there that makes really easy to play along songs like that, but I rather have those things as simple notes that I can access on any of my devices whenever I want.
I access my notes roughly…
- 45% of the time on the PC (using the Windows client)
- 30% off the time on the iPad
- 20% of the time on the iPhone
- 5% off the time on the PC using the browser-based client
The rational for those numbers is:
- I’m on average 8-10 hours a day in front of my computer, so it’s a lot easier to use the Windows Client there;
- Most of the time I have my iPad with me, so that’s what I use if I’m not on the PC;
- I always have my iPhone with me any place I go, so that’s what I use if I can’t use either my PC or my iPad;
- And finally, if I happen to have nothing with me, but can get to a computer connected to the web, I can at least use the web-browser Evernote client (which is pretty good, by the way).
Find Things Fast
Back in the days when I was using MS Outlook to organize things, I’d create several folders and deep levels of hierarchy, and put things into those folders accordingly. That was the only way I could have any hope to find stuff I was looking for. Nowadays, its search capabilities are certainly a lot better, but I don’t really care, as I’ve gone away from using emails and folder to organize my stuff.
The organization and search features in Evernote allow me to find what I’m looking for really fast.
In Evernote, I use the following to organize my notes so I can find them later:
- Notebooks: think of them as folders. Even though there’s support for several folders and hierarchies, I only use about a dozen, and I’ll be reducing that number to probably 6 or 7. I also don’t use a folder hierarchy; with the tagging system (see next), I don’t currently have a need any more levels than that. Every new note goes straight to my “Inbox” notebook, which I try to cleanup daily, by applying tags to notes and moving them to a more appropriate notebook. Some of the other notebooks I have are “projects”, “notes/references”, and “archive”. I’ve recently created a “music” notebook (where I have those lyrics, tabs, chords, for songs that I play), which I’ve set on my iPad to go offline, so I can access those notes anytime even if I don’t have internet connection.
- Tags: I create several tags, which I then apply to notes as appropriate. I have tags such as “daily log”, “brown bag” (for things I may share at the Virtual Brown Bag), “brown bag log” (for things that have been shared), “read later”, “watch later”, specific projects, “license key”, “tax report YYYY” (one for each year), “gift ideas”, “tablature”, “chords”, “lyrics”, etc.
Searching For Notes
Notes can be found by typing something in the search box. By default, it’ll look in the title and body of notes. You can also filter the notes being shown by clicking on a specific notebook, and/or specific tags:
Other criteria can be applied to the filter, based on attributes of notes, such as when the note has been created or modified, what special kind of things it contains (images, audio, ink, attachment…), what’s the source of the note (emailed to Evernote, Email, Mobile, etc.). If there’s a search that I always perform with the same criteria, I can save that search, and access it later through the list of Saved Searches.
For example, like I mentioned before, I create a daily note where I keep my log of activities for that day. Those notes are tagged with “daily log”, and I put them in my “Archive” notebook. I’ve have a saved query (named “Monthly Log”) that shows me all my daily log notes created in the current month. I run that search when I need a refresher as to what I’ve done in the month.
Evernote defines searches with a special, simple, syntax, that can be typed directly into the search box as well. For instance, my “Monthly Log” search is defined like this:
notebook:Archive tag:”daily log” created:month
Check out the Evernote for Windows User Guide to learn more about how to perform more complex searches.
Another saved search I have is one that shows me all the notes that don’t have any tag. I use it because I prefer to have all notes tagged, which helps me filtering and finding faster later. Such a search can be simply defined like so:
It worth point out that Evernote finds stuff in images as well. One a note containing an image gets to the servers, it goes through an OCR process (Optical Character Recognition), and Evernote then indexes the image. When you perform a search later, it’ll will find words in those images:
Finding words in a snapshot of source code like I showed above is simple, but Evernote also does a pretty good job at finding handwritten words, which comes in handy for me since I take lots of pictures of whiteboards:
Evernote also searches inside PDF files, and I love it! In the past I’ve also had trouble organizing and finding stuff in my PDF e-books. What I’ve been doing now is just to add all my e-books to Evernote; I can now easily find which one of my e-books talk about whatever it is that I’m searching for. Since I can get to it both in my iPhone and on my iPad, I have access to my library all the time!
What’s free and what one has to pay for?
Here’s a snapshot straight out of their website as of today:
Honestly, $45 bucks for something that has encouraged me to write such a lengthy blog post seems to be well worthy. I have paid a lot more money for things that didn’t give me a 10th back. And no, I’m not getting any kick back here.
Where do I learn more?
I strongly recommend you download and read the Evernote for Windows User Guide. This is actually one of the PDF files I have in my Evernote, as I’m always using that as a reference to learn some shortcuts and ways to customize searches.
Also make sure to check out their blog and podcast; it’s a great way to learn a little more about some features that maybe you didn’t know about, as well as learning about how other people are using Evernote for sorts of things.
And finally, I’ve also been keeping an eye on this feature called “the Trunk”: there I can find information about other applications and hardware that integrates with Evernote, such as Voice2Note (converts your voice notes to text) and the Livescribe Smartpens.
Unloading stuff from my mind into Evernote has been great. I used to try to keep everything in my mind, and of course, I’d keep forgetting important things. Now I don’t even bother: just dump into Evernote, and look for it when I need it.
Do you use Evernote? Let me know how you use it. As I’ve mentioned before, I keep looking for new things or different ways to optimize how I use this tool.