On Using Evernote

A friend had asked me to write a bit on how I use Evernote, so this post is for her. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Evernote is a digital notebook application that lives locally on computers, tablets, and smart phones, and syncs to the cloud. The result is that everything (that you want -- more on that a bit later) in Evernote is available on all of the various doodads that you carry around with you.

It took me about six months of lightly using Evernote here and there before I figured out just how great a tool it was. Since then, I’ve become a huge Evernote user. I use it as the main filing cabinet/reference bin for everything in my life. I used to use it as a to-do list application, too, but it didn’t quite give me the fine-tuned control that I wanted from my to-do list application (OmniFocus, the application that I do use, plays very well with Evernote, so no big deal).

Evernote holds all information about my life, both the archival, and currently utilized forms. This kind of deep usage with Evernote, requires some careful consideration:

  1. Local vs. Global: I use Evernote to store all information about my life. A good part of that is not information that I want stored in an online cloud for really basic privacy reasons. Fortunately, Evernote gives me the ability to determine if a particular “notebook” (their name for a digital bin) is synchronized across all of my devices, or kept locally on one computer (my main home macbook, which is backed up via time machine to provide redundancy of information storage). So I have an “archive” notebook where I put old, processed information that I don’t need to keep broken out into a task-specific notebook, and I have a “local archive” where I put similar info that I don’t want on all of my devices (bills, copies of important physical documents, paystubs, tax info, etc.).

  2. Notebooks and Tags: I have a Notebook for every major division of my life (ex: one for each member of my immediate family, one for each course I teach, one for travel information, one for food, one for any major project in my life, etc.), and an incredibly extensive system of tags. The best way to understand my relationship between notebooks and tags is to imagine a spreadsheet with ~20 columns and ~1000 rows. The columns are the Notebooks, and the rows are the tags. So every item in Evernote (the "cells" in this analogy) has at least one tag, and lives in only one notebook.

  3. Organizational planning: If you rely as heavily as I do on Evernote, you need to put some thought in to how you organize the information you put in it, so that you will be able to retrieve information from it as easily as possible. You don’t want to have to spend time searching around inside of piles of digital notes, looking for the one item you need. That being the goal, you’ll need to establish some rules that dictate how you title/tag/bin your notes. here are a few of mine:

    • No plural tags: I don’t want to have to decide if I should tag something “student” or “students”. Evernote will treat these two tags as two separate items.
    • Stack, Stack, Stack: My notebooks are grouped into organizational stacks by major topics. My tags are in a more extensive series of heirarchical groupings where the name obeys certain conventions depending on where it is in the hierarchy (ex. the broadest tags all begin with an *, the second level is capitalized, etc.). This is more for my sake than for Evernote’s. When I sit down to tag a note, I can lead with an * and Evernote will only supply a list of first-order tags to choose from. I can then work my way down from there. Stacking is also really important for my own internal organization. I have several tags that serve no other purpose than to organize sets of related tags.
    • Tagging conventions: All of my notes will get the following tags: \, <*first-order data-preserve-html-node="true">, \, \. There really is no such thing as “too many tags” on a particular note. The more tags you give a note, the easier it will be to find when you use Evernote’s search function, and that’s the main goal.
  4. Hedge-pruning: Life is not in stasis, and neither is Evernote. As with any system that gets a lot of use, it’s important to build in some time to manage and maintain the system. Every weekend, I spend a half-hour scanning in any odd physical documents that I want to add to Evernote, and moving notes from my inbox notebook (Note: have an inbox notebook, it’s amazing) to other notebooks. Once a month, I go through my tags and notebooks, and make sure that everything is organized the way I want it to be. Maybe it’s time to send convert a particular notebook to the archive? Perhaps I need to create a new tag category for a bunch of recent items? This is when I do these things. If I miss a month, it’s not the end of the world. If I let it go for half a year, then I have to do some serious weed whacking to get everything back in shape.

There are many other considerations, too, but these are the main ones. Obviously, procedures are only one part of the package. Usage cases are equally important. Here are a few usage cases from recent life:

  1. Expenses for various side jobs: I’m involved in a lot of things where I need to submit expenses. Evernote makes this SUPER easy. As receipts are generated, I use my phone to snap their photos in a hi-contrast “document mode” in the Evernote phone app. I put all receipts in to one note, and organize by type/date/etc. Then, I can put the invoice in the same note. Finally, when I’m ready to send it on for payment, I can export the note as an HTML file, with all attachments in a linked .zip archive. The individual on the receiving end can click on the html file and get access to copies of everything they need.

  2. Project Planning: I’m always using Evernote as a storage place for materials related to the myriad of projects that I’m working on. OmniFocus is used to present the project in a series of actionable steps, but Evernote handles the resource accumulation. Every note in Evernote can be linked to OmniFocus so that all I have to do is click the link, and the Evernote note for the project pops up, with all of the required reference materials, working docs, etc.

  3. Cookbook: I have a Food Notebook where I put all the interesting recipes that I find. I can format notes so that there are lists of ingredients, images, and all the other things I need to hold on to when planning my attack on a meal. I tag these notes with things like the foods they involve, the type of meals they are, etc. I can add comments to the notes as I try out the recipes to remind myself of important details, and potential traps. The Evernote WebClipper is very important here. It’s a browser-extension that lets me send copies of webpages directly to Evernote (Evernote also gives me an email address that I can use to email things to.)

There are obviously a billion and one more uses for a tool like Evernote. If you are interested in learning more about this tool, or you have some other cool uses, you can leave a comment here, check out the Evernote forums, or one of the many websites that have discussed this topic at length. If you do exercise the last option, let me know what you find.