Take a Minute to Collect Your Thoughts With Evernote

Evernote[This is a guest post by Shawn Miller, an Academic Technology Consultant with Duke's Center for Instructional Technology, where he usually blogs. Twitter @shawnj55 anytime.]

During a Q&A after a reading at Duke, Jonathan Safran Foer described his writing process as “more an act of collecting than one of genesis; something created from nothing.” How did I remember that quote? I didn’t, initially, but I did take notes on my iPhone throughout the evening and then emailed them straight to Evernote. When I started writing this post, I ran a search in Evernote for “writing” and “collecting” and bam!—I had my opener!

What is Evernote?

Evernote often gets dismissed as yet another web-clipping or “notebooking” tool (like the ill-fated Google Notebook)—an application used for collecting interesting tidbits of information you may come across on the web. While most will find Evernote’s web-clipping abilities useful, Evernote can collect so much more. Once I started creating short text files, adding images or sound files from mobile devices, uploading PDFs and even scanning in documents, I started to see it less as a simple notebook and more as my personal database. I even drafted this blog post in Evernote:

Figure 1

Note that this and all other images in this post are linked to larger versions.

The Evernote website provides a simple overview of the software, suggesting that one uses Evernote first to “capture everything,” then “organize it,” and also to “find anything fast.” Fair enough, but let’s briefly examine those claims.

Capture Everything

Evernote reveals its usefulness when you allow it to become the “glue” in your daily processes. To make the most of it, you really need to install it everywhere you might possibly use it:

  • Web Browsers: Installing Evernote within your browser provides you with an easy way to capture and store web content. Evernote provides add-ons/plugins for Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome. Want to save a few paragraphs out of a lengthy blog post? No problem—just highlight that chunk of text and “Evernote it.” Want the entire blog post or webpage? Evernote will do that too.
  • Desktop Applications: Evernote can run as a standalone application on your computer. I installed the desktop version on both my Mac laptop and a PC desktop at home. I leave the standalone version running on my laptop all the time, using it as my primary text editor.
  • Mobile Devices: I use the Evernote app on my iPhone, but Evernote also has applications for other mobile devices such as Android and BlackBerry devices. When I needed to write a quick blog post about the iPad, I used the Evernote app for the iPad to collect screen-captures of various apps and write most of the post.

Why install the same application in so many different places? Evernote stores your collected items in the “cloud,” so every time you capture something using, say, an iPhone, that item resides on the Evernote server and thus becomes available through other interfaces such as the standalone Evernote application on a desktop machine or via the Evernote website visited on your laptop. [Quick tip: you can use the Evernote standalone app without an internet connection. I've often used it to get some writing done in places without wifi. Just sync everything you've created or collected later.]

Organize and Find Anything Fast

Organization is probably the weakest point of Evernote. However, “find everything fast” proves to be more than true. Organizing in Evernote mostly involves adding tags to notes, and occasionally grouping notes into “notebooks.” The hardest part of learning to use Evernote (besides remembering to use it) was giving up full control over being able to create little hierarchical structures for my various research and writing projects. I had previously done all of this using 37 Signals Backpack (also an excellent product—just different and less flexible for my needs). Shaking the desire to impose an initial structure or outline to my projects (especially writing projects) helped me think a bit more non-linearly, as Evernote searches would time and again reveal bits of information I had forgotten about.

Quick Tip for Organization #1: you don’t need two separate Evernote accounts for work and home. Instead, try coming up with a naming convention for notebooks. For example, I add the prefix “CIT” to every work-related notebook I create. I add the prefix “SJM” (my initials) to every personal notebook I create. I rarely leave these naming conventions, although I do have one notebook I named “Archive,” into which I drag/drop notes from projects that I no longer need, so I can delete the notebook and maintain some clarity.

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Quick Tip for Organization #2: Evernote notebooks work fine most of the time—but what about dealing with more complex work that might involve several tags and keywords? That’s where Evernote’s “saved searches” come in. Here’s an example:

Figure 4

In this example, I’m setting up a custom “saved search” for everything I’ve tagged with “Evernote” plus everything containing the word “archive.” Evernote can handle some quite complex searches, which the company has documented in its API file and others have blogged about. If I want to find only notes created this month, I would add “created:month” to the search string. Once you create a search string that brings up the results you expect, you can click “Save” and a custom “saved search” (which you can rename) will appear in the left column of the Evernote application, below your notebooks and tags. Since Evernote currently restricts users from placing the same note in more than one notebook at a time, I occasionally find myself resorting to custom saved searches to further organize my collections.

