A few weeks ago, I answered a mailbag question from Jim, who wanted to know how I use Evernote. I gave him an answer that almost stretched into something that needed to become its own article, but instead I cut it short and asked for readers to contact me if they wanted a full article about my uses for Evernote. Over the next few days, several readers contacted me requesting the article (and more than a few swapped some Evernote tips with me), so what follows is that requested article: a detailed guide to how I use Evernote, my most essential free online tool.
So… What Is Evernote?
Evernote is a simple digital tool that lets you keep and organize notes of all kinds – text, pictures, sound recordings, and mixed media. They store all of the notes for you in the cloud and you can access these notes from anywhere. There’s a very smooth app available for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, and Linux, plus their website itself allows you to access and edit notes, so you can access them pretty much anywhere.
I absolutely do not recommend storing any valuable personal data in Evernote, but that’s not the purpose of it. The purpose of it, at least as I see it, is to serve as a mental filing cabinet for ideas and bits of information that you’re going to want to use and access later.
I personally use Evernote perhaps two or three dozen times a day. I’m not kidding or exaggerating in the least. It is such an essential part of my daily activity at this point that I would really struggle without it. For me, it’s a mix of an infinitely long pocket notebook and a filing cabinet with magic search capabilities that takes up essentially no space.
How I Use Evernote
I currently have Evernote installed on my desktop (where I do most of my writing), my laptop (where I write when I’m traveling), and my phone. All of them are synced up to the same account, obviously, so I can seamlessly share notes and access them between all of those devices. In the rare event that I need to access Evernote somewhere else, I can look at the web version, but I genuinely cannot remember the last time I did that.
Throughout the day, I have one note in Evernote that’s constantly open and being added to; I call that note “Things.” In “Things,” I just add anything and everything as I discover it or think of it. I might add a photo of a gift idea for my son, followed by a quote that I read on some website, followed by an article idea for The Simple Dollar, followed by the Twitter handle and name of someone I just met along with a reason that I should follow up with that person, followed by an appointment three weeks from now that I should stick in my calendar… you get the idea.
My “Things” note within Evernote is much like a pocket notebook, in other words, except it’s just one long run-on note. I separate the notes by just hitting return a few times, typing “=======” (or something similar), then hitting return a few more times and adding the next item. It’s pretty straightforward.
I probably find myself adding something to “Things” twenty times a day. It’s just a catchall for things I need to do, things I need to remember, and things I want to refer back to later for some reason.
Once or twice a day, I’ll sit down at an actual computer – either my laptop or my desktop – and process the content of “Things.” I go through each item in that note and decide what I need to do with that item.
Items that are obviously tasks that need to be done later go into my to-do list manager (I currently use Omnifocus, but Todoist is a similar and much cheaper alternative); if they’re really quick tasks, I just do them immediately instead. I then delete that item out of “Things.”
Upcoming events go straight into my calendar (I currently use Google Calendar). I then delete that item out of “Things” once it’s in my calendar.
Most of the rest of the stuff is moved into standalone notes within Evernote, usually sorted into various notebooks. I have a pretty hefty number of these notebooks: a “Future Projects” notebook for things that might develop into larger projects down the road, a “Recipes” notebook for various recipes (though these tend to wind up in Paprika these days), a “Thinking” notebook with things that I want to give further thought to in the future, a bunch of notebooks devoted to various ongoing projects, and on and on and on like this. I’ll talk about a bunch of these below.
My goal is to empty out “Things” at the end of that little session, leaving a blank note, a few little tasks done, and items that are where they’re supposed to be.
I have a few simple rules of thumb that I follow when creating notes.
First of all, I want the name to convey as much information as possible about what’s in the note. Aside from “Things,” my note names are pretty descriptive. Quite often, the names of notes about Simple Dollar articles wind up being part of the name of the actual finished article, for example.
Another great example is how I store gift ideas. Often, the name of the note lists both the recipient and the name of the gift idea. The note itself usually just contains a picture, a link, and/or some description of the idea. That way, when I’m browsing through my “Gift Ideas” notebook, I have what looks like a long list of ideas. (I can filter that list based on tags if I so choose).
Each time I create an individual new note, I also add tags to it. I just use the ten or so most obvious words or brief phrases I can think of that are associated with this particular note. I try as hard as I can to not overthink this and usually the tags are really obvious.
Why use tags? The truth is that I have thousands of notes in Evernote. Some individual notebooks have more than a thousand notes themselves. Even if I’m really great at giving smart names to my notes, tags make it possible to quickly pull up subsets of notes on a particular topic.
