Evernote has been taking a beating lately. I’m not about to be an apologist for what their product has become (or not). I really like the story of how the company came to be. You can find plenty accounts of how it happened online. I recently listened to founder and now-ex-CEO, Phil Libin get interviewed by Tim Ferriss and this was one of the many things they covered. I have been paying for Evernote for several years because there just isn’t anything better out there. Even if there was, I’m not sure I could even migrate everything over. Simply put, Evernote is my life. The kicker… I almost never take notes in Evernote!
How I Started Using Evernote
The first note I made in Evernote was a screen grab of an illustration that I liked. It contained the tags “tattoos” and “illustration”. A lot of my early “notes” were just things I didn’t want to lose track of. It became a big drawer full of stuff that I could loosely organize by notebook and/or tag. I’ve long since abandoned notebooks, but I’ll talk more about that later.
Not long after I started using it, I got on a kick to rid my life of all things paper. In 2008, if you were serious about this mission, there was really only one scanner that will do the job and that’s a Fujitsu ScanSnap (not the Evernote edition). That remains true today. The scanner that I purchased in 2008 still works like a champ and I’ve undoubtedly scanned at least twice my height in paper since then. Some got recycled. Some got fed to the shredder, but all of it was scanned into Evernote.
Once you start scanning documents and storing PDFs in Evernote, you very quickly realize the value of paying for Evernote. In a matter of moments, Evernote indexes your documents via Optical Character Recognition (OCR), making them available via search. Say you just scanned in all of your doctor, dentist and automotive records for the last year and all you want to see are bills from the doctor you had between 2008–2010. His last name was Hatter (it wasn’t). You type Hatter into Evernote’s search field and boom! You’re looking only at records that contain the doctor’s name along with some choice quotes you bookmarked from Alice In Wonderland. You didn’t categorize anything. You didn’t put any of those documents into a special folder. Nothing. You scanned the document into Evernote.
That’s how it started for me and I’m positive every paying customer of Evernote had a similar experience, even if they didn’t want to drop $500 on a document scanner. A really good document scanner.
My Use Of Evernote Changed Over Time
For a few years, all I did was clip and scan things into Evernote. In 2011 when IFTTT came along, it was a big game changer for me. All of the sudden I could leverage the API of nearly every social tool I used (eventually and even more so in 2015) and create what amounts to a backup of every single thing I post online. To put that in real world terms, every single time I tweet, every time I star someone else’s tweet, every time I post to tumblr, every photo I post to Instagram, everything I bookmark in Pinboard, everything I like in Instapaper — all of it gets stored in Evernote. That means it’s mine.
I’ve been around the web since the beginning and if there’s one thing that has become so very clear is that companies come and go and when you post content on those platforms, you are giving up control and Evernote allows me to take that control back. All of this information is little bits and pieces of me and I’m not comfortable with that disappearing just because a company does.
This Is How I Use Evernote Today
Late last year Thomas Honeyman wrote a post called “Using Evernote (the right way” and it blew my mind and changed everything about how I organize Evernote. He was inspired by Michael Hyatt’s post on the topic, which really sealed the deal for me. If I’m going to point to one thing in all this mind blowing it’s the idea that it’s all about the tags, not the notebooks. After reading both, I remember resting my face in the palms of my hands saying, “Of course!” Then I got started undoing a lot of bad habits and unhelpful hierarchies of information. My Evernote system had grown way too complex, but the good news was that I was tagging all along. The bad news is that I’ve been working on the revised organization for months and am not done.
As I write this I have nearly sixteen thousand notes in Evernote. Nearly half of them are from Pinboard (via IFTTT of course). When you start digging through my top tags, you can get a lot of insight into what I use Evernote for, or at least the kind of stuff that’s in my Evernote database.
Once you have the tagging and notebook thing down (and you really should just follow Thomas and Michael’s advice), then it’s time to take inventory of all the places you post things online. Open your spreadsheet program of choice (I like Apple Numbers or Google Sheets) and start writing them down. Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr? Flickr? Foursquare? Get it all down. Now go to IFTTT and create an account or login if you do. Search for Evernote and start adding recipes.
I’m still scanning paper just like I was in the beginning. Only now I wait until my wife complains about the stack of unopened mail before I binge scan. The ScanSnap Manager app can be configured to just add your scanned documents directly to Evernote, which is what I would recommend for most people. One important preference you’ll want to toggle on in the File Option section is Convert To Searchable PDF. I also decreased the compression.
If you want to get a little fancier with your setup, I recommend purchasing a copy of Hazel (Mac only). It’s similar to IFTTT in the sense that you can configure simple conditional statements like, ‘if you see a file with a PDF extension in a folder, then add it to Evernote’. This comes in handy, especially if you download a lot (or even a few) PDFs online. You can configure Hazel to monitor your Downloads folder for PDFs and automatically add them to Evernote. You could to the same thing with any file type for that matter. Hazel does a great job of keeping things tidy on your Mac and can really help further automate getting things into Evernote so you don’t have to think about it.
A Few Words About Taking Notes
I mentioned in the beginning about the fact that the one thing I don’t really use Evernote for is notetaking. One reason is I try and take notes with pen and paper. I don’t always have a notebook and pen with me though. My iPhone is always with me and the Evernote application is just too slow when you compare it with something like Drafts or, more recently, Apple Notes. The note composition window in the Evernote application is distracting both for writing notes or composing posts like this one (which by the way I composed directly in Medium). iA Writer has been my go-to application for notetaking, though I’ve been playing with Atom lately as well. I just don’t want distractions of any kind while I’m writing or taking notes.
Evernote also lacks support for a simple plain text formatting syntax called Markdown, which I use extensively if I’m taking digital notes. I lost you at syntax, didn’t I? So yeah, most people aren’t going to care about Markdown, but the bottom line is even when you choose to make a note plain text, it’s still in Evernote, which means I can’t manipulate the text in another program without exporting it. The beauty of plain text is that I can use whatever tool(s) I want and it looks the same in each. Evernote can export notes as HTML, which is great and probably just as future proof as plain text, but most people aren’t going to know what to do with an HTML file. Simply put, plain text is simple, portable and about as future proof as you’re going to get in digital form. That matters a lot when it comes to notes or any sort of writing.