By day I’m a mild-mannered marketing consultant, but by night I have a secret identity – Evernote Guru!
Alright, well maybe not a guru, per se, but someone who gets a little OCD about Evernote. As everyone around me knows, my memory sucks (probably a result of my brain damage). I may have a hundred great ideas every hour, but if I don’t write them down, I lose them forever into the mists of my grey matter.
Enter Evernote. I’ve been using it since Sep 11, 2008 and it’s without doubt one of the greatest software applications of all time. I seriously LOVE this application. I love it in the same way I love my Macbook Pro, iPhone and iPad. I love it because it truly empowers me. It makes me smarter, more productive and more effective. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do. When a piece of software makes you twice as effective as you would be without it, you better believe you’ll love it.
Anyhoo… for the first few years I used Evernote, I didn’t really have a system or framework for how I worked it. I just used it as a big bucket to save stuff to. Most people I’ve met who toy with Evernote use it in the same way. AND THAT’S OKAY. One of the great things about Evernote is that it’s internal search capabilities are so powerful that you can quickly find notes based on the text inside of them. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have a filing system. Evernote will usually find your note in a few seconds.
However, if you really want to squeeze the most out of Evernote, it takes a little bit of effort to build some STRUCTURE and SYSTEM into it. I’m pretty sure that, like most things, there’s not single right way to structure Evernote, but after helping a couple of clients and my wife recently to set up their Evernote system, I thought I’d share mine as one way of pulling it all together. As you’ll see, I use a combination of Notebooks, Tags, and Applications to turn Evernote from a big storage bucket into a Doc Brown DeLorean time machine.
I know a lot of people say “I tried Evernote but I couldn’t get my head around it”. Hopefully this will help you get up and running.
STEP 1: Download Evernote Everywhere.
Download Evernote onto your desktop, laptop, phone and tablet. The app itself is FREE, so just do it. In fact, the whole Evernote service is based on a freemium model where the apps are free, the basic account is free, and you only pay if you want more features or storage. I highly recommend getting the Premium service but there’s no need to rush into it. You’ll know when you need it.
STEP 2: Build A Structure Of Notebooks and Tags.
Notebooks vs Tags conundrum causes a lot of debates in the Evernote user community and I honestly think there’s a few different and completely valid ways to use them. Personally, I have tried a bunch of different combinations, and I’ve settled (for the moment) on this system.
Here’s how I think of Notebooks and Tags. Notebooks are like buckets. Tags are like stickers. Notebooks are large buckets where you’ll store notes that are related to certain areas of your life. For example, you’ll probably have notebooks called “Personal”, “Work”, “Family”, “Study”, etc. Under those notebooks, you can “stack” one more layer of notebooks, so under the “Personal” notebook you might have a few separate notebooks such as “Health”, “Finances”, “Life Goals”, etc.
Tags are ways of connecting notes that have a common theme across disparate notebooks.
Another way to think about Notebooks and Tags is VERTICAL vs HORIZONTAL. Notebooks are vertical storage – one notebook per subject. Tags are horizontal – you can apply the same tag to multiple notes in different notebooks.
I’ll explain as we go.
I recommend starting a new note inside Evernote and started mapping out the structure for your Notebooks. Create bullet points and start with the top level notebooks (Personal, Work, etc) and then think about the sub-notebooks for each category (Health, Finances, etc). Don’t worry about getting it perfect right now. You can improve the system as you go.
When creating tags, think of ideas or themes which might flow across different areas of your life. For example, I often save articles that I find online but want to read later into Evernote (instead of Instapaper or Pocket, I just prefer to have everything in one place). Some of those articles might be relating to personal issues, like health, and some might be work related. What they have in common is what I want to read them later. So I have a tag called “to-read”. When I save an article to Evernote, I will put in the appropriate notebook and tag it “to-read”. Later that night, when I’m ready to catch up on my reading, I can quickly pull up all of the notes with the “to-read” tag, and they will all appear in a list, regardless of which notebook they happen to be in. Why not just save them all to a new notebook called “To Read”? That’s one way of doing it but I’ll often want to save those articles for the long term in case I want to refer to them months from now. Having them in an appropriate folder makes them easier to find. I’ll often think “what was that thing I read ages about how to structure Evernote?” and a quick scan through my Evernote notebook will bring up the article.
