I was 16 when the first iPhone came out. What used to be a regular complaint before, then became an unbearable deflect-all to every one of our school teachers’ calls to study:
“Why should I remember this? I can look it up whenever I need to.”
In theory, we were — and still are — right. Knowledge you can access in seconds isn’t worth wasting precious, limited brain space. However, this argument is based on two assumptions:
- The amount of information you have to look through is overseeable.
- You’re good at looking.
For most situations, neither is true.
Every day, we create 2,500,000 Terabytes of data. That’s $125 million worth of external hard drives. In 2017 alone, we created more information than in the 5,000 years of human history leading up to 2015. Clearly, this sea is not easy to navigate.
Google counts almost 200 billion searches each month. That’s 26 for every person on the planet. But how many of those are successful? How many are just follow-ups to previous, failed searches? It’s not just that the explosion of data is incomprehensible, we also have to learn an entirely new language: the language of search engines.
So when we dismiss memorizing information, we can only confidently do that when we practice another skill instead. A skill that’s poised to become the competitive advantage of the 21st century: filtering information.
Over the past four years, I’ve built a system using Evernote that helps me do just that. It’s an external brain with shortcuts to the data I need most often and a cave I can retreat into when I need to think.
Here are four ways you can use Evernote to free space in your mind and become more efficient at organizing and retrieving information.
1. Your Own Google
Imagine there was a version of Google that used only your search history to help you remember names, quotes, tools and step-by-step instructions for business tactics. This is Evernote’s prime use case.
Even without setting up any notebook structure in Evernote itself, you can use it as a storage extension for your mind. To do so, I suggest you install Evernote’s Web Clipper, which is available for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, and use it consistently.
Whenever you’re on a website or an article you want to save, hit the Evernote icon, select the style in which you’d like to save the article, for example ‘simplified’ or ‘bookmark,’ pick a notebook, add tags and hit ‘Save.’
Adding a few relevant tags helps Evernote’s already smart system, but only if you choose meta keywords that aren’t in the text anyway. Now, if I recall I read something about Facebook’s newsfeed, I search for that term in Evernote and land right back at a small selection of articles that reference it.
Under ‘View’ you can choose how you want your notes and their content to be displayed. I like the ‘Snippet View.’
There are two advantages of this system over standard bookmarks in your browser, saving PDFs, or straight googling. First, you limit the pool of information you have to comb through, because it’s all data you’ve previously selected. Second, Evernote makes all text searchable, even the writing in images, URLs, website title tags, and notes you’ve added yourself.
Less to search, but more granular filtering, means faster recall. That’s a good thing, especially for tidbits you use over and over again.
If the majority of your work involves using a computer, which, chances are, it does, you will inevitably find yourself copying and pasting certain chunks of information on a regular basis.
If you’re a marketer, those might be referral links, a recurring blog post footer, or common phrases of copy. If you’re a designer, maybe they’re vector icons, and if you’re a programmer, you can save snippets of code. I call these chunks ‘pastables’ and most of them live as shortcuts in my sidebar.
To set one, just drag and drop the according note there.
Besides referral and tracking links, here’s what I else I keep there:
- A list of potential links to include in my next newsletter, so I can select content from a curated pool.
- Various code blocks for tracking pixels, analytics scripts, and plugins.
- Full HTML templates for blog posts.
- A selection of footers and calls to action.
- Prep questions I send to my coaching clients before each call.
Being able to find things quickly has value, but not having to search is even better. With pastables, being prepared becomes your default state for using and passing on certain knowledge you need time and time again.
Beyond preparation though, Evernote can also help you with what comes after work.
One of the world’s most accomplished managers used to say:
“What’s measured improves.” — Peter Drucker
In quantum physics, continuously observing particles “freezes” them in their state. When we track things in our lives, the natural pause that follows leads to reflection, which in turn helps us make changes to improve. Research backs this, with goal completion rates increasing through written statements, concrete plans, and accountability.
When you use Evernote to kickstart processes, it’s very easy to document the results of those processes with little extra effort. For example, since all my coaching clients get the same four questions before each call, I can just copy and paste the template, then write down their answers.
Here are some other things I document with Evernote:
- Testimonials from clients and readers, for example by saving links to tweets in which people commend my work.
- How many clients I have, how many weeks it’s been since our last call, how many they have prepaid for, and so on.
- Which changes I made to which of my websites and when.
- A full log of all screenshots I made using Skitch, another Evernote plugin, which syncs all of them automatically.
- Automated backups of my blog posts using IFTTT.
- Administrative documents, scans of bills, and other red tape.
Of course, once you document something, it makes sense to look at it again and think. Luckily, Evernote helps with this too.
4. Think Tank
How creative you are is directly correlated with the number of connections between the neurons in your brain. However, it also matters what these connections tie together. Is it a lot of domain expertise in a narrow field? Or a wide array of loose information from various fields? Whether you choose the path of highly skilled specialist or expert generalist, reflecting regularly on what you learn on that path is necessary to advance.
This may be Evernote’s most unconventional, but most important function: a think tank. Much like a personal library, you can use it to draw new lessons from past performance, observations, and intelligence. To that end, I keep several sets of questions in notebooks related to certain skills, like writing.
Next to pondering what you’ve documented, you can craft these for specific milestones in your work and life, for example:
- The start of a new project.
- The public launch of something you’ve finished.
- A post-mortem.
- Big life decisions, like moving, changing jobs, or a break-up.
Making time for thinking about how to act. I can think of few better applications of software than that.
Room To Think
Yes, you’re collecting lots of data, yet in such a way that it’s not just maneuverable, but not in your brain. It’s true that filtering information is a necessary skill, and we must get better at it. However, that mustn’t come at the expense of remembering why we do it in the first place: to spend more time with what matters most to us.
That’s probably why, even though it’s been ten years since that murmur went through my biology class, I still recall the look on my teacher’s face. He couldn’t think of a good answer to our rebellious question, but his expression said it all:
“Damn it, those kids are right.”