Evernote as my brain's external hard drive

We are constantly bombarded with information in the digital age and it can feel overwhelming. Not only do we have to process, understand and store the information that is thrown at us, we also have to remember our own information. As a developer I am constantly solving problems. Sometimes I search for information online to help me, sometimes I come up with a solution entirely on my own (or with a team). There is no doubt that I will encounter a similar problem again. Trying to remember everything is impossible, so taking notes is necessary. But where to store them? Paper is nice, but try finding a paper note that you wrote 5 years ago. Keeping notes on your computer is better, but still hard to organise and search.

This is where a dedicated note organising app like Evernote comes in. You can store everything in Evernote. The more you store in it, the more useful it becomes. It will become your go-to place for your information. That information could be how-tos, trouble shooting tips, snippets, recipes, receipts, todo lists, inspirational photos. Really, anything you want.

Main Evernote screen

Getting data into Evernote

There is a bunch of ways that you can add your data to Evernote.

Evernote client

If you're making a fresh note, you'll probably do it directly in the Evernote client. There is a client for Mac, Windows, Android and iOS.

Adding new note

Website

You can use the Evernote website to access your notes and add new ones. The functionality is similar to the clients, but I prefer to use the clients.

Web clipper

The Web clipper is a browser extension for Chrome, Safari, Firefox and IE. When you are surfing the web and you find something you like and want to remember, you can clip it. You can clip either a block of text, a photo or a whole page. If I am searching for a solution to a problem and find it, I'll clip it for future reference.

Evernote web clipper

Email

When you create an account, you will get a dedicated email address that you can use to email notes to Evernote. That is really useful if you want to remember something that someone has emailed you. Some email clients, such as Outlook and Postbox, have Evernote clippers built in, so you can clip a selection of text rather than sending the whole email.

Scan or photo

I still write notes by hand sometimes. And then I lose them! So scanning them and adding them to your Evernote account makes a lot of sense. If you can't be bothered to use a scanner, you can use the Evernote app on your phone to take a photo of a document and it will get automatically added to your account.

Skitch

Skitch is a screen grabbing tool that Evernote recently acquired. When you screen grab with it, it will automatically appear in your Evernote account.

IFTTT

IFTTT stands for If This Then That. It allows you to connect various online services together using triggers and actions. This is a really useful as a way to send information to Evernote. After creating an account, you can use one of the many recipes available. These are the recipes I use for Evernote:

  • Flickr favourites https://ifttt.com/recipes/1488
  • Starred Gmail https://ifttt.com/recipes/96122
  • Facebook status updates https://ifttt.com/recipes/51161
  • Loved last.fm tracks https://ifttt.com/recipes/6672
  • Google calendar https://ifttt.com/recipes/56245

Its not just text notes

You are not restricted to just text. You can add PDFs, images, and attachments to the system.

How to find notes

You can store a lot of data in Evernote and still find your information easily. Most of the time, you will find notes by searching in the Evernote client. Evernote has image recognition, which is particularly useful when searching, especially if you have added scanned paper notes. Text in PDFs and in MS Word and iWork attachments are also searchable if you have a pro account.

Evernote image recognition when searching

When you are reading a note or writing a new one, related notes will appear below.

Searching the web and your brain

When you use the Web Clipper in your browser and search Google, you will see relevant notes from your Evernote account magically appear. So on the one hand, you are search the web and on the other, you are searching your brain. Or at least, the bits from your brain that you have stored in Evernote. This is pretty darn awesome.

Searching the web and your brain

Getting data out of Evernote

Evernote is intended as the repository for your notes. As such, you don't really need to get data out of it. You just use the Evernote client to find and read your notes. However, you can actually use it as a place to write blog posts which can then be synced with your blog. I'll write another post on how to do this with Drupal.

Organising everything

When you start adding a lot of notes to Evernote, you need a way to keep things organised. Evernote uses notebooks and tags as the primary way to organise notes. It is a flexible system, so set up your notebooks and tags how ever you want. Some people argue that you should have only a few notebooks and use tags to organise, and other argue that many notebooks is fine. I use notebooks as my context filter. If I am working on a project, I only want to see notes that related to that project. I can filter these notes down using tags.

