When to Evernote and When to Ever-Not

The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).

Anyone who knows me knows all too well that I tend to do things a little differently and that I tend to be a little firm in my ways1. One of the places that I tend to be a tiny bit stubborn2 is when I see people trying to use one app to do everything. This “Swiss Army” approach is short sighted and it often leads to an unwieldy and unusable amount of information. This tends to be especially true when I see how others are using one of my favorite applications, Evernote. Evernote strives to be an everything bucket, a place in which you put all of your stuff and worry no more. I think the very idea of an everything bucket is flawed, which I why I try to take a different approach and make Evernote a something bucket.

So what on earth is Evernote anyway?

At its core, Evernote strives to be a place where you can capture, store and access your files, notes, task lists, recipes, business cards, web clippings, audio notes and, well just about everything. Oh, and the best part: it syncs all of this information across all of your devices including PCs and Macs, your iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry and even Windows phones. It makes it easy to have all of your information with you, no matter where you are and no matter what device you choose.

That sounds AWESOME! Why wouldn’t I use all that?

This is where I tend to differ from your average Evernote user. While I think it is AMAZING for collecting information, I tend to shy away from using it to capture everything. However, when it comes to organizing rich text and media such as PDFs, emails, audio files and web clippings, you can do no better.

So where do I draw the line? To put it in physical terms, I tend to look at Evernote as my modern-day filing cabinet and Simplenote and Notational Velocity as my digital notebook. If it is text only, I capture and expand on the idea in Simplenote on my iOS device or Notational Velocity on my Mac. Anything beyond text goes directly into Evernote and for the most part, this includes:

  • Paper – More and more, I find myself trying to get paper out of the way. While I LOVE my trash can, my job usually does not allow for to chuck nearly as much as I would like. To make matters worse, I also suck at maintaining even the most remedial of paper filing systems. So now, once I’m done with anything I may need to hold on to, I run it through my ScanSnap Scanner3, use a light taxonomy to keep things organized (I describe this at length at the end of the Simplenote post.) and swiftly forget it ever existed. Evernote uses what is called ODR, which is just a techie way to say that it makes your documents (and even your hand-written notes) searchable. This makes it fast and easy to find whatever it is you may need in the future. I use this process to manage both my personal and professional paperwork. Your comfort level will vary as to what you put into it, but Evernote also offers the ability to encrypt your information if you are even the least bit security conscious.
  • Websites – Evernote provides you with an excellent bookmarklet that works with every major browser. When searching the web, you can add whatever you find into Evernote with the click of a button. From recipes, research, quotations, to favorite webpages, Evernote is the best way I’ve found to store and organize the things you come across on the web. While some prefer bookmarking services like Delicious, I like having all of this information seamlessly integrated with my paperwork and important emails. This is especially useful when pulling things together for projects you might be working on.
  • Email – While I love Gmail’s search capabilities, it is often easier to just quickly throw an email with essential reference information into Evernote. I currently use Mailplane to run Gmail as a standalone app and their most recent version gives you an Evernote button that functions a lot like the web bookmarklet. Highlight something and click the button and you get a new note in Evernote along with a link back to the email. Want the whole email? Just click the button and like magic, the entire message along with a link is dropped into Evernote. This is perfect for things like flight confirmations and online receipts.
  • Photos – While I do not use Evernote for traditional family photographs, it is an amazing way to capture and organize things on the go. For example, if you are in a restaurant and are enjoying a specific bottle of wine4, simply take a picture of the bottle in Evernote’s iPhone app. It will even scan the writing and even remember where you were when you took the picture. So next time you are at the same place, you can search your notes by location and easily find the exact bottle you are looking for. This also serves as a great way to collect inspiration for any projects or creative endeavors that you might be working on (or plan to work on in the future).

So why not just use it for everything again?