A few tags I recommend are “task”, “to-read” and “to-buy”. The last two are self-explanatory and I’ll explain the first one shortly. Just set it up for now.
If you’ve been using Evernote for a while already and you have a crazy collection of notebooks and tags already there, don’t worry. Just set up these new ones for now and you can decide to delete, rename or merge the others later.
One more thing – Evernote will have created for you a basic catch-all notebook called “Username’s Notebook”. I recommend changing that to “!Inbox”. The exclamation mark at the beginning of the name is going to make it auto-sort to the top of your list of notebooks. This notebook is going to be your catch-all bucket.
STEP 3: Clean Up Your Inbox.
If you’re starting fresh with Evernote, you can skip this step. But if you’ve been using it a while, you’ll likely have a bit of a mess. The inbox should be used like your email inbox – a catch-all that is kept empty. I believe in the “Getting Things Done” methodology of emptying your catch-all bucket once or more times a day and touching each thing once. That means you can dump anything and everything into your Evernote inbox and process it later. I recommend processing your inbox first thing in the morning and again at the end of the day. By processing, I mean looking at each note in your inbox and asking yourself the following questions:
Where does this belong? (As in, which notebook?)
What do I need to do about this? (e.g. does it require an action or do I just save it for later?)
If you’ve got a lot of notes already in your inbox, this process might seem daunting. But start slow and once you get the hang of it, you’ll tear through it quicker than you think.
While you might have lots of notes, they will all fall under a limited number of themes – personal, health, work, travel, etc – your notebooks. So start with the first note in your list and ask yourself “which notebook does this belong in?” Now you can go ahead and save it to that notebook but before you do, you might want to ask yourself whether or not there are certain keywords that might be common across other notes in your inbox which also should be filed into that same notebook.
For example, let’s say you have a note about a recipe. It’s likely that you will have other notes about recipes. So if you search Evernote for notes containing the word “recipe”, you’ll pull them all together. Select them all and then you can select “move to notebook” and move them all to the “Recipe” notebook (set it up first if you don’t have one created yet) in one hit!
Repeat this process for each note sitting in your inbox and in a short while, you’ll have realized that a few smart keyword searches will pull together the vast majority of your notes.
Step 4: Keeping Your Tasks Organised
These days I also use Evernote as my task organiser. I’ve tried a bunch of different systems and apps outside of Evernote, but as Evernote is my second brain, it just makes much more sense to keep it all inside here.
First, I have a “task” tag that I apply to any note which is a task. That way I can quickly search
across all of my notebooks to find tasks. I’ll talk more in the next section about how to save searches for quick recall. The key idea here is to tag your tasks. During my morning review, I will look at all of my tasks and then collate them into one big list.
Then I have a note template that I use to collate all of the tasks I need to work on today. I open it up in a separate window and keep it on one side of the screen. It sits in a notebook called “Pending” which is in a notebook stack called “Tasks”.
I transfer all of my tasks from individual note and email, etc, into this one note (the GTD daily review approach). That allows me to quickly run my eyes down the entire list and prioritise.
Every day I copy the previous day’s note and change the date (I actually use an AppleScript to automate that these days – email me if you want a copy). You could also just change the date on the same note, but I like to have an archive of what tasks I’ve been working on and which I’ve completed (in case I forget… I’m seriously like Guy Pearce’s character in MEMENTO… it’s a wonder I don’t forget my own name). Yesterday’s note is moved to the “Completed” notebook under the “Tasks” stack.
So to recap: saving notes with the “task” tag is a quick way of assigning a note as something that requires an action. When you do your daily review, you process that note and either copy the task into the Daily Tasks note or you decide to delegate it or archive it into a notebook.