For example, my “time management” tag has 46 notes currently associated with it. It looks like about ten of them are potential Simple Dollar articles, another 20 or so are book quotes, another ten or so are future projects, and there are few more sprinkled in other areas. This quickly reduces what could have been a very arduous task of searching for my notes on “time management” down to a couple of clicks and a much more concise and focused list of notes.
Sure, it takes an extra few seconds when creating a note to come up with a number of tags that might be appropriate for it, but when I’m actually looking through those notes later on, having them all tagged is really, really valuable.
Pretty much every article that you’ve read by me on The Simple Dollar in the past year has been drafted in an Evernote note. Using Evernote, I can start rough drafts of articles, polish them up, and then post them quickly to The Simple Dollar when I think they’re ready. The fact that the articles are available on every platform that I might ever want to use with a consistent format and consistent tools is wonderful, and the fact that they’re all stored in one place is even better.
I keep the articles for The Simple Dollar in one “stack” of notebooks (a “stack” is simply a collection of notebooks on one topic; it’s a way to better organize notebooks). One is named “Ideas,” another is named “Outlines,” a third is named “Unpublished Drafts,” and a fourth is named “Published.”
When I have an idea for an article for the site, usually little more than a possible article title and a sentence or two in description, it’s a new note in “Ideas.” At some point, usually when I’ve looked into a particular idea and brainstormed some more, I’ll flesh that particular idea into an outline of a post, usually a brief phrase or a sentence describing each paragraph along with any key links I might want to include and any key pieces of information I’ll want to share. That note moves from “Ideas” to “Outlines.” When I then turn that into a full article that I haven’t quite decided to post yet, it sits in “Drafts” – these usually need editing or can be pulled from in an emergency. If I actually use an article, I move that note to “Published” and add the published date and URL to the note.
This enables me to keep a nice archive of my writings all in one place.
I have four (yep, four) ongoing book manuscripts for books that I’m researching or thinking about or working on in some stage. Each one is – surprise! – stored in Evernote as a “stack” of notebooks.
I actually follow a model much like the notebook for The Simple Dollar. One notebook is usually notes for the book, usually organized by potential chapter, but also with plot and character notes if it’s fiction. A second is for outlines of each chapter. The third/fourth/fifth/etc. notebooks are for individual chapter drafts.
One advantage to keeping notes and drafts like this within Evernote is that it’s easy to transform a finished product within Evernote into something I can publish to the Kindle Store or other e-book stores using FastPencil, which can literally slurp out my notes and convert them straight into a document that can be edited a bit and then almost directly uploaded to the Kindle Store. Once I hit a final draft I’m happy with, it will be pretty easy to self-publish it should I choose to go that route.
As I’ve mentioned often on The Simple Dollar, I do some journaling every single day, usually in two sessions – one in the morning to “vision” the day ahead and again in the evening to reflect on the day’s successes and failures. Again, this is stored in Evernote.
I just have a single “Daily Journal” notebook, within which I add a note named with the date and, if there was a noteworthy event that day, a very brief description of that event as well. Most of my notes are just titled with the date.
The first half of the note is my morning “visioning” of the day. I usually write down what my main focus or two of the day is, a few things I’m grateful for in my life, and a reminder to myself of any new habits I’m trying to build so that I keep them front and center. I do this on paper and take a picture of it into Evernote, for the reasons described above on notes for classes.
I do the same thing in the evening. I take out a sheet of paper, look at my morning notes from Evernote, and then reflect on the successes and failures of the day. Did I do things well? If I did, what caused that success and how can I keep it? If I didn’t, what went wrong and how can I avoid it? I also usually list five to ten memorable events from the day.
Notes for Classes
Evernote is really good at storing class notes or notes from a book if you’re trying to learn about a topic or taking a class of some kind.
Having said that, I am also a huge believer of taking notes by hand for classes and for actually integrating information. If I’m trying to learn something from a book or an online lecture, I use exclusively handwritten notes. I find that I retain and process that information far better if I do it by hand. This is a concept that has a lot of scientific evidence to support it; in other words, it’s a practice you may want to consider yourself for note taking. Just leave the electronics closed, listen and/or read, and take notes with a pen or pencil right onto the paper.
So what does this have to do with Evernote? It’s where I actually store all of those notes! Whenever I fill up a page with notes, I take a photo of that page with my phone within Evernote. I add it to a notebook that’s centered around the book that I’m studying or the class I’m taking as its own note.
The magical part is that Evernote makes the text in that page of notes searchable. If I’m looking for instances where a particular term shows up in my notes, I can just search that notebook and, like magic, all of the places where I wrote that term in my notes are returned to me as results. Along with tagging those pages of notes, I can pretty much zip through my notes on any topic.