In theory, you can use Evernote for the kind of storage I am suggesting as well as as digital notetaking, writing and maintaining your to-do lists. In fact, my good buddy Gini Dietrich talks about how she does exactly that on Evernote’s blog. However, I tend to approach this in the same ways I go about things in the real world. Evernote serves as my filing cabinet and both Simplenote and Notational Velocity act as my notebook. This way the creative process is kept separate from the excessive amounts of reference material I amass. Sure, it means one more app, but it also means that I can search and store things in their proper places. This works a lot faster and requires a lot less taxonomy. Don’t get me wrong, recent changes to Evernote’s iPhone app make it easy for those looking to keep everything, including text and tasks, in one place, but the division of church and state between creation and reference has proven to be extremely effective for me. Hopefully it will prove useful for you as well.

Geeky Quick Tip

Evernote’s latest update introduced a handy feature for those of you using task lists out there. As I mentioned in my recent Techie Scheky post on how I handle tasks, I often create to-dos that link directly back to a specific email. Until now, this was not possible to accomplish with a note in Evernote. Now Evernote has introduced the ability to create links to specific notes. It’s not seamless yet, but it is now possible to link directly to a specific note from within a to-do. This makes it far more efficient to connect the thing you need to do to the reference materials you are going to need.

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  1. Read: I can be super friggin’ stubborn…  

  2. And by a tiny bit, I mean mildly insane…  

  3. Oh, how I love thee…  

  4. And you have a goldfish’s memory, like I do.  

17 Responses to When to Evernote and When to Ever-Not

  1. Man! So much great stuff in here. I’m a huge Evernote user and fan and definitely will be re-reading this one when I have some time to see if I can improve the way I capture notes and information. I currently do pretty much everything in Evernote-it’s like my second brain. But I’m always open to ideas for how to be more productive, so thanks for sharing your approach. 

    • Thanks Jason, and I hope it’s clear that I am a HUGE Evernote fan as well. My problem was that when I started using it as a second brain, it became as cluttered and disorganized as the first :). Separating the creation from the preparation has gone a long way towards making the information inside a LOT more useful and had required a lot less taxonomy and maintenance.

  2. Since I did that post for Evernote, I’ve stopped using it for everything. It just isn’t practical for my task lists. If I don’t have it in front of me, I don’t do it. So I stopped using it for my to-do lists, but still use it for everything else.

    • I see how it is, get the exposure and then unceremoniously abandon them :)

      Are you just strictly using paper at this point or do you use any technology to help you along?

      • I put all of my ride stats in there, I clip recipes, I use it instead of Instapaper. But I can’t even use the task list in Outlook. Because, it turns out, alerting me still doesn’t make a task top-of-mind. I love the satisfaction of checking a box when I’m finished with something. I can’t make the switch.

        • Can’t believe you are denying yourself the pure joy that is instapaper… we will have to talk more about this at some point. Perhaps I will stage an intervention…

          As for the task list, I know what you mean, it took me a while to get into a rhythm. The trick for me was disabling all other notifications on my phone and computer (including email), so that I have this one, glaring red dot telling me that there is something I have to do.

  3. I am only using Evernote for text, and to add notes. But I’ve seen what I can do when it comes to PDFs, Images, Emails etc… but that’s not something I have tested yet. It’s very interesting to read what you’re doing, because I really enjoy Evernote and adding notes to it has been close to perfect for me (especially since I’m writing a novel).


  4. Hey there- Just wanted to say that this is a great article! I’m a big Evernote fan but have also found that I don’t like using it as my notebook. I’ve heard of Notational Velocity and that people really swear by it, so glad to get a more in-depth look at your system.

  5. I could see where all this could help some folks. I get too confused if I have a lot of apps. Dropbox, 2 thumb drives and post-it notes works for me. FYI: My wife leaves me shopping lists and to-dos on post-it notes.. When need be I just take a picture of them with my smart phone. I then move the post-it notes I have captured down the fridge so she knows I saw them and off I go. When I get home I update the post-it notes as need be.

  6. I can’t agree more. I have been using Evernote for some time now, but I have gathered a bt too much of a data to keep my thought process organised. Plus, with Evernote not supporting Markdown support, it becomes difficult to port notes to a different medium.

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