Step 5: Using Shortcuts
A powerful tool recently introduced to Evernote is the concept of “Shortcuts”. You’ll find them listed in the top right-hand of the app.
Creating a shortcut is a bit of a clumsy mess at the moment (I hope they will address is in future versions), but it’s worth the effort.
In Evernote’s search field, you have the option of creating quite complex search criteria. Look for the “Add Search Option” dropdown. It will enable you to select different criteria, such as notebooks, tags, content, source, etc. You can create searches that will find, for example, all notes created in the last week that don’t contain the “task” tag. Or all notes created from a web page that contain the word “psychopath” (I’m researching a book about psychopaths at the moment). To save these searches – and this is where Evernote is a little clumsy – you can to first create a search and then go to EDIT > FIND > SAVE SEARCH. The search will then appear in the dropdown section of the search field under “Saved Searches”. You can drag and drop that saved search into the “Shortcuts” section of the left-hand sidebar. Now, you can easily bring up that search at a later date. This is useful, for example, for finding all of your notes with the “task” tags.
You can also simply drag individual notes, notebooks and tags into the shortcut section. Once you start using it, you’ll find it dramatically improves your productivity.
Step 6: Using iOS Apps
One problems with Evernote on a mobile device is that it can take a little while to load. If you are in a hurry and you want to make a quick note on the fly, you don’t want to wait a minute to open Evernote, create a new note, tap the body of the field or take a photo, and hit save.
There are a bunch of Evernote-related apps for iOS that will make life easier. There are apps for Android and Windows Phone too, but as I don’t use either of those, I’ll stick to the ones I know.
The apps I currently use are:
– Quickly create Evernote memo
– Add reminders to notes, or create iCal events from notes
– Recurrent reminders: Daily, Weekly, Monthly
+ Save texts and images from any apps by simply copying them
+ Make clippings from website, pdf, documents etc quick and easy
+ Work in background so that you don’t have to switch between apps
– FastEver Snap is a camera application that quickly and easily sends photos to Evernote.
These apps will help you get notes quickly into Evernote for later processing.
Step 7: Using IFTTT
IFTTT is a terrific site that enables you to connect a bunch of apps together, automating the sharing of data between them magically (okay there probably isn’t genuine, Westeros-level magic involved, but I don’t know how it works, blah blah APIs, who cares).
You can play around with IFTTT on your own time, but do yourself a favour and use this recipe for connecting Gmail to Evernote. If you get an email that you want to save to Evernote, just star it and IFTTT will automatically save it to Evernote for you. I love this recipe!
Step 8: Using the Menu Bar
The recent update of Evernote for the Mac (I’m not 100% sure about Windows) puts a little elephant icon in your menu bar. You can use this to quickly jot down notes during the day. You can even drag files and images to it. Check it out.
Step 9: Using your Evernote Email Address
Everclip is my favourite way of getting stuff from my mobile devices into Evernote, but another way is to email notes directly into Evernote. Every account gets a unique email address when you sign up. Add this address to your address book. Call it something like “My Evernote”. Then you can email websites, other emails, photos, etc directly into Evernote.
Another way I use the email address is with SIRI. See this post for more details.
Step 10: Using the Chrome Extension
Evernote has a powerful extension that you can add to Chrome which makes it totally simple to get webpages into Evernote.
Well there you have it. As I said at the beginning, this is just one way, not the way to becoming an Evernote guru. Hopefully it will help some of you get more value out of the Evernote ecosystem. Please let me know if you have any questions or know of a better way of using Evernote, because I’m always learning.
PS I’d like to thank the various bloggers that I’ve stolen Evernote tips & tricks from over the years. Too many to mention but THANK YOU. If I’ve stolen one of your ideas and you want credit, just leave it in the comments and I’ll amend the post. Thank you also, of course, to Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, (@plibin) and the Evernote team. Keep up the great work!
by Cameron Reilly