As a result, Evernote now contains more than a thousand pages of my handwritten notes that I’ve taken over the years from online classes, books, and other things. I just took a picture of each page of notes straight into Evernote, gave it an appropriate title with some appropriate tags, and now I can find and search all of them and I don’t have to retain the physical notebook.
How do I organize them? As I said, I usually start a notebook – a collection of individual notes within Evernote – for each class that I take and each book that I’m studying in depth. So, for example, I have a notebook called “Yale Pl Sc 114 – Introduction to Political Philosophy,” which contains all of the lecture notes I took as I went through the free Open Yale course Introduction to Political Philosophy. Each page of notes was named after the lecture title, so the first one is named “#1 – Introduction: What Is Political Philosophy? (1/6)” (because I have six pages of notes on that lecture. Within that note is just an image of that particular page from the notebook I was using.
To me, this is the absolute best way to store notes from your classes and from any books you’re studying in depth. It takes no physical space, you can see your original notes in full, you can search them with ease, and they’re available on practically any device.
(This is usually a task that I do independently of my general “Things” note, as are many of the specialized tasks that I mention here. “Things” is just a catch-all for items that I don’t really know what to do with immediately or want to tag later.)
This is something that I’ve just started doing in the last few months, but I’m basically never returning to any other method of doing things. I use Evernote to take pictures of my receipts and then toss them in the trash afterwards.
This takes advantage of the text recognition feature that I discussed above so that I can quickly search my receipts for, say, “milk” or for the last four digits of my credit card number or for a particular store and pull them all up instantly. I find that this works insanely well along with You Need a Budget 4 for the purposes of digging through my receipts and figuring out where all of my spending went.
Pictures of Insurance Policies
This is as close to “personal information” as I keep in Evernote, but this is so useful and will be beyond useful in the case of a true emergency, so I go ahead with it.
I have a notebook in Evernote that stores recent images of our key insurance documents. I have pictures of our recent car insurance, homeowners insurance, life insurance policies, and health insurance card. This is a great backup to have in the case of a serious accident or a house burning down or a major crisis when I’m not able to find the documents. I know I can just turn to Evernote at those moments and the info I need is right there.
I use Evernote for so many things that I could honestly go on listing them all day long.
I have a long note full of books I want to read someday. I reference that list almost every time I go to the library. (This is in a “Misc. Lists” notebook.)
I have a long note full of movies I want to watch and TV shows I want to binge-watch at some point, though this list seems to grow and rarely has anything removed from it, as I just seem to spend less and less time watching TV and movies.
I have a notebook with literally hundreds of projects I’d love to work on someday. I’ll make a note where I’ll throw down all of my ideas and excitement related to a project, but often just doing that is enough for now. I’ll probably never return to 95% of these projects. If a project ever blows up into something I want to actively work on beyond just a quick brainstorm, it turns into its own notebook.
I use Evernote Web Clipper a lot. It’s a tool that’s integrated into my web browser which allows me to just click a button and save the text and images from that article into a note in Evernote. I give it a few tags and save it in an “Articles” notebook. This is great for searching down the road!
I take pictures of business cards when I receive them, along with a note on who this person is and why I would want to follow up with that person.
I could literally list minor uses like this all day, but I think the idea is clear: Evernote is just really, really useful and I’ve come to rely on it as something of a filing cabinet extension of my brain.
The “Freemium” Question
So, as I mentioned at the start, Evernote is free to use. The free version of Evernote allows you to upload 60 MB of text, images, and audio to your account at no cost. If that’s not enough space for you, they have enhanced accounts at various levels that add greatly to that monthly upload limit, allowing you gigabytes of monthly storage.
My philosophy with online tools that use a “freemium” model is a simple one. If a tool seems useful in concept, I start using the free version. Many, many tools stop right there; they’re not useful enough to me to replace other tools or they don’t create their own niche. They don’t become essential, in other words.
When a tool does become essential, two things happen. One, I usually have some significant need for the features of the “premium” account. With Evernote, I blow away that 60 MB of uploading each month. Two, I don’t want that product to ever go away because I’ve come to rely on it, which is absolutely true with Evernote.
So, I invest the money each year to pay for the premium version of Evernote and I don’t look back. It’s an essential tool for me.
What About You?
If you haven’t already tried it, I strongly encourage you to give Evernote a try with a free account. Sign up, put it on your phone and in a clear place on your computer, add the Evernote Web Clipper to your browser, and try using it for some of the things I mention above.
For some of you, it’ll click and you’ll start using it more and more. For others, it’ll become a forgotten tool, and that’s okay. Everyone organizes their lives differently, and I think Evernote just clicks with some people and doesn’t with others.
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