Developing paperless habits: Evernote

Here’s the fun part in which we get into the meat of a paperless lifestyle.

You don’t have to use Evernote as your note & snippet repository. It’ll make this article less relevant, but there do exist some direct Evernote competitors. Springpad is a notable one. OneNote is great. Maybe Yojimbo is more your thing. DevonThink is quite respectable as well. Perhaps you prefer Circus Ponies NoteBook. Or, maybe you’re old school and you want to manage them all in files and folders manually.

I chose Evernote some time ago because it has a really good balance of all the things I need. It won’t let me scribble things super free form all over a note and record with a note and sync what I wrote to the recording (OneNote, Circus Ponies NoteBook do). It’s not really good at being a good example of a Mac app (Yojimbo is better at that). It doesn’t automatically parse my notes and present me relevant information for specific things inline (Springpad does).

But it does have a version available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (unofficial), web, WebOS, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry, iOS and Android (there doesn’t exist another note-taking solution compatible with this many platforms). Not only is Evernote available for each of these platforms, Evernote is written totally natively for each platform, so it fits very well into your phone’s OS or computer’s OS. If you’ve ever used an app that was originally written for another platform and lazily ported over to yours, you’ll appreciate that extra effort. If you add content that is an image, Evernote will make the text in it searchable, even handwritten content (I think it’s the only one in my list that does that). It allows you to easily clip content from the web and it offers this through native extensions for the three major browsers (Firefox, Safari and Chrome) I use. And it’s designed to be very flexible, and doesn’t require you to manage files in any way. It’s synced to a web based account automatically (Springpad does this, but that’s because it has no native OS X client). Evernote treats your notes in a very abstract manner, letting you organize your snippets of information into notebooks and tags (each note lives in a single notebook and can have zero or more tags), and each note can have a number of attributes that help you have context for when you wrote your note. Much of it is implicit. If you write a note on your smartphone, your location is automatically embedded into the note. The date and time you created and last modified the note is right in there. If you clipped a note from the web, Evernote automatically includes the source URL in the note’s metadata, making research super easy. In short, Evernote is designed to make a plethora of information available to you wherever you may happen to be, and they are focused on making it super easy to get that information into it. This is totally in line with what I expect out of a system for enabling me to be paperless.

To get started, get Evernote installed on all of your devices which support it, and log in with your Evernote account. Start off with a free account and upgrade to a paid account when you need it. On your computers, install the Evernote browser extension on all web browsers you use.

Now, when do you use it? Here are a few ideas:

    • When you are told some random piece of information you want to remember, make an Evernote note and save it. Don’t worry so much yet about how to categorize it, just get it in Evernote. Think a little bit about how you might later be searching for it and use some verbiage you expect you’ll search for later.
      If you have some favorite restaurants you order from a lot, you probably have some menus around the house. Use Evernote’s phone app to take pictures of the menu and save them into notes. Throw the menus away.
      If you’re having a meeting or phone conversation you want to remember, make an Evernote note and record the meeting. Take notes in that same Evernote note during the meeting if you like.
      If you’re thinking of making a big purchase, like a car, make a notebook for it, and clip relevant snippets of information into that notebook.
  • With the exception of the restaurant menu idea, you’ll notice that none of these things are necessarily making your more paperless than you were before, unless perhaps you put things like this on a lot of post-it notes. This is part of the habit forming experience. You want to reach a point where entering things into a computer or other device is the way you put information away to remember. When that becomes second nature to you, you’re well on your way to being paperless, and that habit is going to push you to start doing things proactively to get the paper out of your life (which I will write about later).

    Evernote’s got a fair number of ways you can catalog and manage your information. If you are itching to use that functionality, go for it, but don’t push yourself to do this in a way that puts you at risk for falling out of the habit of using Evernote. Start using tags and extended note attributes only when you really feel the need for them. Otherwise, you could be forcing yourself to take more time to make Evernote notes than it otherwise would have taken you. That’s no good.

    Next up I’ll be discussing some stylistic choices you have to make when using Evernote, and some of the ways you can use Evernote to keep all your notes within close reach.

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