My notebooks

These are the main notebooks that I have:

  • !nbox
  • Blog posts
  • Clients (stack)
  • Ideas
  • Inspiration
  • Personal
  • Projects (stack)
  • Reference
  • Screenshots

A stack is a collection of notebooks. So for the Projects stack, each project has its own notebook.

Reference: The notebook with the most notes if the one called Reference. This includes web development notes, snippets and web clippings.
Ideas: The Idea notebook is a dump of random ideas that flow in and out of my head. I normally will not act on these ideas, but it is nice to get them out of my head so that I know that I have done something with them.

You can also share notebooks with other people that you are collaborating with. I have one for some Drupal training that I am planning with a business partner. It is easier for us to both add notes to our shared notebook than it is to send a lot of emails back and forth.

My tags

My tags aren't that organised at the moment. I usually just use it to free tag the subject of the note. Sometimes this is pretty high level, such as Drupal. Somethings it is more granular, like Drupal Form API. I am also trying to add a type or status tag, which starts with a dot.

My type and status tags:

  • .idea
  • .draft
  • .complete
  • .inspiration
  • .to-read

This is particularly useful for notes where an action is required. Take blogging as an example. A blog post starts off as an idea, then becomes a draft and eventually it will be complete. Searching for all drafts in a particular notebook or across all notebooks makes it easy to find posts I need to finish.

Wrapping up

I hope you enjoyed this overview of Evernote. I can honestly say that I would now be lost without it. It is my virtual external storage for my brain. It is not perfect, but with some patience and thought, you can turn it into a system that really works for you.

I'm planning on writing some more posts on my Evernote setup, but if there is anything in particular you'd like to know, let me know in the comments.

Comments

Hi Blair,
I am wondering what is your take on using Drupal 7 as an Evernote competition. I can see there is some shortcomings such as inability to email to Drupal, sync not ready for primetime, or easy recording of audios, making pictures more searchable but can you see the merits of Drupal 7 especially with templated notes that are easy to use to store notes like Evernote? Drupal can easily compare with Apache Solr search features as well. As a non geek I think many users like me perhaps do not want to tinker with too much features and get lost. I think many ordinary users welcome something like Pinterest, easy to use and also may get turned off by say FB constant tweaking and overwhelming features. So I think maybe Evernote is becoming too geeky with too many 'unnecessary' features to justify uniqueness whereas ordinary users like me simply want functionality which I think Drupal itself is able to do. What is your take on this?

I see you list:
My notebooks
These are the main notebooks that I have:

!nbox
Blog posts
Clients (stack)
Ideas
Inspiration
Personal
Projects (stack)
Reference
Screenshots categories which I have a few more of them pre templated. I think many ordinary users want to be spoon fed, instead of messing up their site with a gadzillion of categories, which they can add if they want.

Basically I am struggling to see if pre templates are better than letting users mess up their site with too many choices.

I had actually build one such site under wraps and basically I like the ease of categorizing and retrieving information with powerful Apache Solr search. Basically also something like B2evolution which I had used this multi blogging software over the years to store all my information, but again I think Drupal is pretty good start to serve the needs of average users without being distracted with more features and just get the business of notetaking and retrieval done easily. I actually need somebody to help me fine tune what I am doing now but first I wonder if I am going off the wrong track. Thank you.

Blair Wadman's picture

Hi Tony,

Interesting idea. I have in the past connected Evernote with Drupal using the Feeds Evernote module. So you could send a note to a Drupal site simply by adding a specific tag or putting the note in a specific notebook. Unfortunately that module has a bug in it now and is no longer working.

One big advantage of using Drupal to replace Evernote entirely is that you can easily publish some notes if you want them to be public. For example, you might make a note about how to set up Solr, and then decide it is good enough for other people to learn from, so simply publish it. So you have a note system and blog all in one.

One large disadvantage is that it is web based note taking means that a note is not saved until it is posted to a server. What happens if the server goes down at the time of submitting? With the Evernote client, everything is local so you never lose a note.

Also, the Evernote web clipper is a great way to save important snippets of info. I wonder if that functionality could be replicated for Drupal.

Cheers

Blair

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