Use Case: Research, writing and generating ideas

When I get a seed of an idea for a blog post or paper, I’ll go to Evernote, create a new tag for it, and start collecting: clipping interesting bits from the web, jotting quick notes and thoughts, etc. When it is time to start working on bringing various ideas together, I create a new notebook, run searches for notes that might be useful, and add those notes to my new notebook. Then I’ll start writing drafts right in Evernote, adding screen captures, supporting PDFs, and more right into the same notebook. Here’s what my notebook looks like for this post:

Figure 5

Use Case: Hacking meetings, working groups and/or committees

I recently used Evernote to hack my time on a search committee. Once I found myself on the committee, I immediately created a new notebook in Evernote and decided on a tag that I’d use consistently just for the committee. Every time a new CV came my way, I added it to my Evernote notebook; this allowed me to search quickly through several CVs simultaneously. I also added new notes each time the committee met for a discussion, conducted an interview, or reviewed a candidate. Evernote’s web-clipping capabilities also came in handy for capturing (and remembering) candidates’ online bios, excerpts from their papers or blog posts, even bits from their Twitter feeds. I also forwarded committee-related emails to my Evernote account.

What’s this? I emailed my Evernote account? Like many other web apps, Evernote can provide you with a unique email address for your Evernote account. You can use this account to create notes from your emails. Recently, Evernote introduced a few simple enhancements to this feature, including the ability to automatically tag the email by adding tags as #hashtags in the subject line. Here’s an example using the email I forwarded from ProfHacker’s Jason Jones when he asked me to write this post (notice the added hashtags in the subject):

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Use Case: Conference hacking

Presenting at (or even just attending) a conference involves so many moving parts that I end up relying on Evernote to keep me organized. I might start with a simple to-do list or page of notes about what I need to get done before I leave. As I purchase plane tickets, reserve hotel rooms and pay conference fees, I add all of those receipts to Evernote (using the web-clipper or via email). I also use the same notebook to plan my conference agenda by clipping abstracts I find interesting. If I’m giving a presentation at the conference, I’ll work on the draft of the presentation in Evernote as well—gathering possible images, references, links to datasets, etc.

While attending a conference, I rely on Evernote on my iPhone. I use it to store notes from presentations or review my agenda. I also take photos during presentations and add them to my notebook. Speaking of photos, one particularly powerful aspect of Evernote is its ability to recognize text in images. How often do you end up with a bunch of business cards at the bottom of a suitcase or bag after a conference? I often take photos of business cards and load those into Evernote. Within a few minutes, Evernote is able to call up the image of the business card when I search for the person’s name. I also rely on this feature to search for content in pictures I take of whiteboards after meetings. Here’s an example:

Figure 7

Getting Out What You Put Into It: Sharing and Exporting

While I tend to focus on my use of Evernote for personal research, notebooks can be shared with others via the Evernote web interface. For example, I recently helped a colleague find some resources involving identity issues and social media sites. Once I created a new notebook and added the notes I thought she’d find useful, I logged in to the Evernote web-interface and chose to share the new notebook with her (currently, there’s not way to manage shared notebooks via the desktop application). Much like sharing in Google Docs, you can choose to share a notebook publicly or with individuals via an email invite.

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Sharing via the web isn’t the only way to get Evernote notes to others. What about archiving and saving your notes out of Evernote? When I first started using Evernote, the options were pretty grim. As I write this, however, Evernote can export entire notebooks as HTML and Evernote XML (.enex files). I successfully exported a few notebooks using the HTML option, which created a folder with a set of HTML pages (one for each “note”) and a set of subfolders containing images and media attached to each note. In other words, I could now choose to upload that folder to a web server and share my notes as simple webpages. The Evernote XML files would be more useful for moving or sharing large notebooks privately between two accounts. Some new third-party notebook applications, like Just Notes for the Mac, will also accept .enex files. When I want to quickly share a notebook with someone, I create a PDF out of it (just “print” it as a PDF) or use the built-in email function to send an email, which will present any images either inline with the text or as attachments, depending on your recipient’s email program.

There are so many other things to mention about Evernote (like the ability to share a notebook, or the excellent iPad app, or the audio recording tool!), but it’s really the kind of tool that won’t seem useful until you start using it! The basic free Evernote account will give you an upload allowance of 40MB per month. For the casual user just looking to manage and collect bits of text and the occasional image, 40MB/month will be plenty. I upgraded to the premium version ($5/mo) to get an allowance of 500MBmonth, better security features, and the ability to sync any file type (the free version syncs all the basics: text, audio, images and PDFs). I’ve found the flexibility of Evernote to be well worth the $5/month.

Have you used Evernote? Do you have questions about it? Let us know in the comments!

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